Belmont Club

The Ordinary World

A Jewish friend of mine said that the Holocaust created a crisis of faith for his people because as he put it, “if a merciful God existed, then how could could Hitler come to be?” Bad times have a way of raising such questions. Wikipedia cites at least 3 occasions  when humanity suffered so badly it believed that God himself was chastising them: the Black Death, the invasions of Attila the Hun and the depredations of Genghis Khan.

Poll after poll shows that America is in a pessimistic mood.  Time quotes Southern Command’s General John Kelly as gloomily concluding that “if it [Ebola] breaks out [in Central America], it’s literally, ‘Katie bar the door,’ and there will be mass migration into the United States. They will run away from Ebola, or if they suspect they are infected, they will try to get to the United States for treatment.”

Yet it could be worse, as no less than the president told an audience in Rhode Island, “the truth of the matter is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.” But in reality “this is not something that is comparable to the challenges we faced during the Cold War.”  The New York Times said of the presidents perspective:

Governing at a time of war, terrorism and disease, and frustrated on multiple fronts at once, Mr. Obama finds himself trying to buck up supporters heading into a crucial midterm election season. The succession of international crises has taken a toll on the public mood, not to mention his own poll ratings, and he seems intent on reassuring Americans that the challenges are manageable.”

It is hard to argue with the proposition that “if you survived the Atomic Age, you can survive me”. These may not be the best of times, but as the president said, neither are they the worst of them.

Not yet anyway. Leon Panetta in a memoir of his tenure as Obama’s Secretary of Defense depicts a commander in chief who is simultaneously supremely self assured and incompetent.  Newsweek summarizes some of Panetta’s points.

He found Obama to be too insular, often limiting decision-making to his inner circle and forgoing the advice of senior officials … it often skewed the conversation and gave non-political problems a political face.

He also suggests that the president has disdain for Congress … underscoring the president’s hesitation to consult with Congress on sensitive matters. …

One of Panetta’s biggest criticisms concerns Obama’s handling of the war in Iraq. In 2011, Panetta, along with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and military commanders, advocated for leaving a modest American presence to help preserve stability in a country that was on the brink of falling apart … But the administration was so eager to rid itself of the unpopular war that Obama did not actively advocate for a deal with then-Iraqi prime minister Nuri Kamal-al-Maliki to keep a small number of troops there. …

He is also heavily critical of Obama’s Syria policies. He writes that Obama drew a clear “red line” in which the US would strike in the event of the use of chemical weapons, but he abruptly flip-flopped without consulting his national security cabinet members …

He also writes that two years ago he advocated for the U.S. to arm moderate Syrian rebels … Panetta asserted that doing so would have helped the current situation in Syria and that we now “pay the price for not doing that in what we see happening with ISIS.” He writes, “If we don’t prevent these Sunni extremists from taking over large swaths of territory in the Middle East, it will be only a matter of time before they turn their sights on us.

A matter of time, but not yet. Since the present is tolerable enough to defer inconvenient action, our leaders stumble along with half measures. Mark Thompson’s Time cites retired Air Force General David Deptula who says airpower is failing to save the Kurds because the hand doling it out is both incompetent and controlling.

“The issue is not the limits of airpower, the issue is the ineffective use of airpower. According to [The Department of Defense’s] own website, two B-1 sorties can deliver more ordnance than did all the strikes from the aircraft carrier Bush over the last six weeks. Two F-15E sorties alone are enough to handle the current average daily task load of airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria.

Wise analysts understand that those blaming airpower for not ‘saving Kobani’ are confusing the limits of ‘airpower’ with the sub-optimization of its application. One can see [ISIS] tanks and artillery . . . in the open on TV, yet the coalition forces for ‘Operation Un-named Effort’ are not hitting them. Airpower can hit those targets and many others, but those in charge of its application are not—that’s the issue—not the limits of airpower.

The airstrikes to date have been very closely controlled, tactical in nature, and reflect the way they have been ‘metered’ in Afghanistan. The process that is being used to apply airpower is excessively long and overly controlled at too high a command level. The situation in Iraq/Syria with [ISIS] is not the same as Afghanistan with the Taliban. What we are witnessing now is a symptom of fighting the last war by a command that is dominated with ground warfare officers who have little experience with applying airpower in anything other than a ‘support’ role.

It may even be the same hand that Panetta denounces in his book. Whether that hand is guided by well intentioned incompetence or malice, who can say? But Obama is a fairly mild representative of bumbling statecraft that is so common in history.  America had James Buchanan and Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter.  Russia is run by Putin. North Korea by Kim Jong Un.  And as my Jewish friend reminds me, only in the last century Germany had Hitler.

Humanity survives that which would perfect him by simple endurance.  Today no one can even say where the Great Khan’s tomb lies.

When Dickens wrote the Tale of Two Cities, critics faulted it for being unscholarly, like the history on which it was based, Carlyle’s The French Revolution.  It was too personal, too dramatic. “Carlyle unfolds his history by often writing in present-tense first-person plural: as though he and the reader were observers, indeed almost participants, on the streets of Paris at the fall of the Bastille or the public execution of Louis XVI. This, naturally, involves the reader by simulating the history itself instead of solely recounting historical events.”

But is there any other way to history? TS Eliot observed that we can’t see very much further than the present, nor even gaze into the past.  All we have is today.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

And so Carlyle’s first-person plural account remains in print, 200 years after it was written, perhaps because we can see in it a mirror of ourselves and not a dry account of persons long since dead. As  too does Dickens’ novel, which remains read to this day. As Sydney Carton mounts the gallows, he has no assurance for optimism.  The only thing that quickens his pace is the belief that it will work out, no more rational then than it is for us today.

Yet the president is right: the world has always been a mess. He only forgot to add that great leaders rarely fix the world by solving problems.  It is usually advanced by the forgotten men, like those who are trapped in Kobane, like those who perished unremembered. They compose the future by enduring.  If the opening lines of Dicken’s novel are famous, so are its last.

They said of him, about the city that night, that it was the peacefullest man’s face ever beheld there. Many added that he looked sublime and prophetic.

One of the most remarkable sufferers by the same axe—a woman—had asked at the foot of the same scaffold, not long before, to be allowed to write down the thoughts that were inspiring her. If he had given any utterance to his, and they were prophetic, they would have been these:

“I see Barsad, and Cly, Defarge, The Vengeance, the Juryman, the Judge, long ranks of the new oppressors who have risen on the destruction of the old, perishing by this retributive instrument, before it shall cease out of its present use. I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out.

“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy, in that England which I shall see no more. I see Her with a child upon her bosom, who bears my name. I see her father, aged and bent, but otherwise restored, and faithful to all men in his healing office, and at peace. I see the good old man, so long their friend, in ten years’ time enriching them with all he has, and passing tranquilly to his reward.

“I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. I see her, an old woman, weeping for me on the anniversary of this day. I see her and her husband, their course done, lying side by side in their last earthly bed, and I know that each was not more honoured and held sacred in the other’s soul, than I was in the souls of both.

“I see that child who lay upon her bosom and who bore my name, a man winning his way up in that path of life which once was mine. I see him winning it so well, that my name is made illustrious there by the light of his. I see the blots I threw upon it, faded away. I see him, fore-most of just judges and honoured men, bringing a boy of my name, with a forehead that I know and golden hair, to this place—then fair to look upon, with not a trace of this day’s disfigurement—and I hear him tell the child my story, with a tender and a faltering voice.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Not the Great Men, but the Ordinary Man makes the world.

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