In this year that marks not only the centennial of the beginning of World War I, but also the sesquicentennial of the Civil War's climactic battles, we ought to think more about war than we do.
The grainy old black and white photographs that served to immortalize those enormous, bloody conflicts had a haunting stillness. The cameras wouldn't permit anything else, forcing the subjects to pose absolutely motionless; but for all its limitations the technology captured the Stoic soul of the peoples who came to know war so well. Whether of the living or the dead, common soldiers or great statesmen, the photos show no smiles. Joy seems permanently off camera.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his epic commencement speech at Harvard 36 years ago, noticed the same thing from a different direction. Surveying the Communist world's tyranny and the Western world's decadence, he said that
the fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions...has already started. The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive. You can feel their pressure, yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?
Granted, Solzhenitsyn himself looked like he could have stepped out of a photo of the Eastern front, circa 1914. He was in exile here and not happy about it; but the harsh truths he offered came from a friend, not an enemy. He diagnosed America and the whole West as suffering from a potentially fatal "decline in courage," and although he underestimated our country's moral resilience and capacity for political regeneration—and greatly overestimated his fellow Russians' "spiritual development"—his criticisms remind us that progress, peace, and prosperity are neither natural nor inevitable.
Yet it's always tempting to think they are. Every State of the Union address is nowadays a ridiculous gantlet of prescribed smiles and claqueish applause, a revolting parody of democratic politics in which only the potentates in the room (most of them, at least) seem to be in on the joke. The official mood of the evening—i.e., of the speech which can't quite be taken seriously by anyone including the president who is delivering it—is impatience. We must get past the stale political debates and selfish interests that prevent us from legislating and regulating—and get back to solving society's problems. "Right now," as President Obama likes to say.
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Modern politicians, especially progressive ones, cannot long abide a crisis, even though there are few things they like better. Deep down, they know that they are not very good at solving crises, that after a while an unsolved crisis becomes a bore, and that it is thus far better to resume business as usual so that the next crisis may be teed up for an anxious and inattentive world. Did Franklin D. Roosevelt ever "solve" the Great Depression, after all? Did Lyndon Johnson ever quite win that War on Poverty?
"Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis," Obama explained in the 2013 State of the Union address, and now, he rejoiced, we can get back to the business of government-as-usual. "After five years of grit and determined effort," he added in this year's message, "the United States is better positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on earth.... Let's make this a year of action."
Every year brings utopia closer, yet it never arrives. Every Year of Action ends, therefore, with strange inaction. Yet nothing is ever admitted to be beyond the competence of the state and its social scientific advisers—ending war, ending poverty, though never, of course, ending the war on poverty. Obama favors the figure of speech known as litotes, the deliberate understatement. "The American people don't expect government to solve every problem," he says frequently—just a vast and growing number of them, a bad habit which he is keen to encourage.
Now that health care has been improved beyond all recognition and possibly beyond all repair, what social problem shall we solve next? A year of inaction might be a wonderful thing after all.
Both the last Republican and the current Democratic administration have pursued hubristic enterprises whose peak of overconfidence came in the Second Inaugurals. George W. Bush set out to end "tyranny in our world," on the assumption that history would culminate in the most advanced, multicultural style of Western liberal democracy. It was only a matter of time before the good news reached Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama is committed not to winning but to ending these foreign wars so that he can nation-build at home. He favors the moral equivalent of war, pursuing an endless campaign of transformation against the founding principles and the commonsense of American politics.
Those old photographs from old wars drive home a different lesson: how easily things go wrong; how limited is man's wisdom; how often the good guys lose; why smiles are premature.