March 18, 2013

"One of the things we Americans are worst at is sympathizing with the casualties we inflict."

David Bromwich: on the Rand Paul “Convergence”

 …During the Cold War we faced an enemy that could annihilate us, as we could annihilate them if there were a nuclear war. And yet we didn’t commit all of our resources to war. We didn’t think of ourselves as a nation at war. Now we do, and it’s a terrible thing, and it’s not being talked about.

David Bromwich at Yale, in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 2013

David Bromwich is my favorite “close reader” of the American story in the Age of Obama. He’s the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, found also at HuffPo and the London Review of Books. His lens on politics is literary. Sweeping a wide horizon, his focus is on language, ideas, rhetoric and character. His biggest disappointment in the Obama years, he’s saying here, is the seal the president has place on “aberrational policies” initiated by George Bush and Dick Cheney — not (mercifully) including torture.

We’ve gone from massive invasion and bombing to this sort of selective, more antiseptic strategy of drone warfare. But the idea that we’re in a war — it’s not called the global war on terror anymore — but that we’re in a war; that the war is perhaps endless; and that serious, mature judgment should favor the intelligent tactics for prosecuting the war, rather than questioning it completely… What’s needed from people of any radically constitutional temper is to break that and do the sort of thing that Rand Paul lately urged, namely vote again on the authorization for the use of force from 2001…

RP filibusI came with questions about Senator Rand Paul’s electrifying impromptu filibuster against the Drone War. Were we getting a glimpse of the long-bruited “convergence” of rebel spirits “right and left” against the permanent war? The bridge between Rand Paul and Glenn Greenwald on drone warfare looks like the bridge Ralph Nader imagined with Rand’s father Ron Paul last year on state capitalism. Can Rand Paul’s words on the Senate floor bridge Tea Party and OCCUPY angers, over a stagnant mainstream?

Professor Bromwich saw more of Rand Paul’s 13-hour marathon than I did, with some of the same awe. Not since the Vietnam debates in the 1970s had we heard “a sustained performance of persuasive argument, whether you were persuaded or not.” And still we feel it’s what lawmakers ought to be able to do: master an issue and speak their convictions. “Most Americans under 50 can’t remember any such thing. Am I right?” Bromwich puzzled. “There’s no other living politician who has exemplified this ability — which seems native to and necessary to constitutional government.”

Like Senator Paul, David Bromwich could leave you asking: what’s not to argue about here?

My reaction to drone warfare is uncomplicated. I find it terrifying and I find it a portent of a future where total surveillance is combined with a possibility of violence occuring anywhere, any time, against victims chosen by a state, somewhere. That’s very close to Orwell’s image of a future…

What the distant “deciders” of death underestimate, in the Bromwich view, is the perspective of people on the ground.

What they don’t, I think, grasp is what it must be like for the relative, the mother, father, child, close friend, of somebody who’s suddenly hit by one of these missiles. The whole world is blasted. The person’s annihilated, not a scrap of him left. And it comes from the sky and you know it comes from the United States. I think the emotion, the passion that invades a person seeing that happen to someone you care for must be: murder in your heart. There must be a feeling so strong one can’t compare to what happens in a shooting war or even under massive bombing. It so specific, it seems so aimed, it seems so god-like, and it seems so evil.

This impact of drone warfare which has been testified to by civilians in Pakistan, by tribesmen in Pakistan and elsewhere, just doesn’t seem to hit home with Americans. But I think in a funny way that sympathy with it was reflected in the filibuster we saw a few days ago. And it may awaken people a little bit. One of the things we Americans are worst at is sympathizing with the casualties we inflict. This is true of Vietnam and Iraq — where in Vietnam we killed, who knows, 2-millions and upward; in Iraq, a half million or a million. And yet, no talk about it. No talk about it, ever! But individuate it to the one person, the woman or man who sees a member of their family, or a close friend, blown up like that by a drone. I think that could strike people.

That kind of shooting seems to me utterly corrupting of American morale, and to encourage a kind of violence so abstract and so remote one can’t even see what a future humanity would be like that followed this example.

David Bromwich at Yale, in conversation with Chris Lydon, March 2013

And of course, David Bromwich is invoking also the subject of his biography-in-progress, Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797), the great Irish Whig in England’s Parliament. Friend of the American Revolution, scourge of the French, Burke was the patron saint of William F. Buckley’s conservative revival back in the day. But as the ferocious prosecutor of Warren Hastings for the predatory crimes of the East India Company in India, Burke could serve again as a paragon of the coming convergence. Burke stood, as David Bromwich is reminding me, for the restraint of power, for empire as “a generous partnership with other peoples,” for “a natural equality of mankind at large” and for a code of imperial justice to enforce it.

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