U.S. Intellectual History Blog

War On Our Minds

At the 2012 Academy Awards, the Oscar for best foreign film went to “A Separation.” This category typically attracts some interest as it acknowledges geographic centers for filmmaking outside of Hollywood and brilliant filmmaking different from Hollywood. And because foreign films almost by definition contest the dominance of the American moviemaking machine, the category has a politics all its own. This year the winner was fraught with more politics than usual. Setting aside the controversy stirred up by the Iranian government when it trumpeted the award as a victory over Israel (film from Israel was also in the running) this moment allowed the film’s director Asghar Farhadi to make a particular kind of plea.


In his acceptance speech he rejoiced with the Iranian people not merely for an award that they were proud to celebrate but also because “at the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture. A rich and ancient culture,” he concluded “that has been under heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this honor to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”

Talk and thought of war swirled around this moment. For at least three years now, Iran’s nuclear program has come under increasingly intense scrutiny from Israel, the United States, and the IAEA. In a recent interview with the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama stated yet again, though perhaps more emphatically than before, that the United States has a clear position on the fate of Iran’s nuclear ambitions: I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say,” the President demanded.

What the American position will mean in practical terms of action is yet to be determined. Perhaps we could be thankful for that. For the element that often (at least to me) gets overwhelmed by the diplomacy and power politics of such moment is what Farhadi mentioned in his brief acceptance speech. Eschewing the governments involved in this stand-off, he spoke about the people who will be caught in the crossfire. While not mentioning the Israelis who could be targets of an Iranian arsenal, his point suggested that nuclear ambitions do not properly capture the culture of the Iranian people–a culture that would be militarized by international conflict.

I don’t have any great insight into the diplomatic machinations that might bring resolution to this crisis. I do have some thoughts on the issue of the people who become collateral damage of those machinations. It is relatively easy to point to moments in which American leaders have allowed themselves to dream of an age of culture rather than war. Among the most famous, I think, are John F. Kennedy’s speech at American University in June 1963, in which he declared:

So, let us not be blind to our differences–but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

In a similar vein there is Ronald Reagan’s speech of January 1984, a year after his notorious “evil empire speech” and, of course, in the year of his landslide victory in the presidential election. In this speech, dubbed the “Ivan and Anya” speech, Reagan mused about two couples–one Russian, the other American–meeting by chance and chatting, not about nuclear weapons or ideology, but about hobbies, jobs, and kids. “People want to raise their children in a world without fear and without war,” Reagan said, “Their common interests cross all borders.”

Idealistic? Yes, though Reagan nearly made good on his idealism when he proposed eliminating nuclear weapons all together. But in the moment, Reagan’s dreaming suggested people, not political machinations, dictate decisions to act violently. Is there a way to consider both people and power?

In his Nobel Peace Prize address, President Obama declared his allegiance to the idea of just war theory as a way consider might and what is right. Indeed, in theory, just war establishes a test not merely the understand a theoretical concept of war, but to protect potential victims from real war. Stanley Hauerwas argues in his latest book, “War and the American Difference,” that allegiance to just war theory almost always favors the theory over genuinely considering whether war is just. The reason for such equivocation is that we live in a world that assumes war is part of it and not the exception. It is easier to nod when a leader says, as Obama did, “we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.” Fair enough, so the next step is to figure out how to act violently without seeming to give ourselves over to violence. Therein lies the unfortunate recognition that we grow comfortable with the thought of war because we cannot think of a world without it.

But then we remember that people are involved. I think that is what happened to me when Farhadi stood before an audience in Los Angeles, California and spoke of culture rather than war. It reminded me of a moment that defined the end of the Cold War for me on a personal level. I was in Tula, Russia in the winter of 1992-1993 and my father and one of my younger sisters came to visit. I took them to the circus. Tula’s circus was a bit shabby, but these were the days of rapid decline in Russia, and the audience (including my family and me) didn’t mind. As we sat watching the show my dad grew quiet as the scene of children around us began to sink in. With tears in his eyes he turned to my sister and me and said that for his entire life he hadn’t really imagined what the Cold War was until now. This city–these families–were targets of American missiles. Tula produced armaments, presumably built to kill Americans. But now as we sat in the dreary aftermath of the Soviet empire, we looked at children.

I don’t expect President Obama and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to chat about Iranian family life; nor would I imagine the Iranian leaders are letting similar considerations dictate their discussions. But the public can be different. Conversations out here can imagine different channels of discourse. And so, I suppose it was only appropriate that such imagining took place on a stage honoring the heart of America’s dreamland.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray,

    I love the post. Somehow I hadn’t seen that quote from Kennedy until now—or had passed over it in my reading until this post.

    In his 1944 book *How to Think About War and Peace*, Mortimer J. Adler provocatively argued that we live in a world of truce that we confuse for peace. This observation, or argument, correlates with the thought from Hauerwas you relay above (i.e. we assume war is part of the world). We assume this, rightly Adler would argue, because we insist on national sovereignty in relation to investing our sovereignty in a world federal government.

    In spite of our globalism and globalization, we—in the United States and around the world—lack a cosmopolitan imagination. We can’t imagine “world federal government” because we don’t really know what it means to be cosmopolitan. Being cosmopolitan is seen as a surrender to “liberalism” from a position of tradition rather than as enlightened compromise. Indeed, by investing our power in a world federal government we’d bind ourselves to democratic compromise.

    No nation in the world, at this point, seems to celebrate political compromise. It is seen as a dirty word—as surrender.

    – TL

  2. Great post indeed. I don’t think we need global federalism to bind ourselves to democratic compromise though, Tim. We need to find ways to engage in conflict without violence. Part of the reason jut war theory quickly devolves into the assumption of the inevitability of war is that we have trouble imagining conflict without violence. Conflict is inevitable. War is not.

  3. This evening I am working on a paper about contextualizing the moral vision of William Lloyd Garrison. I’m not addressing his pacificism, but your post has brought it to my mind. I take Garrison at his word in terms of his rejection of the inevitability of conflict. He believed in the possibility of possibility — that slavery could be peacefully abolished, that society could be transformed, that the world could be made better, purer, kinder, more just, in preparation for the Millennial reign of Christ. But I’m not sure (yet) how firmly he believed that what he knew to be possible might ever come to pass. I’m not sure that it mattered to Garrison. But I’m also not sure if slavery could have been peacefully abolished. Theoretically, maybe. Historically — I don’t know.

    However, living in the present, we are not bound by the history. Instead, we are freed by it. Cue the sweeping epic music — I’m gonna drop some Hayden White on y’all:

    …[T]he task of the historian [is] less to remind men of their obligation to the past than to force upon them an awareness of how the past could be used to effect an ethically responsible transition from present to future….[T]he burden of the historian was a moral charge to free men from the burden of history,…inducing in men an awareness that their present condition was always in part a product of specifically human choices, which could therefore be changed or altered by further human action in precisely that degree. History thus sensitized men to the dynamic elements in every achieved present, taught the inevitability of change, and thereby contributed to the release of that present to the past without ire or resentment.
    Hayden White, “The Burden of History,” History and Theory, Vol. 5, No. 2 (1966): pp. 111-134. (133)

Comments are closed.