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.
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,
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
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?
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
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
They have nothing to believe in but
they’re own slaughter.