September 9, 2005

Not a Grand Story

Matthew Yglesias has a great post up about the need for a good story in the War on Terror:

Lots of people are, with good reason, somewhat fascinated by tales of the medieval Vikings and the classical Icelandic sagas make for interesting reading. Contemporary Scandinavia -- prosperous, homogenous, peaceful, egalitarian -- is infinitely duller and can only generate heroic tales by importing significant irrealism and transposing the setting to the unremittingly hostile climate of Greenland. There's surely something regrettable about this, but it would be moronic to deliberately re-engineer 11th century social conditions in order to generate better stories.

In a lot of ways, this is the true sub rosa story of the Iraq War. Late 1990s America was aesthetically unsatisfying to a lot of intellectual types, including intellectual types who write about politics. They yearned for a more heroic age, found the disaster of 9/11 exhilarating, and hoped that the rise of al-Qaeda would provide the fodder for its creation. A sober view of the war on terrorism leads, however, to the conclusion that while counterterrorism is an important item on the policy agenda, it's not much of a grand drama. Indeed, it's kind of boring. I think it's interesting, which is why it's one of the things I write about, but I also liked writing about Social Security, possibly the boringest thing ever. Instead of accepting that, though, we got the Iraq War which was well-suited to a big picture narrative about a world-historical clash.

Fighting terrorism is relatively boring compared to all out war. For starters, most of it takes place in total secret, which doesn't make for exciting news copy. Adventure is someone else, either far far away or a long time ago, in deep shit. We shouldn't go looking to create a more heroic age. The life of a hero sucks. Just ask the "Heroes" of WWII or 9/11 or Katrina. My guess is that every single one of them would have preferred a nice, boring, non-heroic life.

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