Tolstoy, the Military, and the Media

Tolstoys theories on the nature of what constitutes a hero are perfectly consistent, so long as one is willing to concede that the discussion he wishes to have has everything to do with historical bias (known in the common parlance simply as hindsight is always 2020) and nothing to do with morality.  His theories deal more with the idea that human beings, as necessarily flawed, are psychologically incapable of perceiving the threat to their own moral identity inherent in labeling individuals as great.  As Tolstoy says, as soon as one is willing to believe that great men and great actions are not necessarily moral, they have effectively given up on creating a unique moral identity for themselves.  As such, this is an issue that is avoided in the popular consciousness, to the point of morbid hilarity.  As Bill Maher once elaborated on (shortly before his show was cancelled), the American media labels soldiers in underground bunkers launching missiles at targets hundreds of miles away as brave and noble.  Conversely, enemies driving trucks directly into military bases are labeled as ambushers, and yes, enemies flying planes into American buildings are labeled cowardly.  This is not meant to excuse murder in any form, but to simply illustrate Tolstoys continued relevance and veracity after all, if one seeks moral continuity with our actions as a nation, one will be sorely disappointed.  For Gods sake, we hanged Japanese soldiers for doing to our troops what we now do to enemy combatants as a matter of course.  Tolstoy was correct labeling individuals as great men paves the way to labeling other individuals as evil, and is used to justify a variety of horrible actions as done in the name of a higher power.

Franklin D. Roosevelt is a great example of Tolstoys great man paradigm.  Roosevelt had already acquired a heroic reputation in salvaging Americas economy from the effects of The Great Depression.  His reputation after the Pearl Harbor attacks, as well as during and after World War II, remained glowing.  However, things became more interesting in light of the so-called Pearl Harbor conspiracythe conspiracy that FDR knew that Pearl Harbor would be attacked but let it happen, opening the way to Americas entrance into World War II.  Obviously, discussions about this split into camps attacking and camps defending Roosevelt, but more interesting still was the ethical discussion simply put, that letting a certain number of Americans die in order to save the world from the threat of Hitler and the Nazis may have been an excusable, even necessary, action.  This is similar to the ethical argument in favor of using nuclear weapons in order to end the warthat if more lives could be shed through violence, then violence itself can become a kind of agent of morality.  By Tolstoys standards, this (conveniently improvable) conspiracy shows Roosevelts actions as wholly immoral, but something that historical perspectives (themselves often unethical fantasies of great men) would find forgivable.  This is precisely because of individuals historical perspectives being guided by a fatalism that is, ironically, often used as a justification for a variety of actions.  It was a kind of religious fatalism, after all, that led to the American conception of Manifest Destinywe were simply taking what God intended for us.  However, short of individuals such as Fred Phelps (perhaps the worst still-living abomination of what it means to be Christian), few people argue that events such as the September 11th attacks were guided by fate.  As Tolstoy alludes, doing so robs people of the ability to make any kind of ethical stand.  If Osama bin Laden is simply being an agent of the inevitable, it removes his culpability in the matter.  For Roosevelt, however, it is often argued that the (theoretical) perpetuation of evil may, indeed, be necessary in order to combat greater evil.  The historical irony is that this is the same justification Osama bin Laden himself usedhe wished to combat a foe because of their potential for future violence.  This was described by the media as a cowardly strike against civilians.  However, when George Bush (quite tenuously) linked Iraq to the September 11th attacks, the loss of civilian life attached to the initial Shock and Awe attacks (on key utilities structures populated almost exclusively by civilians) was deemed by many as a necessary evil in order to remove a greater evil.  Bush, unlike Roosevelt, actively courted this kind of moral justification, actively labeling his enemies as part of the Axis of Evil and declaring that he was fighting evil-doers.  The ghost of Tolstoy is clearly in this, as someone fighting evil is assumed to be good any immoral actions taken in the service of moving towards this goal are deemed as the necessary actions of a great man, one who is beyond our moral judgments.

Amidst this talk of morality and immorality, Christianity still stands for something.  However, it is best served as a private faith, guiding individuals towards their own notion of what is good and proper.  After all, when individuals such as Bush muddy the waters with talks of Christian soldiers battling evil forces, it fosters the idea that America is fighting another Crusade.  An individual who believes that God is on their side may resort to a variety of unethical acts (even torture and murder), because they have bought into the obvious converse notion of being Gods soldier his enemies are therefore Gods enemies, and de facto agents of Satan.  By tethering their actions to the greatest of Tolstoys sarcastically labeled great menGod himselfthen it justifies any actions taken after the fact.  One of the reasons this issue is so tricky is that proponents of violence towards enemies typically think of the Bible in Old Testament terms that everything is meant to be solved with equal responsean eye for an eye.  Those calling for everything from the torture of enemy troops to the arresting of homosexuals conveniently ignore the variety of New Testament passages in which Christ urges forgiveness and tolerance.  This is why faith should remain private otherwise, the Bible becomes yet another tool that allows individuals to justify horrific behavior in the name of a greater good.

This illuminates the next point, which is that fatalism, taken to its logical extreme, is completely illogical.  A belief in fatalism may occasionally produce positive after-effects (lovers who are convinced that they were meant to be together, or perhaps separated lovers who are convinced they were star-crossed and their relationship foundered through no fault of their own).  As Tolstoy shows, this is simply another way of asserting the inherent rightness or wrongness of an action while glossing over its actual merits or flaws.  History gives individuals a label and sticks with itAndrew Jackson was a lousy drunk and Franklin D. Roosevelt was a war hero.  Scratching below thatwondering why individuals elected the flawed Jackson, or how Roosevelt became deifiedconfuses notions of morality that stitch the nation together.  Individuals must either be Jesus or be Judaseither perfect moral exemplars for all of us to follow, or terrible betrayers that will live in infamy.  Pondering shades of grey threatens to unravel individual senses of identity.

Tolstoys views remain completely defensible, if for no other reason than their continued relevance to modern society.  Decades later and across the span of oceans, he still speaks with a fundamental truth that addresses contemporary issues with frightening clarity.  He should be read by students who hate him as surely as the Bible should be read by the most devout atheist.  Not because there is an enormous chance that someone will change their worldview overnight.  Rather, because individuals living in Western society have a personal responsibility to understand the pillars that hold up their notion of reality.  People constantly discuss the form the end of the world will arrive inwhether it is the cleansing fire of the biblical Revelations or simply the slow disintegration of morality and ethics through the misuse of labels.  However, what really hold the world up are fundamental ideas of what is right and what is wrong.  The only way to destroy those is for individuals to forgo themto take ethical shortcuts, or to champion pragmatism over morality.  As soon as enough people believe that greater goods can be accomplished by lesser evils, then Tolstoy is proven irrevocably right, and civilization tumbles like the walls of Jericho.


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