It seems like only yesterday the braggart billionaire denounced former president George W. Bush for lying about the presence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq in order to goad us into invasion. “Obviously the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake,” Trump said, to whoops and hollers during a primary debate in South Carolina.
Well, that was fun while it lasted. Somewhere between taking potshots against saber-rattling on Twitter, Trump turned his back on his non-interventionist self and sent nearly 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles crashing into Shayrat Airfield in Homs, Syria.
The casus belli? Paying back Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for using sarin gas on his own people, killing scores of civilians, including children. The pictures of young ones choked to death on poisonous fumes understandably rattled the president. Before approving the airstrike, Trump told reporters, “that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me — big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing.”
The damage inflicted to the Syrian airbase was minimal, but that didn’t stop a deluge of plaudits from Washington’s eminences. The capital city’s establishment—editors, politicians, news anchors, mega-donors, think tank operators, intellectuals, corporate heads—all congratulated Trump for stepping firmly into his role as commander-in-chief and acting decisively.
The Senate’s twin warmongers, senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, released a joint statement heralding the attack. A handful of Democrats celebrated Trump’s strike, including some of his biggest critics. The press, which has been relentless in its unfavorable coverage of the president, had a collective orgasm over the destruction.
“For the first time really as president, he talked about international norms, international rules, about America’s role in enforcing justice in the world,” exclaimed CNN host and noted plagiarist Fareed Zakaria. “This seemed like a very different Donald Trump. More serious–and clearly moved emotionally. Frequently invoked the Almighty.” tweeted commentator Matt Lewis. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a prominent Trump critic, defended the president, penning a post titled “Trump Was Right to Strike Syria.”
By far the strangest praise President Trump received was from former-NBC heavyweight, now MSNBC wrap-up anchor Brian Williams. Despite being a vehement Trump detractor, Williams was awed by the missile launch. “We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two UN Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean,” he said on his show “The 11th Hour.”
Then came the wonderstruck: “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them what is a brief flight over to this airfield.”
Williams finding transcendent beauty in Pentagon-released videos showing cruise missiles flying effortlessly through the air like elegantly guided kites, emitting trails of soft clouds, all against the backdrop of a night sky punctuated by flashing images of the American flag, was too much for his fellow liberals. Even some conservatives were unnerved.
The Williams remark, despite its macabre underpinning, was revealing. Our political elites derive great meaning from war. Trump’s domestic agenda has been pure buffoonery to kingmakers along the Potomac. But launching missiles at an airbase of a country that poses no risk to U.S. citizens? Well, now, that’s a serious endeavor, undertaken by only the most consequential of individuals.
Why is this? Why do media chatter mouths and political sycophants sublimate war to a status of near-holy importance? Hemingway said there is “nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying” in modern warfare. Men “die like a dog for no good reason.” So what good is there in waxing eloquently on the honor and sacrifice demanded by war?
It’s too easy to chalk it up to pecuniary concerns; though it is the case that many American conflicts have been fomented by financial interests.
But reading the perennial “Return to National Greatness” column by quintessential meaning-seeker David Brooks, you get a sense that the cheerleaders of American military might seek something bigger than just kicking up sand in Mesopotamia. They want vindication for Pax Americana–a sense that their nation’s existence matters in world events and that they themselves play a small part in that preeminence.
It reminds me of Hannah Jelkes’s rumination in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana. When comforting the manic Rev. Shannon back to sanity and faith, Jelkes pinpoints the provenance of his problem: “The oldest one in the world–the need to believe in something or in someone—almost anyone—almost anything…something.”
The pundits who gaze admiringly at flaring rockets scorching black sky, who bask in the aura of prestige emanating from a man acting alone to destroy, who flatter those with resolve to respond without second-guessing in less-than-clear circumstances, they all yearn for deliverance from modernity’s restless monotony.
In an interview with Vox.com last year, author Sebastian Junger outlined why returning veterans are recalcitrant to adapting back to American society. When soldiers travel overseas, they tend to revert back to our ancient lifestyle of close-knit living and communal priorities. When they return, they have to assimilate back into to a “fragmented, alienated society.” Junger explains: “I wasn’t a soldier, I’m not a veteran, but the impression I get from talking to them is that their sense of purpose and their sense of devotion to a common good is foremost in their minds in combat.”
That sense of purpose is similarly felt by those enraptured by the pound of war drums. Thanks to mass media, you don’t have to pick up a gun and blast a few jihadists to experience the ennobling glories of battle. You can pontificate about it on TV, read about it in a book, and watch as your tax dollars fund a fusillade that levels a town.
Without an identity rooted in shared ethnicity, religion, or history, the next best thing that brings people together is a fight to the death. With no God to worship, men invariably worship the feeling of their own supremacy, reflected in their capacity for engineered extermination. This, I think, is at the heart of the bloodlust exhibited by the Washington class.
They have nothing to believe in but their own slaughter.