Ennui Questions

‘Rather than being “tired of war”, more likely the American public is tired of not actually winning one for some time’

Middle East The Outsider's Diary

It seems to me there are two types of “war-weariness”. There is the genuine type, experienced by those who have seen a particular conflict close up, loathe it and would do almost anything to avoid going through the same again. And then there is another variety, felt by those who have generally suffered nothing at all but who feel a sort of sentimental ennui, generally caused by over-consumption of media.

US Secretary of State John Kerry actually saw war service in Vietnam, but even that does not explain his recent declarations. And it certainly does not explain those of President Obama.

In a recent speech Kerry said: “After a decade of conflict the American people are tired of war.” He added: “Believe me, I am too.” In his speech on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11 the President — who has never actually seen war — referred to post-Iraq America as being “sick and tired of war”. 

I suspect that Obama and Kerry have got hold of the wrong end of the schtick here. It is possible that the sheer effort of watching 24-hour news channels for more than a decade has frazzled the minds of most people in the West and made them long for a purer and more consistent diet of celebrity news. But more likely is that the Americans, like many of the rest of us, are not “tired of war” so much as tired of not actually winning a war for some time.

Nobody could claim that America and her allies “won” in Iraq. We deposed a vicious dictator, screwed up the aftermath and have now handed most of the country over to Iran. And as coalition forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan next year, could anybody really say that we have “won” there? With the Taliban being brought into negotiations just as we are about to leave?

 Rather than being “tired of war” it seems far more likely that the general public is just fed up, after a decade spent watching the world’s most advanced militaries fight out a draw (at best) against men armed with improvised explosive devices, guns and the odd pick-up truck.

To talk of war-weariness in such a situation is not merely sentimental and misleading but desperately counterproductive. Kerry has promised his “war-weary” nation that if it does do something against Assad it will be something “unbelievably small”. 

Who would have thought that “unbelievable smallness” would have become an American objective in our lifetimes? And who can doubt what the unbelievably large consequences of such an achievement would mean?

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Someone recommends to me a recent book by Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature, Penguin) which claims that the human species is getting nicer and that incidents of violence are decreasing. Eager for good news, I rush out and buy it. True, the author has to get round the difficult corners of two world wars, but I allow that. Far more ridiculous is the book’s contention that it is hard to produce lasting art in societies in which museums and culture are in peril or transient.

It occurs to me that this is exactly wrong. The population of Florence in the Renaissance was akin to that of the London Borough of Croydon. Indeed, modern-day Croydon could be said to be more advanced, and is surely less dangerous, than Renaissance Florence. But is it remotely difficult to judge which civilisation produced the better art?

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Wealth — if not civilisation — is on some display when I take a brief break in the south of France and decide to visit Monaco. I spend an evening there and throw myself into the private rooms of the casino at Monte Carlo. It is hard to think of a bleaker place.

Though I am incapable of gambling any money myself, watching other people doing so is grimly fascinating. One man spends his time constantly flitting between tables, spreading bets all over the place while making tiny inscriptions in a pocketbook. He has clearly developed some sort of system and sticks to it even though it brings no success, nor, seemingly, any happiness. 

An Italian gentleman of a certain age plays with €5,000 chips. His elegant wife sits beside him, looking bored. He loses almost ceaselessly. Just once, he has a small win. There is a flicker of relief, but no enjoyment. It occurs to me that gambling is one of those occupations in which the sadness of losing (amply indicated by the pawnbrokers beneath the casino steps) is not proportionate to any happiness in winning.

This is not an original discovery, but Monaco is a shady place. I overhear a lady on the phone at the hotel pool. For the first (and I hope only) time in my life I am in the vicinity of someone who namedrops Saddam Hussein.