John McCain is a war hero, and with his emergence as the Republican nominee apparent, it seems likely that we will be hearing much about his heroism and suffering as a P.O.W. for the next seven months of McCain as a war hero. I have been thinking about heroism after reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, her harrowing study of the centrality of death in the American Civil War.
The unprecedented scale of death in the Civil War, some 660,000 soldiers alone, created unprecedented physical and metaphysical crises for those who survived the war. At the heart of the moral dilemma of the Civil War, is that in any war: large numbers of people of people die in vain, and there is inevitably a grotesque disproportion between noble war aims and the hard cruel fact of killing people in vast numbers. And many find it difficult to stare the essential meaningless of war in the face, and inevitably, there are those who argue, indeed insist, that those who died did not do so in vain. And the problem is perhaps even greater in so-called “good wars,” wars that, after its carnage is completed, seems to have accomplished some laudable objective, like the abolition of slavery or the elimination of Nazism.
Faust closes the book by discussing Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, almost killed at the Battle of Antietam, emblematic of a generation of Northern intellectuals for whom the war destroyed their “belief in beliefs.” But one belief Holmes retained was a view of the Civil War, that as Faust puts it, “hailed death as an end it itself,” wherein “the very purposelessness of sacrifice created its purpose. “ Or to quote Holmes; “In the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, that faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has no notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.”
The Civil War, as I suggested, probably should be classified as a “good war.” The War in Vietnam was not, and was an obscene, unnecessary, and futile pursuit that killed somewhere like a million Vietnamese and over 58,000 American soldiers, and did untold damage to Vietnam and the United States for a generation. But bad wars can create as many heroes as good wars, and as in all wars, heroism can blot out all that it is sordid and incomprehensible in the spectacle of humans killing other humans in large numbers, and can become central to a nation’s civic religion, especially when, as Holmes’s suggests, people have a problems finding other things to believe in. (In 2004 the Democrats tried also the Vietnam war hero route, only to find that John Kerry really didn’t qualify, because he departed from Holmes’s script, and refused to blindly accept his duty and criticized the war, and therefore was not really a hero and everything else about his war service was suspect. The only heroes from Vietnam that count are those, like McCain, that imbue the essential meaningless of the war with a retrospective meaning and clarity.)
I have been thinking a lot about suicide recently, and I am struck how much Holmes’s declaration seems like a form of civic suicide, a willingness to throw one’s life away in an effort to prove you are willing to throw your life away. And when enough people are willing to commit civic suicide, nations can die, as did, for instance, the Romanov, Hapsburg, and Hohenzollern dynasties from 1914 to 1918. I wouldn’t say that the War in Iraq has been an instance of civic suicide, but perhaps can be classified as an example of what experts call “parasuicidal behavior” like drinking a fifth of Scotch before getting into your car and driving along a twisty road at 80 miles an hour.
John McCain is a genuine war hero, and one whose heroism involved great personal loss and physical and spiritual pain. But his suffering does not ennoble the cause he was fighting for in Vietnam, nor can it bring a positive meaning to the meaningless charnel house the United States created in Iraq. Brecht, in a famous line from “The Life of Galileo” wrote that “unhappy the land that needs heroes.” The United States today is a deeply unhappy land. But one thing that it definitely does not need, as its president, is a hero.