Theater of War is a collection of essays written for Harper's Magazine by its editor Lewis Lapham from the end of the Clinton presidency into the early aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Across the essays, Lapham argues that the period reflects an accelerating slide in American political attitudes and government policies from self-interested but functional plutocracy toward theocracy and empire. Lapham believes that the Bush Administration is consciously pursuing imperial goals and is willing to operate outside the framework of international law to achieve them. Comparing the U.S. to Rome has been the accusatory stance of American liberal critics since the end of the First World War, so this is hardly news. Neither is the book's general conclusion: "The agents of Al Qaeda might wreck our buildings and disrupt our commerce, maybe even manage to kill a number of our fellow citizens, but we do ourselves far greater harm if we pawn our civil rights and consign the safekeeping of our liberties to Mullah John Ashcroft and the mujahedeen in the hospitality tents of American crusade."
I'm a fairly regular reader of Harper's, and I admit to being sympathetic to most of the liberal values it represents. The magazine's bias is American, but it isn't Oedipally fixed on the United States as the source of all power and evil in the world to the degree ultra-liberals like Noam Chomsky and his followers are. I've also followed (and mostly admired) Lapham's editorial journalism in the past, and I expected that state of affairs to continue through Theater of War.
By the time I'd read the book's 44-page introduction, I was becoming doubtful. Lapham uses about 4 pages to explain the context of the essays¨the descent from the prosperously corrupt and self-satisfied calm of the Clinton years to the war hysterics of the Bush administration. He spends most of the other 40 pages establishing and reiterating his Patrician credentials within the Democratic party aristocracy, ridiculing Republicans, and drawing extravagant metaphors meant to trace the persistent theocratic strain that runs through American history. This last could have been very illuminating, because it veers into the central contradiction of American politics: that the United States is a constitutional republic designed to effect the permanent separation of church and state, with that constitution under permanent siege from zealots and believers driven mad by its rational humanism. What Lapham delivers instead is a hagiography of liberal proscriptions as lush as they are closed to debate, with the world beyond them depicted as a circus of fools and cynical opportunists. Not a promising start.
As the essays proceed, there is more of the same, and the rhetorical overkill begins to be troubling. Arguing by a succession of metaphors¨Lord of the Rings gets some play, along with frequent Biblical allusions and references to television dramas¨is a high risk strategy, because it tends to destroy perspective by raising most subjects to the level of epic, and transforming the rest into farce. At the same time, Lapham's persistent archness of tone make it difficult to pin down whether he believes what he is saying or is merely tweaking the noses of what he clearly regards as an administration of barely-competent fundamentalist Christian barbarians and their servile corporate-directed media.
This isn't to suggest that he misses his targets completely. Lapham is witty enough to score direct hits, as with his depiction of longtime Republican pitbull James A. Baker's over-the-top attacks on anyone trying to prevent Bush from claiming the presidency in the Florida voting fiasco. But for the most part, the insights are incidental, anecdotal and more likely to elevate the author's non-disputable liberal values than to demolish the targets. The overall delivery is the worst kind of preaching-to-the-converted and Lapham can be accurately accused of engaging in liberal theology without risking dialogue.
The other signal that things are amiss¨in any argument¨is the frequent positing of rhetorical questions. By the book's fourth page, Lapham has already asked these three: "For what reason do we possess the largest store of weapons known to the history of mankind if not to kill as many people as we declare to be our enemies? Why then should our enemies not kill us? ÓIf the logic of globalization allows Chinese bicycle mechanics to manufacture cheap knockoffs of first-run Arnold Schwarzenegger films, what prevents a nonunion crew of Saudi Arabian terrorists from making a low-budget version of the Pentagon's 'Operation Enduring Freedom?'"
None of those questions have easy answers. They're dynamic and leading, not rhetorical, and only fools now rest easy in a discursive frame where leading questions have pat rejoinders. Yet Lapham uses rhetorical questions again and again in the essays, almost always to administer the coup de grace to important points. Late in the book is this whopper: "No fewer than 62 million civilians died in the twentieth century's wars (as opposed to 43 million military personnel) buried in mud or sand or broken stones in all seasons and every quarter of the globe¨in London and Paris as well as Sarajevo and Baghdad. Why not New York and Washington?"
The sanest answer to that question is that Americans have been lucky¨very lucky. Implying, as Lapham seems to, that they have deserved worse presupposes that anyone, anywhere, deserves to die for being what they are. In any case, the sort of low risk liberal self-flagellation being engaged in here¨and frequently elsewhere in the essays¨is the privilege of the very safe and comfortable, of people far too sure of their own world-view.
Almost from the book's first sentences, Lapham appears to be transfixed by his ability to draw grand metaphors to describe the predicament of the republic, and to then draw further grand metaphors through and into the ones already delivered. The result is a feast of allusions too dense and complicated to be productively applied to anything. Lapham himself becomes the victim of the same kind of unexamined moral superiority he's out to demolish. For an intelligent, educated man to be so unbendingly certain of the accuracy of his own perception constitutes hubris.
He's occasionally guilty of another kind of excessive confidence in his own judgment. The most startling instance of this occurs in "Drums Along to Potomac: New War, Old Music", the chapter written immediately after September 11th, and meant to be the book's most moving and portentous. It begins with a description of the location of the Harper's offices, and what Lapham was doing that morning: preparing to write a column about a screening of HBO's Band of Brothers, the 10- hour Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks television drama collaboration based on the Stephen Ambrose 1992 book of the same title, which follows a company of the 101st Airborne Division from D-Day in 1944 through the end of the war. Lapham attended the screening five days before and was now sitting down in the empty offices to collect his thoughts. "Against the grain of the reviews ('shatteringly emotional,' 'awe inspiring,' 'never to be forgotten')" he writes, "I'd seen the film not as drama but as agitprop, and was trying to discover my reasons for the opinion when I was surprised by the sound of what I guessed to be an explosion."
From the description that follows, it becomes clear that Lapham is prepared to review Band of Brothers on the basis of a promotional film HBO prepared for a celebrity screening, and on the impressions gathered at the sit-down dinner reception and panel discussion (attended by Ambrose himself) that came after, and that he did not watch the films themselves. He felt confident summarizing the series' intent and content based on an executive summary and the chit-chat of the crowd at a New York cocktail party. He's Lewis Lapham, right?
I'm not sure what to make of this sort of self-assured intellectual short-cutting, which is, I'm beginning to learn, a standard feature of Patrician sensibility: it isn't what you document that counts, it's who you are, where you sit in the power food-chain, and the elevated position of your corroborating celebrities. What Lapham does in this essay is no different than preparing to review a book by reading the jacket copy. No, wait a minute. It's more extreme than that. It is equivalent to reviewing a book on the basis of reading the accompanying press release, and not even opening the book. Given the generally banal predictability of television and its formula-driven approach to drama, this might seem justified, but in the case of Band of Brothers, it was profoundly inadequate, and given that the short-cutting occurs in Lapham's pivotal essay, it raises questions¨not at all rhetorical¨about his other judgments.
Band of Brothers, which I watched on video in its entirety, does not strike me as agitprop or war-mongering, and it does not glorify the U.S. military or war. It does dignify the role of ordinary soldiers, but does so without exaggeration. It is about the importance of competent leadership, a theme that the series returns to again and again, positing the notion that leadership requires tactical vision and concern for detail, not the sort of rah-rah posturing George W. Bush has been getting by on. If the series bears witness to Bush's style of leadership, it implies that he would have gotten most of the soldiers in Easy Company killed. And if the series elevates any aspect of war, it is that war is cold and unpleasant, and that the highest virtues a soldier can have are keeping one's attention poised on details, and being able to remain a reasonable being in the face of danger and hardship. Those are precisely the qualities that have been in short supply on either side of the divide over what to do about the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Lapham, regrettably, isn't much different than the true believers and warhawks of the Bush administration in this respect.
The main product of liberal American thinking in the 21st century seems to be righteous indignation and a radical broadening of the definition of what constitutes a victim. Lapham, in Theater of War, asks little more than that the zone of victimhood be extended to include himself and Harper's readership. In my reading, he's a victim only of not paying sufficient attention to detail, and being far too in love with the sound of his own voice. That's not good enough, as the barbarians clamber up the ramparts to embrace the ones already manning them. And neither is Theater of War. ˛
Brian Fawcett's Vertical Clearcut: Or, The Way Things Are in My Home Town ( Thomas Allen) has just been published.