What Is It Good For

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As we approach the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, and we find ourselves knee-deep in fresh military adventures, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, his spiritual exegesis of war, calls out with prophetic urgency.

I cannot read it without a shiver running down my spine. Lincoln deftly counterposes the inscrutable Creator with man’s feeble, hubristic attempts to take the cause of God as his own. As Lincoln points out sardonically, both sides cannot possibly be prosecuting God’s will, despite the not-so-small detail of each worshiping the same God. Surely Yahweh speaketh not with forked tongue?

In truth, war more resembles a deus ex machina, oblivious to all sides, descending upon man, who is left little choice but to wage it. Invariably, rationales are devised. Rallying cries, banners, and earnest reconstructions of causa belli ensue. These various human rationalizations represent futile attempts to assign scrutability to what is ultimately an inscrutable endeavor: “All dreaded it, all sought to avert it . . . and the war came.” There is an inevitability to the “coming” of the war. For all their pretensions as first-order promulgators, men are mere instrumentalities. Yet, Lincoln invokes his own interpretive prerogative, divining that God’s sensibilities are so offended by the evil of slavery, that it must be the root cause: “All knew that this interest [slavery] was somehow the cause of the war.”

Lincoln is not infallible. On a separate occasion he laments, “If I could save the Union by freeing the slaves, I would; if I could save the Union by not freeing the slaves, I would.” That Lincoln might be guilty of inconsistency serves only to confirm his own human status. The power of the Second Inaugural is undiminished — although its lesson remains largely unlearnt.

We see a persistently hubristic impulse on grand display in the Pentagon’s recent Powerpoint slide on the “influences” at work in Afghanistan. Surely only God himself could preside over — let alone comprehend — this maze of blobs and arrows, this panoply of causes, counter cases, insurgent motives, imputed responses, and strategic half-nelsons. The chart reeks of Faustian triumphalism, the notion that if we can only get our hands around the totality of human motivations, then those twin vagaries — fate and the will of God — might be harnessed and subdued. Where, in this intricate mosaic, do we find the vaunted fog of war? “When we understand that slide,” said General McChrystal, “we’ll have won the war.” Good luck.

Had the neocons only read less Leo Strauss and more Lincoln, imagine what could have been avoided. Fate is the province of God, not of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or, God forbid, of Microsoft. Since time immemorial, the mightiest kings have met their match in Ozymandias’ “lone and level sands.” It is hard to imagine technological innovations or advancements in military science usurping Shelley’s poetic vision.

The grand illusion of control, abundantly evidenced by the Pentagon’s assiduous arrows and tactical zones of influ- ence, is a conceit that Lincoln brilliantly exposed. How sad that his successors failed to heed this crucial lesson of history. In war, the most chaotic endeavor of all, human mastery is a pipe-dream. A five-year veteran of war’s maddening ebbs and flows, Lincoln would offer only this on the eve of almost- certain military victory: “With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.”

A healthy trepidation — as opposed to a bloodless, diagrammatic certainty — is the hallmark of wisdom. The only war cry worth its salt? “Get thee behind me, hubris.”

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