Seeking the Good War: Obama’s Afghan Adventure
by Bernie Quigley
- for The Hill on 1/1/09
Christmas reading brought some thinking about quantum leaps or quantum failings on the way to war. Small wars make for bigger wars once people get acclimated and frequently, even in necessary and important wars, procedures and processes fall in line so predictably that they might be considered natural: A natural history of the dead, as Hemingway said.
Wars and great movements frequently start with one fully deranged or delusional individual born again to singular purpose in the world. He then awakens this purpose in a popular poet as well – it is like a Ponzi scheme of the dead – the poet then awakens a bunch of preachers or teachers and politicians, who awaken the sleeping horde as if to a fever.
In an essay on the anti-slavery zealot John Brown in his classic text, The Burden of Southern History, C. Vann Woodward writes of how the New England pacifist Henry David Thoreau, who even had the temerity to challenge Krishna’s advise to Arjuna on the field of battle in The Bhagavad-Gita and whose work inspired Gandhi and Tolstoy and whose treatise Civil Disobedience, written during the Mexican War, might be considered a primary text for the non-violent movement and the Civil Rights movement in America, fell overnight head over heels for John Brown – he of the bloody Kansas massacre – after the misbegotten Harper’s Ferry attack.
Brown, with 24 followers, attacked the garrison at Harpers Ferry it hopes of starting a slave uprising. “In fact, it was so absurd,” said Abraham Lincoln, that the slaves saw plainly enough that it could not succeed. None among the slaves joined him. But all New England’s poets did. The attack could well be considered the trigger event for the Civil War.
As Van Woodward reports, Brown’s maternal grandmother and his mother both died insane. His three aunts and two uncles, sisters and brothers of his mother, were intermittently insane, and so was his only sister, her daughter, and one of his brothers, too name only a few documented in the Brown Papers in the Library of Congress. Brown had murdered five men – none a slaveholder and two of them Germans - and left their bodies horribly mutilated in the Pottawatomie massacre of May 24, 1856.
Yet when Thoreau began preaching Brown up as a “SAINT” after the Harpers Ferry invasion, three quarters of the preachers in Massachusetts followed his cue. In no time, Transcendentalist New England was suddenly ready to fight. Soon the dead would follow; twenty thousand in an afternoon at Antietam and more in just a few days at Petersburg, human slaughter like the world had never seen before, but would soon see again and again and again over the next 100 years.
Van Woodward points out that of the high elite in the mid-1800s almost all championed Brown except Nathanial Hawthorne, who had always sensed the spirit of the witch in these here mountains, Walt Whitman, and of course, the first among the age’s true Brahmins, Lincoln.
Nicholas Baker’s important and perceptive Human Smoke on the build up to World War II, makes a related point.
There was a widespread and responsible pacifist movement early in the approach to World War II which came to an abrupt end when Germany invaded the U.S.S.R. and Stalin fought back. Several of the groups most fiercely opposed to war reversed their stand and became militant, writes Baker. Those who would not fight for DeGaulle or Churchill would readily fight for Stalin.
Which is to say that you can never tell when the sea will change. Those who hated Bush in battle at Basra might feel fully empowered shedding the same blood and fighting the same war for Obama. Or one near by in Afgnhanistan equally ill-conceived.
Men like war and don’t like to be left out of it.