Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust gave the 2011 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities to a packed audience at the Kennedy Center last night. Faust is a reputed scholar of the antebellum South. Most recently, she is the author of This Republic of Suffering, a work of Civil War history. Faust’s Jefferson Lecture is “Telling war stories: Reflections of a Civil War historian.”
The Jefferson Lecture is the premier event of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Under NEH Chairman Jim Leach, one might guess that the lecture would carry a flavor of the Quotations from Chairman Jim. What Faust gives us in this lecture is a jejune and clichéd postmodern take on war generally and the Civil War specifically — war drained of genuine meaning and rendered as meaningless horror. “War stories” can supply the meaning of meaningless “violence” and “fighting.” Faust comments:
War and narrative in some sense create one another. War is not random, shapeless violence. Fighting is reconceived as war because of how humans write and speak about it; it is framed as a story, with a plot that imbues its actors with both individual and shared purpose and is intended to move toward victory for one or another side. To rename violence as war is to give it a teleology. This is why it can provide the satisfaction of meaning to its participants; this too is why it offers such a natural attraction to writers and historians. War assumes a trajectory towards victory and thus the possibility of its own cessation and conclusion. Like any good story, it offers the promise and gratification that accompany a resolution of the plot.
Thus we have Faust on our current struggles;
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it was influenced in no small part by the desire — even need — to transform the uncertainty of combatting a terrorist enemy without a face or location into a conflict that could provide a purposeful, coherent and understandable structure — a comprehensible narrative. Responding to terrorism with war replaced the specter and fear of mass murder with a hope for the controlled, ordered force of war. It offered the United States the sense of intention, the goal-directedness, and lure of efficacy that war promises and terrorism obliterates. Implicit in President George W. Bush’s proclamation of a war on terror, moreover, was the reassurance that terrorism could be defeated, eliminated, that it need not be a permanent condition of modern life. We expect wars to come with endings; that is part of their story. The language of war made Americans protagonists in a story they understood rather than the victims or potential victims of forces beyond their comprehension or control.
Faust cites left-wing journalist Chris Hedges for his book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, and also culls quotes from a hodgepodge of authors (Hardy, Hemingway, Wilfred Owen, a Vietnamese novelist) to the effect that “war is hell” and ultimately futile. Faust concludes with a lamentation: “[O]ur history and literature have done so much to enable war.” I don’t think that’s a compliment.
In its story on Faust’s lecture, Inside Higher Ed drew Faust out on the news of the day:
Despite the suddenly underscored contemporary relevance of her topic, Faust emphasized that the intent of her speech was to “suggest some ways of thinking about who we are and what we do, rather than prescribing one political path or another.” Her goal, she said, was “to leave people with questions, or a little puzzlement, even, about the implications for positions they may hold about the wars we’re fighting, the nature of the military in American life — whatever the issues might be, just to frame them in a way that can generate an ongoing self-consciousness about how we bring ourselves to those issues.”
One wonders. Faust gave her lecture as an authority on the Civil War. How should Lincoln have responded to the secession of the Southern states and the establishment of the Confederate States of America? If Faust rather than Lincoln had been president of the United States, would slavery be with us yet? Would the United States remain a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights?
These questions unfortunately lie beyond the scope of Faust’s lecture. Faust’s lecture, however, is not completely worthless. It provides grounds for thinking about, maybe even thinking through, the problematic nature of “ongoing self-consciousness” when the chips are down and something important is on the line.