On the Playing Fields of Suburbia

If you fly over Scottsdale, Arizona, and look down at the vast brown desert, here and there you see little ribbons of green fairways, with country-club communities clustered around them like reeds around ponds—tile-roofed McMansions with mouse-pad lawns and little blue dots where the backyard spas are. Along the nearby roadways you can see massive two-tier malls. In the front tier are strings of chain restaurants that, if they merged, could form Chili's Olive Garden Outback Cantina, serving enough chicken wings to fill a canyon. In the back tier a line of megastores stretches out like a parade of pachyderms: Target, Petsmart, OfficeMax, Lowe's, and Barnes & Noble. Cutting diagonally across the empty parking spaces in between are ninety-eight-pound women in aerobics outfits steering 4,000-pound SUVs (these days, the smaller the woman, the bigger the car). If a modern Pied Piper came down to round up all the kids, it would be called The Gathering of Ashleys, and hundreds of cheerful ten-year-old girls would pour out of the Gaps and Abercrombies and Wal-Marts, drawn by the piping of Britney Spears. They'd have their peach tank tops, their 2 Grrrls brand strawberry-scented spritz, and their pink backpacks, and they'd be led, mesmerized, to soccer practice.

As I looked down on this scene from the air, one question popped into my head: Is this nation really ready to fight a war? From this vantage point America's culture seems better suited to produce Temptation Island 2 contestants than soldiers who can withstand the rigors of combat. From up here we seem too affluent and comfortable to be tough-minded, too cosseted by our own peace and prosperity to endure conflict.

If one wonders about this sort of thing, it's helpful to consult the writing of the historian Victor Davis Hanson. In different guises Hanson comes down on both sides of the issue, and so is doubly illuminating.

Hanson is a Jeffersonian, contemptuous of much of the commercial American culture he sees around him. The suburban information-age man, he writes in his book The Land Was Everything (2000), lives in a world of dross—"video games, romance novels, plastic Santa Clauses, and three-pound bags of Snickers." He is a pampered and conforming creature who "depends on someone else for everything from his food to his safety."

Obsequiousness, rather than independence, is more likely to feed his family ... his entire ideology [is] no ideology at all other than the expectation of material surfeit and liberty to enjoy his gains as he sees fit.

Hanson believes that farmers and people who work with their hands are the ones who embody the virtues that make countries strong. They are independent and resilient, stewards of the land in times of peace and courageous when called to war. And Hanson matches word with deed. He lives in the same farmhouse that his family has lived in for five generations. He leads a life half cerebral (he founded the classics program at California State University at Fresno) and half muscular (he still works his farm, growing grapes, apricots, plums, and peaches, which drains his academic income and then some). Farming for him, as for most family farmers, is no easy task. He writes in The Land Was Everything,

Agriculture, I think, will always be war. At the conflict's most dramatic, during an unseasonable storm or foreclosure warning, the agrarian fight becomes real bloodletting, a brutal, horrific, yet sometimes heroic experience.

Even in normal times there are struggles with weeds and pests, family squabbles, ruinous prices, developers, and sprawl. Hanson believes that the fundamental lessons in life are learned painfully, and that farming teaches that the land is permanent and individuals are temporary. Farming, he feels, inculcates a tragic view of life: bad things happen, and character is determined by how one accepts the hand of fate.

Reading Hanson the Jeffersonian, and observing how far the nation has traveled from the heroic, struggling life he celebrates, one may despair. But Hanson is also a military historian. He has noticed that Western constitutional democracies produce incredibly lethal armies. Though individualistic and loose, these democracies are able to defeat disciplined, fanatical, and even barbarous dictatorships. They can do this, Hanson argues, because they have inherited Greek ideas: Science should not be subservient to religion, so democracies are usually technologically superior to their enemies. Citizens are entitled to private property, so democracies tend to be capitalist, and thus richer. Dissent is encouraged, so war aims and strategies are honed through argument, and junior officers can improvise. People are equal, so countrymen feel that they are all in the fight together—hence they battle with greater loyalty to one another. Hanson has explored these themes in a series of books, The Western Way of War (1989), The Soul of Battle (1999), and Carnage and Culture (2001). He is proud of how America has responded to the war against terrorism, and confident that it will triumph.

I phoned Hanson and asked him to reconcile his optimism about the current war effort with his pessimism about the state of American culture. He explained that America's institutions remain strong even if its culture is growing weak. Much as I admire Hanson, I'm not sure I was persuaded, because, as he himself emphasizes in his books, war is really a test of a nation's civilization. And yet I sense that many people share both Hanson's anxiety and his confidence. America does seem at once crass and materialistic and strong and indomitable. The problem is that we have lost the ability to explain our strength to ourselves. In the eighteenth century it was easy to see how a nation of yeoman farmers could put aside their ploughs and fight for independence. Their rugged lives prepared them for the struggle. In the nineteenth century it was easy to see how a nation of hardy pioneers could slog through a brutal civil war and then propel the nation to global pre-eminence. Even in the twentieth century it was easy to see how a population of tough factory hands and Depression-hardened workers could translate their survival skills to the battlefields of Europe. But what about now, in an age of mass affluence and office parks, an age in which so many people lead their lives in front of keyboards and video screens?

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David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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