The second half of the final installment of David Bromwich’s collection Moral Imagination: Essays—titled “Comments on Perpetual War”—may well stand as some of the finest, most trenchant commentary on the United States’ “War on Terror” and its ancillary effort, the war in Iraq, written to date. This is a subject made newly timely by Dick Cheney’s recent excoriation of President Obama and the apparent colossal failure of Iraqi military forces to meet the challenge presented by ISIS.
Bromwich is savvy about the political consequences of these far-reaching (one might instead write “hubristic”) efforts, and the ambitions that motivated them, but his central interest is the moral framework that made these actions possible—or perhaps that should be the lack of moral framework. Bromwich’s writing burns with a precise anger as he catalogs the mendacity, duplicity, bullying, and distortion that informed efforts to “sell” the war, both within political circles and to the public at large.
Specifically, he is disgusted by the manipulations of language that allow for plainly repulsive activities to be made respectable—or at least acceptable. For example, “… ‘waterboarding’ itself is a euphemism for a torture that the Japanese in the Second World War, the French in Indochina, and the Khmer Rouge, who learned it from the French, knew simply as the drowning torture.” And while various political operators are responsible for concocting these euphemisms, the American press—whose signal function in another era was to call out obfuscation and reveal truths—seems largely content to follow the party line, to the great detriment of our public discourse: “This complacency suggests a new innocence—the correlative in moral psychology of euphemism in the realm of language. And if you take stock of how little little general discussion there has been of the advisability of pursuing the Global War on Terrorism, you realize that this country has scarcely begun to account for its own effect as an ambiguous actor on the world stage.”
Bromwich’s overall point here is not new—the finest articulation of it in general is still George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”—but it is salient, and a reminder of how easily a national consciousness can simply accede to grossly immoral policies and practices—so long as it don’t have to see them for what they are. Near the end of the essay Bromwich writes with equal parts sadness and anger (here the particular issue is the government surveillance activities that are part and parcel of the War on Terror), “In this twelfth year of our emergency, something has gone badly wrong with the national morale. There are cultured Americans who have lived so long in a privileged condition of dependence on the security state that they have lost control of the common meaning of words.” Here, and elsewhere, Bromwich lays out the facts of the matter so clearly that outrage seems the only appropriate response.
Would that the collection as a whole match or nearly matched this tour-de-force. Unfortunately, it does not. The subject matter of the essays collected here is broad but delimited, in Bromwich’s words, thus: “This is a book about works of the mind of various sorts, and the people who wrote or spoke them. The common subject of the essays is the relationship between power and conscience. A politician like Lincoln or political writer like Burke, as much as the author of a novel or a poem, is engaged in acts of imagination for good or ill.” Fair enough. It’s an intriguing if not terribly original thesis, which we gloss as something like, “how public discourse is shaped by artful, morally consequential writing and speaking” or “ethics and rhetoric” and the range of subjects is certainly impressive: Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King and Reinhold Neibuhr, Edmund Burke and William Wordsworth, and more. If nothing else, the collection is a compendium of the interests of a massively well-read mind.
While Bromwich’s erudition is never in doubt, it’s not often clear what his commentary adds to the topic at hand. This may explain a tendency toward numinous clunkiness in the prose. For example, Bromwich writes at one point, “What can reasonably be expected is that the interpreter should evince a proper regard for a given way of life as it is refracted in the medium of a shared commitment.” This sort of writing is terribly muddy, and no clearer in context, and commonplace throughout the collection: where a given essay strives for a certain loftiness of tone, it is grounded by faux-eloquence and abstraction. The subjects are important enough in their own right that directing attention toward them is a noble effort in and of itself. But perhaps it would be best to dial down the commentary, the verbosity of which tends to distract from subjects at hand.
Again, though, when Bromwich trades into controversy or even just more contemporary topics, the writing and the impassioned sensibility behind it come alive. The already mentioned concluding essay is the prime example, but elsewhere, Bromwich provides incisive commentary that is not afraid to bloody some noses (though the topics at hand are considerably less important). For example, an essay on Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest is a fine critique of the grandly ambitious but ultimately shallow superficial work of history or political science that so often finds its way on to bestseller lists.
Likewise, in what might be labeled a journalistic smack down (also included in the concluding essay), Bromwich sketches out the gleeful viciousness that he sees informing William Safire’s career: “Safire was not the originator of the psychology of the self-righteous onslaught, ‘ten eyes for an eye’—human nature found it long ago—but he was the American of his generation who almost made it respectable” and “His picture of the defense of civil liberties as ‘pusillanimous pussyfooting on the critical issue of law and order’ has the true Safire touch—clever, punchy, alliterative, demagogic.”
This may or may not be a fair assessment of Safire’s work, but it certainly stakes a strong position and it expresses it with brio. Unfortunately, these more piquant passages do not predominate, and Moral Imagination does not come close enough to meeting the admirable ambitions of its title and introduction.