The cliché that 9/11 “changed everything” is nowhere less true than in the post-9/11 impulse to declare war immediately. War was a choice as well as an echo: a choice Americans made, and an echo of how Americans have made decisions in times of previous conflict. In that sense, 9/11 changed nothing. That’s because, to paraphrase Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chris Hedges: war is a force that gives Americans meaning through their history, largely because powerful impulses in American religion have historically sacralized war’s religious, redemptive force.
On May 1, when President Obama announced the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, crowds almost instantly formed outside the White House chanting “USA! USA!.” Depending on whom you believe, this reaction was either an unsettling display of vengeance directed against a relic of Cold War alliances who no longer had much cachet in most of the Arab world, or it was an understandable existential catharsis; a healthy celebration of patriotism that was more about celebrating “us” rather than denigrating “them.”
The day after the announcement, Drew Gilpin Faust, by trade a Civil War historian but more recently President of Harvard University, delivered the Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment for the Humanities, “Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian” (the full pdf of the talk is here).
Faust’s talk addressed the irresistible attraction of war, the way that it has historically made participants and observers alike “touched with fire,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes said of his service in the Civil War:
War and narrative in some sense create one another. War is not random, shapeless violence. Fighting is reconceived as war because of how humans write and speak about it; it is framed as a story, with a plot that imbues its actors with both individual and shared purpose and is intended to move toward victory for one or another side. To rename violence as war is to give it teleology. This is why it can provide the satisfaction of meaning to its participants; this too is why it offers such a natural attraction to writers and historians.
Read the rest here.