War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning

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Via Julian Sanchez, I came upon a quote from Christopher Hitchens that I hadn't encountered before. It runs:

In order to get my own emotions out of the way, I should say briefly that on that day I shared the general register of feeling, from disgust to rage, but was also aware of something that would not quite disclose itself. It only became fully evident quite late that evening. And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration. I am not particularly a war lover, and on the occasions when I have seen warfare as a traveling writer, I have tended to shudder. But here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan. (Those are the ones I love, by the way.) On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.

This reminds me of nothing so much as the passage early in Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy, when the protagonist, Guy Crouchback, feels similar stirrings (albeit with vastly different political motivations) upon hearing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact:

The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.


Julian, riffing on Hitchens' remarks, expresses anger at George W. Bush for failing to nurture and sustain that rush of euphoria, of fervor in a righteous cause: "Before we could catch more than a glimpse through the window" that 9/11 opened, he writes, "it snapped shut." In my more anti-Bush moments, I sometimes feel the same way, but I'm not sure it's fair to imagine that the feelings that Hitchens and Waugh describe could have been sustained - or, for that matter, to imagine that it would have been a good thing, for America or the world, if they had been sustained. "It is well that war is so terrible," Robert E. Lee famously remarked at Fredericksburg, "or we should grow too fond of it." Much of what has gone wrong in the Bush years has been a matter of his Administration's misguided overreaching, but some of it is simply a matter of the unrefinable awfulness of war, which wasn't visible in those first stirring days after 9/11 but which would have become visible eventually no matter who occupied the Oval Office. And looking back on the feelings that Hitchens describes, and Julian celebrates, and that I myself shared (though I wouldn't frame them in quite the same way, since secularism, skepticism, and cosmopolitanism are not my first loves), I sometimes feel as Guy Crouchback did at the end of his own war - in a passage I've quoted before - years after his initial burst of enthusiasm:

"Is there any place that is free from evil? It is too simple to say that only the Nazis wanted war. These Communists wanted it too. It was the only way in which they could come to power. Many of my people wanted it, to be revenged on the Germans, to hasten the creation of the national state. It seems to me there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed. They would accept hardships in recompense for having been selfish and lazy. Danger justified privilege. I knew Italians-not very many perhaps-who felt this. Were there none in England?"

"God forgive me," said Guy. "I was one of them."

Though of course, as faithful Atlantic readers know, Hitchens didn't much care for the Sword of Honour trilogy.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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