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The Uncivil Servant: “War is the Health of the State”

Mitchell Abidor
April 9, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

IT WAS PURE CHANCE that Trump launched missiles on Syria on the 100th anniversary of U.S. entry into World War I. It was hard to listen to a man like Trump invoking the deaths of “beautiful babies” without thinking of all the hypocrisy that led to that event. How could Trump, who has turned his back on similar “beautiful babies” suffering in refugee camps, and treats their parents as terrorists, dare to invoke the sufferings of the innocent -- which he prolongs -- as a justification for anything? Of course, in saying the attack was impelled by the impact the images had on him, he was, as always, reducing history to how it affects him first and foremost.

The hypocrisy is everywhere -- and I’m not just referring to the smaller hypocrisy of people who warned Obama that he had to go to Congress to get authorization of any attacks on Syria but who now applaud Trump’s going it alone, or the craven media, always willing to line up behind any military action carried out by any president for any reason. There is a greater hypocrisy on display here, that of crocodile tears shed for those suffering safely far away, the tears of men like John McCain and Lindsey Graham and Trump and all the rest, who show no concern for sufferings they inflict on people here.

The great progressive journalist Randolph Bourne (1886-1918) said that “War is the health of the state.” It is also the health of politicians looking to increase their popularity, to exercise their might, to divert us.

No one expressed the larger hypocrisy revealed yesterday better than Bourne, who opposed U.S. entry into World War I in Europe. In an article on intellectuals and the war, published a hundred years ago, he wrote the following, which, with the change of a couple of place names, could be written now and be just as true.

Numbers of intelligent people who had never been stirred by the horrors of capitalistic peace at home were shaken out of their slumber by the horrors of war in Belgium. Never having felt responsible for labor wars and oppressed masses and excluded races at home, they had a fund of emotional capital to invest in the oppressed nationalities and ravaged villages of Europe. Hearts that felt only ugly contempt for democratic strivings at home beat in tune with the struggle for freedom abroad.

Intoxicated as he had to have been by the instantaneous burst of admiration he received, we can only fear that Trump will give us more cause to think about Bourne’s words in the future.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a translator and writer living in Brooklyn. He has published many books of translations from the French, his articles have been translated into German and French, and his Voices of the Paris Commune has just appeared in a Turkish edition, put out by Kafka Kitap of Istanbul.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.