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Vol. 12, No. 3, 2013
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Robert J. Lewis
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Louis René Beres
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what's to blame for

Rene Louis Beres


Louis René Beres is Professor of Political Science at Purdue University. He is author of many books and articles dealing with international politics. His columns have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post and OUPblog (Oxford University Press). This article was originally published in US News & World Report.

Where there were great military actions,
there lies whitening now
the jawbone of an ass.
Saint-John Perse

I am in Vietnam, wondering just how any U.S. president could ever have imagined a purposeful American war in this part of the world. My considerable wonderment has as much to do with the obvious vacancy of 1960s and 1970s-era conceptual justifications (Vietnam as a threatened "domino" was the preferred metaphor) as with patently overwhelming operational difficulties. Notwithstanding the carefully cultivated and contrived images of an indispensable conflict, this was a war that never had a single defensible raison d'être, and that never displayed any conceivable way of being won.


Lately, it was Iraq, although now already officially ended, at least for us. In Afghanistan, a war is still ongoing, even for us. Allegedly, at least for us, the Afghan war will soon be over. For the Afghans, however, it will be status quo ante bellum.

At best.

Plainly, over the years, with the now-prominent and plainly unique exception of North Korea, the doctrinal adversary has changed, from "communism" to 'Islamism' or 'Jihadism.' This time, moreover, our adversary is indisputably real and formidable. It is not merely another imagined foe, one conveniently extrapolated from too-neatly fashioned figures of speech, or deduced from other similarly facile analogies.

Still, once again, it remains a war that can never be gainful, and can never be won. Not on a battlefield.


Like Hercules, facing down the mythic Hydra, as soon as we manage to chop off one enemy "head," many others will promptly grow in its place. When the Jihadist enemy is seemingly vanquished in one country or another, it will readily reappear in another. After Iraq and Afghanistan, we will be facing similar and resurgent adversaries in such indecipherable venues as Sudan; Mali; Yemen; Somalia; Syria; Egypt; and, even in U.S.-backed "Palestine."

Ironically, in the case of President Barack Obama's enthusiastic support for a 'Two-State Solution,' formalized Palestinian statehood will open up yet another major front in the still-metastasizing Jihad against secular Western democracies.

How, we Americans should finally inquire, do we routinely manage to descend from one war-policy forfeiture to the next, somehow learning absolutely nothing from our oft-bloodied past, and, somehow, proceeding headlong and headstrong to the next utterly predictable calamity? The most obvious answer seems to lie in the continuing intellectual inadequacies of our leaders.

In turn, assuming that we truly live in a genuine democracy, these critical shortcomings are the associated expression of a docile American electorate that determinedly knows nothing, and wants to know nothing, of historical truth.

For us, military and foreign policy judgments are typically a reassuring pretext for crudely chauvinistic eruptions. More often than we might care to admit, these judgments are the outcome of unwitting self-parody, rather than of any suitably analytic thought.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. "The more things change, the more they remain the same." And why not?

"When the throne sits on mud," observed the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, "mud sits on the throne." We herd-directed Americans stand distant not only from Plato's enviable ideal of a "philosopher-king," but also from the vastly more modest expectation of prepared elected leaders who may have actually learned how to think.

Before this condition can change, individual citizens will first have to learn to take themselves seriously as persons. Among other things, this will require rejection of our flagrantly demeaning amusement society, and a corresponding embrace of intellectual originality, industry, and authentic (not merely vocational) learning. In essence, this means that before we can finally rid ourselves of the deeply-institutionalized American penchant to initiate protracted and useless wars, we will first have to make ourselves capable of rendering substantially more sensible and well-reasoned foreign policy prescriptions.

For now, let us be candid, in a society that remains addicted to suffocating reality shows, complete with their openly vulgar dedications to Schadenfreude (taking joy in the suffering of others), the so-called life of the American mind continues to atrophy. In this now literally mind-numbing nation, true wisdom normally takes a willing back seat to shamelessly disjointed political platforms and to smugly empty witticisms.

Unsurprisingly, we Americans continue to accept, as inevitable corollary, a stunningly banal and perilous national politics. How, for example, do we plan to deal effectively with an almost-nuclear and potentially irrational leadership in North Korea? Are we prepared, intellectually, to figure out what to do next? The answer should be obvious.

Back in the 1950s, Harvard historian Perry Miller published a book titled The Life of the Mind in America. Then, thoughtful references to a vital literary tradition rooted primarily in Emerson, Thoreau, and the American Transcendentalists were instantly recognizable to the average citizen reader. Not today. Now, any work offered with a similar title would need to be a very short book indeed. More than likely, because virtually no Americans are even willing to challenge themselves beyond the flagrantly manufactured demands of moment-to-moment social networking, it would have to be marketed as a relentlessly biting satire, or even as a grotesque caricature of America's frenetic civilizational descent.

In Praise of Folly, written by the renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus in 1509, the narrator, dressed conspicuously in the garb of a court jester, claims that she is humankind's greatest benefactor. Nursed, says Folly, by Drunkenness and Ignorance, her closest followers naturally include Self-Love, Pleasure, Flattery, and Sound Sleep. Later, in Chapter 31, the long parade of blemished people upon whom she gleefully confers her special "benefits" moves dramatically from the young and hot-blooded, to the pitiful and grotesque.

Now, as all remaining human illusions are finally stripped away, mercilessly, Folly still offers unreservedly high praise to Ignorance and Lunacy. And ultimately, as the ironic and satiric banter turn to acid, Folly concisely sums up her contrived frivolity with an approving citation to words of Sophocles: "For ignorance," recalls Folly," always provides the happiest life."

Why do we Americans continue to engage in futile wars? In the final analysis, Erasmus would have had the best answer. So long as we insistently prefer Folly to Wisdom - because "ignorance always provides the happiest life" - there will never be a compassionate or prudent national military policy.



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Actually, there were (and are) a number of "reasons" you Americans engage in wars, notably fear of communism, fear of Islam, need for an endless supply of oil to power an endless supply of cars, and, as M. Beres points out so eloquently, just plain stupidity, ignorance and folly. We must not forget the aspirations of "manifest destiny," which was a stupid idea in its time and is an even stupider one now. Perhaps (and this is a stupid suggestion) Americans and other westerners should ditch the cell-phones and read a few good books instead, some of which would be written by people like Perry Miller or Alan Bloom, to name just two Americans who are not stupid.

by Louis René Beres:
Is There a Genocide Gene?
Slow Death of America
To Fix a Broken Planet
Our Fractured Union
Affirming Life in the Age of Atrocity
War, Truth and the Shadows of Meaning
Occupy Wall Street
What Is Important?
Social Network Anxiety
Disappearance of the Philosopher Kings


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