Saturday, December 22, 2007

This is a book review, imperfectly mirrored here, from late 2004.

I have in my hand a copy of The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great. It is a magnificent book, and that is not a statement I make lightly.

It is also directly relevant to where we -- America, conservatives, the Republican Party, any and all of these three -- stand right now.


(Before I go any farther, I note that a less politically relevant review is posted back on my home blog here.)

Virtues is a first-person novel of Alexander's spoken autobiography, basically told in the last short years before his early demise. (His biography can be found here.) The story begins, in classic epic fashion, in media res, with Alexander the head of the greatest Empire ever known, but with his men unable to keep up with his unyielding ambition for kleos, and tracks, from the beginning, haphazardly through Alexander's life, more or less continuously, with returns to the narrative present, each time teaching a different "virtue" in war.

Why is this relevant to the conservative project, to the Republican Party, and America?

It is easy, now, as Americans, to turn to triumphalism: We are unmatched, the world over. No nation could stand against us. Indeed, I'm not entirely sure a coalition of nations could. We are preeminent, not merely in war, but in commerce, in culture, in hegemony. Insofar as the Soviet Union was ever a match for us -- and, as Ronald Reagan long suspected, she was not -- we have outstripped our greatest rival as surely and as well as Alexander outstripped Darius, the Emperor of Persia. Truthfully, the terrorist networks and small dictators we face cannot kill us; they can but badly wound us before we annihilate them. But it is not in the American character to leave a challenge or threat, once identified, standing; we must conquer it.

It is easy, as Republicans, to turn to triumphalism: Our political enemies (whom I stress are assuredly not our actual, life-and-death enemies) are so thoroughly whipped that they are having trouble figuring out what it means to be a Democrat, and why being a Democrat has become electoral poison; utterly isolated, electorally; and, quite frankly, probably headed on a sharp decline for the foreseeable future. We still remember too well the long six decades of the New Deal, when the Republican Party could be easily defined as "Democrat Lite," and, quite honestly, want to do the same thing to our former tormentors. (Fortunately, they seem to be doing it for us: Somewhere, manufacturers of the world's smallest violins are ramping up production.)

It is hard -- even for folks given to constant pessimism, as we frequently are -- for conservatives not to be over-proud, for our opponents have reacted (or at least some have) to abject humiliation by descending into paranoid madness, and accusing over half of their countrymen of the worst sins (they can imagine). As the battles over abortion, marriage, and indeed, our nation's whole cultural attitude are slowly showing, we are winning. We're actually winning. And the Left knows it, and rails in impotent fury.

And in all of those is the danger, both internally and externally. We face the same, twin dangers Alexander did: Of allowing our fire, our inner spirit, our pride, our possession of overwhelming power, to corrupt us from the inside -- a battle Alexander fought to varying degrees of effectiveness; and of allowing that fire to bank, and leave us cold, with no strength to push our majority farther, to accomplish those same ends that Roosevelt managed seven decades ago.

Externally, Alexander's daimon, and his growing embrace of it, lead him to conquests such as no man had ever dared dream. It drove him over ten thousand miles from the place of his birth, in a time when speed of horse or a fast trireme was the best one might accomplish. By land mass, it has had few peers; in the cultures and civilizations conquered, it has had perhaps four equivalents, in the Soviet Union, the Mongol Conquests, the Roman Empire, and China at her greatest reach.

And it drove Alexander to accomplish terrible things, to attack those who not only had done him and his no harm, but who had never wanted to do him harm. Conquest became an end in itself. Alexander lived a constant struggle to live up to the virtues described in Virtues, and while his adherence could yield spectacular successes, his failures could carry terrible consequences.

I do not draw, as some would, an analogy to Iraq here. Even if we assume Iraq was no immediate threat to us, only the most benighted would argue that she intended no harm to us. Rather, I make this point:

If it is true, as Victor Davis Hanson and others have argued, that democracies are the most dangerous of adversaries, because though slowly roused to war, once roused, they are absolutely unrelenting, then we must be terribly careful in the next several years. As easy as Alexander found it to march across untold leagues, dispatching his enemies virtually without fail, we would likely find it easier (Afghanistan proved winnable for us, where it could not be for Alexander); as we have the moral weight of democracy behind us, perhaps even more compelling than the dream of kleos that spurred Alexander's army forward time and again.

It may be right to subdue much of the world, and force them, as best as we can, to choose between benighted primivism and some sort of self-determination that won't have them attempting to blow us up; the old post-Westphalian realism seems to have accomplished precisely nothing in that regard, and pure Wilsonian liberalism has been as ineffective. But each step must be taken carefully, remembering our basic principles, not only so that "the terrorists will not have won," but so that we do not forget ourselves in the winning. History is replete with nations and individuals who bet large, won large, and lost themselves. In Virtues, Alexander pushes his men past the point of exhaustion, because he becomes more and more convinced that this is his destiny; in the process, he loses much of who and what he was. As the world, and our country, become more unipolar, it behooves us to watch that example very carefully.

In short, this book is a good primer for non-policy wonks who want a graphic illustration of the promises and pitfalls of power. For the rest of us, it's a great read, and a great reminder. For a conservative given to some gloating these days, it's a (needed) reminder that under heaven, nothing is permanent.

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