March 10, 2012


The new old lie: On war art and the meaning of war (Thomas Bruscino, March 2012, New Criterion)

All of this points to why critics should think again about the implications of their insistence that war is meaningless, especially in the American context. In their effort to direct the culture toward new ideals by dismissing the old ones, they have focused inward and lost sight of an important truth. War requires at least two sides. If war is just meaningless, then the motivations and causes of each side do not matter--they are equally invalid or valid. That conclusion should make even the most dedicated cynic recoil, because in those terms, when the wrong side wins, war, combat, and its aftermath become fraught with meaning. In that sense, at least, the critics should realize that there is coherence, meaning, in the chaos of war.

War, after all, is about competing purposes, competing causes, competing ideals--produced by polities, defined by policymakers, put into action by military professionals, and fought for by average soldiers. War itself does not care about the relative merits of those ideals, but the outcome of war, and therefore the outcome of combat, determines which ideal wins. The outcome of war determines which cause gets to survive, thrive, and guide the lives of people in peace, and just as importantly, which cause does not get to shape the peace. Most vitally, war decides which ideal gets to be fought for again. War is regrettably a part of the human condition, and it is many awful things, but it is never meaningless.

This leaves the critics with a great responsibility. At the onset of World War II, with fascism on the march, American leaders in and out of the military noted that they could not get the younger generation to grasp the greater purpose of the war. The critics noticed this too. Some of them, like poet Archibald MacLeish, realized that the critical cynicism about World War I had taught a generation to be outright dismissive of all political causes. As the professor and literary critic Howard Mumford Jones put it, "We debunked too much."

What MacLeish and Jones understood was that no matter what the weaknesses they saw in existing American ideals, those ideals were better than the alternative. That is as true today as ever, and that is what scares the critics. If they accept that truth, then they will have to explore what has made the existing ideals consistently better than the alternative ones. In the process, they will discover that the foundational American ideals are not just relatively good, but that they are inherently good. As such, they can be refined and improved, but they must be preserved, not replaced.

Since the critics hold on to their utopian progressivism with a religious fervor, such an assessment would cause a crisis in faith, so it is exceedingly unlikely for them to undertake it.

...does it not then matter that one of them is a beautiful lie?  If we're going to live by a lie no matter what we do, why not choose the best of them?

Posted by at March 10, 2012 10:48 AM

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