Then out spake brave Horatius
The Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?"
~ Thomas B. Macaulay
The reasons for war are as various and sundry as are the vices of man. The above poem, which was a tribute to the Roman soldier Horatius who held the Sublician Bridge against the invading Etruscan Army, demonstrates one of the more elemental motivations.
When a people with a distinct culture and history are attacked and face annihilation at the hands of a merciless enemy, their inspiration for fighting is immediate and obvious. Defeat means the destruction of their families, their property, and the eradication of their culture and religion.
On an emotional level, Horatius’ deed was thus certainly Homeric…and perhaps even Wagnerian.
The question of the motivation behind our recent attack on Iraq has been vexing many for quite some time. Why Iraq? Why now? What ultimately prompted this invasion, and what was the underlying reason?
Certainly, it was not that of Horatius. The Iraqis were not at our gates, and they were not threatening the existence of our civilization. Whatever the answer to this riddle, it was surely not self-preservation.
Into this political void, an almost endless river of speculation has flowed. Oceans of electronic ink have been spilled analyzing this enigma, and most of the theories are well known to all. Was it oil? Was it the "military-industrial complex"? Was it a cabal of neocons? Was it Saddam’s recent switch from dollars to euros for oil contracts?
Why do we fight?
The fact that no one really knows the answer is, in and of itself, an indictment of the whole affair. It is a moral atrocity to ask young soldiers to die for a cause which, more than a year along, still remains shrouded in mystery.
By fortunate happenstance, I was recently reading a magnificent book by Modris Eksteins titled The Rites of Spring. That tome, which is subtitled The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, analyzes the cultural history of the West in the years leading up to and through World War I.
That hideous, pointless war was, in my opinion, the funeral pyre of Western civilization. An entire generation disappeared into the trenches, never to return. And the civilization that emerged from it was morally and spiritually broken. That which did survive was leveled by the next Great War that soon followed.
But like our Middle Eastern adventure, the origins and motivations of WW I have always been somewhat of a mystery to me. Surely, the assassination of one rather unpopular royal heir from Austria-Hungary could not have been the sole reason for the un-Godly slaughter that followed.
Eksteins proceeds to lay out his theory, which is both fascinating and somewhat applicable to our current situation.
He regards the fundamental axis of the conflict to have been the British Empire and Germany. All others were bit players. While traditional analyses of the war have generally portrayed the UK as the defender of liberalism and the Germans as retrograde Huns, Eksteins offers a slightly different twist.
"For the British, this was a war not specifically to deny Germany a navy or colonies or even economic superiority, though German ambitions in those areas were clearly of grave concern. Nor was this a war simply to maintain a balance of power on the continent by not allowing any one power to gain inordinate strength, though, again, this was a long-standing British interest. No, for the British, this was a war with a much broader purpose. This was a war to preserve a system of British order, national and international, that was seen to be under attack by everything that Germany and its introverted Kultur represented. By the beginning of the 20th century Germany had, in the eyes of the British, replaced France as the incarnation of flux and irresponsibility in the world. Britain, on the other hand, stood for the reverse: stability and responsibility. Germany threatened not only Britain’s military and economic position in the world but the whole moral basis of the Pax Britannica…"
Thus, Britain was essentially the conservative antagonist in the conflict, which was dedicating itself to maintaining the status quo against an upstart challenger who she regarded as dangerously unbalanced.
Eksteins contends that Germany’s motivations arose from a fervent, emotional desire to usher in a new, higher world consciousness which would be free of the suffocating corruption of the old. The Germans were to direct the birth of a more spiritually liberated reality that was embodied by Germanic, avant-garde Kultur.
"For Germans the focus of explanation for the war was directed inward and toward the future. Thomas Mann looked on the war as liberation from a putrefying reality. Of the old world he asked, u2018Did not vermin of the mind swarm about in it like maggots? Did it not ferment and stink of the decaying matter of civilization?’ For Mann, this war and his art were synonymous; both amounted to a struggle for spiritual freedom. For the British on the other hand the focus was social and historical"
"For the Germans this was a war to change the world; for the British this was a war to preserve a world. The Germans were propelled by a vision, the British by a legacy"
The parallels are obvious. America has, since 1945, represented the apex of the world system. That world system is now faltering, just as the Victorian one was in 1914. It is fading because of two inexorable trends that are now remaking the globe. First, is the drastic demographic shift that is taking place as the Western world ages in conjunction with the explosive growth in the Third World (particularly the Muslim world). Second, the system is confronted by the emergence of Asia, particularly China and India, as rising economic powers.
Islam, which considers the existing world order to be corrupt and accuses it of stunting Islam’s natural growth and power, is rising to break the chains of this world system. America, like the British Empire of 1914, seeks to protect that order by destroying the upstart power and preserving its place of primacy.
But this explanation raises two obvious questions.
First, why has America sought to make a stand at this time and place? Why Iraq? Why now?
America is, of all the world powers, the one with the least at stake in the conflict surrounding the rise of Islam. America is the only one that could easily walk away from the whole mess.
India finds itself confronting Islam in Kashmir. Russia is embroiled with Islamic conflicts in the Caucuses. Israel is surrounded. Europe is being invaded, slow-motion, via mass immigration. Even China confronts a Muslim rebellion in its Western provinces.
All of these nations will find themselves enmeshed in an ever-escalating clash with Islam from which there is no easy exit.
But America shares no borders with Dar al Islam, has no significant indigenous Muslim population, and has no irreconcilable conflict with them. Yet, curiously, we are the power that is most active in these Islamic Wars.
And the American world system is being challenged in other places too, so this does not explain this war. Why not a conflict with China? Or India?
I must confess that I have no easy answer. Eksteins’ explanation merely raises new questions.
Would it not be better for America to allow the powers surrounding Islam to do the fighting? They have more at risk than we. The Islamic challenge could just as easily be confronted by India, Russia, and Europe.
The second irony of this analysis involves the American people. While it may be clear that America’s elites are fighting this conflict to preserve the existing world system which they dominate, it is not at all clear why Middle America acquiesces to the crusade.
In Fahrenheit 911, Michael Moore touches on a very interesting point. While interviewing a working class mother who lost a son in Iraq, he wonders aloud why those who benefit the least economically from this system are the ones who are most willing to die for it.
But Moore’s poignant question is contaminated by the Marxist dialectic. To me, the far more interesting question is why Middle America, from a political and cultural perspective, has supported and fought in this conflict
Since the activation of large numbers of Guard and Reserve units, the burden of this war has rested disproportionately on small town and rural America. The Iraqi occupation is not being largely borne by Harlem or East Los Angeles (and certainly not by Georgetown or Manhattan), but mainly by the Mayberry-type towns of the Heartland.
If our elites are fighting this war to preserve and defend the existing Washington-dominated world system, isn’t it legitimate to ask just how that system is benefiting those who are doing the fighting?
By way of definition, this world structure, in the American context, is somewhat of a three-headed hydra. Its economic system has deteriorated into a nasty strain of corporate-cronyism masquerading as free market capitalism. Its political system has eroded into an arbitrary bureaucratic social democracy pretending to be a Constitutional Republic. And its traditional Little House on the Prairie culture has degenerated into a decadent electronic freak show.
We are confronting the warriors of Islam with a system comprised of Halliburton, HUD, and MTV.
This is the system which our elites have announced, Fukuyama-style, will be the endpoint of world historical evolution.
To whatever extent the political, cultural, and governing elites running this system have deigned to recognize Middle America at all, it has largely been to defame and/or attack it.
The Heartland is most certainly not fighting for "the ashes of their fathers and the temples of their Gods." Their ancestors are derided by our political and cultural elites as being genocidal racists, while the Founders are belittled as hypocritical slaveholders. Middle America’s culture has been roundly demeaned for decades, and its religious values have been completely marginalized.
So I am forced to wonder…what on earth is small town/rural America getting in return for this blood sacrifice?
For the life of me, I can’t find an answer.
And our elites had better hope that Mayberry doesn’t start asking that very same question, or things could get really interesting.
When the Etruscan Army arrived at the gates of Rome, they found Horatius there making a stand as a free citizen of a free Republic. Centuries later, when a horde of Visigoths appeared at those same walls, they found a very different Rome with a very different government. And as they sacked the city, none of the serfs therein offered much resistance.
There is a lesson for our leaders to be found in those events, if they choose to heed it.
Steven LaTulippe [send him mail] is a physician currently practicing in Ohio. He was an officer in the United States Air Force for 13 years.