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October 19, 2004

<< He's Like the Gannett of Blogs | Speaking of Mythic Grandeur >>

Wanting War

The Chicago Tribune editorial board, a smart group for sure, endorsed George W. Bush for president.

Near the beginning, there’s a quote from John McCain:

So it is, whether we wished it or not, that we have come to the test of our generation, to our rendezvous with destiny. […]

And that pretty much sets the tone. This is how they wrap it up:

This country’s paramount issue, though, remains the threat to its national security.


For three years, Bush has kept Americans, and their government, focused—effectively—on this nation’s security. The experience, dating from Sept. 11, 2001, has readied him for the next four years, a period that could prove as pivotal in this nation’s history as were the four years of World War II.

That demonstrated ability, and that crucible of experience, argue for the re-election of President George W. Bush. He has the steadfastness, and the strength, to execute the one mission no American generation has ever failed.

Okay, this is not an unfamiliar sentiment. It’s Bush’s whole call to arms, right? I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not th—oh wait, no, that’s Aragorn.

Yeah, see, that’s the problem: This is earth, not Middle Earth.

Can the Tribune be serious? “[A]s pivotal in this nation’s history as were the four years of World War II”?

Here’s the thing: They want to believe that. I think a lot of people do. It’s something that Chris Hedges argues very convincingly in his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which is about—well, yeah. (P.S. I interviewed Hedges for

He says: The notion of a martial struggles ennobles us. It suffuses us with grim righteousness. It’s mythic and meaningful.

But in this case, it’s also total bullshit!

Why isn’t dealing with the Sauron of Social Security ever our rendezvous with destiny? Why can’t the struggle against global poverty be the test of our generation?

Oh, right, because those challenges don’t involve killing orcs terrorists. Seriously! We’re nuts like that!

Now I’m sure Robert Kaplan would tell me, “Hush, squeamish child of privilege. Go back to your video games and allow Achilles to do his bloody work.” And I accept the point that violence is a tool we have to use.

But to assert that that it is the primary work of our nation now—that all other challenges pale before some all-consuming war—is, I think, wishful and wrong and a little bit sick.

And I’m surprised that a group as able as the Tribune editorial board is playing along with the terror-obsessed Tolkiens who tell that tale.

Depressing addendum: Just saw this on’s Who’s Getting Your Vote? — Louis Rosseto, co-founder of WIRED, says:

Bush may be wrong about everything else, but he is right about the issue that matters most for my childrenís future: stopping Islamic fascism. And Manchurian candidate Kerry and the Copperheads, er, Democrats, are just a joke, preferring to act as though this probably generation-spanning war is about politics, not the survival of the West.

He’s right! We need to invade Mordor immediatedly!


Posted October 19, 2004 at 5:39 | Comments (10) | Permasnark
File under: Election 2004


Yeah, Robert Wright is seeing the LOTR parallels, too.

Evil has a reputation for resilience. And rightly so. Banishing it from Middle Earth alone took three very long Lord of the Rings movies. But equally deserving of this reputation is the concept of evil—in particular, a conception of evil that was on display in those very movies: the idea that behind all the world’s bad deeds lies a single, dark, cosmic force. No matter how many theologians reject this idea, no matter how incompatible it seems with modern science, it keeps coming back.

You would have thought St. Augustine rid the world of it a millennium and a half ago. He argued so powerfully against this notion of evil, and against the whole Manichaean theology containing it, that it disappeared from serious church discourse. Thereafter, evil was not a thing; it was just the absence of good, as darkness is the absence of light. But then came the Protestants, and some of them brought back the Manichaean view of a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil.

I'm not the biggest fan of Wright's article; it's a bit of a non-sequitur, and sounds like the squishy crap that liberals get bludgeoned for. But, just throwing that out there.

As for the Trib endorsement, it's amazingly one-track. It's just one long paean to "decisive action," no matter the consequences, no matter the subject. Just get out there and do something, and you've got our vote.

I might not disagree with the Trib's contention that terrorism is among the biggest problems we face, because it is such a destabilizing force. People see global poverty as a massive planet-sized wound that hasn't scabbed over, but also isn't going to bring any First World governments to their knees anytime soon. Social Security may or may not be a "looming financial crisis," yet even the prospect of boomer entitlements plunging America into a depression still isn't quite as scary as the spectre of a young ideologue with a nuke and a death wish.

You want myth? Terrorism is plenty mythic. Terrorism gives us a workable picture of true evil -- a being nourished by pure passion whose own destruction does not perturb it at all as long as our destruction is achieved in the process.

Social Security? Eh. Not so much.

Where I part most strongly with the Trib is in their seeming belief that our adventure in Iraq had much of anything to do with terrorism. Cogent arguments could be made (and have been made) to justify deposing Saddam Hussein by any means necessary. "Ending terrorism" is just not credibly one of them.

Where you, Hedges, and I can agree is our distaste for the idea that a pure show of conventional military force is the greatest answer, or the only answer. I mean, force is great. Without a spectacular show of force in March of 2003, this adventure in Iraq would have sucked even harder than it's sucking now.

But that was it, in Iraq. We never got beyond force. OK, well, there was idealism, that was something. The Certified Public Authority should have been chock full of the world's best scholars on Islam, America's sharpest minds, our most capable speakers of Arabic. Instead, near as I can tell, it was a high-stakes game of SimDemocracy played by a bedraggled horde of ambitious Young Republicans and Paul Bremer.

I think someone is going to have to explain to me again how exactly military force is supposed to deter to terrorism. This is a "group of folks" that WANTS TO DIE. Killing one of these guys MAKES HIM HAPPY. The "fear of death" thing brought about by conventional war DOES NOT APPLY. Fathers plead with sons to become shaheeds, to kill themselves (and some Americans, or maybe some Israelis) in the name of Allah.

It's a creative problem that requires a creative solution, which I sadly do not know. But I submit that the answer cannot be wantonly applied conventional military force.

Posted by: Matt on October 21, 2004 at 11:54 PM

Clearly we have to carry the One Nuclear Device to the Crack of Doom, where it was forged... I think that means the Crack of Doom is in North Korea.

Posted by: Robin on October 22, 2004 at 03:06 PM

More seriously... Matt writes:

I might not disagree with the Trib's contention that terrorism is among the biggest problems we face, because it is such a destabilizing force. People see global poverty as a massive planet-sized wound that hasn't scabbed over, but also isn't going to bring any First World governments to their knees anytime soon.

I'll echo a point many have made before: A nuclear attack is the only even remotely existential threat that terrorism poses. And to be fair it's what Bush & Co. focused on in the run-up to Iraq: Uranium! Aluminum tubes! Mushroom clouuuds!

Buuut they turned out to be totally wrong.

So it seems to me like we ought to let somebody else have a crack at the task of keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists. What about that doesn't the ChiTrib get? Or are they really afraid of a conventional suicide bomber in New York City?

Posted by: Robin on October 22, 2004 at 06:23 PM

Uh oh, we're sliding towards the classic "LOTR == WWII" argument...

Think about the Eagles! Also Peter Jackson's attempt to make Gondor as much like European Russia as possible was pretty impressive. My favorite was John Noble playing Denethor doing an impression of Cherkasov playing Ivan the Terrible doing an impression of Stalin...

Anyways... In response to Matt, I think an important part of informing ourselves intelligently on terrorism is to drop the assumption that the terrorists want to kill us because we are so great and they hate freedom or some bull$6|t like that.

Posted by: Peter on October 24, 2004 at 04:33 AM

Oh, I agree with that wholeheartedly, Peter (the response to me part). In fact, as far as the motivations of individual terrorist actors -- the suicide bombers, et al. -- are concerned, I'd guess that their actions have little to do with "us," and much more to do with themselves. After all, when you've grown up being taught that the greatest honor in the world is to die for Allah, that you'll go straight to paradise and all that, then the particular end for yourself you ultimately choose depends only on what your religious leaders decide Allah wants.

Posted by: Matt on October 24, 2004 at 04:12 PM

Matthew Yglesias with some smart comments on terrorism's relative importance.

Peter, what's the context of the Cherkasov-as-Ivan-the-Terrible scene? What movie is that from?

Posted by: Robin on October 24, 2004 at 04:12 PM

I dunno if you want to get me into one of my classic rants, but basically Peter Jackson, like many directors before him, particularly epic battle directors, took a lot of cues from Eisenstein. The classic influence for battle scenes is Eisenstein's anti-Nazi propaganda masterpiece Alexander Nevsky (gotta love the evil German knights with giant helmets and swastikas throwing squealing Russian babies into a giant bonfire...). Shots from Nevsky have shown up all over the place, for example: Ralph Bakshi's rotoscoping in Wizards, the computer game Castles II, and certainly battle scenes from LotR. But in the case of Denethor's character the style is really clearly straight from Eisenstein's love/hate letter to Stalin, Ivan the Terrible Parts 1 and 2.

Okay, I'll restrain myself there. Was it just me and my dork roommates (post-Matt I'm afraid) who sat around debating LotR as nuclear arms race during WWII?

Posted by: Peter on October 24, 2004 at 04:23 PM

The article Matthew Yglesias links to is quite good. The author, John Mueller, basically returns to my conclusion that the media is the root of all evil. OK, that's an oversimplification, but the media's (and the government's) overhyping of the threat of terrorism goes a long way in giving terrorism its edge. As Mueller puts it: "Outside of 2001, fewer people have died in America from international terrorism than have drowned in toilets."

It's the reaction to terrorism that's the biggest danger. Terrorism continues because it is a profoundly destabilizing force; it does shake up societies, achieve results. A video of one person pleading for her life into a camera will have a stronger effect than all the logic and numbers you can throw at a hysterical populace.

A truly insightful policy might be balanced more towards normalizing our response to terrorism than on attacking the source of terrorism itself. Mueller says "efforts against terrorism should be considered more like a campaign against crime than like a war ... Like crime, one can at best seek to reduce its frequency and destructiveness so that people can feel reasonably--but not perfectly--safe from it."

But it's hard to imagine a political climate where a policy like that could even be uttered. John Kerry was bashed to bits by the GOP machine for daring to apply the language of crime to terrorism, when he said that his goal would be to reduce it to a nuisance. I've never heard this quote from John McCain's book, but it gives me passing warm and fuzzy feelings about him:

Get on the damn elevator! Fly on the damn plane! Calculate the odds of being harmed by a terrorist! It's still about as likely as being swept out to sea by a tidal wave....Suck it up, for crying out loud. You're almost certainly going to be okay. And in the unlikely event you're not, do you really want to spend your last days cowering behind plastic sheets and duct tape? That's not a life worth living, is it?

Posted by: Matt on October 24, 2004 at 06:52 PM

Re: Peter's comment

So in high school marching band (the extra-intense nerdy version) every year's show is like a big theatrical performance based on some story or theme. Thus the choice of subject matter determines the fate of 200-odd high schoolers for an entire marching season.

And weirdly, in my junior year we almost did a show based on "Alexander Nevsky."

We ended up doing "Alice in Wonderland" instead, I think.

Posted by: Robin on October 24, 2004 at 07:07 PM

I heard on some wretched talk radio show (no, keep reading, really!) that more books are translated between English and Greek each year than between English and Arabic. According to Wikipedia, there are 225 million native Arabic speakers in the world and 12 million Greek speakers. Maybe the "War on Terror" (tm) should be putting more effort into bridging culture gaps instead of starting costly wars or developing bunker busting nukes or worrying about the mineshaft gap or whatever else the hawks have been doing with my tax dollars.

For my part, I'd be pretty curious to see the novel that is supposedly so popular in the Arab world right now about how terrible America is.

Posted by: Peter on October 27, 2004 at 01:48 AM
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