ERROR, METAPHOR AND THE AMERICAN ROAD
LOUIS RENÉ BERES
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).
too long, sheer folly has played a determinative role in shaping
US military policy. Before Washington commits to any new war
or ‘limited action’ in the Middle East, it would
be prudent to look back at some of our previous misjudgments.
Even if it should appear that a “tailored” and “narrow”
American intervention in Syria could be both life-saving and
law-enforcing, we should raise one unavoidably vital question:
why, again and again, do we manage to get ourselves drawn into
plainly losing military ventures?
a democratic society, it should be easy for us to recognize
various pertinent connections between governmental error and
public opinion, that national leadership failures must ultimately
be a composite reflection of popular misunderstandings.
have we been doing wrong? Have we simply been inclined to choose
poor leadership? As a free people, are we incapable of selecting
the best available candidates for high public office? Is this
damaging incapacity an inevitable consequence of certain far-reaching
personal deficits, crippling liabilities that are both intellectual
and educational? Thomas Jefferson would have replied to these
intersecting questions, unhesitatingly.
John Adams, who had decided to divide classes in America according
to “gentlemen” and “simple men,” Jefferson
chose instead to identify a less orthodox measure of social
differentiation. Remarked Jefferson, in what amounted to an
oddly revolutionary dialect (his enemies had often dubbed him
a “Jacobin”), the distinguishing criterion of class
in the new nation should hinge entirely upon the degree of confidence
in popular self-government.
for Thomas Jefferson, then seriously fashioning the developing
American democracy, there were abundantly firm constraints on
who should and should not be allowed to participate. But, the
principal author of the Declaration did openly favor those who
would unambiguously identify with “the people,”
over those, like Adams, who had determined to fear them. While
Adams had been concerned with stemming off violent actions by
the “mob,” Jefferson’s thoroughly different
preoccupation was to prevent any oppression by a “democratic”
does this earlier preoccupation relate to American military
ventures? Although Jefferson had expressed a clear democratic
faith in “the people,” he had also made such faith
contingent upon a prior and proper public education. Believing
unreservedly in a diffusion of knowledge “among the masses,”
he announced in his first inaugural address that an enlightened
American public was a sine qua non for successful governance.
Not surprisingly, he remarked, if forced to choose between government
without newspapers, and newspapers without a government, he
would cheerfully opt for the latter.
why did we have to wait so many painful years for McNamara‘s
mea culpa, for his nefariously-calculated delay that
eventually cost tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese
lives? If Thomas Jefferson were still available to answer this
question, his response would likely be both predictable and
helpful. Taking a page from Alexis de Tocqueville, prominent
French critic of American life in the early 19th century, and
author of Democracy in America (1835 & 1840), Jefferson
would have punctured the oddly Edenic myth of a young America
that could flourish without any evident regard for intellectual
life and work.
like Tocqueville, would have observed that the new country’s
war policies could never be on proper course, unless the people’s
core ethos were driven by something other than bourgeois accumulation
and relentless imitation. An early spokesman for what we now
call “American exceptionalism,” Jefferson cleared
a clarifying path to the even more critical and nuanced democratic
sentiments of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The iconic American Transcendentalist
too had favored an enlightened American commonality of vision,
but significantly, one that would be more conspicuously devoted
to individual self-affirmation and “inwardness.”
Emerson, like Tocqueville, understood that an uneducated and
uncultivated democracy would quickly usher in devastatingly
new forms of “majority tyranny.”
quo ante bellum? Today, even a conceptually purposeful
war could remain a conflict that can never be won. Never. Not
militarily. Not on the usual battlefields.
in sum, do we Americans manage to descend, again and again,
from one significant war policy forfeiture, to the next? The
most obvious answer seems to lie in the continuing intellectual
and political inadequacies of our leaders. In turn, recalling
Jefferson’s earlier wisdom about democracy and education,
we must look far more closely at an underlying American society
that has willfully substituted short-term indulgences and distractions
for long-term understanding.
“we the people” have entered into a protracted bargain
of sequential surrenders, now accepting myriad bribes and amusements
in exchange for abandoning intellectual obligations and citizenship
candor, our third president was right-on-the-mark. Himself an
avid reader, one who was well-acquainted with leading philosophical
and jurisprudential ideas of the late-eighteenth century, Thomas
Jefferson had already understood that enduring wisdom in democratic
governance must ultimately depend upon antecedent wisdom among
“the people.” For certain, he never intended the
sort of rampant and vulgar vocationalism that currently dominates
our formal education. Instead, Jefferson had imagined a thoroughly
enriching curriculum, a profoundly humanistic plan of study
that would strongly favor a steadily expanding attention to
history, literature, and the arts.
promising Jeffersonian curriculum was to be embedded in a substantially
improved larger society, one that valued dignified learning
over insubstantial entertainments. For us, today, embracing
any such Jeffersonian plan will not be easy, but in the long
term, there is really no other way to avoid stumbling into yet
another futile American war, in Syria, or anywhere else. In
the immediate or very short-term, meticulous American applications
of “surgical” force against the tyranny in Damascus
could turn out to be necessary, reasonable, and even law-enforcing
— especially if still expressible as part of a much wider
international coalition of states — but only if these
applications are undertaken for defensibly compelling reasons,
and for verifiably crucial objectives.
part, at least, Thomas Jefferson’s life and writings still
offer us an apotheosis of American democratic possibility, a
usable template for national decision-making based upon abiding
respect for true learning, and a rejection of intellectual imposture.
Armed with such a template, we might, finally, advance beyond
the tragically recurrent folly of futile American wars.