The fundamental problem of geopolitical theory is simple: Why do soldiers choose to die for their country? Gen. George Patton famously told his troops that he didn’t want them to die for their country. He wanted the other poor bastards to die for theirs. He and his troops knew that as solicitous as Patton appeared to be of their health, many of them would die in the course of killing their enemy.
Thomas Hobbes wrote that the passion of men was to avoid pain and achieve pleasure. It is out of this concept that much of modern utilitarian philosophy arose. Utilitarianism argued for the greatest good for the greatest number. It never settled, from my point of view, why I should care about the happiness of the majority. Out of this came Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, who argued that the greatest good came from everyone selfishly pursuing their own ends. Smith was trying to square the circle, solving the problem that Hobbes posed (the passionate pursuit of one’s own pleasure) and that John Stuart Mill (the father of utilitarianism) argued for: the pursuit of the good of the many. Thus was born Smith’s economic man, feeling virtuous about being selfish.
If nations were simply economic systems, there might be some way to support this. But nations also go to war, and in war, the principles of passionate pursuit of pleasure or the selfish creation of the greatest good dissolve the logic of all of this. The avoidance of pain and the pursuit of pleasure are subsumed in a universe in which death is common and the only alternative is killing. It is not the state of nature – the war of all against all – that Hobbes wanted to erase. It is a world where the nation exists but rejects the passionate pursuit of pleasure in place of something else: duty.
Duty grows out of the love of one’s own, a point I have made many times. It is the love of the things to which you were born, from which you derived language, faith, indeed your very self. It is the thing that you cannot escape and cannot imagine living without, regardless of your passing whims. But this is insufficient to explain duty. After all, your death in a war will savage those you were born to. You may be defending your own, but you are engaged in a vaster enterprise. Armies are impersonal entities, in which death is a mathematical abstraction, and in which whether a soldier lives or dies rarely makes any difference except as a decimal point in a vast equation. No one who has fought in a war believes his death will be decisive. Yet most soldiers in most armies fight nonetheless.
The duty we are speaking of is patriotism, and patriotism represents a vast entity, the nation, in which each soldier disappears into insignificance. The love of one’s own doesn’t easily translate into love of the nation. The principles on which the nation was founded are too abstract and distant from everyday life. The history they draw on is too old to bear meaning when a machine gun opens fire. Even your buddies, the men on whom you depend and whom you will love forever, are not enough to bind you to the vast enterprise of war. It gives you a tactical bond, but the meaning becomes apparent only later.
When you go to a cemetery to say farewell to someone you once loved, and hear the rifles report three times, and the bugler play taps, tears that were never there before come easily. Those mourning know that they have lost something of themselves but have lived the moments of their lives that really mattered. These were the moments that they could not bear to remember for a long time, and the moments at which things they did were the worst they could imagine. Only later, when taps plays, do they realize that the moment at which they did the worst was also the moment they did the best. They don’t think of it themselves. They instead recall every fear and every act of brutality they committed. They know they are lost, but they also know that the one who is being buried has redeemed them and everyone else, because he had been righteous and without fault. It is an enchanted moment, terrible and great, but a moment in which their memories permit them to forgive themselves.
We are now addressing enchantment in a very practical way. Enchantment begins with the fantasy of being a soldier, of being strong, of being brave, of belonging to the few who stand between your home and war’s desolation. It continues in remembrance. There is pride in coming out of basic training, in joining a unit going into combat, in living through the combat. Enchantment is like the owl of Minerva, the owl who spreads its wings at dusk. Enchantment is remembrance of things that never were.
This binds an army together, but what binds the soldier to his nation? Plato saw poetry as less than philosophy but essentially as political. Beauty was essential to being enchanted by the political. The poem tells the tale of a past that never was and tells the tale so beautifully that the citizen is seduced. Indeed, it is that tale that seduces him. In geopolitics, the glue that binds a nation together, and the nation to its warriors, is the poem.
One of the most poetic moments for an American soldier (my apologies to all sailors, airmen and Marines) is a piece of poetry, the oath millions have taken:
I, (state name of enlistee), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
It is an ugly piece of writing, I agree, but it takes a young man or woman and confronts them with the enormity of what they have become. They are no longer a child, and the love of their own has expanded dramatically to defending the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to obeying the orders of the president and, through him, the American people. The one taking the oath never understands it in that moment. It is only after a long time that they understand what it says. But the moment they take it, they understand that they are no longer what they had been but something else, something mysterious, dangerous, with new loves and hates. They know this, and later discover that that moment brought enchantment to their life. But even before that, they realized that their life was no longer simply their own. They are seduced into sacrifice.
This is true in different ways in all countries. For me, there is little more moving than the Russian national anthem, which I urge you to listen to if you have never heard it. It is the song of our former enemy. But if you listen to it, you can understand why the Russians stood their ground at Stalingrad, when it was said there is no land behind the Volga. The United States had better logistics and air superiority and owned the electromagnetic sphere. But we didn’t have this song and I always envied the Soviets and the Russians for their national anthem.
But it was never mine and never could be. I do not like our national anthem, but it is my anthem and when it plays in the appropriate time and place, I know that it is my song, a song about war, courage and defiance. I far prefer “America the Beautiful,” but I can envision the rockets bursting in air and the price that was paid for being an American.
Enchantment is the essence of the nation and therefore a foundation of geopolitics. Without enchantment, all that holds the nation together is interest, and interest can divide as easily as it can unite. A divided platoon is a dead platoon, except when drinking on Saturday night. A nation so divided by interest that it cannot find common ground is a nation that Lincoln spoke of. The poem that held the country together – “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” – was also a poem that tore the country apart until one army crushed the other. And as powerful as the poem was, the two sides never quite forgave each other. For enchantment to work, it has to be the right poem for the right people. Still, for me, for all the faults I felt when I was young, and that I feel now in my country, it is a superb and enchanting poem.
And with this, it is time to take a break and turn to the other reality of geopolitics: the love of the ordinary.