Fighting Spirits

By Benjamin Schwarz

28 April 2002 WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD

Newspapers Report World Trade Center Bombing

A steady stream of books has been chronicling the immediate horror of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but only now are commentators stepping forward to spell out the wider ramifications of the attacks and the ensuing war on terrorism. What does the present conflict seem to presage for the use of American power across the globe? And how does the war on terrorism play out in a cultural framework, with all the ways it resonates as a clash of beliefs — if not, as is often asserted, of entire civilizations? To judge by this first trio of such books, it’s still too soon to be hazarding confident answers; patient readers will be hard-pressed to imagine any less thoughtful and illuminating efforts to place the dramatically new atmosphere into perspective.

These books come bearing different messages — Gore Vidal’s anti-imperial dissents, not surprisingly, are far afield of the William Bennett and Dinesh D’Souza prowar pronouncements. But in formal terms, they’re all quite similar. They have obviously been hastily assembled — and I choose that verb carefully. All are polemical, yet none builds a sustained, rigorous and precise argument. Rather, their authors sloppily string together anecdotes, assertions and quotations — the books are at once extremely short and egregiously bloated.

Bennett’s Why We Fight and D’Souza’s What’s So Great About America revolve around the same proposition: The United States is a uniquely virtuous country, and, owing to its virtues, is hated and attacked by Islamic terrorists. Americans must recognize that the war against al Qaeda and its supporters is a moral crusade and that the country’s resolve is subverted by multiculturalists, moral relativists and what Bennett terms the peace party.

Both authors lavish too much ink on these groups, but they have a point. By far the most effective sections in Bennett’s book detail such absurdities as the moral equivalence suggested by the historian Eric Foner late last September — “I’m not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating from the White House.” Nearly every such utterance among diehard anti-war protestors concerning the September attacks would drive a sensible person to sputter in rage.

As Bennett points out, however, the most disturbing reaction to the September attacks was that of the far larger group of self-defined enlightened progressives. They typically failed to express alarm over the future safety and prosperity of their country, while issuing a long string of dark warnings: that America had an incorrigible lust for vengeance, that what they considered flag-waving jingoism was veering out of control, that a rash of anti-Muslim hate crimes was in the offing — and that the “cowboy” president would “overreact.” The September assaults were the bloodiest attacks on American soil by foreign forces in our history, yet as Bennett and D’Souza correctly point out, the progressives’ fears have proved utterly groundless.

Still, readers don’t need Bennett’s and D’Souza’s overblown rhetoric to grasp the abysmal shortcomings of the left’s reaction to the September attacks. Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan have already trenchantly exposed the nonsense promulgated by the “peace party” and its fellow travelers, while effectively deploying tools of argument conspicuously absent from Bennett’s and D’Souza’s writing: verve, style and wit. These shortcomings are all the more pronounced in the face of the solemn task that both D’Souza and Bennett have undertaken: to frame the discussion of the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks in terms of good and evil, and to elevate patriotism to a righteous ideology, based on a belief in what Bennett calls “the superior goodness of the American way of life, of American culture in the broad sense.”

Here both authors lapse into a simplistic and — because it so lacks nuance — dishonest defense of all things American, an exercise that prompts Bennett to devote an entire chapter to “The Case for Israel” and D’Souza to deliver an appallingly incomplete account of Thomas Jefferson’s views of African Americans. It clearly hasn’t occurred to D’Souza and Bennett that the case for patriotism and for forceful American action in response to the terrorist attacks doesn’t compel us to whitewash our country’s history and conduct, and so they inadvertently undermine their own arguments.

In his great patriotic wartime essay “The Lion and the Unicorn,” George Orwell castigated the left intelligentsia’s “severance from the common culture of their country,” a culture he clearly loved. He assaulted the notion that capitalism at home (which he abhorred) was just as bad as Nazism (which he recognized as a mortal threat), and he called for all Englishmen to meet that threat — even as he demanded the overthrow of Britain’s economic and class system. Orwell recognized that “love of country implies for better, for worse.” Bennett and D’Souza, on the other hand, assert that patriotism requires a sense of what D’Souza calls “America’s moral superiority.” But D’Souza is mistaken in his insistence that Americans must be “convinced that they are fighting on behalf of the good.”

After Sept. 11, most Americans appeared to conclude with little fuss that the simple dictates of national interest, and national survival, demanded that the United States track down the al Qaeda terrorists, destroy their networks and infrastructure and wage war on the Taliban regime that had harbored them. They reached this understanding quite apart from any possible U.S. role in the root causes of Islamic terrorism or the alleged follies of U.S. policy in the Middle East. On the other side of the moral and historical ledger, Americans also rallied to the a war against terrorism with no special brief for what Bennett and D’Souza argue is the U.S. world-historical role as the moral, economic and political exemplar for mankind. The only parties that seem not to have grasped this stark and simple necessity are the progressives and the left — and their professional detractors, such as Messrs. Bennett and D’Souza.

The title of Gore Vidal’s slim screed, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, is taken from the work of the great — and now, alas, neglected — historian Charles A. Beard, whose penetrating, skeptical, anti-interventionist assessments of American foreign policy would be profitable to read today. Some aspects of Vidal’s volume show him to be a worthy heir to Beard, who was impatient with moral justifications of U.S. action abroad. Beard, for example, would no doubt endorse Vidal’s dismissal of the simplistic and patronizing rhetoric that accompanies the war against Osama bin Laden. He would also likely join in Vidal’s sarcastic dismissal of the Bush administration’s explanation of the al Qaeda attacks: “They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” Beard would no doubt point out that Sweden, say, or New Zealand also has such freedoms, but these wealthy democracies aren’t the target of Islamic terrorists, who attack the United States because of the global role it plays and its specific policies in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Beard would probably argue (as Vidal does) that this historic role and those policies should be altered.

But Beard, while an anti-interventionist, was also a realist and a strong advocate of hemispheric defense. Unlike Vidal, he would have recognized that U.S. foreign policy, even a foreign policy he disagreed with, could not be subject to the dictates of a terrorist organization; he would have understood that the threat posed by al Qaeda to the American homeland had to be eliminated. And he would have disowned Vidal’s specious assertion that the U.S. air campaign against Afghanistan (organized by what Vidal insists on calling “the Pentagon Junta”) was “like destroying Palermo in order to eliminate the Mafia.” Beard would know — as Vidal should — that the military forces of al Qaeda and the Taliban would not have permitted an international constabulary to walk through Afghanistan and arrest bin Laden and his lieutenants; those forces had to be destroyed for any police action to take place. Vidal — perhaps the finest American literary essayist alive — is a national treasure, but this book, like too much of his political writing, is snide rather than skeptical and extremely unreliable.

The terrible events of last Sept. 11 demand clear and honest thinking; Bennett, D’Souza and Vidal have chosen instead to slip into their well-worn ideological grooves, unleashing kneejerk rhetoric to castigate their customary bogeymen. Despite no end of pronouncements that the world has changed irreversibly in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the shadowplay of this sort of cultural warfare remains very much the same.

 

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