The fun and excitement of civilization wars (fought from afar)

Believing that one is waging paramount war against the most evil enemy ever is a garden-variety psychological need, not a political or ideological conviction.

Published February 17, 2008 3:08PM (EST)

In response to my post on Friday pointing out that nobody outside of the handful of Muslim-obsessed faux-warriors is moved any longer by the Government's endless exploitation of Terrorism to secure more and more unchecked power, National Review's Mark Steyn said:

He may have a point: It's psychologically exhausting being on permanent Orange Alert, especially as the reason for it recedes further and further in the rear-view mirror. A lot of Americans are "over" 9/11, and, while the event had a lingering emotional power, the strategic challenge it exposed has not been accepted by much of the electorate.

The truth is exactly the opposite. There is nothing more psychologically invigorating than the belief that you are staring down the Greatest and Most Evil Enemy Ever in History, courageously waging glorious war for all that is Good and Just in the world. Nothing produces more pulsating feelings of excitement and nobility like convincing yourself that you are a Warrior defending Western Civilization from the greatest threat it has ever faced, following in -- even surpassing -- the mighty footsteps of the Greatest Generation and the Warrior-Crusaders who came before them.

For those who crave and glorify (though in their lives completely lack) acts of warrior courage, play-acting the role of the intrepid Warrior is uniquely satisfying. That's why nothing can fill the bottomless spare time of bored, aimless adolescents like sitting in front of a computer commanding vast armies and destructive military weapons, deployed against cunning, scary and evil enemies. That's why the Mark Steyns of every generation create such Enemies, because they are purposeless and aimless without them.

Steyn deeply flatters himself into believing that only he and his tragically small (and shrinking) band of warrior-comrades can bear the "psychologically exhausting" burden of defending The West and its freedoms. Sadly, most Americans -- he says -- are too weak, too brittle, just not up to the task of bearing the heavy burden of prosecuting the war against the omnipotent jihadi super-villains.

But not Steyn and friends. They are society's freedom fighters, the Progeny of Churchill, Patton and Napoleon, bravely and tenaciously manning the barricades of Civilization itself. They'll find a powerful and protective Warrior who leads them; advocate all sorts of fascinating technologies and complex spying schemes to wage the War; spend hour upon hour chatting about battles and tactics and strategies; and endlessly depict themselves as besieged though tenacious. Far from being "psychologically exhausting," convincing yourself that you are all that -- as Steyn and comrades explicitly do -- is to bathe oneself in self-affirming and self-glorifying virtue. Nothing could ever compete with such glory when it comes to psychological fulfillment.

Adam Smith, all the way back in 1776, in An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations, described the fun, entertainment and deep psychological fulfillment which Wars against Supremely Evil Enemies provide to many who don't have to fight them:

In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies . . . .

They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.

One finds vivid illustrations of the twisted syndrome Smith identified in most of Steyn's war cheerleading comrades, especially its leaders. From Jeffrey Goldberg's New Yorker profile of Joe Lieberman:

Lieberman likes expressions of American power. A few years ago, I was in a movie theatre in Washington when I noticed Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, a few seats down. The film was "Behind Enemy Lines," in which Owen Wilson plays a U.S. pilot shot down in Bosnia. Whenever the American military scored an onscreen hit, Lieberman pumped his fist and said, "Yeah!" and "All right!"

Far from being "psychologically exhausting," the Wars against the Most-Evil-Enemies-Ever that take place inside the head of the Mark Steyns and Joe Liebermans are exhilarating and fun, and they provide the weak, purposeless and powerless with their only opportunity to feel strong, purposeful and powerful. Here, for instance, was the response from Steyn's warrior-comrade, Andy McCarthy, to my post on Friday and to what Steyn wrote:

Glenn Greenwald? Yawn.

Wake me up when he's interviewed some of the people trying to kill us and spent a few weeks with people maimed in terrorist attacks (I'd have spoken with the dead, but they were unavailable).

Look at how personally vital -- how indispensable -- the War of Civilizations is to McCarthy, to his identity and sense of purpose. He doesn't even need to go anywhere near combat, or fight in the Wars he cheers on. He still gets to be on the front line -- a gruff, hard-nosed, no-nonsense veteran-warrior who has been in the trenches, who has stared down the ugly realities of the Civilization Wars and -- despite it all -- still soldiers on. Think of the emptiness and loss of purpose if the Threat from the Enemy were exaggerated and all of that faded away.

This is why our nation's faux-warriors can never be reasoned with. It's why their greatest fear is having the Threats from Our Enemies be put into rational perspective, alongside all the other garden-variety manageable threats we face. To argue that they are exaggerating and melodramatizing the Enemy and the threat is to take away from them that which is most personally important to them.

Just consider the grandiose, baroque rhetoric they employ. What they are defending -- today's U.S. -- is not merely good. It's not even great. It's not even the greatest thing there is on the Earth right now. No -- it's much more grand than that: it's the Greatest Country ever to exist on the Earth in all of human history. That's what they're defending; that's the magnitude of the burden they bear, the incomparable importance of the crusade they lead.

Conversely, the Enemy they are facing down (from a safe distance) is not merely threatening or evil or scary or formidable. No, it's much, much more than that. This is the greatest Enemy that exists on the planet, the most cunning and nefarious and evil force the world has ever seen -- not just now, but for all of human history. There is nothing remotely like the depravity and power of this particular Enemy -- and there never has been. Ever. Everything these faux-warriors face and defend is superlative; there has never, ever been a war like the one they are waging. None of the old rules apply. This is all unique, unknown, the first and most important of its kind.

What's most confounding about all of this is that they completely evade the most basic instruments of self-evaluation. All they have to do is look back and realize that every generation, in every country, has been plagued by factions suffering from the same self-glorifying delusions -- that they alone are the Brave Warriors willing to engage in the Most Important Battle for Civilization Ever. None of it's new. Back in 1964, Richard Hofstadter described exactly this psychological affliction in his famous Harper's essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms -- he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.

Shouldn't basic self-awareness compel the faux-warriors who read that to at least entertain the thought: "Maybe my belief that I'm waging an apocalyptic War of Civilization against The Uniquely Evil Enemy is grounded in a psychological need, one that is extremely common if I look to the past, rather than an objective assessment or any sort of political belief or ideological conviction. Maybe I'm exaggerating the threat posed in order to inflate my own importance and give myself a sense of purpose and power as I convince myself that I'm waging all-important (though risk-free) war."

Over the past couple decades, prior to the Bush Era, the people who needed the sort of psychological fulfillment that comes from prancing around as Hofstadterian faux-warriors waging Civilization Wars obtained their fulfillment from playing board and video games or, at worst, dressing up on the weekend in camouflage costumes and -- rather than playing golf or going fishing -- marched around in militia formations, primed to defend the nation from Janet Reno and her squadrons of hovering U.N. black helicopters. It was equally pathetic, but at least the damage was minimal.

But the 9/11 attacks and ensuing events catapulted their paranoia and powerlessness syndromes from clownish sideshow to dominant political faction. And their fevered, self-serving fantasies have empowered the Federal Government beyond anyone's wildest dreams, created a completely out-of-control domestic surveillance state, subordinated even the rule of law to the lawless dictates of Security State officials, and dismantled long-standing constitutional protections and political values so basic that they were previously beyond debate. In Civilization Wars, all is fair and justified -- torture, lawbreaking, domestic spying, limitless government power, because the imperative of their crusade outweighs all.

All of that is bad enough. But listening to the authors of these events martyr themselves by claiming that their crusades are "psychologically exhausting" is really too much to bear. The reason they pursue those crusades endlessly, and will continue to pursue them until stopped, is precisely because the only thing they find "psychologically exhausting" is the prospect of having to live without their Supreme War of Civilization, whereby they defend the greatest things ever, under siege from the most Evil villains ever, with them -- and only them -- courageous and tough enough to "do what needs to be done" to triumph.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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