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Error, metaphor, and the American road to war

By Louis René Beres


For too long, sheer folly has played a determinative role in shaping US military policy. Before Washington commits to any new war or “limited action” in the Middle East, it would be prudent to look back at some of our previous misjudgments. Even if it should appear that a “tailored” and “narrow” American intervention in Syria could be both life-saving and law-enforcing, we should raise one unavoidably vital question: why, again and again, do we manage to get ourselves drawn into plainly losing military ventures?

As a democratic society, it should be easy for us to recognize various pertinent connections between governmental error and public opinion, that national leadership failures must ultimately be a composite reflection of popular misunderstandings.

319px-Thomas_Jefferson_by_John_Trumbull_1788What have we been doing wrong? Have we simply been inclined to choose poor leadership? As a free people, are we incapable of selecting the best available candidates for high public office? Is this damaging incapacity an inevitable consequence of certain far-reaching personal deficits, crippling liabilities that are both intellectual and educational? Thomas Jefferson would have replied to these intersecting questions, unhesitatingly.

Against John Adams, who had decided to divide classes in America according to “gentlemen” and “simple men,” Jefferson chose instead to identify a less orthodox measure of social differentiation. Remarked Jefferson, in what amounted to an oddly revolutionary dialect (his enemies had often dubbed him a “Jacobin”), the distinguishing criterion of class in the new nation should hinge entirely upon the degree of confidence in popular self-government.

Even for Thomas Jefferson, then seriously fashioning the developing American democracy, there were abundantly firm constraints on who should and should not be allowed to participate. But, the principal author of the Declaration did openly favor those who would unambiguously identify with “the people,” over those, like Adams, who had determined to fear them. While Adams had been concerned with stemming off violent actions by the “mob,” Jefferson’s thoroughly different preoccupation was to prevent any oppression by a “democratic” government.

How does this earlier preoccupation relate to American military ventures? Although Jefferson had expressed a clear democratic faith in “the people,” he had also made such faith contingent upon a prior and proper public education. Believing unreservedly in a diffusion of knowledge “among the masses,” he announced in his first inaugural address that an enlightened American public was a sine qua non for successful governance. Not surprisingly, he remarked, if forced to choose between government without newspapers, and newspapers without a government, he would cheerfully opt for the latter.

So why did we have to wait so many painful years for McNamara‘s mea culpa, for his nefariously-calculated delay that eventually cost tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives? If Thomas Jefferson were still available to answer this question, his response would likely be both predictable and helpful. Taking a page from Alexis de Tocqueville, prominent French critic of American life in the early 19th century, and author of Democracy in America (1835 & 1840), Jefferson would have punctured the oddly Edenic myth of a young America that could flourish without any evident regard for intellectual life and work.

Jefferson, like Tocqueville, would have observed that the new country’s war policies could never be on proper course, unless the people’s core ethos were driven by something other than bourgeois accumulation and relentless imitation. An early spokesman for what we now call “American exceptionalism,” Jefferson cleared a clarifying path to the even more critical and nuanced democratic sentiments of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The iconic American Transcendentalist too had favored an enlightened American commonality of vision, but significantly, one that would be more conspicuously devoted to individual self-affirmation and “inwardness.” Emerson, like Tocqueville, understood that an uneducated and uncultivated democracy would quickly usher in devastatingly new forms of “majority tyranny.”

Status quo ante bellum? Today, even a conceptually purposeful war could remain a conflict that can never be won. Never. Not militarily. Not on the usual battlefields.

How, in sum, do we Americans manage to descend, again and again, from one significant war policy forfeiture, to the next? The most obvious answer seems to lie in the continuing intellectual and political inadequacies of our leaders. In turn, recalling Jefferson’s earlier wisdom about democracy and education, we must look far more closely at an underlying American society that has willfully substituted short-term indulgences and distractions for long-term understanding.

Somehow, “we the people” have entered into a protracted bargain of sequential surrenders, now accepting myriad bribes and amusements in exchange for abandoning intellectual obligations and citizenship responsibilities.

In candor, our third president was right-on-the-mark. Himself an avid reader, one who was well-acquainted with leading philosophical and jurisprudential ideas of the late-eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson had already understood that enduring wisdom in democratic governance must ultimately depend upon antecedent wisdom among “the people.” For certain, he never intended the sort of rampant and vulgar vocationalism that currently dominates our formal education. Instead, Jefferson had imagined a thoroughly enriching curriculum, a profoundly humanistic plan of study that would strongly favor a steadily expanding attention to history, literature, and the arts.

This promising Jeffersonian curriculum was to be embedded in a substantially improved larger society, one that valued dignified learning over insubstantial entertainments. For us, today, embracing any such Jeffersonian plan will not be easy, but in the long term, there is really no other way to avoid stumbling into yet another futile American war, in Syria, or anywhere else. In the immediate or very short-term, meticulous American applications of “surgical” force against the tyranny in Damascus could turn out to be necessary, reasonable, and even law-enforcing — especially if still expressible as part of a much wider international coalition of states — but only if these applications are undertaken for defensibly compelling reasons, and for verifiably crucial objectives.

In part, at least, Thomas Jefferson’s life and writings still offer us an apotheosis of American democratic possibility, a usable template for national decision-making based upon abiding respect for true learning, and a rejection of intellectual imposture. Armed with such a template, we might, finally, advance beyond the tragically recurrent folly of futile American wars.

Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations, international law, art, literature, and philosophy. Professor Beres’ most recent article on Syria, Israel, and International Law was published in the Harvard National Security Journal (August, 2013). He is also a regular contributor to the OUPblog.

If you are interested in learning more about Jeffersonian thoughts and ideas, check out Thomas Jefferson: The Revolution of Ideas by R. B. Bernstein, which finds the key to this enigmatic Founder not as a great political figure, but as leader of a “revolution of ideas that would make the world over again”. It is also part of the Oxford Portraits series, which offers informative and insightful biographies of people whose lives shaped their times and continue to influence ours.

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Image credit: Thomas Jefferson by John Trumbull 1788. The White House Historical Association. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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