Sharing Our Wars

TRB

October 04, 1990|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — NO ONE could watch the Civil War series on PBS without thinking: Please, let's not have a war in the Persian Gulf. When I read that Washington stores had run out of blank videotape, I figure Ken Burns' justly hyped documentary gave Saddam Hussein a good three extra months to come to his senses.

But there was a second reaction as well. The series would not have been as gripping if it merely portrayed the war as a hell of slaughter. There was also a sense of sharing in an epic drama, a sense that the actual participants had as well. For those who survived the war, it was the defining event of their lives. The TV series opens with a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.:

''We have shared in the incommunicable experience of war. We have felt, we will feel, the passion of life to its top. . . . In our youths, our hearts were touched by fire.''

This reaction -- almost of envy for those who lived through the Civil War -- also has implications for the current foreign-policy debate. Opposition to war in the Persian Gulf has been monopolized by a newly resurgent right-wing isolationism of the pre-World War II variety.

Even before August 2, the ''innate American skepticism of foreign entanglements'' (George Washington) was being exploited by those who oppose not merely bloodshed but any ''extra-national ideal,'' such as promoting democracy or ending hunger that treats our Republic ''as a means to some larger end.''

The desire to lay down the weary burdens of the Cold War, and resentment over the refusal of wealthy allies to pull their own weight, are both legitimate. It is typical of the Democrats to have fumbled the issue of ''burden sharing,'' which has been there for the taking for years. But the conservative isolationists retreat too far.

Americans want to live in history. They want their lives to have meaning beyond having lived, prospered amid family and friends, and died at a ripe age. To be sure, throughout history most people have gotten more history than they wanted: wars and other plagues that denied them the comforts of normal life. Part of America's blessing, emphasized by leaders since Washington, has been a geographical exemption from most of this kind of history. The Civil War is the great exception.

Francis Fukuyama has been rightly mocked for declaring last year that history was over. But he was shrewd and correct to observe that without history, life would be boring. And he was honest to note within himself ''a powerful nostalgia'' for reasons to live that ''called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism.'' The PBS Civil War series sent conflicting messages: War is hell, but struggling for a great cause (even the wrong cause) is grand.

There are extreme libertarians who want to privatize the potholes, who oppose national endeavor, foreign or domestic, as an infringement on individual freedom, and are deeply suspicious of any talk of national purpose as potentially fascistic. But even they would find their lives quite empty if their great campaign were suddenly won.

Ronald Reagan did not mind treating our Republic as a means to some larger end. He understood that Americans like to have a sense of national purpose. Thus his endless references to America as ''the last, best hope of mankind'' and ''a shining city on a hill.''

But Mr. Reagan refused to call upon Americans as individuals to do anything more than sit there and shine. George Bush, inaugurating our biggest ''foreign entanglement'' since Vietnam from his golf cart at Kennebunkport, found the perfect expression of our hypocritical desire to be in history and eat it too. Unfortunately, the adventure he started probably can't be completed without interrupting the golf game.

There are missions for America in the world that don't require bloodshed. There are ways to feed the hunger for national purpose that neither recklessly ask for too much sacrifice nor fatuously ask for none at all. Democrats used to be good at this sort of thing. The Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps are two stellar examples.

The hunger for larger purpose is a refined appetite. The people of Eastern Europe are thrilled to anticipate a time when they can turn their backs on politics and enjoy the boredom and comfort of bourgeois life. But at the ends of their lives they will still look back on the struggles leading up to and following the year 1989, as Oliver Wendell Holmes looked back on the Civil War, as the great adventure of their lives. Will today's Americans have anything like that to look back on?

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