Thursday, December 1, 2011

The tragedy of G. F. Kennan

I've just started reading John Lewis Gaddis's new biography of George Kennan, who I suppose I've spent the last 15 years or so thinking of as a personal hero (I would have done, anyway, if I were the sort of fellow who had personal heroes). It will likely be a great while before I finish it, though, so don't hold your breath for a review; the book is 800 pages, I'm an extremely slow reader, and I'm always working my way through five or six books at a time. You're more likely to get another Pentagonese lesson in the meantime.

For now, you really ought to read Todd Purdum's piece in the forthcoming issue of Vanity Fair. It's called "One Nation, Under Arms." Purdum artfully splices brief reflections from his exploration of Kennan's collected papers with a pessimistic assessment of our collective capacity to halt the campaign of national disfigurement foisted on us by the unfortunate Kennan and his fellow architects of the national security state. Here's my favorite bit:
A theme that runs through page after page of Kennan’s writings—from his astonishment at the leisure culture that thrived in Southern California during his first visits there, in the post–World War II period, to his mordant commentaries on the Reagan era—is a profound love of country tempered by deep disappointment at the ways in which the modern United States has so often been willing to settle for the wasteful, the trivial, the second-rate. In Box 286, one finds a speech to the National Defense University, in 1985, in which Kennan sounded just these themes as he reflected on the broader meaning of containment.
“There is much in our own life, here in this country,” Kennan said, “that needs early containment. It could in fact be said that the first thing we Americans need to learn to contain is, in some ways, ourselves: our own environmental destructiveness; our tendency to live beyond our means and to borrow ourselves into disaster; our apparent inability to reduce a devastating budgetary deficit.”
The old diplomat lived long enough to see another two decades where such tendencies escaped containment; he'd find little to surprise him among the depths we've plumbed in recent months. It's tough to look back over Kennan's diaries and letters in the last decades of his life, to see his disappointment and powerlessness in the face of the un-killable multi-trillion dollar mutant his ideas helped to feed. If that guy spent 101 years feeling frustrated, what's left for the rest of us to do?

Almost makes you want to retire from this business, pack up your books, and move to a place that's never heard of Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Buck McKeon, "bomb power," or extraordinary rendition. Almost.


  1. The problem with the entire national security apparatus is that it is a collection of children who never gave up on childish views of the world. Cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, black and white. We love containment with a whiff of danger, the thrill that a war and some good fitrep bullets may be coming, more gear, more contracts, more whatever. We believe we are pure and noble, but the longer we rattle around in this hamster wheel, the more our interests are confused with national interests are confused with absolute truths and universal laws. This, combined with Kennan's views of American excesses, is what has brought us here.

  2. "Almost makes you want to retire from this business, pack up your books, and move to a place that's never heard of Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Buck McKeon, 'bomb power,' or extraordinary rendition. Almost."

    So what's holding you back?

  3. So what's holding you back?

    Hopes of getting rich?

  4. My apologies Gulliver--didn't mean to be sarcastic. Just simply asking what you would do otherwise.

    I'm kinda in "this business," too. I work for a non-profit, spending a good amount of time in far-flung places (including Afghanistan) but live in a place that's only protested Raytheon, Lockheed and extraordinary rendition (west LA). We do good work, I hope. Our budget is a fraction of a percent of what the US government spends on foreign assistance. We can only do so much which, in a way, is a good thing: we have our limits. But how do I know what we're doing--what I do on a daily basis--is all worth it? I really don't know, but the experiences and challenges I encounter seem to make it worth my while.

    Andrew Sullivan had a relevant post a couple days ago:

    I think from time to time we all have that dream of packing up our books and moving to a mountain cabin or beach bungalow and really living life. Sometimes though we have to muddle through and use our current station in life as a means to something better. For folks like us, we should learn from Kennan that there is no guarantee of something better in "this business."

  5. I'm with you here my man. There's no stopping the mutant. I am intensely alienated from "the business;" so much so that I've abandoned my ambition to be a voice in it. Arguing for restraint, humility, and caution gets you ignored. I find this deeply disturbing.

    It's better, if you want to be a voice in "the business," to be like Max Boot--"Invade Syria!" "Occupy Libya!" Stuff like that gets one taken seriously. This too I find disturbing.

    After 8 years in uniform and 3 more working for Defense, I packed up my books and went to the Department of Transportation (a slightly less malignant arm of the mutant). It's helped my frustration levels--copious amounts of bourbon helps too--and I feel less outraged by my job. My job switch didn't address the mutant itself, but it has helped me live with myself. Which is nice.

  6. For folks like us, we should learn from Kennan that there is no guarantee of something better in "this business."

    This is right on the money, and really the point I was getting at: Kennan may not have realized all his dreams (Secretary of State, for example), but he was hugely influential on U.S. foreign and security policy. And yet the lesson of his career seems to be that no matter how high you climb on the greasy pole, it's never high enough to ensure that one's influence is consistent with one's preferences.

    (Or something like that.)

  7. Keith -- Thanks for the comment. But as I've said to Matt in another context (and with apologies for the self-aggrandizement embedded in this sentiment): if not us, then who? Herman Cain? Doug Feith? Our many peers to whom it never occurs that the status quo may be structurally bankrupt?

  8. Well, the mutant will stop if we run out of money or lose the influence. This game has only been in play for sixty years. I wonder what drives it. Is it hubris, a belief in Pax Americana, Manifest Destiny, the Nation-State system, capitalism, and modernity? It is not constrained to partisan politics. Both neo-liberal and neo-conservative doctrine want to change the world into more of our image albeit through different means.

  9. The theme of my book: rethinking America's quest for the end of history. How we need to be more exemplar and less crusader. How our quest to fix this and manage that and promote stability is bankrupt. It all makes me very, very angry. I got a note from an old sage the other day talking about perceptions of the war in Afghanistan. I extrapolated from his words that below about the O-5 level, most think we are on a strategic fool's errand. Above that level, many seem to mindlessly believe. There was a reference to people with their hats in the ring for higher command. I think that these folks truly confuse their interests with those of the country. They do this at a subconscious level, in that their interests color their perception of the country's interest.

    Then there are the truly crazy people, like Max Boot, who run their mouth but never have to back it up.

  10. This is kind of related

  11. Another great observation, on the civil-military divide, from "One Nation, Under Arms":

    "The dynamic between the two societies will become only more unhealthy. The civilian class can deploy the warriors at will, knowing that most Americans will remain unaffected. In turn, the military class can demand what it wishes, knowing that the civilians have no standing to resist."

    We're only beginning to recognize the down side of an all-volunteer force, almost 40 years later. The AVF has created a escalating circle of disengagement and resentment between civilian and military worlds. It's corrosive to strong civilian control and to military ethics.

    I've written about the civil-military divide, why it grew, and how to repair it in "A More Perfect Military: How the Constitution Can Make Our Military Stronger" (Oxford University Press 2010). It argues that military ethics and culture should be grounded in the Constitution, not walled off as an exception to the Constitution.