On American nobility

I’m crossposting a comment I made in the ongoing thread over at Brian Greenberg’s ISBS, mainly because I think it’s a fine bit of writing that I don’t mind showcasing here. Secondly because it’s a bit far afield from our original topic. Thirdly because I’m reasonably sure I still have readers who think I have my head firmly lodged up my ass on matters military and geopolitical, and I’d like to hear them tell me why.

That said, while comments here are welcome, you’re invited first to click over and join us on Brian’s site.

Finally, there are edits made to this excerpt, primarily because what I thought flowed well as part of a comment reply looked too much like an ad hominem phrasing when lifted out of context. Brian and I disagree on a great many things, but fundamentally, if I’ve gotten heated in my debates with him over the years, it’s because I can never understand how a fine mind and great heart like his can see things so differently. It concerned me that my original text would give the opposite impression here, so I took the liberty of making minor changes.

Excerpt follows:

You seem to be saying that, regardless of what the political objectives are of the war, or whether the war can be judged a success on various terms, that there is a value imbued to the effort by the sacrifices made and pride taken by the participants. You call this nobility.

You might be surprised to hear that I agree. I think it is noble to risk dying for one’s country or one’s beliefs. Ideally, an American soldier going into combat would feel the moral force of both behind him or her. What I find exceptionally noble is that, for many soldiers — and I expect the true numbers here are impossible to quantify — they no longer believe that the war was for country or American values, but they continue to fight for their comrades in arms. To have only that remaining, to have lost the notion that there’s a greater meaning behind the sacrifices they’re asked to make, makes what is going on all the more poignant.

Put another way: you and I both know that the way we shape our military, it really doesn’t matter how badly clusterfucked a military operation becomes. Our forces will fight for each other when nothing else remains. I think this makes it exceptionally important that our leadership and our citizens should be exceedingly stringent and miserly before we decide that it’s time to open up the can of American whoop-ass.

I expect you to reply now that for most of our troops, perhaps the majority, perhaps the overwhelming majority, this is not what they are fighting for — that they remain convinced that this effort is for country and American values, and that this justifies their continued sacrifice.

And this brings us to the million-casualty question. If it is inherently noble to die for your country or your beliefs, then are the Iraqi insurgents imbued with nobility? Were the 9/11 hijackers? Palestinian suicide bombers? Timothy McVeigh?

If the answer is no, then you cannot argue that such actions are inherently noble. You have to argue that the specifics of your country or your values are what imbue that nobility to dying for your cause. Which leads to only two possible conclusions regarding the assumption of nobility for American forces dying overseas:

1) The death of American soldiers is inherently noble because America is the Great Exception; alone among all nations, causes, and beliefs in the world, we are touched by God, or have some other similarly irrevocable status by dint of being American.

2) The death of American soldiers is causally noble because Americans fight for what we deem to be decent, honorable, and right, and because America has acted for over two centuries as a beacon disseminating our notions of these values to the world, much to the betterment of humankind.

Personally, I’m a fervent believer in the second formulation, and I equally believe that, in this time and in this case, we have eschewed too much of our own morality to continue to believe this of ourselves. We have invaded nations which did us no harms to justify war, in the manner of our worst historical enemies. We have killed, tortured, and imprisoned the innocent, and we have continually lied to ourselves and to the world about the worst of our excesses and the worst of our actions.

Then, to justify ourselves, we wrap ourselves in the undeserved nobility that we ascribe to the poor bastards we ship overseas to fight and die, in that remaining scrap of the best of ourselves. The more we believe in the indomitable nobility of the American soldier, the more we can believe in the indomitable nobility of America, regardless of how much we shit upon our cherished beliefs.

Yes, the American soldier does maintain this nobility, because they continue to die for their country, or their beliefs, or their friends. But we do not deserve to bask in any dim reflection of their sacrifice.

Which leads me to the last of what you said, which I see as the dying gasp of American triumphalism to which we cling, that Tony Snow and by extension America’s leadership “likely knew more about what it’s like in Iraq than either of us ever will”. Because we desperately want to believe that our leaders are wise, and informed, and will act in the best interests of the nation.

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence and history that this simply has not been true. Our leaders have ignored what they could have known, rejected what they did not want to hear, lied continuously, and have broken faith consistently with both the American people and the American soldier. They could have chosen otherwise; they had the resources and the tools to be informed and act wisely, and they chose instead to act on gut instinct and a near-messianic belief in their own rightness and closeness to God.

This is why I think we all should have been terrified when we heard administration officials refer to their opponents as the “reality-based community.” Those who supported the Bush administration, the neoconservatives, and the warmongers collectively made our horror into a national joke. The price we’re paying now is precisely because if America deserves the mantle of righteousness, it is because we have had for two centuries a partial track record of being right. Of being correct. Of seeing the world for what it is and speaking of what it could be.

You can’t be right if you don’t know of whence you speak. And that is why I can’t mourn the death of the spokesman for those who have been so catastrophically, blindly, blisteringly, painfully wrong, and who spoke in America’s name as they were doing so.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *