War, bin Laden, and “the aura of the consequential”
Timing is everything, they say, and Civil War historian and Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust certainly enjoyed auspicious timing when she delivered the 2011 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on Monday night at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Jefferson Lecture is the federal government’s most prestigious award for intellectual accomplishment in the humanities.
Faust’s theme, elaborated as the airwaves were full of nothing but the operation to take out bin Laden, was on humanity’s fascination with war narratives. As recounted by the Chronicle of Higher Ed story:
“When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it was influenced in no small part by the desire—even need—to transform the uncertainty of combating a terrorist enemy into a conflict that could provide a purposeful, coherent, and understandable structure, a comprehensible narrative,” Ms. Faust said. “We expect wars to come with endings; that is part of their story. The language of war made Americans protagonists in a story they understood rather than the victims or potential victims of forces beyond their comprehension and control.”
Ms. Faust traced what she called “the seductiveness of war” to its location on the “boundary of the human, the inhuman, and the superhuman,” and the possibility it offers of transcending “the gray everyday” of life. “Stories of war are infused with the aura of the consequential.”
That argument is sobering given that it leads us to fixate on, and exalt, conflicts, be they on battlefields, blogs, courtrooms or playing fields. (Or on miracles, as when the Peruvian president claimed bin Laden’s death was a miracle that should be credited to newly-Blessed John Paul II.)
But Faust’s argument certainly rings true to me, both at a visceral level and as I watch the coverage of the bin Laden story as well as the prognostications about the political boost–or not–that this episode might give President Obama. Polls show Obama getting a predictable bounce, though I tend to be among those who believe that will wear off quickly and by next year the story will be so last year and of little consequence in the election.
But maybe it will have an impact. Andrew Sullivan wondered how bin Laden’s death could not be a defining moment for the Obama presidency, as he ticked off his many other accomplishments: rescuing the economy, passing health care, promoting gay rights and a host of other genuine victories. Yet those triumphs were in the gray area of legislation and process and politics, areas of compromise and no clear winners, and long-term outcomes. Nothing as clear and satisfying as the death of bin Laden, and no victory that couldn’t be recast by political opponents. Obama’s earlier middling approval numbers reflected that dynamic, I think.
Will our romance with battlefield heroics prove of greater consequence than congressional battles, such as the one over health care, that are of arguably greater import?