Wednesday, November 11, 2009

War, Paradox, Personality, and the American Mindset

This holiday, which denotes the eleventh day of the eleventh month was once called Armistice Day, as it marked the end of hostilities during World War I. It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that our collective memory of that conflict grows fainter and fainter with each passing year, since it marked the exact instant we grew from a second-tier promising newcomer on the world stage to a heavy hitter. The European continent had threatened to blow itself up for centuries before then, but with a combination of ultra-nationalism and mechanized slaughter, millions upon millions of people perished in open combat. Our entrance into the war and world theater turned the tide but the original zeal that characterized the war's outset had become a kind of demoralizing weariness that our fresh troops and tools of the trade exploited to win a resounding victory. Our industries revived Europe, making us wealthy in the process, and though much of this wealth was lost in The Great Depression, precedent had been set. When Europe blew itself apart once more in World War II, their loss was our gain.

A year ago today I was at Mount Vernon, enjoying a day off at George Washington's home, taking in the iconic and beautiful view of the Potomac river. Along with the steady stream of tourists like myself were servicemen and women from every branch of the Armed Forces. A ceremony at our first President's tomb commemorating the bravery of all who had served was to be held mid-day and, deciding I'd watch it for a while, I began moving in the direction of the Washington burial plot. What ringed the tomb was often more interesting than the main attraction. Case in point, the burial site of the estate's slaves, which had been given posthumous mention, though the names, dates of birth, dates of death, and individual stories had long since been lost to posterity. I mused a bit that this was how most Americans living today felt about the Great War.

The scene struck a discordant note with me in another way. It's the same on-one-hand, but on-the-other-hand kind of conflicting emotional response that underlies my thinking about war and those who engage in it. If I am to follow the teachings of my faith, war is never an option to be considered for even half a second. Indeed, if it were up to me, I'd gladly abolish it from the face of the earth. However, I never want to seem as though I am ungrateful or unappreciative of those who put themselves in one hellish nightmare situation after another as a means of a career and with the ultimate goal to protect us. It is this same discomforting soft shoe tap dance that I take on when I pause to give reverence to the memories of those who established and strengthened our nation, while recognizing too that they were indebted to a practice I consider deplorable.

I would never describe hypocrisy as a kind of necessary element in our society, but a "do as I say, not as I do" quotient that seems to be commonplace in our lives does merit recognition. For example, quite recently a friend of mine who had lived in France for several months was describing to me the cultural differences in attitude towards sex in our culture versus theirs. Here, we are indebted to a hearty Puritanism which shames those who engage and scolds those who make no attempt to conceal. Yet, we still think nothing of eagerly consenting to casual sex and our media and advertising reflect this. As it was explained to me, in France, sex is everywhere, no one feels as though a highly public display is the least bit out of place or vulgar, no one feels guilty at its existence, but they are much less inclined towards hooking up with complete strangers or faintly known acquaintances than we are. It is certainly interesting to contemplate whether we'd sacrifice the right to one-night-stands or the promise of frequent escapades if after doing so we would henceforth face no repercussions of guilt and strident criticism for daring to see sexuality as something more than a weakness of willpower and a deficit of character. One wonders if we would sacrifice achieving something with nearly inevitable consequences attached for the sake of not getting what we want whenever we want it. The trade off, of course, being we would no longer have to feel dirty or ashamed for having base desires.

I mention this paradox in particular because the national past-time these days might be the sport of calling "gotcha", particularly in politics. The latest philandering politician is revealed for the charlatan he is and our reactions and responses are full of fury and righteous indignation. "How dare he!" Granted, one party does seem to act as though it has a monopoly on conventional morality, but if it were my decision to make, I'd drop that distinction altogether, else it continue to backfire. Yet, this doesn't mean we ought to take a more European approach, whereby one assumes instantly that politicians will be corrupt and will cheat, so why expect anything otherwise. Still, we ought to take a more realistic approach towards our own flaws and the flaws of our leaders instead of adhering to this standard of exacting perfection which has created many a workaholic and many a sanctimonious personal statement. To the best of my reckoning, we must be either a sadistic or a masochistic society at our core. Perhaps we are both.

It is easy for us to make snap judgments. I have certainly been guilty of it myself. Taken to an extreme, I can easily stretch the pacifist doctrine of the peace church of which I am a member. I can imply that military combat of any sort is such an abomination that everyone who engages in it is beholden to great evil and deserves precisely what he or she gets as a result. This would be an unfair, gratuitous characterization to make. Though I do certainly find war and warfare distasteful, I prefer to couch my critique of the practice in terms of the psychological and emotional impact upon those who serve and in so doing speak with compassion regarding those civilians in non-combat roles who get caught in the middle and have to live with the consequences. Likewise, I would be remiss if I dismissed the role George Washington played in the formation of our Union if I reduced him to an unrepentant slaveholder and member of a planter elite who held down the struggling Virginia yeoman farmer. Moreover, I could denigrate the reputation of Woodrow Wilson, whose leadership led to our victory in the First World War, by pointing to his unapologetic beliefs in white supremacy and segregation. I could mine the lives of almost everyone, my own included, and find something distasteful but somewhere along the line we need to remember that hating the sin does not meant we ought to hate the sinner, too.

The conflict swirling around us at this moment is just as indebted to paradox as the sort which existed during the lives of any of these notable figures in our history. John Meacham wrote,

...[T]he mere fact of political and cultural divisions---however serious and heartfelt the issues separating American from American can be---is not itself a cause for great alarm and lamentation. Such splits in the nation do make public life meaner and less attractive and might, in some circumstances, produce cataclysmic results. But strong Presidential leadership can lift the country above conflict and see it through.

This is what we are all seeking. While I am not disappointed by President Obama, I see a slow, deliberative approach to policy that is alternately thoughtful and exasperating. I certainly appreciate his contemplative, intellectual approach, and can respect it even when I disagree with its application. One of the paradoxical tensions that typify the office of Chief Executive or any leadership role, for that matter, is the balance between power and philosophy. Meacham again writes,

...Politicians generally value power over strict intellectual consistency, which leads a president's supporters to nod sagely at their leader's creative flexibility and drives his opponents to sputter furiously about their nemesis's hypocrisy.

If ever was a national sin, hypocrisy is it. It is the trump card in the decks of many players and it is used so frequently that one can hardly keep track of the latest offender. If it were not everywhere and in everyone, it would not be such a familiar weapon. Even if one has to split-hairs to do it, one can always locate hypocritical statements or behaviors. Politics can often be an exercise in pettiness, and the latest bickering between Republicans, Democratic, liberals, center-left moderates, conservatives, and center-right moderates have morphed into this same counter-productive swamp of finger-pointing. It is this attitude which keeps voters home and leads to further polarization. Securing Democratic seats and a healthy majority in next year's elections will require rejuvenation of the base but also inspiring moderate and independent voters to even bother to turn out to the polls. What this also means is that we ought to learn how to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings and recognize the humanity in our opponents as well. A scorched-earth strategy works for the short term, but it also guarantees a ferocity in counter-attacks and leads to long-term consequences only visible in hindsight. By all means, fight for what one believes, but eschewing tact and diplomacy is the quickest way to both live by the sword and die by it. I'm not suggesting toughness or steel-spines ought to be discarded, but rather that we all have weaknesses of low hanging fruit that make for an easy target, and the instant we eviscerate our opponent by robbing their trees, we should soon expect a vicious counter-attack in our own arbor.

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