The effects on our politics has been profound. Without any concept of actual combat or crisis, a new crop of leaders — Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin — treats governing as a fight to the death, with no possibility of a negotiated peace. Without a transcendent social struggle calling us to seek justice as Americans, they substitute factional causes — Repeal Obamacare! Taxed Enough Already! — or manufactured crises over debt limits and government shutdowns. Though the problem is more pronounced on the right today, the generational drift is nonpartisan. President Obama has extraordinary talents but shows no ability to unify the nation in common purpose or to devote sustained energy to a cause greater than his own.
Certainly, there are young leaders serving in the capital who are as enlightened as those of any previous generation, just as there are volunteer warriors fighting for America as bravely as any conscript ever did. But as a whole, my generation, untested by trial, is squandering American greatness by turning routine give-and-take into warfare.
Tom Brokaw justifiably called the cohort that survived the Great Depression and fought the World War II the greatest generation. I’m afraid that my generation will someday be called the weakest.
Last night, at bedtime, I read two books of The Iliad. This is a passage from the first time the Achaeans and the Trojans met in battle:
Now Strife hurled down the leveler Hate amidst both sides,
wading into the onslaught, flooding men with pain.
At last the armies clashed at one strategic point,
they slammed their shield together, pike scraped pike
with the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze
and their round shields pounded, boss on welded boss,
and the sound of struggle roared and rocked the earth.
Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.
Wildly as two winter torrents raging down from the mountains,
swirling into a valley, hurl their great waters together,
flash floods from the wellsprings plunging down in a gorge
and miles away in the hills a shepherd hears the thunder –
so from the grinding armies broke the cries and crash of war.
Homer goes on to describe in grisly detail the fates of the warriors. What is so striking about this is how one soldier kills another, and barely has time to catch his breath before he too is struck down by a spear through the forehead, a blade in the gut. These Greeks, these Trojans, unified in common purpose.
A year ago this autumn I made a pilgrimage to the D-Day beaches in Normandy with my children. We prayed at the graves of American heroes. My French friend P., and his little boy, were with us, and they too paid their respects. On the drive to Normandy, P., a businessman, and I were talking about the troubled European Union. He told me that no matter what, it had to succeed, because Europe had twice nearly destroyed itself in war. All those French, Germans, Austrians, Italians, Belgians, English and others, unified in common purpose in 1914 and 1939.
There has been once in my life when I felt truly unified in common purpose with most Americans, confident that I was on the right side of a world-historical moral cause, intoxicated by righteousness and the bliss of solidarity: in 2002, in the march-up to the Iraq War. It was so clear to me what the great cause of our time was. And so I sat in a bar on the East side of Manhattan with a friend, and watched live on CNN as the first bombs fell over Baghdad, the satisfaction of justice in my heart more intoxicating than the whisky in my hand.
That went well.
Look, I understand what Milbank is getting at. It can be frustrating to me too. People quite naturally yearn to be part of something greater than themselves. I think this accounts for the vehemence with which many younger straight people have taken up the cause of gay marriage rights: the line between righteousness and unrighteousness is stark in their minds, and, having not been alive during the Civil Rights Movement, they want to manufacture their own exalting moment in history. This blinds them to the nuances of the struggle. Nobody can long be unified in common purpose without closing their eyes to inconvenient truths that complicate the narrative. People don’t want to hear it, any more than people like me back in 2002 wanted to hear from those who said wait a minute, we have no evidence that Iraq was behind 9/11, and besides, we can’t establish democracy in that country. Those people came between me and the sense of fulfillment I craved, which was due to me by being on the Right Side Of History.
Last year I was reading a history of Paris, and was horrified by what the Parisians suffered during the Prussian siege of the 1870-71. The people were so hungry they were reduced to eating dogs, cats, rats, and zoo animals. You would have thought the memories of all that would have been enough to put the French off war for a long time. But there they were, a generation later, with young men champing at the bit to be part of a greater cause, to prove themselves in war. Eventually, they got what they wanted, in 1914.
That went well.
Blessed is the generation who complains that its greatest trial is boredom.