Worldly ambition inhibits true learning. Ask me. I know. A young man in a hurry is nearly uneducable: He knows what he wants and where he’s headed; when it comes to looking back or entertaining heretical thoughts, he has neither the time nor the inclination. All that counts is that he is going somewhere. Only as ambition wanes does education become a possibility.
My own education did not commence until I had reached middle age. I can fix its start date with precision: for me, education began in Berlin, on a winter’s evening, at the Brandenburg Gate, not long after the Berlin Wall had fallen.
As an officer in the U.S. Army I had spent considerable time in Germany. Until that moment, however, my family and I had never had occasion to visit this most famous of German cities, still littered with artifacts of a deeply repellent history. At the end of a long day of exploration, we found ourselves in what had, until just months before, been the communist East.
By temperament and upbringing, I had always taken comfort in orthodoxy. In a life spent subject to authority, deference had become a deeply ingrained habit. I found assurance in conventional wisdom. Now, I started, however hesitantly, to suspect that orthodoxy might be a sham. I began to appreciate that authentic truth is never simple and that any version of truth handed down from on high — whether by presidents, prime ministers, or archbishops — is inherently suspect. The powerful, I came to see, reveal truth only to the extent that it suits them. Even then, the truths to which they testify come wrapped in a nearly invisible filament of dissembling, deception, and duplicity. The exercise of power necessarily involves manipulation and is antithetical to candor.
I came to these obvious points embarrassingly late in life. “Nothing is so astonishing in education,” the historian Henry Adams once wrote, “as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts.” Until that moment I had too often confused education with accumulating and cataloging facts. In Berlin, at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate, I began to realize that I had been a naïf. And so, at age 41, I set out, in a halting and haphazard fashion, to acquire a genuine education.
These visits to Jena and Berlin offered glimpses of a reality radically at odds with my most fundamental assumptions. Uninvited and unexpected, subversive forces had begun to infiltrate my consciousness. Bit by bit, my worldview started to crumble.
That worldview had derived from this conviction: that American power manifested a commitment to global leadership, and that both together expressed and affirmed the nation’s enduring devotion to its founding ideals. That American power, policies, and purpose were bound together in a neat, internally consistent package, each element drawing strength from and reinforcing the others, was something I took as a given. That, during my adult life, a penchant for interventionism had become a signature of U.S. policy did not — to me, at least — in any way contradict America’s aspirations for peace. Instead, a willingness to expend lives and treasure in distant places testified to the seriousness of those aspirations. That, during this same period, the United States had amassed an arsenal of over 31,000 nuclear weapons, some small number of them assigned to units in which I had served, was not at odds with our belief in the inalienable right to life and liberty; rather, threats to life and liberty had compelled the United States to acquire such an arsenal and maintain it in readiness for instant use.
I was not so naïve as to believe that the American record had been without flaws. Yet I assured myself that any errors or misjudgments had been committed in good faith. Furthermore, circumstances permitted little real choice. In Southeast Asia as in Western Europe, in the Persian Gulf as in the Western Hemisphere, the United States had simply done what needed doing. Viable alternatives did not exist. To consent to any dilution of American power would be to forfeit global leadership, thereby putting at risk safety, prosperity, and freedom, not only our own but also that of our friends and allies.
Doing so meant shedding habits of conformity acquired over decades. All of my adult life I had been a company man, only dimly aware of the extent to which institutional loyalties induce myopia. Asserting independence required first recognizing the extent to which I had been socialized to accept certain things as unimpeachable. Here then were the preliminary steps essential to making education accessible. Over a period of years, a considerable store of debris had piled up. Now, it all had to go. Belatedly, I learned that more often than not what passes for conventional wisdom is simply wrong. Adopting fashionable attitudes to demonstrate one’s trustworthiness — the world of politics is flush with such people hoping thereby to qualify for inclusion in some inner circle — is akin to engaging in prostitution in exchange for promissory notes. It’s not only demeaning but downright foolhardy.
With regard to means, that tradition has emphasized activism over example, hard power over soft, and coercion (often styled “negotiating from a position of strength”) over suasion. Above all, the exercise of global leadership as prescribed by the credo obliges the United States to maintain military capabilities staggeringly in excess of those required for self-defense. Prior to World War II, Americans by and large viewed military power and institutions with skepticism, if not outright hostility. In the wake of World War II, that changed. An affinity for military might emerged as central to the American identity.
Washington is less a geographic expression than a set of interlocking institutions headed by people who, whether acting officially or unofficially, are able to put a thumb on the helm of state. Washington, in this sense, includes the upper echelons of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government. It encompasses the principal components of the national security state — the departments of Defense, State, and, more recently, Homeland Security, along with various agencies comprising the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities. Its ranks extend to select think tanks and interest groups. Lawyers, lobbyists, fixers, former officials, and retired military officers who still enjoy access are members in good standing. Yet Washington also reaches beyond the Beltway to include big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors and major corporations, television networks and elite publications like the New York Times, even quasi-academic entities like the Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. With rare exceptions, acceptance of the Washington rules forms a prerequisite for entry into this world.
The persistence of these rules has also provided an excuse to avoid serious self-engagement. From this perspective, confidence that the credo and the trinity will oblige others to accommodate themselves to America’s needs or desires — whether for cheap oil, cheap credit, or cheap consumer goods — has allowed Washington to postpone or ignore problems demanding attention here at home. Fixing Iraq or Afghanistan ends up taking precedence over fixing Cleveland and Detroit. Purporting to support the troops in their crusade to free the world obviates any obligation to assess the implications of how Americans themselves choose to exercise freedom.
When Americans demonstrate a willingness to engage seriously with others, combined with the courage to engage seriously with themselves, then real education just might begin.