Editorial Note: This is the fifth in a series of posts on resilience as a proposed focus for a homeland security strategy. This strategizing is organized around the approach taken by George Kennan in a seminal 1946 document. Links to prior posts are provided below.
Kennan’s key to defending the United States is to recognize and, when appropriate, exploit Soviet neuroses. To defend the United States and advance our interests in the 21st Century we must attend effectively to our own neuroses.
President Bush famously asked of the 9/11 terrorists, “Why do the they hate us?” He answered the question, “They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.” The terrorists hate us for our virtues.
While the values argument put forth by the President should not be dismissed, Osama bin-Laden offers a considerably different rationale.
It should not be hidden from you that the people of Islam had suffered from aggression, iniquity and injustice imposed on them by the Zionist-Crusaders alliance and their collaborators; to the extent that the Muslims’ blood became cheap and their wealth became as loot in the hands of the enemies. Their blood was spilled in Palestine and Iraq. The horrifying pictures of the massacre of Qana, in Lebanon, are still fresh in our memory. Massacres in Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, Fatani, Ogadin, Somalia, Eritria, Chechnya and in Bosnia and Herzegovina took place,massacres that send shivers through the body and shake the conscience. All of this the world watched and heard, yet not only didn’t respond to these atrocities, but also, with a clear conspiracy between the USA and its allies and under the cover of the iniquitous United Nations, the dispossessed people were even prevented from obtaining arms to defend themselves. (Declaration of War Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places, August 23, 1996)
These massacres are unfamiliar to most Americans. US culpability for these horrific events will strike most as absurd. Yet bin-Laden is not alone in finding Americans complicit in the unjust suffering of Muslim millions. According to recent surveys, most Pakistanis readily agree.
Even in seeking to do good, we can cause suffering. In his assessement of our situation in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal explains,
Preoccupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us — physically and psychologically — from the people we seek to protect. In addition, we run the risk of strategic defeat by pursuing tactical wins that cause civilian casualties or unnecessary collateral damage. The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves.
A United Nations report found that in the first six months of 2009, three hundred Afghan civilian casualties — roughly 30 percent of the total — were caused by coalition forces. During the same period the US/NATO coalition suffered nearly the same number of fatalities. In his September interview with 60 Minutes, Gen. McChrystal said, “Since I’ve been here the last two and a half months, this civilian casualty issue is much more important than I even realized. It is literally how we lose the war or in many ways how we win it.”
In his October 7, 2001 announcement of the invasion of Afghanistan, President Bush anticipated the potential conflict between purpose and practice.
The oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies. As we strike military targets, we will also drop food, medicine and supplies to the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan.
The United States of America is a friend to the Afghan people. And we are the friends of almost a billion worldwide who practice the Islamic faith. The United States of America is an enemy of those who aid terrorists and of the barbaric criminals who profane a great religion by committing murder in its name…
We’re a peaceful nation. Yet, as we have learned, so suddenly and so tragically, there can be no peace in a world of sudden terror. In the face of today’s new threat, the only way to pursue peace is to pursue those who threaten it.
We did not ask for this mission, but we will fulfill it. The name of today’s military operation is Enduring Freedom. We defend not only our precious freedoms, but also the freedom of people everywhere to live and raise their children free from fear.
In pursuing peace we have killed the innocent. In defending freedom we have imprisoned — and worse — those who have done us no harm. We have betrayed what we love in an effort to protect what we love.
It would be a serious error to see this as merely hypocritical or cynical. During the eight years of our current war there have, no doubt, been instances of hypocrisy and cynicism. But it is crucial to recognize these seeming contradictions are the inevitably tragic consequence of exercising power. Purity of purpose is hard enough. Purity of practice is beyond our capacity.
“The tragic element in the human situation is constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. If men or nations do evil in a good cause, they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice.” (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History)
The powerful cannot avoid tragedy. It is innate to the nature of power. It has been part the American experience from our founding. As our power has multiplied, so has our tragic potential. But the American psyche struggles to deny this reality. We point to innocent intention. We seek individual scapegoats — Lynndie England or Dick Cheney — for our collective guilt. We propagate neuroses to obscure our role in tragedy.
Our effort to escape tragedy is more threatening to our integrity of purpose — and essential innocence — than any tragic choice we undertake. In refusing to embrace the tragic, we invite the ironic… a much more insidious condition.
“If virtue becomes vice through some hidden fault of virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits — in all such cases the situation is ironic… It is differentiated from tragedy because by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution.” (Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History)
The United States can no longer afford to deny the paradox inherent to power. We can no longer indulge our neuroses in seeking to avoid the tragic.
In Lear the plot is set when the old King is unwilling to accept Cordelia’s honest, if paradoxical, expression of love. Based on Niebuhr’s definition — and your curtain-closing take on Lear’s sense of self — Shakespeare may not have written a tragedy, but a grand irony. From Lear’s vanity and denial unfolds catastrophe. (Ponder sea coast construction in hurricane country, urban wildfire, flood plain development, and much more.)
There is plenty of death and disaster in Oedipus the King, but Sophocles’ masterpiece conforms closer to Niebuhr’s definition of tragedy, and to my own hope for the United States. By most measures Oedipus lives a happy and productive life. The trouble he causes is as unintentional as it is inevitable. And in contrast to Lear, the trouble caused by Oedipus emerges from nobility, not vanity. At the close of Oedipus at Colonus the Theban king might even be said to transcend the tragic.
But only after fully embracing his tragic condition.
On Friday we will move on to the third of Kennan’s five parts: Its projection in practical policy on official level. If you have persisted this far, I appreciate your patience. I do not apologize for the analysis, but I realize this is not an approach typical to our times. I hope you will see its practical benefit in the next few posts.
Previous posts in this series:
The Long Blog: A strategy of resilience (October 19)