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?


The Dixie Chicks, American musicians.

Is it simply a matter of old-fashioned moral inertia?  After all, we are still just a decade from the time when the Dixie Chicks –who spoke truth to power about the Iraq War – were turned into fiddle-playing pariahs. We are just a decade from the time when Congressman Walter Jones, who now regrets the Iraq war, attempted to turn the family trip to McDonald’s into a litmus test on one’s personal patriotism. (Remember, call em’ freedom fries, or don’t bother calling yourself an American!)

Indeed, though the jingoism of the immediate post-9/11 period may have receded into memory, the military jingles surely have not: If you want to be considered an acceptable member of society, you must sing the praises of the military prior to giving your policy critique.

Yet moral inertia alone simply fails to account for why the American people continue to fund a multi-billion dollar a year colossus – the Afghanistan war – even though they long ago rejected and discarded its moral and strategic rationale. Something else must be in play. Arguably, that something is a failure to have a Merton-like “Fourth and Walnut” awakening, and to realize that other people’s lives are just as sacred as our own.  In others words, Americans have yet to come to grips with the fact that we’ve been brainwashed by some – and a certain former general comes to mind –  who put extraordinary elbow grease into portraying themselves as more patriotic than the rest of us.

Imagine if David Petraeus, who stopped wearing his general’s uniform upon his military retirement in 2011, never wore the uniform in the first place. Imagine if, to borrow a line from director Oliver Stone, there was no “fruit salad” of medals on his chest. Imagine if the U.S. Senate respected the right of Americans – like the group – to publicly criticize military leaders, instead of using the Senate to censure citizens as the Senate did in 2007 when took out an ad criticizing Petraeus. Would We the People give much credence to the claims of a mere bureaucrat in a civilian suit trying to sell a multi-billion dollar war with an intrinsically flawed premise, namely that Afghan “hearts and minds” can be won with the proper balance of teddy-bear tenderness and hellfire missile destruction? It’s doubtful.

But once that uniform goes on, once the “fruit salad” is donned, once the official censuring of First Amendment-protected speech commences, once the multitudes are cowed into submission, it’s no longer We the People anyway – it’s We the Drinkers of that strange brew so necessary for mass brainwashing.

The hardest part of realizing that you’ve been brainwashed is dealing with the humiliation. Just ask the millions of women who’ve been betrayed by their husbands and boyfriends. Most people simply don’t want to admit that they’ve been so gullible, even stupid.  Thus the illusion can carry on for some time. But if one has developed the spiritual and psychological tools to realize that all of us are susceptible to brainwashing, it’s really not so bad.

Clearly, Thomas Merton developed those tools, and as result was able to free himself from the illusion that he lived in a state of higher holiness and was therefore better than other people, simply because he was a monk. Hopefully, the American people will, sooner rather than later, free ourselves from the utter illusion that military generals are more devoted to our country and our freedom than the rest of us.  It’s simply not true.

If we did free ourselves, we might also free our foreign brothers and sisters in this human family from the wretched violence and indignity that our illusion unleashes upon them.


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