Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Faulkner, Bush, and the Romance of War

I was writing a comment on a friend's blog, responding to a quotation from William Faulkner, and I started to think about my own favorite Faulkner passage. I had included it on this site back in January, during the first weeks of the blog. In that context, I was addressing the continued Southern fascination with the Civil War and the ways in which that conflict played such a central role in the formation of the region's identity. Here it is again:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.
William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust

I should explain that I don't like this passage in the sense that it romanticizes or condones the Southern cause in the Civil War. No, I like it because it explains so much vis-a-vis the South's tragically flawed vision of history and its destiny. Moreover, I'm attracted to this bit of Faulkner because if one knows what happens next - that pivotal event of the war, Pickett's charge - and understands the consequences, one can see this as an exercise by the author in sweeping away romantic notions of war, no less moving than Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" or Wilfred Owens' "Dulce Et Decorum Est" from World War I. Faulkner understood the pathos of the moment and the tragedy of the history that followed.

But I have to wonder, reflecting on these words, do President Bush and his minions understand the lessons of war, or is it still early in the day of July 3rd, 1863, for them? Tragically, I think not. Addressing the Bush administration's sense of divinely guided mission for the U.S., I believe the White House has adopted the same kind of flawed vision for this country and is now leading us up our own Cemetery Ridge. At Gettysburg, Lee was neither ideologue nor apostle for the Confederacy. His primary allegiance was to Virginia, his home state. Bush, unfortunately, is both ideologue and apostle, ready to proselytize around the world with the idea that the U.S. enjoys some divinely sanctioned status as a bearer of democratic ideals. It embodies a chauvinism no less bankrupt than European colonialism in the 19th century.

Now I'm hardly an isolationist. Indeed, I believe the United States has a responsibility to play a prominent role around the world, particularly in the context of the United Nations and its peace-keeping efforts. And naturally we're going to play a global role in terms of commerce. But exporting democracy shouldn't necessarily be on our national "to do" list. And as history has demonstrated time and time again, the imposition of "democracy" in a top down fashion rarely proves successful.

Sadly, Bush and his disciples are soon going to find themselves, figuratively, at the top of Cemetery Ridge, conveyed to the slaughter and this utter waste of human lives by a myopic vision far more tragic than that embodied in Robert E. Lee. Like the 14-year old boys of Faulkner's passage, Bush would rather think about the fantasy rather than the reality of the charge. Having stood for hours at attention in the 19th century-style uniforms of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), I can understand how easy it is to get swept up in romantic visions of war, with shined shoes, glinting brass and steel, and regimental banners billowing in the breeze of an idyllic parade ground atmosphere. I was that idealistic and naive at 18. Most of us grow up and recognize the inherent flaws in that vision. Perhaps if Bush and Cheney had some personal experience with the horror of warfare, they would proved less reluctant to follow the bugler's call into battle.

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