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A Cautionary Tale for Americans

In the early 1920s, during the first of his long spells in prison, Mohandas Gandhi read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Many of his British friends had recommended it to him; they probably thought it a useful book for Gandhi to read while confronting a powerful empire. But Gandhi was only partly impressed by Gibbon. He admired Gibbon’s marshaling of “vast masses of facts.” But, as he put it, “facts are after all opinions.” He claimed that his Indian ancestors had done well to ignore history and seek philosophical wisdom in the Mahabharata, the account of a terrible war that apparently occurred in India in the first century BC. For, as he wrote, “that which is permanent and therefore necessary eludes the historian of events. Truth transcends history.”1

What was this permanent and necessary truth of the Mahabharata? Certainly it had little to do with affirming the greatness of extinct empires and civilizations or even with historical facts—the epic, as Gandhi emphasized, was full of supernatural events. The truth lay in the Mahabharata‘s portrait of the elemental human forces of greed and hatred: how they disguise themselves as self-righteousness and lead to a destructive war in which there are no victors, only survivors inheriting an immense wasteland.

As Gandhi saw it, there was no clear-cut good or evil fighting for supremacy in the Mahabharata. The epic depicted a world full of ambiguities, where the battle between good and evil actually went on within individual souls, and where human beings had to make their own moral choices and strive for virtue. Though unconcerned with facts, the Mahabharata taught the importance of an ethical life based upon individual self-examination. History, Gandhi claimed, couldn’t do this, certainly not “history” as it is understood today, “as an aid to the evolution of our race.”

Gandhi was right to suspect that history in the twentieth century meant something more than how the first great historians Herodotus and Thucydides had seen it: as a record of events worth remembering or commemorating.2 Many people in Western Europe, which had known a period of extraordinary dynamism in the nineteenth century, had concluded that history described humanity’s progress to a higher state of evolution—a rational process whose specific laws could be known and mastered just as accurately as processes in the natural sciences, and which backward natives in colonized societies could be persuaded or forced to duplicate.

The notion that history is a meaningful narrative of progress shaped by human beings existed in no major traditions of Asia or Africa. As William Pfaff pointed out almost four decades ago, modern Western culture had first “practiced the belief that the physical and social environment of man is subject to rational manipulation and that history is subject to the will and action of man.” It was the faith in rational manipulation that had powered the political, scientific, and technological revolutions of the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; it had also been used to explain and justify Western domination of the world.

Though not an intellectual, Gandhi had a shrewd underdog’s awareness of how powerful men from the world-conquering nations and empires of the West often obscured their worst excesses—slavery, massacres, despotism, and the destruction of traditional arts, crafts, and languages—by presenting themselves as the avant-garde of humanity’s march to a glorious future. He could sense that a quasi-scientific theory of history, which justified dishonorable means by pointing to noble ends, could, as Camus wrote in 1951, “be used for anything, even for transforming murderers into judges.”


Writing during the cold war, Camus denounced Soviet Communists and their Western supporters for their blind faith in the ideology of history, which he held largely responsible for the great and peculiar violence of the twentieth century—“slave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropy.”3 But Camus failed to point out how a mode of reasoning that retrospectively justified past crimes and legitimized present ones for the sake of an unknown and unknowable future had been embraced by even those political elites that claimed to represent the “free world” or “Western civilization.”

As William Pfaff wrote in The Politics of Hysteria: The Sources of Twentieth-Century Conflict (1964), an original and provocative book he coauthored with Edmund Stillman, “The West does not like to admit this fact about itself”: that it “has been capable of violence on an appalling scale, and has justified that violence as indispensable to a heroic reform of society or of mankind.” He pointed out that “the atomic bomb, napalm, phosphorus raids, and indiscriminate area bombing were American and British techniques, used in a “mission of bringing liberty to the world.”

He asserted that the “passion to change history and the world” which admits “none of the compromise and quietism of certain other civilizations” has resulted in disasters on an unprecedented scale: how while shaping the extraordinary success of the West, this Faustian passion had also incited the West’s often brutal conquest of the world, and caused Europe itself in the twentieth century to degenerate, after the relatively peaceful nineteenth century, into two world wars, totalitarianism, and genocide. “To be a man of the modern West,” he wrote, “is to belong to a culture of incomparable originality and power; it is also to be implicated in incomparable crimes.”

Pfaff has continued to describe unsentimentally the full implications of the great material success of the West in his columns on international affairs for the International Herald Tribune, and such books as Condemned to Freedom (1971), The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Furies of Nationalism (1993), and Barbarian Sentiments: America in the New Century (2000). Before turning to intellectual journalism, Pfaff had served in the Korean War, and helped American “political warfare” against Soviet communism during the early years of the cold war. This experience appears to have made him particularly alert to the trauma and resentments of societies conquered or manipulated by the modern West.

His broad-ranging intellectual and emotional sympathies distinguish him from most foreign policy commentators who tend to serve what they see, usually narrowly, as their “national interest.” Pfaff is also indifferent to, and often brusquely dismissive of, the modish theories that describe how and why dominoes fall, history ends, and civilizations clash—“theoretical formulations” that Pfaff believes policymakers periodically come up with in order to legitimize “the huge material and intellectual investment American society has made in the apparatus of national defense and international engagement.”

In his new book, The Bullet’s Song: Romantic Violence and Utopia, a long essay on utopian violence, Pfaff returns to examining many of his themes—the Western faith in progress, the individual and national fantasies of changing history and the world. He reiterates his conviction that “the idea of total and redemptive transformation of human society through political means” is the “most influential myth of modern western political society from 1789 to the present days.” Pfaff is especially wary of its “naive American version,” which “although rarely recognized as such, survives, consisting in the belief that generalizing American-style political institutions and economic practices to the world at large will bring history (or at least historical progress) to its fulfillment.”

Some years before the Bush administration decided to spread democracy and freedom around the world, Pfaff had warned that although the “totalitarian utopian movements of the past ended with the collapse of Nazism and Marxism,” the “utopian impulse is not exhausted in the United States, where it has always been an element in the national sense of self.” “Americans,” Pfaff wrote in a recent column in the International Herald Tribune, “do not conceive of themselves as inheritors of a Western legacy of Promethean violence.” This may be because, as Pfaff asserts in his new book, “America largely excluded itself from the inner history of the twentieth century, which was written in Europe, and mostly at Europe’s expense.” Few Americans experienced the trauma of the destructive wars and totalitarian regimes that forced such European writers and thinkers as Paul Valéry, Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, Karl Jaspers, and Albert Camus to examine the larger assumptions of their compatriots, their hitherto unchallenged confidence that science or communism or free trade would create a bright future for humanity.

Pfaff, who has lived in Paris for many years, often writes in his columns about why Europeans, who have not forgotten their own disastrous experiments with utopia, are wary of the Bush administration’s mission to remake the world. Much of his new book reads as a cautionary tale for Americans in the new century, which, he notes, “has begun in futile manipulations of the intellectual remnants of progressive thought.” Its discursive, essayistic form combines memoirs and reflections on war with brief biographies of men and women who “saw in violence or its intellectual counterpart, manipulation, means to redemptive political change and the possibility to impose through action as well as art significant form upon historical materials and experience.”

Pfaff writes admiringly about Simone Weil, whose political activism and intellectual work flowed out of her spiritual ideals of self-examination, empathy, and compassion. But most of his biographical subjects are writers and artists with a craving for large-scale drama and publicity—people who wished to and often did change the world, if only for the worse. They include T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), who as a British intelligence officer during the First World War encouraged Arabs to revolt against their Ottoman overlords in Turkey; Ernst Jünger, the German author of the World War I memoir Storm of Steel and a former Nazi; Gabriele D’Annunzio, the nationalist Italian poet with a weakness for political drama; Willi Münzenberg, the Communist propagandist; André Malraux, the French novelist with a gift for self-fabrication; and Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-English writer who embraced communism and anticommunism with equal fervor.

His tormented inner life makes T.E. Lawrence seem the most complex of Pfaff’s subjects. Lawrence spent four hard years imagining that he was bringing political independence to Arabs suffering from Ottoman misrule. As it turned out, Britain and France divided up the Ottoman Empire into zones of influence after the First World War, leaving a mortified Lawrence to realize that he had been part of a British effort to secure the “corn and rice and oil of Mesopotamia.”

Pfaff seems right to claim that Lawrence, though a self-confessed failure, has had a “very large and very strange” influence on the “Western mind.” His own early readings in Lawrence’s memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom led Pfaff to join the military and US Special Forces, and then work as a “political warfare operator” during the early years of the cold war. In the 1940s and 1950s, the upper-class, Anglophilic members of the OSS and CIA seem to have had Lawrence of Arabia on their minds as they undermined governments they saw as unfriendly to the United States. Even as late as 2001, in an era of high-tech weapons, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appeared vulnerable to the myth of the brave white warrior leading barbaric tribes when, at a press conference during the war in Afghanistan, he proudly displayed blown-up pictures of Special Forces men on horseback helping Abdul Rashid Dostum, the brutal Afghan warlord, emerge from exile.4

  1. 1

    My Jail Experiences—XI,” Young India, September 11, 1924, in Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting), Vol. 29, pp. 134–135; available at www.gandhiserve.org/cwmg/cwmg.html.

  2. 2

    For a stimulating account of the many perceptions of history see R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford University Press, revised 1993). See also Hannah Arendt, “The Concept of History: Ancient and Modern,” in Between Past and Future (Viking, 1961).

  3. 3

    The Rebel, translated by Anthony Bower (Penguin, 1971), p. 11.

  4. 4

    The best-selling book by Robin Moore, The Hunt for Bin Laden: Task Force Dagger (Random House, 2003), celebrates some of the CIA and Special Forces officers and their Afghan beneficiaries. But the book seems to have required drastic revision since last year when one of its heroes, Jack Idema, was caught while torturing Afghan civilians in Kabul. Idema is presently serving eight years in a Kabul prison. See Mariah Blake, “Tin Soldier: An American Vigilante in Afghanistan, Using the Press for Profit and Glory,” Columbia Journalism Review, January–February 2005.

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