At the heart of Scott Beauchamp’s forthcoming book—Did You Kill Anyone?—is an incisive question: why do soldiers miss war? Scott, who is now a regular contributor at TAC, served two tours in Iraq and in considering this question, he draws on his own experiences as well as his studies in critical theory and phenomenology.
Did You Kill is less about the military, and more about the spiritual and moral vapidity of contemporary culture. In an age of Netflix and nachos, why does life feel so empty? And what might it mean to find meaningfulness again through taboo subjects like order, hierarchy, and honor?
In our interview below, Scott and I explore some of these same themes, while touching on everything from trade policy to nationalism and the future of post-liberal politics.
AB: In the beginning of your book, you describe how the idea of enlisting in the military is unfathomable to liberal arts kids on the East Coast. Why do you think this demographic is so wary of joining the military? And what would your 20-second elevator pitch be for them as to why to consider enlisting?
SB: Well, I was speaking in generalities, although the stats do also seem to back me up on this: rich kids from the East Coast are the least likely demographic to serve their country. I think their wariness about joining up is in a lot of ways similar to the reasons why their parents probably didn’t serve in Vietnam. The military, with all of its hard control and emphasis on orders and honor and hierarchy isn’t what their Teva-wearing tribe is all about. At least that’s the story that they tell themselves. When I moved to Brooklyn I met so many people who were engaged in self-consciously creative pursuits purely and transparently for the social capital that came with it. If they’d grown up where I did in the Midwest and South they would have probably become welders or car salesmen. And they would have probably been happier. There’s this common trope about the sensitive kid stuck in the sticks who finds liberation in the big city, but I think an equally strong case could be made for the New York-born photographer who should probably be selling mortgages in Topeka. I guess that’s my pitch, also. Don’t go to therapy. Go to the recruiter.
AB: Within conservatism, there is a renewed conversation about nationalism and the need for patriotism: what are your thoughts on this conversation, and do you think the resurgent nationalism is healthy?
SB: I think it’s a necessary conversation. And nationalism is healthy insofar as it’s honest. Liah Greenfield has a wonderful essay in the Summer issue of American Affairs which basically makes the argument that Weber should have replaced Calvinism with nationalism in his famous dissection of the early capitalist spirit, and that a renewed nationalism in truth reflects our diminishing economic power. Using historical examples, she argues that England made the “free trade is great for everyone!” argument only as soon as it served their purposes. And then the same thing happened with America. And now you have China arguing for an economic status quo which no longer serves the majority of Americans. In this sense, nationalism is about being honest with ourselves about our shrinking middle class.
I know the Left enjoys projecting a lot of weird psychological baggage onto the word “nationalism” itself, but what are the alternatives that they’re proposing? I have a kind of romantic streak and an affinity for anarcho-communalism and subsidiarity, but those things require some mediating force in order to preserve sovereignty of the smaller units. That’s what the nation does and what other trans-national entities like the EU can’t. Borders don’t just keep others out. Ideally, they also keep us in. It just seems like so often the alternative to nationalism is a kind of soft colonialism.
AB: One reason why you enlisted was to escape the “nihilistic music” of consumer capitalism and to “confront the Real.” Is there room within contemporary conservatism to question capitalism, and what does it look like to do that without surrendering your conservative card?
SB: I think this is THE MOMENT for conservatives to question what John Paul II called “economism”, or the fetishization of unrestrained capitalism. I think the urge to do so is particularly strong in younger conservatives. Why? Well, we’ve seen the failures of neoliberalism both culturally and politically. Our entire lives have been defined by these failures: the decimation of the middle class, opioid and pornography addiction, etc. The market, unloosed to become the single most significant force in society, isn’t morally neutral. And it certainly doesn’t serve the common good.
AB: My peers and I have grown up in the shadow of the War on Terror and often feel disillusioned with a lot of the prevailing orthodoxies regarding hawkish foreign policy. Do you think President Trump offers a new orthodoxy? Are there other voices you would point to?
SB: Adherence to orthodoxy requires the kind of moral and intellectual commitments that I don’t think the President is temperamentally capable of making. That said, he doesn’t seem to have entirely bought into the logic of The Blob and even uses common sense occasionally, which is more than you can say of a lot of other politicians. I’d love to see a new orthodoxy of restraint develop and I think a lot of the voices which might contribute to its growth can be found right here in The American Conservative.
AB: In your chapter on honor, you write that “contemporary moral nuance is about accumulation: of facts, data, plot points” whereas “the dynamics of honor move across the spectrum of narrative and are so grounded in the fundament of action.” How does a culture like ours that is so infatuated with technocracy and supposedly value-neutral assessments regain a sense of honor?
SB: I wonder if we ever will. Any chance we might have at it would have to begin with detaching ourselves from the algorithms which are increasingly coming to run our lives. Honor is complicated. It resembles a market, of course. But it also can act as a sort of canvass which allows narrative development. What I mean by that is that it’s an existential commitment, which is the only thing strong enough to forge an identity. Facebook and Instagram can’t do that. It’s identity LARPing. They give you a seemingly infinite refraction of virtual solipsism where experiences become commodities and commodities are sold as experiences. Even your latest Twitter outburst is just content you’ve created for them. Ezra Pound wrote that “The temple is holy because it is not for sale.” I don’t think honor is for sale either. That’s why it’s so rare to find it online, when your very experience of being online is commodified.
AB: You describe being at parties on the rooftops of Brooklyn after your enlistment: “Sometimes I would stand at a corner of the roof and imagine I was back on guard tower, scanning my sectors of fire. In the desert I had found purpose behind the boredom. In the city I found a frenetic emptiness.” In various religious traditions, the desert often has deep spiritual meaning. Did you find the desert to be soul-forming? Any encounters with the Divine?
SB: Yes. I saw a cloud during my second deployment. It was just a tiny thing, wispy and frail. It must have been late summer, because when I saw it, I realized that I hadn’t actually seen a cloud in a while. Its presence had heft that was more than physical. The only other time I’ve felt something like that was when I saw my daughter for the first time – a divine excess which produces unspeakable joy.
AB: In a particularly haunting section of the book, you write that “time itself has become nonhuman, measured by isotopic decay, bytes and market fluctuations. And so we cry when we hear bagpipes and church bells. We rightfully feel robbed and bereft.” I was reminded reading this of Francis Fukuyama’s essay on liberalism as the end of history. He ends that essay by speculating that “perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.” Do you think that the “liberalism is the end of history” thesis is valid? And if not, what comes next?
SB: In a lot of surprising ways, my book is about what comes next. Fukuyama’s “centuries of boredom” reminds me of Mill’s “flat utopias.” Imagine that all of your immediate carnal desires were satisfied. Would you be content? What would be missing? What my book explores how things that tend to have negative associations in contemporary life (honor, hierarchy, boredom) actually fulfill us in ways that the atomistic consumerism of our “liquid modernity” simply can’t. So what comes next is what has always come next: learning to accept our need for meaning, order, and community.
AB: Thank You.
Anthony Barr is a recent Political Studies Fellow with the Hertog Foundation in DC. This fall, he will be teaching at a classical school in Philadelphia and doing research for the Philadelphia Commons Institute.
Scott Beauchamp is a TAC contributor. His work has also appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. He lives in Maine.