No rough beast would ever bother slogging towards Bethlehem these days. Far easier to just fax in a book deal.
Which brings us to Neocons, AgitProp and our current situation. They were hip to this truism a long time ago.
A hallmark of Western civilization since, well that gets tricky as you will see below, but let's say since the Greeks, has been reliance on metanarratives to tell our story. A metanarrative is a story about a story — and are all around us: the “Fall of the Roman Empire”, the “Enlightenment”, etc. Metanarratives more than mere 'history' define who we are and how we understand the world. Thus Orwell was only partially right — he who controls history has only completed the first step. Then they must conjure up a compelling metanarrative to sell their version.
“Everyone knows” Rome “fell”. Gibbons said so. And we can see it all the time on Turner Classic Movies, etc. That's a metanarrative entrenched in the collective consciousness.
But parts of Western Civilization since the 1960s are no longer comfortable with the dead weight of existing metanarrativies. On the Left, one aspect of postmodernism is to attack, tear down and otherwise erode existing metanarratives in favor of new mixes, factually dense recitals that refute narrative coherence at all, etc. On the Right, particularly the religious authoritarian right, science, rationality, facts, are rejected in favor of emotion, faith, belief and authority. (It is for this reason — and embodying elements of both critiques — the Bush regime is the first postmodernist government in American history).
Neocons, as masters of AgitProp, know all this very well. Besides the Catholic Church, they may be the best meme promulgators and defenders around at the moment. But they also know that disintegration is only temporarily. Eventually human need for narrative compels a new one to emerge, usually combining both new and old. The best Neocon minds seek to control that dialectic, current operational issues in America and theMiddle East aside. Their technique is to manufacture a false historical trail. Contaminating understanding of the past helps ensure new narratives will embrace their world view.
A classic example in a microcosm are the collective works of Neocon Mater Dolorosa Gertrude Himmelfarb (wife of Irving, mother of William). For example, her “The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments” is a conscious effort to manufacture a new metanarrative about the origins of the Enlightment to justify current Neocon calls for Will to Power cloaked under Wilsonian pablum. Himmlefarb's assignment is to fabricate a metanarrative to claim current Neocon cant is inherent in and legitimate because of the accepted meme of the Enlightenment metanarrative. Her current 2006 work, “The Moral Imagination: From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling ” continues her intellectual misdirection from a different angle. Donald Kagan similarly seeks to wield a re-worked history of the Peloponnesian War to rebut Paul Kennedy and others warning of American over extension.
And now comes Max Boot, faxing it in to Bethlehem. To mention Boot in the same post as Himmelfarb and Kagan is perhaps a slight to the latter two but also emblematic at how tawdry the Neocon effort really is. To subvert the Enlightenment to Neocon ends requires a certain erudition. Similarly, for all of his intellectual slight of hand, Kagan knows a bit about the Ancient World. But what of Boot?
Over 620 pages in his “War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History 1500 to Today” is Boot's effort to explain the historical materialism that inexorably leads to Western (now American) military and thus global ascendancy. What, you might ask, are Boot's real qualifications for attempting this labor? See the comment on Yeats, supra.
Boot chose his topic wisely. A metanarrative harnessing military technology is uniquely powerful in today's America. First, technology as a disembodied res and social force still commands ritual reverance even in this Evangelical age. Second, failure in Iraq has not dimmed American respect for the military as institution.
This metanarrative one-two can pack a wallop. We remember talking with an extremely influential woman in the Imperial City lobbying world and her staff right before OIF. They had just left a meeting with Wolfowitz. He did his usual at the time rubber chicken speech about technology, transformation, blitzkrieg — blah blah blah. The effect on them was astounding. Wolfowitz's metanarrative to them was profound, learned and extremely exciting. Whatever Wolfowitz was selling, they wanted more.
We've seen this over and over. One reason Rumsfeld clung to the transformation agenda even after if became self parody within the Pentagon is because the transformation metanarrative rocks. In bureaucratic politics, that doesn't happen all that often. (Not coincidentally, Cher Condi tried to steal some of this sex appeal by calling for 'Transformational Diplomacy“ (whatever that is) in 2005). Boot the pamphleteer instinctively chose well.
Thus we were glad to see the Grand Master of Western Civilization and military technology history take Boot's metanarrative apart with a scalpel. William H. McNeill's ”The Rise of the West“ and ”The Pursuit of Power“ are such longstanding monumental feats of scholarship on the subjects of technology, polity and military affairs that they alone helped establish our consensual narrative on these topics. One would think they would give pause to Boot. Or at least require adroit recognition. Apparently not.
McNeill tactfully but relentlessly reveals Boot to be an unimaginative and inaccurate regurgitator of well known Western history. McNeill explains how this bloated effort ends in a confused, incohorent pastiche of military transformation and 4th generation warfare memes. To the Stiftung this suggests that Boot's editor just gave up towards the end.
According to McNeill, Boot selects examples of technology or political developments in 4 time periods as exemplifying why the West, in Boot's formulation, is so dominant. McNeill deconstructs Boot's narrative by simply noting factually time and time again how Boot misunderstands, misinforms or mistakenly selected either hackneyed examples or the wrong ones while missing far more mpactful and important technologicial, military and societal developments.
McNeill's devastating factual critique of Boot's clumsy metanarrative succeeds as a technique far more effectively than the postmodernist critiques of the West attempted in their hey day. Irony comes in all shapes and sizes.
Facts, erudition and true understanding are too much for Booth's patently synthetic, Google-based metanarrative. McNeill concludes:
Had he looked more closely at how French efforts to spread liberty and equality among neighboring Europeans backfired between 1793 and 1815, his observations about the future of our ”war on terror" might have been more persuasive. More generally, if he did not assume that technical advances in weaponry, together with appropriate modifications of command and control, guarantee success in war, his understanding of the past and future of warfare would be more plausible.
Overall, I feel that Boot's focus on four separate and distinct military revolutions since 1500 is misleading. Change is pervasive and continual. Fixing on a few periods and aspects of military innovation, as he does, imposes far too tight a corset on the sprawling confusion of human affairs. By schematizing his story so drastically, he minimizes surprises and almost entirely overlooks the larger human setting—moral and intellectual as well as social and economic—within which wars are fought. Professional fighting men are not wholly autonomous and the perpetual social flux within which they, like everyone else, actually exist needs always to be taken into account when trying to understand their victories and defeats.
So where does that leave us, Dear Reader? Here we are riffing off McNeill's narrative at a remove. We've never even held Boot's opus and don't intend to. We aren't bothered that much. We needn't step in it to know what the smell and look reveal.
Tags: Neocons, War, Iraq, Transformation, Post Modern