The literature that every interventionist must read

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In yet another case of trolling the world, Donald Trump as announced on Twitter that launching missiles on Syria over the weekend counts as “mission accomplished.” This is his modus operandi, tweeting a foolish remark to distract attention from the bad act that he ordered. The temptation here is to wonder if he is merely unaware of George W. Bush having used the same phrase or if he wants us to spend our time wringing our hands over the failures of past administrations. This is one of the tedious aspects of dealing with trolls, wading through their flow of drivel to find what particular drop of spittle is the one that we must address.

The particulars of this attack are worthy of a separate debate, presuming we can find the time in the flood to analyze this episode. But there is a broader question to consider here, the continual refusal of Americans to understand the conflicts that we force our way into.

The distinction between Sunnis and Shi’a, Kurds and Arabs, and desert dwellers and Marsh Arabs illustrate the lack of knowledge of our leaders and among many voters during the Iraq wars, both in 1991 and 2003. Instead of working out the nature of the conflicts in country, we just kept telling the world, “Saddam bad, America good,” as if that was enough. Saddam certainly was evil, and as Christopher Hitchens reminded us often to his detriment among the comrades of his younger days, we are obliged by treaties to prevent genocides if possible and punish them when that’s as much as we can do. But when we are going to act, we have to take the nature and consequences of that action into account. Can we achieve more good than harm? Do we know what is wrong, and can we make it right? Do we have the means that we comprehend to get to the desired ends?

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Marsh Arabs

It was clear in 2003 that whatever our moral duty was, we lacked the commitment and the knowledge to justify our getting involved. First do no harm is quoted often enough to sound like a cliché, but it retains its value as a caution for busybodies.

History and politics are messy, though, and Aristotle’s claim in the Poetics that “poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular,” is instructive here. What, for example, was the cause of the First World War? I put “cause” in the singular in hopes that my readers will demur. Any memorable event in history will have a web of causes and effects weaving through it, making the derivation of lessons from the past a contingent and difficult process. By contrast, literature — a generalization of poetry — allows us to study a few universal concepts — love, justice, power, among many others — to see how such things work themselves out in human interactions.

This may sound like a writer and teacher of literature picking a fight with the department across the hall, but there is science (a whole other building on campus!) in support of what I am saying. According to the work of David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the New School for Social Research in New York, reading works of fiction has the effect of making our interactions with people in the real world better. We understand human beings when we immerse ourselves in the lives of characters.

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Graham Greene

At this point, you may have realized that I am going to recommend a book. Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, is the story of a jaded English reporter, Thomas Fowler, in Vietnam — Indochina at the time — during the last days of French control of that territory. An American, Alden Pyle, who officially represents an economic mission comes to Saigon, talking about finding a third force — not colonialists and not communists — to defend truth, justice, and the American way in southeast Asia. Pyle is called a quiet American, someone who operates in the shadows while refraining from acting like the colonial masters, but he is driven by political theory that was formulated by an author who had no direct knowledge of the region and ends up making a hash of the job.

The story is a study in futility — in Fowler’s relationships, in Pyle’s schemes, in European exploitation of the Third World. Since it was published in 1955, I can feel some professional pride for the clan of scribblers in the thought that if the Johnson administration had read it and absorbed the relevant point, the debacle of the Vietnam War could have been avoided.

In that respect, the book fits into the canon of warnings about interfering in lands that we wish to use but do not comprehend. Heart of Darkness is another example of this. And while the Francis Ford Coppola adaptation was not available to McNamara and the whiz kids, Joseph Conrad’s novel came out in 1899. Or we could have remembered that we revolted against our own colonial masters and that our experience in the Philippines was hardly a stunning success.

But none of this makes pithy slogans — though I would like to see more bumper stickers that command drivers to “Read Graham Greene!” If, however, we insist on exercising power around the globe, we need to do a lot more study. What are the conflicts? What are the available resources? What are the goals, and can they be achieved? Without having good answers to these questions, and it is clear that the Trump administration has no such answers, we have no business meddling.

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