The Petraeus Illusion Is Our Own

In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton famously wrote about his spiritual awakening at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in downtown Louisville’s shopping district. Away from the monks and bucolic rhythms of Gethsemani Abbey, Merton described his reaction to seeing all the city people bustling about: “It was like waking from a dream, a spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. Not that I question the reality of my vocation, or my monastic life: but the conception of ‘separation from the world’ that we have in the monastery too easily presents itself as a complete illusion: the illusion that by making vows we become a different species of being, pseudo-angels, ‘spiritual men,’ men of interior life, what have you.” Merton goes on to explain that though he and his fellow monks live their spiritual lives“out of the world,” they are every bit as much a part of the same violent, tormented physical world as everyone else. Merton writes, “We just happen to be conscious of it [the world’s problems] and to make a profession out of this consciousness. But does that entitle us to consider ourselves different, or even better [his emphasis], than others? The whole idea is preposterous.”

Though not referring to his theretofore monastic experience as a brainwashing, Merton nonetheless described his awakening experience at the corner of Fourth and Walnut as a kind of ecstatic deprogramming: “And I suppose my happiness could have taken form in the words: ‘Thank God, thank God that I am only a man among others. To think for sixteen or seventeen years I have been taking seriously this pure illusion that is implicit in so much of our monastic thinking.”

In the wake of the Petraeus scandal, much has already been said about journalistic failure, not only of the broken boundary between the former general and his biographer, but about the media’s largely uncritical reporting on Petraeus and his rise to power. Yet it seems that for some years now the American people have been drinking the same strange brew as the media when it comes to things Petraeus: opposing the military quagmire in Afghanistan, yet standing foursquare behind the military general who principally conceived it.  This strange brew, it seems, leaves our critical capacities fully intact – handing out teddy bears to Afghan children to win “hearts and minds” while dismissing those same children as “collateral damage” when they and their parents are killed by U.S. bombs is both immoral and nonsensical – yet simultaneously renders We the Drinkers utterly incapacitated to actually do anything to stem the aforementioned bombs-and-teddy bear schizophrenia. What gives?

 

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