Disruption & Redemption
By DAVID BROOKS
FRANCIS FUKUYAMA. The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order. FREE PRESS. 336 PAGES. $26.00
THE RANKS of conservatism are filled with cultural pessimists. There are those who think the ethos of the 1960s continues to eat away at America’s moral capital. There are those who think America is being degraded by a vulgar mass media. There are those who see militant secularism trying to purge biblical morality from public life. And then there are those, such as Paul Weyrich, so disturbed by America’s decision not to expel Bill Clinton that they are apparently tempted to retreat to remote monasteries where they will cultivate private virtue privately.
Our cultural pessimists need some fresh air. They should try wandering around any middle class suburb in the nation, losing themselves amid the cul-de-sacs, the azaleas, the Jeep Cherokees, the neat lawns, the Little Tikes kiddie cars, and the height-adjustable basketball backboards. Is this really what cultural collapse would look like?
The fact is that America does suffer from many real problems: the rise in divorce and illegitimacy, mediocre schools, vulgar pop culture. And there are pockets of America where social capital is almost non-existent. But in most places, Americans learn to adapt to changing times. They have come up with new procedures, like community policing, or new institutions, like couch-strewn bookstores, that begin to restore community and social order. They take some of the things that seem intrinsically subversive — nose piercing, to take a shallow example — and they domesticate them so that they carry almost no cultural meaning. The evidence of our eyes, ears, and senses is that America is not a moral wasteland. It is, instead, a tranquil place, perhaps not one that elevates mankind to its highest glory, but doing reasonably well, all things considered.
Now along comes a data-packed book to give some credence to the things we can observe around us. Francis Fukuyama’s The Great Disruption argues that the information age has weakened hierarchies and exacerbated the decline of kinship networks. It has led to a real decay of social order. But, the book explains, human beings have an innate hunger for hierarchy and social structure. When chaos licks at their lives, they adapt and rebuild. And there are signs that America is settling upon new social norms and rules of behavior.
Fukuyama is famous as the author of one of the most widely debated, and widely misinterpreted, essays in recent history. His piece, "The End of History," published in the National Interest in 1989, entered global public discourse (a fact brought home to me during a trip to deepest Ukraine just after the fall of the Soviet Union, where I had tea with a group of young journalists who talked about Fukuyama as familiarly as they talked about the local weather). A surprising number of commentators looked at his title and, idiotically, assumed that Fukuyama was arguing that from now on nothing important would happen. In fact, he was arguing that history has a progressive direction whose endpoint is liberal democracy — a thesis which has not been disproved by subsequent events. The book that grew out of that essay was one of the finest non-fiction books of the past quarter century — provocative on every page, and profound on a number.
Where political philosophy in the persons of Hegel and Alexandre Kojeve informed The End of History, in The Great Disruption Fukuyama draws on, of all things, social science and even biology. The new book is largely a survey of data on various social problems, paired with a summary of recent findings from anthropology and brain research about innate human nature, to shed light on sociological trends.
The book starts with a description of the creative but destructive force of the information age. "A society built around information tends to produce more of the two things people value most in a modern democracy, freedom and equality," Fukuyama writes. "Freedom of choice has exploded, whether of cable channels, low cost shopping outlets, or friends met on the internet. Hierarchies of all sorts, whether political or corporate, come under pressure and begin to crumble." The same culture of intensive individualism that leads to all the innovation corrodes sources of authority and weakens bonds that join families, neighborhoods, and nations.
In countries that have joined the information age — Fukuyama relies on data from the 29 member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — there has been a widespread loss of trust in the institutions of authority, whether it is police authority, religious authority, or governmental authority. There has been a startling weakening of family ties. This has resulted in a tremendous rise in divorce. The U.S. divorce rate skyrocketed in the late 1960s and has only begun to drift slightly lower recently. Partly but not only because of weakened family ties, there has also been a marked decline in fertility. As Fukuyama notes, in countries like Spain, Italy, and Japan, fertility rates have dropped so precipitously that the total population in each successive generation will be 30 percent smaller than in the previous one. Meanwhile, partly as a result of these two trends, illegitimacy rates have shot upwards. The trend took hold first in the United States and then later, to greater or lesser degrees, in most of the other OECD countries. In most areas, the U.S. suffered the sharpest deterioration and has enjoyed the most noticeable subsequent rebound, but almost all the nations exhibit the same trends. Catholic countries, like Italy and Ireland, did not see their divorce rates shoot up as fast or as far, but such cultural factors only seem to delay or mitigate the underlying forces.
What exactly caused this breakdown? Fukuyama explores the usual theories, giving a measure of credence to a few and finding serious deficiencies in others. Liberals say the information age economy punishes blue-collar workers, exacerbates inequality, and so leads to social breakdown. Fukuyama counters that the evidence doesn’t correlate. For example, crime skyrocketed in the 1960s without a massive increase in inequality or poverty, and crime has plummeted in the ’90s without any massive decreases in inequality and poverty. Others, conversely, say that greater affluence weakens traditional bonds and leads to social breakdown. It’s true that divorce, say, is less costly for the affluent, but by and large the timing of the trends refutes this thesis as well. Social scientist Charles Murray says bad government policies caused much of the breakdown. But while illegitimacy correlates to bad welfare policies, Fukuyama points out, such policies don’t take account of parallel changes in other indicators of family breakdown, such as infertility, divorce, cohabitation, and so on.
Fukuyama says, rather, that increasing individualism, favored by the right on the economic issues and the left on cultural matters, is the primary reason for all the social decay. One possibility is that cultural and intellectual trends favoring greater individualism and self-expression — such as the growth of psychology and the spread of Nietzschean relativism — were building throughout the century. But their impact on the middle class was delayed by the Great Depression and World War II. Then after the war, everything hit at once and — kablooey! "It is as if Emile Durkheim’s prediction that in a modern society, the only value uniting people would be the value of individualism itself, had come true: people reserve their greatest moral indignation for moralism on the part of other people," Fukuyama notes.
But why, then, have so many of these social indicators turned around (if only slightly in some cases) over the past few years? The answer is that human beings are not merely victims of forces larger than ourselves. We respond. We respond by instinct and by reason.
We have an instinct for community, of a sort. Hobbes may have thought that the state of nature was a war of all against all, but biological research indicates this isn’t true. Apparently, certain habits of social cooperation over time have become genetically encoded into our brains. "It is isolation rather than sociability that produces pathological symptoms of distress for most people," Fukuyama observes. Aristotle said that man is instinctively a political animal; now there is genetic proof. All the thinkers great and small who treated individual brains as formless clay to be molded by environment seem to have had it wrong.
Fukuyama spans disciplines. His forays into brain chemistry are impressive. He also devotes significant sections to an exploration of what research into primate behavior might tell us about the human hunger for hierarchy and order.
Fukuyama describes a chimp colony in the Netherlands observed by primatologist Frans de Waal. The aging alpha male of the colony was gradually unseated by a coalition of two younger males. Then, once the old one was out of the way, cooperation gave way to rivalry as the two younger ones started vying for control. It turns out that lead chimps don’t dominate by physical intimidation. No one chimp is strong enough to hold off the rest of the group. Candidates for lead chimp must form coalitions through pleading, bribery, and begging. In this fashion, one of the Dutch chimps was able to form a larger faction on his side and come out on top. In a chimp colony in Tanzania, two rival gangs formed. Parties of four or five males from the northern gang would go out on raiding parties and murder isolated males from the other gang until every one of the southern males was killed, along with several females. In other words, primates cooperate in order to compete against rival individuals or gangs. The humane virtues like cooperation come intermingled with the Darwinian ones like the urge to dominate.
This instinct to cooperate and compete with our fellows is so strong in humans that we come into this world stocked with such emotions as anger, pride, shame, and guilt — all of which, Fukuyama says, "come into play in response to people who either are honest and cooperate, or who cheat and break the rules."
The upshot is that when cooperative arrangements break down, people strive to create new ones. They don’t wait for some lawgiver to hand down rules from a mountaintop. They do it themselves, because they are social animals with enough reason to figure out how to cooperate. "Knowing that there are important natural and spontaneous sources of social order is not a minor insight," Fukuyama writes. "It suggests that culture and moral values will continue to evolve in ways that will allow people to adapt to the changing technological and economic conditions they face."
So as societies move through time, they build up social capital, use it up, and then begin replenishing it. This process of regenerating social capital, or renorming, Fukuyama continues, is complex, sometimes requiring several generations. Religions can play a role. So can capitalism, which polishes manners as much as it sometimes obliterates them. The Victorians regenerated their social order, taking a society that was chaotic and making it far more orderly. And so can we.
"There is growing evidence that the Great Disruption has run its course, and that the process of renorming has already begun," Fukuyama writes in the final section of the book. He points to declining crime rates, falling divorce rates, dropping welfare rolls. The number of children born to single mothers appears to have stopped increasing. Furthermore, Fukuyama hints at but doesn’t elaborate much on less statistical straws in the wind — the popular success of such stern moralists as Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the success of the Promise Keepers, the growing stigma that now attaches to divorce.
These changes are by and large not imposed from the top down. Many social thinkers had theorized that as societies grow more complex, informal social norms, say those based on the customs of the family or the tribe, would be replaced by formal norms, written down as laws and regulations by the state. But if the evidence from biology is true, then even in complex societies, perhaps especially in complex societies, rules and norms will continue to burble up from the ground of human instinct to create what Fukuyama calls "self-organization" — so long as the people in the society share some cultural understandings, have a sense of living within common boundaries, aren’t plagued by tyrants, and so on. People won’t forgo all hierarchical organizations, not by a long shot, but they will supplement organizations with organic norms of their own making.
In the end, Fukuyama concludes, there are two processes working through history. In the political and economic sphere, history appears progressive, gradually moving from tyranny to democratic capitalism. In the cultural sphere, there is no easy progression, but there is reason for hope, because human beings have innate capacities to reconstitute social order. That’s a moderately optimistic conclusion, and one I think borne out by the evidence around us.
The Great Disruption is also an informative tour through the recent histories of sociology, biology, even management theory. As always, Fukuyama’s range is dazzling. But perhaps he has shifted a bit too much from political theory to social science, too much from intellectual trends to statistics. Because surely there is a lot going on in America, as Fukuyama would be the first to concede, which can’t be described by data. Statistically, the Upper East Side of Manhattan of 1999 probably looks a lot like the Upper East Side of Manhattan of 1965, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been important changes there in the way people think. Thirty years ago, Upper East Siders were throwing parties for the Black Panthers (a social capital-depleting enterprise if ever there was one). Now they are throwing parties for the Central Park Conservancy. In other words, had Fukuyama allowed himself to build a case based on reporting rather than just statistics, his argument would have been all the stronger.
Furthermore, if Fukuyama had taken a less empirical approach, he would have been able to address head-on a question that was central to his first book. Is the staid society we find at "the end of history" really the society we want to live in?
The full title of that book was The End of History and the Last Man. The Last Man is the figure left standing after the fundamental conflicts have all been settled. He is an orderly fellow. He would never do much that would cause him to show up in the statistics of social breakdown; a country of Last Men comes out near the top of the oecd comparisons. But he is also mediocre, tepid, mild. He is interested in health and safety, in comfort and self-preservation, and he has lost touch with troubling and transcendent ideals. He has shed loyalties and obligations that led his ancestors to desperate acts of courage and self-sacrifice. He is tolerant and non-judgmental, because to judge is to risk turmoil and conflict.
There were times during the American public’s recent outbreak of non-judgmentalism over the Monica Lewinsky scandal when it seemed that the Last Man had come and settled on these shores. And indeed, if we go back to the cul-de-sacs and wander through the suburbs, the threat of Last Manism — if something so mild and mediocre can be called a threat — seems more immediate than the threat of social breakdown. Maybe Fukuyama has simply accepted the triumph of the Last Man. Maybe he has adopted social science in the same spirit that led the philosopher Alexandre Kojeve to go off and become a bureaucrat in Brussels. If history is over and the Last Man is triumphant, then the grand questions have been settled and one might as well go about the mundane business of technocratic management.
I hope that’s not all there is. If America is able to rebuild social capital and restore order, perhaps the Last Man is not the end of the story. The reconstituted social order might turn out to be fertile ground for the flourishing of higher ideals and nobler aspirations of the kind that social science data can neither capture nor inspire. For that we need philosophy, or religion, or the inspiring examples of history.
David Brooks, senior editor of the Weekly Standard, is writing a book about the manners and morals of affluent America.
The Way the World Works
By HOLMAN W. JENKINS JR.
THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN. The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization. FARRAR STRAUS & GIROUX. 382 PAGES. $27.50
ONE OF THE MOST misunderstood formulations of economics is "comparative advantage." All the term means is that if you are India and you can earn $3 an hour growing wheat or $5 an hour making steel, make steel, even if somebody else — say, the South Koreans — can earn $20 an hour making steel.
"Comparative advantage" has never meant that you have to be the best in the world at something in order to participate in the world economy. Nonetheless, many economists end up sounding like that’s what it means. Perhaps this is why we get so many images of the global economy as a runaway train flattening those who get in its way. Or why every so often the United States or the Europeans or the Japanese get into a panic about "losing" some industry. Thomas L. Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree is about as colorful a meditation on globalization as you’re likely to find. Yet every third page seems to talk about somebody or other becoming "road kill" in the global economy. Is this really how it works?
Friedman is the highly readable foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times. He has written a highly readable book, even if it sometimes feels like the world’s longest Business Week article. His anecdotes keep coming and coming, even when some good old-fashioned thumb-sucking would be in order. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard for any newspaper journalist, whose readers at any hint of heavy lifting are likely to flip the page. But someone sitting down with a book has made at least a provisional commitment to endure the tedium of extended explanation.
On any number of things, though, Friedman is right and even eloquent in his offhand way. Technology and the "democratization of information" are pushing all the other changes, from freer access to capital and greater individual mobility, to a shift in emphasis from expanding the quantity of governance to expanding its quality. If a "visionary geo-architect" set out to design a nation to prosper in such a world, Friedman writes, "he would have designed something that looks an awful lot like the United States of America."
At the same time, Friedman can sound almost sorrowful that these guns of globalization are being trained on the heads of political leaders who have been accustomed to ignoring the needs and wishes of their people. Most dubious of all is his assertion that the global marketplace has become the new organizing logic of international affairs now that the world is no longer organized by the bipolar standoff of the Soviets and nato. Even if you don’t buy it, this is an interesting theme. But it is not one that lends itself to being reported to death. It needs to be developed analytically.
Is this new world order, as Friedman puts it, "incredibly coercive" as well as potentially enriching? In practice, the global economy has made nation-building much easier. Today the same Third World that in the 1960s was deemed ripe for starvation and suffering on a massive scale is now seen mainly as a threat to "our" jobs. The "electronic herd," as Friedman calls the fund managers, currency speculators, and growing ranks of individual investors with an international perspective, are not an army of bandits who take a country hostage and punish it if it doesn’t yield to their desires. Countries only gain by opening themselves to trade and investment. Yes, nations must change and adapt, but when haven’t nations had to change and adapt to currents in the world around them?
Consider the case of Malaysia, a country that lately has been feeling badly used by the global marketplace because of the Asian meltdown. Most of the capital that was mobilized and squandered, such that the economy now faces a period of repair and reflection, was mobilized and squandered locally. It was Malaysian banks, drawing on the savings of Malaysia’s domestic entrepreneurs and workers, that prostrated themselves before local regime cronies and financed skyscrapers, factories, and golf courses that had no earthly hope of attracting customers. Meanwhile, Western companies that manufacture the vast proportion of the world’s computer disk drives in Malaysia continue merrily about their business, generating wages and tax receipts to keep the country on its feet.
There is nothing endemic to our age about economies wasting capital through bad incentives, and many have been down this road besides Malaysia. But you would think from Prime Minister Mahathir’s tirades against the "Jews" and "morons" of the currency markets that globalization has been a curse. Truth to tell, it’s the one thing still working in Malaysia. It’s the reason Malaysia will probably come out all right in the end.
IN FRIEDMAN'S TITLE, the "Lexus" (an upscale Toyota coveted by the world’s yuppies) is meant to stand for the homogenous material plenty of the globalized market. The "olive tree" represents the particularities of place and culture that are presumably menaced by the globalized market. The book’s premise is that globalization is something new under the sun, taking away the freedom countries once had to pursue their own paths in the world.
But nations have never been free to follow their own paths. Having plodded through many of the same parts of the world as the author, I can share his dismay at the proliferation of traffic jams and Kentucky Fried Chickens in countries that would otherwise seem colorfully exotic to a Westerner. One wonders, though, how the locals feel about their exoticism. Poverty is picturesque, at least the poverty that often attracts a first world visitor, that of decaying colonial architecture left over from a previous bout of globalization. Teeming numbers of bicyclists on Hanoi’s French-built streets going about their business under conical hats is picturesque; the coming of skyscrapers and taxicabs and jerks with cell phones isn’t.
But neither is real poverty picturesque. A decade ago visitors to Western China could still report seeing peasants so poor that they covered themselves with dirt because of their lack of clothes. If you accept that poverty and cultural difference are not the same thing, then the common notion that globalization means the death of difference will seem overstated. The nature of our world is that large chunks of the past are always disappearing. But it does not follow that homogenization is the fate of mankind. Cultural and individual identity are syncretic. The motive to enrich and elaborate one’s distinctiveness is aroused by contact with others.
Such formal rebellions against the market as exist (Iran, Afghanistan, Algeria, Chiapas) look suspiciously like distorted and misdirected local rebellions against the very poverty and isolation characteristic of these locations in the first place. The rebellions may have failed, but one thing that does flourish in isolation is grandiosity. These movements and their leaders have extraordinarily high opinions of their own rightness. The most sterling example is North Korea, which practices a form of olive tree worship known as Juche (or self-reliance), whose founder, Kim Il Sung, called himself the "Sun of Mankind," and whose people have been on worsening starvation rations for the past five years.
The world is full of cynical politicians, of course, but one doubts whether the masses of people in any country would really reject the options and opportunities of the global economy in order to make an ideological fetish out of their olive tree. Taking part in the global economy does require a degree of good-humored humility, however. Even Americans have had to go to work for foreigners. India must cheerfully accept a lower standard of living than South Korea, though they both export steel. National grandiosity does not fare well when that great institution of reality-testing, the market, is allowed to work. In one of Friedman’s telling anecdotes, the South Koreans, an excessively prideful people, go in short order from treating their foreign borrowings and currency reserves as national secrets to publishing real-time updates on the internet in order to placate the market actors who are Korea’s only way out of financial crisis.
Swallowing a bit of misplaced pride, though, is not much to ask in return for the rapid progress such countries can make. Since the Asian meltdown, it has been an article of faith that China must devalue its currency in order to keep its wage rates competitive. Why, then, are so many big Western manufacturers itching to shift their production from other Asian countries to China? Because higher wages are more than offset by better services, lower bureaucratic overhead and (believe it or not) less corruption than in Vietnam or Indonesia. Productivity matters more than wage rates. That’s why our theoretical South Korea can keep making steel despite the competition from low-wage India. China has begun moving up the food chain faster than many might have expected.
Nonetheless, there is something inherently humbling about having to appeal to foreign investors. Consider the rhetoric of the nation-builders of an earlier generation, such as Kwame Nkrumah or Julius Nyrere, who were proud to be poor. That rhetoric is virtually unheard today, aside from the fulminations of Slobodan Milosevic. Countries have become almost like corporations, ingratiating and eager to please. Friedman cites a New York Times reporter who, in the middle of attending a Mexican rally calling for the death of the country’s finance minister, receives a cell phone call from the finance minister preening over his success in placing a bond issue in international markets. One of the undercurrents of this book is the sense of relief on the part of well-meaning leaders, such as Chuan Leekpai of Thailand or Ernest Zedillo of Mexico, that the markets have given them an unambiguous star to steer by despite tumultuous domestic politics.
Friedman does a fine job of illustrating the mechanics of globalization — perhaps too fine a job. But he never really justifies his larger claim that this is a new world order. Instead he has a breakdown in the final chapter: There he is standing on the tarmac in Rwanda, scene of horrible ethnic killing, and he suddenly starts thinking (or so he tells us) how horrible the freshmen House Republicans are:
I said to myself, "Well my freshman Republican friends, come to Africa — it’s a freshman Republican’s paradise." Yes sir, nobody in Liberia pays taxes. There’s no gun control in Angola. There’s no welfare as we know it in Burundi and no big government to interfere in the market in Rwanda.
Nothing unites these thoughts about Rwanda and Republicans except that they occur in the head of Tom Friedman, yet they become the basis for a
tirade equating Republican policies in the United States with murder and chaos in Africa. Well, such things happen: Two unrelated wires get crossed and an irrational outburst results. The amazing thing about Friedman’s outburst is that it survived multiple drafts and the attention of an editor.
But maybe globalization as a new geopolitical order isn’t such a promising theme after all. Maybe globalization is merely the outgrowth of a particular set of relations between states, not the cause of it.
As Friedman himself recalls, the U.S. economy in the nineteenth century was built with capital and labor imported from around the world. Chinese workers were imported to build the railroads and European immigrants to man the factories of the Northeast. The wealth to build the railroads was mobilized by bond houses in London and Paris. It was no accident that this all took place during a quiescent period between the Napoleonic era, which was the culmination of a century’s worth of great power struggle over the New World, and the renewed race for overseas empire that eventually was brought home to Europe as World War I.
The global flow of capital and labor was interrupted by World War I, but got restarted in the 1920s, until monetary and protectionist blunders brought it to an end. Then it got started again after World War II. Looking even farther back, to the city-states of the ancient Mediterranean, we might conclude that globalization is normal human behavior — though routinely interrupted by the conflicts of great powers that undermine confidence and mobility.
In some places today, international politics is trying to restore its primacy, but we still live in a world where the adventurers and dreamers are Marco Polos rather than Napoleons. Some pundits still yearn for the supposed stability of the Cold War, but periods of true stability have been periods like the present age, when the aims and ambitions of statesmen are confused and fragmented, and the world belongs to entrepreneurs, inventors, and the global missionaries of trade and finance. Friedman has produced a rich sourcebook of snapshots of this world in progress. And, yes, as long as the ambitions of statesmen remain in remission, it should be an excellent time to own stocks.
Holman W. Jenkins Jr. writes the "Business World" column for the Wall Street Journal.
Men at War
By TOD LINDBERG
MARK BOWDEN. Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. ATLANTIC MONTHLY PRESS. 386 pages. $24.00
FOR MOSTof this century, the cultural depiction of war has centered on the soldiers doing the fighting. The result has been one intimate portrait after another of horror, brutality, and violent death designed to engender in the reader or viewer sensations of mortal dread, of hope mixed with desperation, of confusion and uncertainty, akin to those soldiers feel in the heat of battle. This intimate perspective on war flourished first in highbrow literary circles in the aftermath of the incomprehensible carnage of World War I. Since then, it has become virtually ubiquitous. Long before Saving Private Ryan, the soldier’s perspective became our standard perspective on war at all levels of cultural seriousness, from comic books to newspapers to bestsellers to movies and television shows to those works short-listed for literary prizes.
The soldier’s-eye view of war is not the only possible cultural perspective on war, of course. Clearly Shakespeare attaches more importance to what Henry V has to say that St. Crispian’s Day than to what the rest of the band of brothers might be thinking on the eve of the battle of Agincourt or during it. Nor does Shakespeare’s Henry fail to speak to us to this day.
Yet it is also true that no one alive today is much like Henry — nor Agamemnon, Scipio Africanus, nor the host of others whose exploits were once at the center of reflections on war and peace. Perhaps we don’t hear much about warrior-kings and conquerors because we have none. Likewise, in a century distinguished by the creation of a mass culture on one hand and the flourishing of individualism on the other, why wouldn’t we be keenly interested in war considered through the prism of the soldier? Note too the odious character of this century’s war-worshipping regimes, those for which war and its instruments are the stuff of anonymous, mass spectacle. Add conscription to the mix, the fact that whether to face violent death in battle has often been the most important choice denied an individual in this century of rising individualism. In thinking about war, therefore, we have many good reasons for our cultural focus on Everyman in extremis.
But let us not forget another fact about this perspective on war: Generally speaking, its propagators have had an agenda. Their ambitions extend far beyond aesthetic realism — blood, body parts, and all. They are also in a general sense anti-war.
They may (or may not) concede the necessity of war or its inevitability; they may (or may not) hold the view that the test of combat can bring out the best in man as well as the worst. But assuredly, they see no glory or opportunity for glory in what they portray; to them, no one who has known war could rationally seek war, except (perhaps) in times of dire emergency. As for those of us who have not had to risk life and limb in battle, the implication of this perspective is that one’s impressions of war are accordingly stunted, possibly to the extent of rendering questionable one’s standing to say anything at all about war. It is surely an article of faith among many utilizing this perspective that even the most vivid account of combat can only hint at the vividness of the real thing. This cultural focus on gruesome actuality paradoxically suggests that in our exposure to these scenes of combat, what we mainly learn is how much we will never know.
In truth, this is a somewhat odd literary or cultural stance. Consciously or not, its practitioners are building not a bridge to allow an audience access to their experience and imagination, but rather a wall that claims their experience and imagination are beyond access by any audience. This would seem to be equivalent to a declaration in advance of artistic failure. But then, their purpose here is extra-literary anyway. The reason so many have tried to rouse fear in us through horrific accounts of combat is to bring us around to their view of war as horror above all. The project would seem to have been almost entirely effective, since no one in the civilized world today is the least bit casual about war — although the question remains whether the proliferation of this point of view is a cause of the universal revulsion, or whether a spreading revulsion at war led to the near-ubiquity of the intimate point of view.
AT FIRST GLANCE, Black Hawk Down would seem to be of a piece with the dominant cultural trend. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden’s bestseller is an account of the 1993 firefight in Mogadishu that left 18 Americans dead and dozens more badly wounded, resulting shortly thereafter in the abandonment of the U.S. effort to restore order in warlord-riven Somalia. This is as riveting a description of a battle as you are ever likely to come across, all the more remarkable for the fact that Bowden was not there himself, but rather pieced the story together after the fact from hundreds of interviews with participants and military records painstakingly extracted from an initially reluctant Pentagon. What is different here and elevates Black Hawk Down above even the century’s best miniatures of war is that Bowden has no discernible agenda. Instead, he has a story to tell, and unlike so many others who have recently assayed war, he lets the events and characters speak for themselves.
It’s a complicated story, one that richly illustrates the meaning of the phrase, "the fog of war." Bowden tells it straightforwardly. A task force of Army Rangers and Delta Force operators embark on a daylight raid on a target in the heart of lawless Mogadishu for the purpose of capturing senior lieutenants to warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid. They have practiced this sort of mission endlessly and executed similar ones successfully. The task force expects to be in and out in less than an hour. Most of its members haven’t even bothered to bring along their canteens, preferring instead to load up on extra ammunition. But things go wrong. An inexperienced Ranger misses the rope on his way out of a helicopter hovering at 70 feet. He must be evacuated. A convoy of trucks and Humvees misses turns on the maddeningly complex, unmarked street grid of the wrecked city. As a result of the delay, the Somali resistance mounts. Lucky shots from grenade launchers fell first one Black Hawk helicopter, then another, and the force sets off on the tortuous, dangerous attempt to rescue survivors and retrieve the bodies of the dead. Taking serious casualties now at the hands of Somali militiamen, irregulars, and amateurs with AK-47s — and inflicting on the Somalis thirtyfold or more violent deaths in return — the task force finds itself fragmented, hunkered down as darkness falls, desperately in need of reinforcement if it is going to get out at all.
Bowden’s characters are not literary spokesmen for a point of view on war; neither is the Mogadishu he describes some sort of metaphor for human malevolence; nor is his intercutting between the men on the ground and their commanders out of harm’s way an occasion for infusion of irony and other literary artifice. This is the story of the real participants in a very harrowing gunfight at a particular time in a particular place, and Bowden seems to have set as his goal nothing fancier than getting the details right — which turns out to be a goal surpassingly more impressive when achieved, as here, than the delivery of anti-war homilies, however eloquent.
The themes that emerge in Black Hawk Down do so organically. Because of this, the book becomes positively subversive of our dominant cultural portrait of war. Yes, there is bloody mayhem here, and the entirely rational fear soldiers feel as they try to withstand a surprisingly furious
assault, and the sense of dread and uncertainty gradually mounting with each bit of bad news, and the urgent effort to keep the wounded alive, and the weight of the sudden death of comrades. But that is hardly the whole story. The emotional range here is far broader than the distance from fear to regret; it includes as well pride, righteous anger, honor, determination, respect, fraternal love, and in many instances, a richly mordant sense of humor. (One wounded Delta Force operator muses on the possibility that a Somali rocket-propelled grenade might hit the armored personnel carrier evacuating him and others after the long battle: "You know what we should do. We should kind of crack one of these doors a little bit so that when the rpg comes in here we’ll all have someplace to explode out of.")
These are elite American soldiers. Most are Rangers, meaning they have not only enlisted in the army but also volunteered for advanced airborne training and endured as well the rigors of Ranger school. Others in Black Hawk Down are members of the super-secret Delta Force, masters of the heights of American soldiering. The Rangers and the "D-boys," as the Rangers call them, train for war every day, practicing to perfection the art and craft of controlled but hellish violence.
More to the point, they want to fight. And in the non-fiction environment of Black Hawk Down, by contrast with much of our culture’s intimate portraiture of war, this desire of theirs is no literary contrivance designed to be shattered by exposure to war’s horror. Some of them — let’s be blunt — like the fight here. Some of them can’t imagine pursuing another line of work. Some of them look back on this brutal night in Mogadishu as time well spent and would, of course, do it again.
The feeling is not unanimous, nor for that matter unmixed. Bowden relates some thoughts of Sgt. Mike Goodale during the fight:
He thought about how much he wanted to go to war, to see combat, and then he thought about all those great war movies and documentaries he’d seen about battles. He knew he’d never see another of those films and feel the same way about it. People really get killed. He found the best way to accept his predicament was to just assume he was dead already. He was dead already. He just kept on doing his job.
But consider also:
[Spec. Shawn] Nelson surveyed the carnage around him and felt wildly, implausibly lucky. How could he not have been hit? It was hard to describe how he felt . . . it was like an epiphany. Close to death, he had never felt so completely alive. . . . He felt he would never be the same. He had always known he would die someday, the way anybody knows that they will die, but now its truth had branded him. And it wasn’t a frightening or morbid thing. It felt more like a comfort. It made him feel more alive.
Spec. Chris Schleif is less introspective as he prepares to join a convoy to relieve those still trapped in the city:
The [M-60] gun and ammo can were still slick with [Sgt. Dominick] Pilla’s blood and brain matter. Schleif ditched his own weapon and boarded the Humvee with Pilla’s. "He didn’t get a chance to kill anybody with it," Schleif explained to Specialist Brad Thomas, who like Schleif was heading back out into the city for the third time. "I’m going to do it for him."
And we meet Pvt. George Siegler desperately running to leap onto an armored personnel carrier to take him out of the city after that long night:
[He] sprinted up to the hatch . . . just as a voice yelled from inside, "We can only take one more!" [Lt. Larry] Perino already had one leg in the hatch. Out of the corner of his eye Perino saw the younger man’s desperation. He withdrew his leg from the hatch and said, cloaking his kindness with officerly impatience, "Come on, Private, come on." It would have been easy for the lieutenant to say he hadn’t seen him. Siegler was so moved by the gesture he decided then and there to reenlist.
IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to read Black Hawk Down and conclude that this range of emotion, including an appetite for battle even after having had the experience, is anything but real in these men. And though this is hardly the sensibility of civilian life in our times, it is equally impossible to conclude that these soldierly emotions are irrational or even especially hard to understand. Mark Bowden describes the context with precision, thereby allowing the humanity of his real-life characters its due.
Black Hawk Down should also cause us to reflect further on the dominant images of war in this century. Having grown accustomed to the portrait of combat as the ultimate monstrosity, what then are we to make of those who train for it in the expectation and even the desire of facing it? How could they wish this? Must they not be monsters?
Of course not, as Black Hawk Down amply documents. The second great paradox of the intimate portraiture of war is that in the name of preventing the infliction of carnage, it dehumanizes those who fight, transforming them into automatons and victims in order to make the point. Black Hawk Down, by contrast, is truly intimate; the closer we look, the more unmistakable the humanity.
The fact that some of our finest soldiers can’t wait for their next battle must never influence us in deciding whether or not to send them off to war. The matter is much too grave for that. But likewise, the question is too grave to derive its answer from our century-long cultural exploration of the horror of war from the soldier’s point of view — especially now that Mark Bowden has shown what a proper miniature really is and by implication how defective, tendentious, and dehumanizing so many previous such efforts have been.