Saturday, February 02, 2008

Focus On A Single Enemy

A human being can only remain in love 12-18 months. If you're still together after that, it is because you have built something more permanent along the way. It's a good thing, too. Imagine how tiring it would be to have twenty years of "I wonder if she is thinking of me right now, right this minute...if I don't see her as we pass at lunch it will ruin my whole afternoon..." There is apparently a brain fatigue which sets in. The level of excitement which being in love generates is unsustainable. The mind adapts, as it does to anything else, to a new normal. A fever pitch of excitement cannot be maintained indefinitely.

I wonder if some similar mechanism is in play concerning distant wars. I have noted before that the American people seem to tire of all wars after about three years, and just want them to go away. Even after having won - perhaps especially after having won - everyone just wants it all to go away. We nearly abandoned the Civil War in 1864, believing it interminable and making no progress. After ramping up in early 1942 for WWII, by 1945 there was no interest in going further to liberate Europe or invade Japan - hence Yalta; hence Hiroshima.

I recently read an article about the dangers of Iran. The author believed that we must be prepared to go to war there, or at least signal our intent and ability to do so. Something in my brain just groaned. It can't be necessary to go to war with Iran, it just can't. When I sought to understand this groaning, I found it was very hard to even think past groaning. It can't be true. There's no need. There seems something unfit about the idea. There's already been two wars. That will just have to do. It would just prove that we like, always want to go to war.

It's quite irrational on my part, this avoidance. How I feel about it - how the nation feels about it - is unlikely to be relevant to the question of necessity. Do we think there is some rule that God only puts a certain amount of difficulty in our lives, and anything beyond that we can ignore?

This flows in the opposite direction as well. If a war is over in a year we automatically assume that it must have been brilliantly executed. Perhaps not. Brilliant execution might have had the thing over in three months; sustained stupidity or miscalculation may have dragged it out to four times its length. But we won't mind so much. We back home won't feel drained, particularly.

It's quite different for those who have a war right in their laps, of course. I would hazard a guess that in some ways one would weary of war much more quickly - in other ways, the population could be rallied yet again five years out, ten years out. The danger is visible. When the danger is distant it is hard to keep our focus. This is true not only of war, but of any distant event. Praying for orphans in Romania is easy when one has just seen them in the last few months. Their need is the same years later, but they have faded from heart. Continuing in prayer is an act of will, not of heart at that point. We can't rely on cuteness or immediacy to provide the spur for us. Our brains will go to something else, some closer crisis that seems to demand our attention more.

I think one can keep a great cause in mind for years, but the likelihood of everyone keeping the same cause in mind is small. I can choose on my own to read up on my cause, attend events with the like-minded, give my money and time to it, and thus continually renew my interest. Ginning that up in others, however, requires expenditure of energy, jump-starting them every week or month. Shortly after 9-11, George Bush stated repeatedly that the war on terror was going to take a long time, that it would be this generation's great work. That may have been an accurate thing to say, but I wonder if it is just plain ineffective in keeping up interest and spirits. "You never said it was going to take this long." "Yeah, I did." "No you didn't, and it's too long." It may also be that being honest is not sufficient to keep a cause going for a whole population. A self-selected group might embrace evangelism, or hunger, or literacy, but the general population can't be kept on task just by telling them they have to. Even if they do have to, just saying may not be enough.

The paleocons, the old conservatives, have been generally resentful of the neocons, considering them unnecessary adventurers. Old Cold Warriors like Pat Buchanan, Charlie Reese, and Jeffrey Hart found our invasion of Iraq impossibly wrong. They may be entirely correct in that, but I wonder if focus on a single enemy makes it difficult to perceive other enemies, even at need. Communism fell, the anti-communists could put down their swords and hope to be left alone. The great struggle of the age was finished, and Americans could go back to whatever normal life is, while the paleocons could sit by the fire and make merry in their old age, like Gandalf and Bilbo. For others to come along and claim there is some new task was simply not to be borne. The accusation has been leveled that Americans in general and conservatives in specific need some enemy, some Other for their Manichean, dualist world. Not these conservatives, anyway.

To suggest that paleocons would be unable to rouse even if it were necessary implies that their view is mistaken and their criticisms not worth attending to, but that doesn't logically follow. As with my resistance to the idea of dealing militarily with Iran, the feeling is likely irrelevant. If they were roused, it might be good evidence for the opposite premise, that the new war must be necessary, but their irritation tells us nothing either way. It is worth mentioning in this light that there is another bit of evidence that weariness is too heavy a factor in their calculations. Their isolationism takes other forms as well - economic protectionism, antiglobalism, greater suspicion of immigration. There is a great emotional wash of "Just leave us alone, dammit."

Well, that's a good conservative sentiment. But there is no cosmic law which states "one enemy per lifetime."

One step deeper. Conservatives have complained over the last six-plus years that progressives seem more concerned with their enemy George Bush than with the enemies of America. Some of that flows in the other direction - conservatives who say they support the War on Terror but seem to save their juice for getting upset at liberals. Yet there is ample evidence that some on the left, at least, seem unable to grasp that there are people in the world who want to kill us, who will not go away if we leave them alone. The belief that the Islamists would gladly leave us alone if we would just leave them alone is risible, but so attractive that it is believed anyway. It would be nice if it were true, so let's pretend it's true. Fascist corporate America is the real problem. Note that this is their old enemy, their Other since the 1960's.

Even among those who by force of will and attention can look at the dangers of the world and see what needs doing, it may simply be too easy to slip back into being angry at the old enemy. Their battle has been against conservatives since they were adolescents - it may not be that easy to switch. Even if the intellect tries to tell us that Enemy B is much worse - more evil, more dangerous, more present - our hearts may simply remain set on Enemy A forever. Under pressure, we revert to old formulae. When the former Yugoslavia broke into ethnic pieces, several new political parties based on older ones started railing against the Jews. Except there were no Jews there - hadn't been for fifty years.

Pity for those who bear responsibility for our protection, who cannot afford the luxury of relying on their feelings and habits of mind to identify the dangers which beset us.

Update: Year fixed. Thanks jbussey.

1 comment:

jlbussey said...

Interesting commentary. I often have to remind myself and sometimes others that our feelings about something in particular are irrelevant. As much as people hate to hear that...

(BTW, I think you mean *1864* in paragraph 2.)