Drew Faust, the historian who has been named Harvard’s first female president, has been praised for her “people skills,” but she’s also done brilliant intellectual work on a crucial question for our time: why we love war. A Civil War historian who has published five books, Faust wrote recently about why war is “history’s most popular subject.”
In an article published in 2004 in the journal Civil War History, Faust explores the place of war in American politics and culture today. War, she writes, “offers an authenticity and intensity of experience” missing elsewhere in modern society. It provides “a moment of truth,” when soldiers and civilians alike “have to define their deeply held priorities and act on them.”
Causation is typically the big issue for scholars and analysts who study war: explaining and interpreting, in a dispassionate way, why particular wars have been fought. And of course much of our current argument is about the reasons the Bush White House gave for going to war in Iraq.
But for ordinary people, Faust argues, what counts is not so much the analysis of causation, but rather the personal stories, the human drama of war. The fascination with war can be “almost pornographic in its combination of thrill and terror.” But that doesn’t mean the details of suffering and the tragedies of death are overlooked. Personal stories of suffering and death make war “a force that gives us meaning”–the phrase is the title of a book by award-winning war correspondent Chris Hedges.
Faust’s interpretation helps explain the way the US responded to the 9-11 terrorist attacks with a war on Iraq. “Even a war against an enemy who had no relationship to September 11’s terrorist acts would do,” she notes. People supported war not just because of the rational arguments offered by the White House, but also “because the nation required the sense of meaning, intention, and goal-directedness, the lure of efficacy that war promises.” It was especially necessary to restore a sense of control after the terrorism of 9-11 had “obliterated” it. The US, she concludes, “needed the sense of agency that operates within the structure of narrative provided by war.”
Those who write about war, she concludes – journalists and historians – need to acknowledge the power of war stories. Their job is to create “an orderly narrative,” full of purpose and significance, about events that otherwise “would be simply violence,” shapeless and meaningless.
Thus we are the ones who give meaning to war – so it’s up to us to come to terms with the power of war stories. “In acknowledging its attraction,” she concludes, ” we diminish its power” – we move from being part of the problem to part of the solution.
Harvard’s last president, Larry Summers, had been a Clinton administration free trade policy wonk. By choosing as its new president a scholar whose work has so much depth and significance, the university suggests a different sense of what intellectual leadership might mean.