Interim writer, Rick McGinnis, Amusements

It might be easier to be optimistic about the future if we published more mea culpas – books like Robert D. Kaplan’s recent The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate and the Burden of Power, in which the author confesses to a heavy conscience in the wake of what he considers two errors of judgment that ended up influencing history. Considering the terrible mistakes made by men and women with far more power and influence than Kaplan—a journalist specializing in geopolitics— bookshelves should be groaning under the weight of them.

But they aren’t, and those few I have been able to discover are, like Kaplan’s, notably slim.

I can attest to Kaplan’s influence. Back in the ‘90s, when I was desperately trying to make up for vast gaps in my education, I read several of his books – most notably Balkan Ghosts (1993), which offered a then-rare examination of the dismal history of a region that had exploded into ethnic conflict after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Bill Clinton also read the book and was photographed carrying a copy, and Kaplan writes that one of “my own moral humiliations (is) the knowledge that a book I wrote had the result, however unintended, of delaying a president’s response to mass murder in the Balkans.”

If that weren’t enough, Kaplan’s personal experience with the authoritarian horrors of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq made him a supporter of regime change in that country after the 9/11 attacks, providing intellectual support to the George W. Bush administration’s push for “a war in Iraq that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths.”

“I was a journalist who had gotten too close to my story,” Kaplan writes. “I had let my emotions overtake dispassionate analysis…The clinical depression I suffered for years afterward because of my mistake about the Iraq War led me to write this book.”

Kaplan tells us early on that he was a student of classical literature, an interest that was amplified by time living in Greece, and what follows is a look at the present state of the world filtered through dramatic tragedies written by Shakespeare and especially ancient Greeks like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

In these stories – which were once the bedrock of any decent education and, tellingly, no longer are – the tragedy is almost inevitably that of a powerful leader forced by fate or the gods to make a difficult choice. They may or may not have the wisdom to choose well, but it usually doesn’t matter as the consequences from any decision will be awful.

This, Kaplan insists, is what every politician faces on a constant basis – a situation that no one who hasn’t held great power can comprehend. “Uneasy are the policymakers who must make decisions about war and peace,” Kaplan writes. “To sympathize with the victims of war is morally necessary and emotionally satisfying, but analytically easy. This, again, is at the root of why intellectuals are so self-assured even as policymakers grind their teeth at night with regrets.”

Political battles are often between humanitarians and realists, though neither side grasps the tragedy inherent in every political decision. Realists see how easily humanitarian sentiments resonate with the public and the media, and react “with annoyance and bewilderment.” But humanitarians, writes Kaplan “do not fully comprehend the tragic sensibility. They do not accept that their hard-nosed, realistic adversaries are also motivated by truth: a different truth, that is also moral.”

The danger for America in the aftermath of “policy disasters” like Afghanistan and Iraq, Kaplan says, is that the “Washington elite pays too small a price for them, and this in turn, allows the policy elite to shrug them off and go on as before.”

At the start of his book Kaplan says that nothing was more important to the Greeks than order, and that they never forgot how close they were, even at the best of times, to the catastrophe and suffering of real anarchy. “Baby boomers and later generations in the United States,” he writes, “have difficulty with this concept because they are the first generations in human history to have grown up with both physical and financial security.”

“Taking order completely for granted,” Kaplan writes, “they are concerned only with making it less oppressive.”

The last time he thinks American politicians were close to balancing “fear and ambition” was the ‘50s, when veterans like Dwight D. Eisenhower and their “constructive pessimism” made decisions with very real memories of global war at the forefront of their minds. But he worries that the culture that made this possible might no longer exist: “America’s estimable civic culture might actually have been a creature of the print-and-typewriter age, when the media and public opinions were oriented toward the political center. But now the digital-video age of social media was fraying the national fabric and contributing to the rank partisanship in Washington. Rather than the national cohesion afforded by World War II and its Cold War extension, we now seemed headed into a messy, dangerous world, both foreign and domestic.”

As Kaplan has come to understand it, the conflict in most political decisions is good against good, though neither choice will end well, either politically or morally. “Every villain is not Hitler and every year is not 1939,” he writes – another reminder of how much World War II and its aftermath distorted everything from economics to history to philosophy – but is it surprising that people who have never been asked to make really hard choices as citizens might fantasize about how easily they’d choose to fight Nazis? Everyone, after all, thinks they’d hide Anne Frank and her family in their attic. To know otherwise would destroy the soul.

“Tragedy” Kaplan writes, “is about morally defensible but incompatible goals, since the choice of good over evil is too easy. Thus, I have largely written evil out of this book.” This, in my opinion, might be his book’s tragic flaw.

The only other book I’ve read that reminds me of Kaplan’s is H.G. Wells’ Mind at the End of Its Tether, a short, delirious and downcast little volume that’s as close to a mea culpa as Wells’ considerable ego allowed.

It wasn’t as if Wells didn’t have enough to regret after his lifelong fame and influence. There was his membership in the Fabian Society and his support of eugenics; as his book was published in 1945, it was finally clear to the rest of the world where official government eugenic policy led.

One unalloyed good at the end of World War II was how Nazism discredited eugenics as an inhuman crank “science.” (Though like all bad ideas it hasn’t gone away, and recent years have seen it return like the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, with doctor-sanctioned selective abortion and medically assisted suicide, sold as a kindness to parents and the suffering, instead of as a progressive societal good.) But Wells doesn’t give it a backwards glance.

What compelled Wells to express “a certain wonder, a shrinking and fugitive sense that something is happening so that life will never be quite the same again” was his certainty that mankind as a species was on the verge of extinction after the global catastrophe, and that “only a small, highly adaptable minority of the species can possibly survive. The rest will not trouble about it finding such opiates and consolations as they have a mind for.”

“The writer is convinced that there is no way out or round or through the impasse,” Wells wrote. “It is the end.”

For someone who had spent so much of his career imagining and predicting technologies and futures that would linger in our collective imagination, this sounded apocalyptic – inasmuch as you could discern just what Wells was predicting.

Wells was part of those generations whose world was transformed utterly by Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution, and like most of those who marched under Darwin’s banner they would misinterpret and publicize what they thought Darwin had said in countless theories and policies, only some of them as sinister as eugenics.

After a life of being lionized as a man of science (though his actual scientific expertise was oversold, both to the public and by Wells to himself) his slim little volume reads like a man whose mind has been blown by some final, personal revelation about the promise of imminent evolution.

It didn’t help that, like so many of Darwin’s supporters, Wells had a hard time grasping the concept of time, and the implication of infinity. (It was Einstein, not Wells, who pioneered this truly mind-blowing concept.) Even at the end of his life, Wells had a hard time seeing the infinitesimal briefness of everything he knew and understood about the span of history. It was a tragic lack of humility not surprising for a man who wrote The Outline of History, and not unlike the one that Kaplan faults us and our leaders for today.

“We never learned what the ancient Greeks knew: all things cannot be fixed,” Kaplan writes, “so we have to accept much of the world just as it is.” The key, he says, is already there – in the literature he has returned to, looking for answers after the chastisement of his own tragic mistakes. “The literary classics will ultimately be firmer and more useful guides than any social science methodology for those who have not had a personal experience with war and death.”

Which would sound hopeful if Kaplan hadn’t already speculated that we’re at the end of decades of erosion of education and cultural literacy. It would be just as hard to get a college senior to pronounce Aeschylus as to read him, never mind grasp that a team losing a game or a celebrity making a social media faux pas isn’t truly “tragic.”

Iraq and Afghanistan are failures for which America has paid relatively little; potential conflicts with Russia, China or even Iran are potentially much more costly, but our political class is objectively worse – far, far worse – than it was twenty or thirty years ago.

“George W. Bush is a figure of pathos, but fate could have worse in store for our future leaders,” Kaplan writes. It certainly might, but I can guarantee that anyone under the bombs and missiles that will land or on the wrong side of the guns of soldiers or police wherever the next mistakes were made will feel the consequences of their decisions more immediately than our future leaders. Perhaps there’s room in Kaplan’s mea culpa for understanding the training, appointment and election of ever more incapable leaders as something like real evil.