“Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong,” Hegel wrote. “They are conflicts between two rights.”
In the last few days I have been somehow compelled to meditate on how the rush of events in our world reflect this kind of tragic destiny which perhaps only Hegel, the last genuine philosopher of history, seemed to have comprehended. This past Wednesday, on the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks that plunged America into the present Middle East miasma, I subjected 18 freshmen at my university to watching a two-hour PBS documentary on the Vietnam era.
The choice of videos had nothing to do with currents affairs. It served simply dramatic background material for the course itself entitled “The Sixties: The Decade That Changed Everything,” a decade of which today’s eighteen-year-olds, born about the time Bill Clinton was re-elected to his second term as president, have only fragmented, half-romantic, and completely inchoate notions.
It is possible the documentary had more of an impression on me than it did on them. For as someone who came of age in the latter part of that turbulent decade and was either present at, or witnessed directly, at least five of the rebellious and riotous occurrences the film depicted, I was struck by how indeed the commentators, then as well as now, made the untoward train of events from John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to Richard M. Nixon’s resignation in the face of impeachment charges in 1974 seem almost in a strange way inevitable.
Especially when it came to the escalation of the Vietnam war by Lyndon Johnson, who had just pushed through Congress some of the most monumental and stunning progressive legislation in the nation’s history, the word that kept recurring throughout the narrative was “tragedy.”
Tragedies are not merely unanticipated incidents with terrible consequences, as when we use the word, for example, to describe the assassination of a president or a deadly car accident. Tragedies have a solemn logic to them.
As Aristotle noted in the Poetics, tragedy – as opposed to comedy – derives from a profound mimesis of heroic figures caught up in the “laws of probability and necessity”, i.e., the deeper forces of time and history into which even the most courageous and sagacious luminary can step and be swept away.
Tragedy is not, Aristotle insists with a subtlety that defies what high school students are normally taught these days, an artistic dramatization of the character flaws and internal contradictions of noble personalities. It is the imaginative vision of a certain universal “necessity” (ananke) transcending individual choices and foibles. Tragedy is not narrative, which deals with the details of singular lives, but “spectacle” – a full theatrical disclosure to a surprised audience of the gritty wheelworks of human destiny that overrides our habitual assumptions and personal desires and preferences.
Our Tragic Legacy: Then and Now
The consensus of historical punditry half a century later is that Johnson was such a tragic figure. In assuming the presidency “accidentally” on the occasion of Kennedy’s murder in November 1963, Johnson inherited the legacy of not only the former’s relentless democratic idealism and his mandate to change America, but of the unyielding anti-communist commitments of his predecessors, which his “pay any price, bear any burden” rhetoric at his 1961 inauguration reflected.
For those two hours in which the documentary was running, I painfully mulled over what we now recognize from the mid-1960s onwards was an irreparable and ultimately tragic division between the United States’ militant idealism and its recoil from the true “price” it would eventually have to pay in Vietnam, and in fact all wars fought in the name of democratic universalism (what Reinhold Niebuhr once dubbed in a book by the same name dubbed “the irony of American history”).
Then I came home to watch President Obama’s speech to the nation declaring we were effectively going to war with the Islamic State (IS).
Eerie flashbacks to Johnson’s speech in the summer of 1965 (which I watched from a hospital bed because of an amoebic dysentery infection) announcing the Vietnam build-up immediately came to mind. Even though it was one day before the anniversary of September 11th, something different was happening from what took place during those critical days in the early autumn of 2001. I realized that every war America had fought in the 20th and 21st centuries was not really one of choice, but of a certain, dour inexorability that could only be grasped in hindsight (when, as Hegel put it, “philosophy paints its gray on gray”). 2014 is no exception.
9/11 was considered at the time a “Pearl Harbor moment” that demanded an urgent and forceful response. Contrary to the progressivist mythology that has grown up since 2003, the invasion of Iraq itself was not an arbitrary act of bravado on the part of a president, who was deeply unpopular with half of the electorate because of the circumstances by which he had been elected, but a decision with a certain conventional rationale that turned out to be tragically misplaced. International pressures to “do something” about Saddam Hussein had been building ever since the Gulf War indecisively ended in 1991, especially after the Iraqi dictator began to brutalize and commit genocide against segments of his own population and violate UN-declared sanctions and a no-fly zone, which much of the world had begun to circumvent or ignore.
And the intelligence community had advised that there were weapons of mass destruction that Saddam harbored. Unlike the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in 1964, which authorized Johnson to intervene substantially in the Vietnam Conflict and which we now know was deliberately fudged and fabricated by his administration, the misrepresentation of the evidence for Saddam’s WMDs came largely from the CIA itself.
The “Fear Factor” and the ”Transformational” Imperative
But the “fear factor” associated with the dangers of not doing anything, and the broader popular revulsion at the atrocities of another prominent dictator, dominated the American mentality in the wake of the attack on the world trade center as much as it did in 1964, and as it still does in the present day.
The post-World War II record of American involvement in foreign conflicts (with the exception of the Gulf War) is one of on-the-spot, grim decisions made by a succession of sitting presidents with much high-minded justification, steely sobriety, oratorical fanfare, and initial public backing that is followed in a few years by an on-the-ground military stalemate, of which the once supportive public quickly tires and becomes sullenly “anti-war.”
Korea was the first. Our now “third Iraq war” is not likely to be the last.
As James Jeffrey so insightfully notes, America’s own “tragic flaw” is the very moral fervor that drives intervention in the first place. “The sacrifice of our young men and women in combat,” he writes, “generates an almost messianic urge for an outcome worthy of them. From Gen. MacArthur’s ‘no substitute for victory’ approach that hurled 300,000 Americans and allies against China to the nation-building dreams in Afghanistan and Iraq, we repeatedly embrace transformational goals to justify the loss of our most precious resource — endeavors that then demand ever more such losses without commensurate success.”
This time around, however, the “transformational goals” are far murkier. We are ostensibly fighting IS, ISIL or ISIS (choose whatever acronym you wish), an al-Qaida offshoot which like a deadly bird-flu virus suddenly and dangerously mutated from a previous genomic stock to pose what many on both sides of the partisan divide somehow construe as a grave menace not only to minority and sectarian populations throughout the Middle East, but to the American homeland.
But, as Rosa Brooks observes, the transformation of ISIS from a “JV team” (which Obama called them just a few months back) to an existential threat may have more to do mercurial American political perceptions than with any reality on the ground.
The beheadings of two American journalists — a calculated stroke of media genius and instant publicity most likely designed by ISIS to provoke the very response Obama has now announced — were probably, she reasons, the trigger that turned public opinion into the tidal surge of collective moral outrage any president needs to age war on the elevated pretext that makes for fine tragic drama down the road.
In many ways, however, the “bombs of September,” coming precisely one century after the tragedy of the “guns of August” and soon to rain down on an even more intricate, toxic, and volatile geo-political situation in Iraq and Syria than could have ever be attributed to the Balkans in 1914, bespeak an almost tragi-comic irony that has America’s recent self-narrative as well as its communal psyche.
The “Irony of American History”
Writing at the initial crest of the Cold War in 1952, Niebuhr diagnosed America’s tragic shortcoming as its conviction of its own moral innocence and its inability to recognize its own failures in the demonization of its enemies.
Niebuhr was of course writing during the McCarthy era and was calling attention to the strange similarity, rather than the presumed disparity, between communist totalitarianism and anti-communist fanaticism. That diagnosis may have been turned around since the Vietnam fiasco and the rise of revisionist American history, which tended to overemphasize the nation’s guilt and self-delusions.
But the revisionists are just as guilty of projecting the same innocence onto the rest of the world and the nation’s adversaries, a ludicrous obsession reinforced by imperatives of academic political correctness which recent events in Eastern Europe and throughout the Middle East have blown sky-high and scattered to the four winds.
What persists from Niebuhr’s original analysis is his intuition that the unshakable belief in our own innocence is sustained by a certain pridefulness about our ongoing cultural immaturity. Indeed, the well-documented protraction of adolescence in America may be the real sign that we continue to refuse to engage the world as it really is with mature acumen, patience, and resolve rather than with our all-too-familiar fantasies of blame and rage along with our addictive self-indulgence in political frivolity.
Ironically, on the very morning after Obama explained to America why we had to go back into the fray, following the 2003 script of Bush administration defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld that the last Iraqi war would be a “long hard slog”, a lengthy article appeared in the New York Times Magazine celebrating America’s Peter Pan mindset and its refusal to grow up.
Americans today, Times film critic A.O. Scott opines, “imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux.” And, he concludes, “The world is our playground, without a dad or mom in sight. I’m all for it.” That childish conviction, promulgated for at least two generations now by prominent icons of the intelligentsia, may indeed be the source of a tragic vision of American history, which continues to unfold.
This time, however, the brutality of the world out there may force an end to our self-inscribed immaturity. It may finally be the time America not only wakes up, but grows up.