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The Belief in Regenerative War: Why So Many American Intellectuals Supported the Iraq War

One of the peculiarities of modern war is the fascination it holds for intellectuals. Since the 1890s, in the United States as in Europe, the loudest yelps for blood have been heard some distance from the battlefield. Professors, journalists, ministers, and other moralists have all sung the praises of war from the safety of their studies. This is an occupational hazard, the sort of thing that happens to men (nearly always men) who live in their heads, for whom moral crusades and civilizing missions have a more palpable reality than sliced skin or burned flesh. Of course ordinary citizens are susceptible to vicarious thrills, too: as J.A. Hobson observed in his classic Imperialism (1900), “the lust of the spectator” could mobilize an entire population in the service of the modern imperial state. But people who are paid to write and think for a living are more likely to inflate the invigoration of national purpose induced by war into a justification of war itself.

The problem is not simply that this justification is fashioned at a safe distance. Direct experience of organized violence does not necessarily improve one’s judgment on issues of war and peace. The strenuous mood of combat (actual or imagined) is not the right mood for serious public debate, not for the sort of discussion that intellectuals are supposed to help promote at crucial moments, such as when the government wants to take the country to war. The inadequacy of debate leading up to the Iraq War can be traced to various sources, but one was many intellectuals’ belief that war would bring a necessary hardening to a population sunk in softness. This dream of revitalization through heroic struggle was not new to the United States. It reappeared following the attacks on the World Trade Center, but it originated in the imperial crusades of a century ago. Its history provides new light on the American way of war.

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Throughout the post-Civil War decades, militarist fantasy shaped the drive for an overseas empire. Eager to recapture the heroism of the men who fought at Shiloh and Petersburg, fearful that the closing of the frontier meant the end of opportunities for manly testing, militarists like Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Albert Beveridge praised the revitalizing impact of war on a nation gone to seed. “Over-sentimentality, over softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people,” TR wrote to the psychologist G. Stanley Hall in 1899. “Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.” By “barbarian virtues” Roosevelt mean courage, stoicism, and endurance—honorable values, to be sure, but values that could easily be pressed into the service of empire.

The rhetoric of imperial regeneration melded physical with moral renewal, individual with national courage, adapting Protestant dreams of rebirth to a new language of revitalization. Arguing for the annexation of the Philippines in 1900, Lodge stressed the symbiosis between the playing field and the battlefield: “the athlete does not win his race by sitting habitually in an armchair. The pioneer does not open up new regions to his fellow men by staying in warm shelter behind city walls. If a man has the right qualities in him, responsibility sobers, strengthens, and develops him. The same is true of nations.” The merger of individual and national courage drew strength from an ideological witches’ brew: Anglo-Saxon racism, Protestant mission, and the drive for investment opportunities abroad. Beveridge stirred the pot: “God has not been preparing our English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master-organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns.” He could only offer “thanksgiving to Almighty God that he has marked us as his chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world.” The belief in America’s divinely appointed mission to redeem the world stretched back to Puritan times, but not until 1900 had it been allied with a drive for overseas empire. It was left to Woodrow Wilson to expand the regenerative agenda to its grandiose limit, with a war to “make the world safe for democracy.”

Wilson was no militarist; he was a misguided man of peace. His would be a war to end war. This was the softer rhetoric of regeneration through humanitarian military intervention. It allowed such intellectuals as Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann to embrace war without sliding into the open enthusiasm for bloodshed displayed by TR. Within this framework, as Randolph Bourne shrewdly noted in 1917, intellectuals could imagine themselves “gently guiding a nation” into a “war free from any taint of self-seeking, a war that will secure the triumph of democracy” while at the same time “talking of the rough rude currents of health and regeneration that war would send through the American body politic.”

But the crusade ended badly. When Wilson’s entry into World War I failed to establish the new world order he craved, the idea of regenerative war fell into disuse for several decades--except in fascist circles. To be sure, mainstream rhetoricians revealed a peristent weakness for grandiose visions of the U.S. role in the world—Henry Luce’s announcement of “the American Century” in 1941 may have been the most notable. But Americans, even intellectuals, resisted the language of rebirth during World War II. They were exhausted by a decade of Depression; they did not need to be told to lance the boil of luxury with an overseas crusade. Most Americans viewed the war as a fight to the death against demonic enemies; there was little talk of personal regeneration.

The Cold War offered numerous opportunities for grandiose moral posturing, some involving intellectuals’ interior states. Certainly Kennedy’s call for heroic self-sacrifice in his inaugural address recalled the ideals of TR and Wilson, and the intellectual class embraced the regenerative promise that seemed inherent in Kennedy’s youth and vigor. The promise took policy form when counterinsurgency fantasies began to spread among Eugene Rostow, McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara, and the other intellectuals in the Kennedy White House: they would take the Cold War into the Third World, against wars of national liberation—which, they believed, were plotted from Moscow. When counterinsurgency strategy collapsed in Vietnam, the American defeat provoked the sort of fears on the Right that TR and his militarist contemporaries had articulated at the end of the previous century.

A new narrative of the Vietnam disaster emerged, a version of the “stab in the back” story spread by German nationalists after World War I: the “noble cause” had been done in by a coalition of cowardly hippies, craven professors, and liberal ideologues masquerading as journalists. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, a “Vietnam Syndrome” had gripped American policymakers, rendering them unable to act forcefully when it was necessary; the population itself, in its growing reluctance to go to war, had collaborated in this “mushiness,” as TR might have called it. Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy allowed the right-wing narrative to seep into the corridors of power. Gradually the notion of regenerative war began to regain some legitimacy, especially among the policy intellectuals who called themselves “Vulcans”—Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney, among others. Cheney in particular had been traumatized by the defeat in Vietnam, the disgrace of Nixon, and the decline (however temporary) of executive power. Throughout the 1990s, the Vulcans discussed how to reassert U.S. military power abroad, especially in the Middle East. They remained fixated on “finishing the job” they imagined had been begun in the Gulf War: “regime change” in Iraq.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 gave them their opportunity. Intellectuals, including self-proclaimed liberals, played an important supporting role in legitimating the Vulcans’ plans--in large part by resurrecting faith in regenerative war. Less than a month after the attacks, George Packer praised Americans—and fellow liberals in particular--for “recapturing the flag,” for refusing any longer to leave patriotism solely to working class folk. The problem was that what he called patriotism turned out, on closer examination, to be something more akin to militarism. Packer admitted that as a child he had secretly chafed under the sappy slogans of the peace movement, such as “War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.'' “No, war was not healthy,” wrote Packer, “-- but it was more exciting than anything else I could think of.” Eventually, he recalled, “the part of me that craved danger and commitment and sacrifice had to find an outlet in not quite satisfying alternatives like the Peace Corps.” But now, in the wake of 9/11, we had a genuine national emergency, and even liberal intellectuals were swept up in a surge of collective virtue. “What I dread now,” he wrote, “is a return to the normality we're all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines.”

Packer was quick to deny that he was celebrating war, but he left no doubt about its tonic effects. “I don't desire war,” he concluded, “but I know that patriotic feeling makes individuals exceed themselves as the bland comforts of peace cannot. . . . I've lived through this state, and I like it.” Here again, an intellectual’s inner state took precedence over the actual devastations of war; how easy it was to prefer the excitement of war fever over the “the bland comforts of peace” when one was seated comfortably at one’s keyboard. Citing William James on the need for a “moral equivalent of war,” Packer failed to follow James’s anti-imperialist example. His support of the Iraq invasion played a key role in legitimating the war among liberals and moderates who were otherwise suspicious of Bush.

There was no question that Christopher Hitchens would support the Iraq war. He was even more flagrant than Packer in his embrace of regenerative war, and even less sensitive to his own privileged safety. His recollection of 9/11 was nothing if not forthright. “Once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery,” he wrote. "On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure , it turned out to be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view. . . .I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost." Just how Hitchens meant to “prosecute” the war, other than by talking about it, he did not say. His unwittingly self-parodic stance epitomized the dilettante’s vicarious experience of battle—war as the armchair set’s most reliable stimulant.

Norman Podhoretz combined Packer’s vaporous sentiment with Hitchens’s heroic posturing. Invoking the bogus but pervasive analogy between the “war on terrorism” and World War II, he warned that “the only road to this lovely condition of the spirit runs through what Roosevelt and Churchill called the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the enemy.” Anything less was mere “dithering,” which would ignore “the ferocious wound we received on September 11: a wound that is still suppurating and sore for lack of the healing balm that only a more coherent and wholehearted approach to the war will bring.” What was at stake, Podhoretz concluded, was not merely our physical security but “nothing less than the soul of this country”—and only a total victory over terrorism could save us from national collapse.

Recalling the imperialist bombast of a century before, Podhoretz conflated physical and moral courage, the individual and the nation. His apocalyptic language matched the mood of Bush’s war cabinet. Like Alfred Thayer Mahan, Brooks Adams, and the other imperialist intellectuals surrounding Roosevelt a hundred years earlier, the Vulcans surrounding Bush had been champing at the bit for years, searching for fields for heroic struggle. The attacks that supposedly “changed everything” created the perfect atmosphere for the nourishment of those fantasies. The idea of complete rupture with the past meshed with other totalizing, dualistic formulations, especially Bush’s constantly repeated refrain that the “global war on terror” would be a crusade to rid the world of “evildoers.” Combining the Vulcans’ determination to unseat Saddam with the false claims that he possessed weapons of mass destruction and was allied with Osama Bin Laden, the toxic concoction was complete: the war on Iraq could be conceived as a crusade to regenerate American will and standing in the world. Certainly Bush presented it that way, much as Beveridge had presented the war for the Philippines. God is at work in world affairs, Bush said, calling for the United States to democratize the Middle East, and “this call of history has come to the right country.”

An independent intelligentsia might have resisted such claims and sustained a more serious debate. More than a few intellectuals did challenge the arguments for war—one thinks of Paul Krugman and Andrew Bacevich, among others. But they could not persuade sufficient numbers of their colleagues. Most purveyors of “responsible opinion” followed Packer, Hitchens, and Podhoretz. They marched to the drumbeat of virtuous invasion; they created impressive conformity. This herd of independent minds—invigorated, virtuous, and certainly not bored—failed to envision the catastrophe that was coming. As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.