YOU HAVE been reading “The Sorrow of War” by Bao Ninh, the classic account of what in Vietnam is called the American war. The title of Bao Ninh’s novel captures the feeling of grief and loss that always comes in the wake of violent conflict. Allowing room for fear, grief, and loss must define the dominant experience in Iraq today, where the suffering caused by this American war mounts inexorably.
But sorrow has also emerged as a note of life in the Unites States lately. Many comparisons are drawn between this nation’s misadventures in Iraq and Vietnam, but what you are most aware of is the return of a clenched feeling in your chest, a knot of distressed sadness that is tied to your country’s reiteration of the tragic error. After the chaotic end of the Vietnam War in 1975, you were like many Americans in thinking with relief that the nation would never know — or cause — such sorrow again.
The sorrow is back. Everywhere you go, friends greet one another with a choked acknowledgment of a nearly unspeakable frustration at what unfolds in Iraq. This seems true whether people oppose the war absolutely, or only on pragmatic terms; whether they want US troops out at once, or over time. Even about those distinctions, little remains to be said. Bush’s contemptuous carelessness, his inner circle’s corrupt enabling, the Pentagon’s dependable launching of folly after folly, the Democrats’ ineffectual kibitzing, even your heartfelt concern for the troops — these subjects have exhausted themselves. The “surge” of the January escalation was preceded by the surge of public anguish that resulted in Republican losses in November. That election was a stirring rejection of the administration’s purposes in Iraq, a rejection promptly seconded by the Iraq Study Group. But so what? Bush’s purposes hold steady, and their poison tide now laps at Iran.
Why should you not be demoralized and depressed? But the sorrow of war goes deeper than the mistaken policies of a stubborn president. Next to Bao Ninh’s book on your shelf stands “The Sorrows of Empire” by Chalmers Johnson. That title suggests how far into the bone of your nation the pins of this problem are sunk. In effect, the disastrous American war in Iraq is the text, while America’s militarized way of being in the world is the context. Armed power at the service of US economic sway has made a putative enemy of a vast population around the globe, and that enemy’s vanguard are the terrorists. Violent opposition to the American agenda increases with each surge from Washington, whatever its character. Both text and context reveal that every dream of empire brings sorrow, obviously so to the victims of imperial violence, but also to the imperial dreamers, whether or not they consciously associate with what is being done in their name.
But the word sorrow implies more than grief and loss. The palpable sadness of a people reluctantly at war can push toward a fuller moral reckoning with the condition of a nation that has made its own economic supremacy an absolute value. To take on the question of an economy advanced with little regard for its sustainability, much less for its justice, implies a move away from the focus on Bush’s venality to a broader responsibility. How do the sorrows of war and empire implicate you?
The simplest truth is that the economic system that so benefits you is steadily eroding democracy by transferring the power to shape the future, both within states and among them, to ever smaller elites. At the same time, wealth multiplies and concentrates itself, while impoverishing more and more human beings. Everything from US oil consumption, to global trade structures, to the iron law of cheap labor, to immigration policies, to the psychology of the gated community, to the gated idea of national sovereignty, to the distractions of celebrity culture — all of this supports what is called the American way of life. Yours. If finally seen to be the source of multiple sorrows at home and abroad, can this way of life prompt a deeper confrontation with its true costs and consequences? You need not reduce social ills to personal morality — or let Bush off the hook for his wholly owned war — to acknowledge the complicity attached to mere citizenship in a war-making, imperial nation. In that case, can you measure your sorrow against the word’s other meaning, which is contrition?
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.
Copyright 2007 The Boston Globe