Nations, like individuals, sustain trauma, mourn and recover. And like individuals they survive by making sense of what has befallen them, by constructing a narrative of loss and redemption. Writ large, this interpretive enterprise constitutes a “culture of defeat,” a collective response that makes it possible to live with failure in the greatest of national efforts–war–and ultimately somehow to snatch victory from defeat. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, an independent scholar who divides his time between Germany and New York, begins his polyphonic, brilliant study with the case of the American South after 1865, then turns to France after its losing war with Prussia in 1870-71 and ends with Weimar Germany.
The book does not, however, end with Weimar; an epilogue considers September 11. Our image of that day is not the hole in the side of the Pentagon, Schivelbusch reminds us, but rather the rubble of the World Trade Center. The reasons seem obvious enough: The real target was not military but economic; the real hatred of the attackers was directed against the symbol of American world dominance in the age of globalization; the loss of life and the gaping wound in the earth were on an altogether different scale in New York than on the banks of the Potomac. But there is another reason that touches the historical unconscious: The World Trade Center fell. A successful attack is not a defeat, of course, but this one embodies “something of the fall of Troy, the first of all defeats.” In the wheel of fortune, winners rise and losers fall; heroes “fall” in battle, they do not die; we remember the end of the Soviet Union not by the lowering of its flag in 1991 but by the fall of the Berlin wall. No one thinks of the end of the Vietnam War as the 1973 cease-fire signing but rather as the last, desperate effort of people clamoring to get on helicopters as they lifted off from the embassy roof for the last time.
Just as earthquakes and aerial bombardments can reveal layers of earlier ruined cities, might not, Schivelbusch asks, “the destruction of September 11 [have] uncovered the suppressed remains of Vietnam”?Could the internationalism and peacefulness of the United States during the past thirty years have been a sort of seemingly benign interim period, like that of Weimar, with its “pleasant illusion of a pacified Germany,” or of the last decades of the nineteenth century when French calls for revanche were expressed in cultural rather than military terms? In short, is “America’s post-September 11 war fever…really a response to an earlier and unresolved defeat?” With this question the epilogue ends. The book appeared before the denouement of that fever in Iraq.
But we can offer a response. It does not matter, Thomas Friedman reassures us, that the ostensible reason for the unseemly speed with which we rushed to war turns out to be indefensible. The “real reason” for war, he says, is that we had to make war on someone serious after a series of earlier attacks on United States interests that, in the post-Vietnam era, we let slide. Never mind that the object of our vengeance had so little to do with the insult at hand. We as a nation seem to long for a return to 1945, for the “Great Generation” and our last clear victory. It was reported that troops being sent to Iraq had been coached to hand out candies and other gifts to children as their tanks and transports passed by so that cameras could capture what was to be a remake of World War II liberations; saving Private Lynch was meant of course to be Saving Private Ryan redux. Iraq was a war waged by those who sat on the sidelines in Vietnam. Perhaps the illusory triumphs of the past few months represent our collective effort to lay to rest the “psychological and cultural fall-out” of defeat that is the subject of Schivelbusch’s book.