May 3, 2005


America's mortal secret (James Carroll, May 3, 2005, Boston Globe)

THE HOLIEST acreage in America was consecrated in an act of revenge. Beating a retreat back to Washington from their defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, Union soldiers crossed into the property of ''Arlington House," Robert E. Lee's home on the Potomac River. They buried the remains of their dead comrades in Mrs. Lee's rose garden. From then on, the Confederate leader's estate was used as a Union graveyard -- a vindictive payback. The place is now known as Arlington National Cemetery.

The blind impulse to respond to hurt by striking back is part of human make-up, yet the urge, opening into the forbidden irrational, is a deep source of shame, too. Humans clothe the act of vengeance in all sorts of other justifications. When we go to war, or then behave savagely in combat, we hardly ever explain the act by saying we simply must settle the score. But once, we did. When Harry S. Truman announced the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in an Aug. 9 radio address, he offered three justifications: the second was to shorten the war, and the third was to save American lives. But the first thing he said was that the atom bomb was used ''against those who have starved and beaten American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare."

Hiroshima was yet more punishment for the brutalities of die-hard island combat across the Pacific, and for Pearl Harbor. Never mind that the 900,000 killed by American bombing of nearly all Japanese cities, from the Tokyo raid in March to the Nagasaki bombing in August, were almost all civilians. In the American memory, they were justifiably killed to shorten the war, to save American lives, not for the unworthy motive of revenge.

Sept. 11, 2001, left the United States in the grip of an unarticulated need for payback. No one takes a blow like that without wanting to strike out. Stated justifications aside, that need fueled the subsequent American attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq, which is why it meant so little when those justifications (bin Laden dead-or-alive, WMD, etc.) evaporated. And why it meant so little when the brutalities of American methods were made plain, from torture to hair-trigger checkpoints to ruined cities.

Mr. Carroll is quite right that in the wake of 9-11 it would have been just fine with the American people had we turned the entire Arab world into a sea of green glass. Fortunate for humanitarians then that we didn't have an FDR or Truman in power.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 3, 2005 8:40 AM

Anybody else notice Time let Carroll write the final-page essay in their John Paul II issue a few weeks ago? Carroll, as I recall, said this: JPII consistently opposed the kind of religious fanaticism and hatred of the "other" that we once saw during the Crusades and now see in Bush's war on terror, thus ensuring that I never again pay $3.95 for an issue of this predictably brain-dead and uncreative magazine and Henry Luce, why have you left us?

Or it went something like that. Admittedly, after I hit the fourth leftist trope in that sentence my mind started wandering.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at May 3, 2005 9:20 AM

In a world with the Internet and with opinion magazines of all stripes, who would buy Time, Newsweek or US News any more?

Posted by: bart at May 3, 2005 9:28 AM

If we were acting like he thinks we are acting, the dead would not be numbered in thousands but millions. Putz.

If the Sunnis start a civil war in Iraq, they will regret it. Not by our hand though.

By the way, the "studies had shown such bombing to be strategically futile" did not occur until WW2 was over, so his terrorism conclusion is retroactive at best.

Posted by: Bob at May 3, 2005 9:32 AM

" would have been just fine with the American people had we turned the entire Arab world into a sea of green glass."

Fine at least for those of us in touch with our inner President Jackson. Those "humanitarians" who constantly piss and moan about US unilateralism, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, etc. don't realize that our current course of action is the softer Plan B.

Posted by: Rick T. at May 3, 2005 9:36 AM


Not me! In that above story, I was reading my mom's copy!

I've often wondered why more people don't read opinion magazines rather than Slime or Newsweak. Journals of opinion are much more fun, the reporting of issues is more in-depth, I don't have to navigate through bias maquerading as "objectivity," and the conservative journals especially have some very funny, smartass writers.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at May 3, 2005 9:42 AM

James's Adventures in Wonderland.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at May 3, 2005 10:40 AM

Carroll's up there in Frank Rich territory for pure loathesomeness.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 3, 2005 10:46 AM

I'm just so sorry that James Carroll wasn't in NYC on 9/11, even better if he were in one of the two towers. I think it would have given him a better prospective, for a couple of hours.

Posted by: Neo at May 3, 2005 11:45 AM

"prospective" or "perspective"? Either works, in their own way.

Last night I came across an analysis on this subject for you rationalists out there: The Three Conjectures. As pointed out earlier, we are going with "Plan B", the harder one.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 3, 2005 1:01 PM


Big fan of Belmont Club. Don't tell OJ, but I stop there before here.

Posted by: Rick T. at May 3, 2005 1:10 PM

Carroll forgets that in the wake of 9/11, supporters of bin Laden and the man himself were expecting one of two reactions -- either a wimpy cruise missile into a camel's butt retaliatory strike, or a mindless lashing out at all things Islamic that would turn the Arab Street and Muslims in other parts of the world completely against the United States. It was the strategic attack nature of the U.S. retaliation that left the terrorists scrambling to figure out what to do next.

On the other hand, maybe Carroll does remember all this, but knows that information will screw up his "vengeful Bush" story line.

Posted by: John at May 3, 2005 2:39 PM

Carroll is correct that the creation of Arlington National Cemetery was motivated by revenge, but his facts are all wrong. The Quartermaster General (Montgomery Meigs) established it in mid-1864, three years after First Manassas. The initial burials were not performed by retreating soldiers. Meigs hated Robert E. Lee, not least because Meigs' son was killed in the Civil War, and quite deliberately supervised the first burials in Lee's rose garden. For what its worth, Meigs built the Pension Building in Washington, one of the most beautiful buildings in D.C. (the interior columns are breathtaking).

Posted by: Fred Jacobsen (San Fran) at May 3, 2005 5:12 PM