Monday, December 11, 2006

Bellamy's Buzzer

Our first winter here in Massachusetts is just beginning. We have house squirrels, I think. I'm told that when the wind chills, they take refuge where they can. I don't like squirrels in my house, between the ceilings and floors, banging and nibbling acorns up there, unseen. If only I could reason with them, and strike a bargain. Ah, the life of a country squire...

There's a lot of buzz about 'next moves' -- what to do in Iraq, with Iran, and North Korea. What will Hezbollah's next move be in Lebanon and Israel? What of our lame duck president, for two years coming? The Democrats have the helm now, more or less. Maybe they'll bumble onto something positive. Obama seems like a breath of fresh air.

I've been trying to draw my own personal conclusion about the war in Iraq. I was for it. At the war's outset, the cause seemed justified, a gamble I thought worth taking. It seemed positive in the face of the alternative, which was to continue fiddling in the corridors of the UN and in the salons of Arabia and Europe while Saddam would break apart the sanctions regime. Maybe it was just me, but in 2003 the option for more circular diplomacy and realpolitik seemed pessimistic and hopelessly spent in the wake of 9/11.

But I won't kid you. My optimism clouded my better judgement. I mistook a clear view for a short distance. It's not practicable to throw democracy into a region that's never known it, like a hand grenade. Once it explodes, everyone is supposed to head for the polls and be good citizens. Well alright, it was never sold as being that simple, but I admit that I had a few dreams in the fantasy lounge, inspired by Cool Aid. So be it. I'm a dreamer. There most certainly is little room left for peaceable dreams of any kind for the Middle East.

I might say that Project Iraqi Democracy could've worked out more positively under more competent leadership. I might say that it would've been useful to have a few more friends on our side in Europe and elsewhere. And that we played the war too safe, if you can believe that. We should've doubled our effort, and been more serious about nation building. But those things aren't really the whole nut. Not even the war is the whole nut.

Iraq might possibly be the last war this country will fight against another one, in the traditional sense. After this, it's more likely to be America versus various private armies. Empowered by the Internet, black market economies, ideology and fluctuating alliances, such armies will merit enough traction to burst forth in mass-murderous fury, then shrink away like black violets. Many will be Islamic; some will not. Perhaps in the process of these battles, America will also break down into a collection of little armies with global reach. It's nowhere I want to be.

Iraq is a crossover war: It started Clauswitzian, and became fourth generation. Fourth generation warfare can perpetuate anarchy, which is normally short-lived in the vacuum of power. A peculiar rough parity between violent private armies seems to have settled in on places like Iraq, and parts of Afghanistan -- not to mention the Palestinian territories, southern Lebanon and vast tracts of Africa. This may be the omen from Iraq, offering a glimpse into our not too distant future. Or the parity may be temporary, and I just can't see past it.

Under duress, we think of ourselves as a country. We rely on patriotic lore and national will to pull us through war, blight, and now terrorism. I think that most people sense that the bedrock of our national identity is at play in this era. It isn't just Iraq, or Al Qaeda. It's everything. In the 1990s we celebrated high tech companies that came out of nowhere and unseated industry gorillas. Technology is enabling. It clears the decks and capsizes ships. By that measure, it's exciting, especially if the disruption is tied to a bit of equity with your name on it. But decentralization and disruption spares nothing. It not only capsizes companies and industries, but countries too. For now, we can go on pretending that our sovereignty is assured. We gas our cars and water our lawns in the face of a mighty wind, my friends.

* * *

After we tuck our toddler daughter into bed, my wife and I enjoy our evening cocoa stirred with a Netflix show. Right now we're watching all 1,232,849 episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs. After thirty-plus years, it still captivates. It transports one to the Belle Epoch years over six seasons, then into World War I and the Roaring 20s, set in classist England.

Upstairs, Downstairs takes place in a high-class London home, whose master is a Member of Parliament, Lord Richard Bellamy and his family. The upstairs of the house is the living quarters of the elite Bellamys; the downstairs is the working quarters of the lower class servants and tradesmen, led by the head butler, Mr. Hudson. The series examines the intricate interrelationship of the two classes under one roof. Over the many episodes the class system, the fabric of British culture at the time, frays to the forces of world war, industrialism, technological modernity and socialism.

One of the first innovative uses of electricity at the Bellamy residence merely replaced the bells-and-pulley system that rang the servants from throughout the house. The bells gave way to lights and buzzers; the ropes and pulleys to wires and buttons. They imagined that electricity would simply buttress the world they preferred to know -- not destroy it.

Midway through Upstairs, Downstairs, the Bellamys' son, James, becomes a Major in the King's Army during World War I. He winds up commanding machine gunners in France. Over the course of the war, he is transformed from being a young upper-class wastrel to a disenchanted, weary and shell-shocked man. He decries the war as senseless; an appalling waste of millions of men chopped down by death machines in the service of an immoral order. "Nobody's going to win this war," he tells his father, the M.P. "There can be no disagreement so egregious to justify this carnage."

A popular sentiment among the hawks in the current war amounts to this lament: "If only we could summon the will to fight our avowed terrorist enemies in a spirit of patriotism like in World War II." I've thought that myself, more than a few times. I breezed over the inevitable screeds on Pearl Harbor Day, reminiscing when we responded patriotically, which carried us through the long haul to victory. That's the happy-ending story often told.

Patriotism was enormously important for fueling the armies of the Great War that clashed in the Somme and Verdun. Theirs was the more unquestioning variety of patriotism that is demanded today. But what a strange beast those hapless patriots were sacrificed to. Millions of farmers, bakers, and tradesmen on all sides were shoveled into the maw of an uncomprehending, self-serving beast in denial about it's own immorality. Into the Beast's jowls they marched, dispatched in part by their sense of duty to God and King. Regardless of victory, the center did not hold, no matter which sovereign's honor they defended. Larger forces were at play.

We should be careful of what we wish for. "Acting as one" is the password to the Beast's lair. We live in an era where established centers are imploding. We're all an integral part of the process. It doesn't mean we should just give up and give ourselves to despair. But neither should we fantasize about the glory of past wars that were inglorious. It was one of civilization's lowest points.

Clicking on the 'Buy Now' button for cheap Chinese-made goods at, we're little different than Lord Bellamy summoning servants with his new-fangled electric buzzer for afternoon tea. Like him, we want to believe that all this technology is only here to make life as we know it better, easier and more efficient. We can't imagine that the present has no future. So we tell ourselves stories, hoping they become history someday.

'Twas ever thus.