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Thursday December 02, 2021

Wars and ignorance

June 30, 2021

Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel about the World War II bombing of the German city of Dresden appeared the year I graduated from West Point. While dimly aware that its publication qualified as a literary event, I felt no urge to read it. At that moment, I had more immediate priorities to attend to, chief among them: preparing for my upcoming deployment to Vietnam.

Had I reflected on Vonnegut’s question then, my guess is that I would have judged the present to be both very wide and very deep and, as a white American male, mine to possess indefinitely. Life, of course, was by no means perfect. The Vietnam War had obviously not gone exactly as expected. The cacophonous upheaval known as ‘the Sixties’ had produced considerable unease and consternation. Yet a majority of Americans – especially those with their hands on the levers of political, corporate, and military power – saw little reason to doubt that history remained on its proper course and that was good enough for me.

In other words, despite the occasional setbacks and disappointments of the recent past, this country’s global preeminence remained indisputable, not just in theory but in fact. That the United States would enjoy such a status for the foreseeable future seemed a foregone conclusion. After all, if any single nation prefigured the destiny of humankind, it was ours. Among the lessons taught by history itself, nothing ranked higher or seemed more obvious. Primacy, in other words, defined our calling.

Any number of motives, most of them utterly wrong-headed, had prompted the United States to go to war in Vietnam. Yet, in retrospect, I've come to believe that one motive took precedence over all others: Washington's fierce determination to deflect any doubt about this country's status as history's sole chosen agent. By definition, once US officials had declared that preserving a non-communist South Vietnam constituted a vital national security interest, it became one, ipso facto. Saying it made it so, even if, by any rational calculation, the fate of South Vietnam had negligible implications for the wellbeing of the average American.

As it happened, the so-called lessons of the Vietnam War were soon forgotten. Although that conflict ended in humiliating defeat, the reliance on force to squelch doubts about American dominion persisted. And once the Cold War ended, taking with it any apparent need for the United States to exercise self-restraint, the militarization of American policy reached full flood. Using force became little short of a compulsion. Affirming American "global leadership" provided an overarching rationale for the sundry saber-rattling demonstrations, skirmishes, interventions, bombing campaigns, and large-scale wars in which U.S. forces have continuously engaged ever since.

Simultaneously, however, that wide, deep, and taken-for-granted present of my youth was slipping away. As our wars became longer and more numerous, the problems besetting the nation only multiplied, while the solutions on offer proved ever flimsier.

The possibility that a penchant for war might correlate with mounting evidence of national distress largely escaped notice. This was especially the case in Washington where establishment elites clung to the illusion that military might testifies to national greatness.

Somewhere along the way – perhaps midway between Donald Trump's election as president in November 2016 and the assault on the Capitol in January of this year – it dawned on me that the present that I once knew and took as a given is now gone for good. A conclusion that I would have deemed sacrilegious half a century ago now strikes me as self-evident: The American experiment in dictating the course of history has reached a dead-end.

How could that have happened over the course of just a few decades? And where does the demise of that reassuring present – arrangements that I and most other Americans once took to be fixed and true – leave us today? What comes next?

“So it goes.” As Vonnegut recounts the journey of his time-traveling protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, in Slaughterhouse-Five, that terse phrase serves as a recurring motif. It defines Vonnegut's worldview: fate is arbitrary, destiny inexplicable, history a random affair. There is no why. Whatever happens, happens. So it goes.

Such sentiments are deeply at odds with the way Americans are accustomed to thinking about past, present, and future. Since the founding of our republic, if not before, we have habitually imputed to history a clearly identifiable purpose, usually connected to the spread of freedom and democracy as we understand those concepts.

Yet as crises without easy solutions continue to accumulate, Vonnegut’s cynicism – tantamount to civic blasphemy – might warrant fresh consideration. “So it goes” admits to severe limits on human agency. While offering little in terms of remedies, it just might offer a first step toward recovering a collective sense of modesty and self-awareness.

Because he’s president, Joe Biden must necessarily profess to believe otherwise. By any objective measure, Biden is a long-in-the-tooth career politician of no particular distinction. He is clearly a decent and well-meaning fellow. Yet his prior record of substantive achievement, whether as a long-serving senator from Delaware or as vice president, is thin. He is the Democratic Party’s equivalent of a B-list movie actor honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in tribute to his sheer doggedness and longevity.

That said, some Americans entertain high hopes for the Biden presidency. Especially in quarters where Trump Derangement Syndrome remains acute, expectations of Biden single-handedly charting a course back from the abyss toward which his predecessor had allowed the nation to drift are palpable. So, too, is the belief that he will thereby reconstitute some version of American political, economic, and military primacy, even in a world of Covid-19, climate change, a rising China, and a host of other daunting challenges. Despite this very tall order, “so it goes” can have no place in Biden’s lexicon.

During its decades-long interval of apparent global dominion, American expectations about the role presidents were to play grew appreciably. Commentators fell into the habit of referring to the occupant of the Oval Office as ‘the most powerful man in the world’, presiding over the planet's most powerful nation. The duties prescribed by the US Constitution came nowhere near to defining the responsibilities and prerogatives of the chief executive.

Excerpted: ‘When It Comes to War, Americans Remain Willfully and Incorrigibly Ignorant’

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