The Strategic Danger of Knowing Where History’s Going

“For those like President Bush who profess certainty as to history’s purpose, using any means necessary to hurry history along to its predetermined destination offers a nearly irresistible temptation. When that conviction is accompanied by a further certainty that on the far side of victory permanent peace awaits, the resort to force becomes almost obligatory. The greater the sense of conviction the easier it becomes to justify any mayhem committed on behalf of big ideas.”

–Andrew Bacevich, in a review of “The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of
Warfare as We Know It,” by David A. Bell, in the journal World Affairs.

According to Bacevich, Bell writes in his book that the ideas of the French Enlightenment “transformed peace from a moral imperative into a historical one,” which set the stage for Napoleon. Bacevich writes: “In France, the perversion of Enlightenment thinking subverted professed Enlightenment values. The result was not liberty, equality and fraternity, but a gaudy militarism that underwrote a penchant for strategic recklessness.”

Another way of formulating the influence of Enlightenment ideas on the French Revolution and other subsequent political movements that were utopian in their aims, including communism, is that the French enlightenment introduced the idea that man is perfectible. This idea was of course contrary to Christian teaching, which holds that man is fallen, that human nature is sinful, and therefore that perpetual peace and heaven on earth are impossible.

Which brings me to the parallels between the Napoleonic era and Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” that Bacevich, and presumably Bell, are drawing. It makes perfect sense that, as Bacevich says, “certainty as to history’s purpose” would lead to strategic overreach. But the interesting fact is that Bush himself frequently cites his “faith” as the undergirding of his certainty that societies can be hurried along toward transformation. So why were similar sentiments among the French revolutionaries, or in Soviet Russia for that matter, antithetical to Christianity while Bush’s belief in historical destiny is not? Does someone (Bush) have the theology wrong, does Bush not actually believe what Bacevich says he believes about historical destiny, or is this analogy between Napoleon and Bush-era U.S. foreign policy flawed in some other way?

I don’t know, but I suspect that a full understanding (which I don’t have) of the intellectual history from Martin Luther to modern American evangelical protestantism could go some way toward explaining this apparent theological contradiction.

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