Andrew Bacevich, historian of American militarism and empire, has declared the U.S. war against the Islamic State a fool’s errand. His argument is captured in the title of his Washington Post opinion piece, “Even if we defeat the Islamic State, we’ll still lose the bigger war.”
The U.S. is involved in a decades-old enterprise to bring order and stability to the Middle East, which is both costly and counterproductive. “Regime change has produced power vacuums.” The Islamic State is the most recent iteration of “America’s never-ending Middle East misadventure.” We are “inadvertently sowing instability” and thus digging the hole we’re in even deeper.
Bacevich’s critique invokes the mythic force of the archetype. The fool’s errand, as an idiom of war, places the U.S. under the spell of a heroic quest. It is a grand undertaking that has no chance of success, a pointless task carried out against our better judgment.
More than that—more than an exercise in futility—this counterproductive errand is a malicious joke, a ploy, a smokescreen, a distraction and diversion. In mythical terms, the fool who undertakes this quest is a naïve but admired simpleton. The holy fool is a madman, but he just might succeed where others have failed. Folly, as Ambrose Bierce defined it in The Devil’s Dictionary, is a divine faculty, a “creative and controlling energy” that “inspires Man’s mind, guides his actions and adorns his life.” What would we be without our malicious folly?
The fool pervades the domain of our intellectual and moral life, Bierce observes. The fool is “omnific, omniform, omnipercipient, omniscient, omnipotent.” He “created patriotism and taught the nations war.” After the rest of us are dead and gone, he will “write a history of human civilization.”
We can’t help ourselves. We are compelled by this archetypal journey, even if it is a mean joke. It’s the work of the devil. Kenneth Burke’s devil, after all, wears a fool’s cap. He is too bright and well meaning for his own good or for the good of anyone else. His cunning intellect and clever solutions for what ails the world are just a bit too simple. The Lord’s cautionary reply to Satan’s mercurial ways is always, “It’s more complicated than that.” Perfection eludes us earthly beings, even as our devilish symbols tempt us to reason otherwise. Hell itself is the “idea of a really perfect ending.” Hell is where saints can “hate with a perfect hate” (“Prologue in Heaven,” in The Rhetoric of Religion).
Perhaps, as the saying goes, we are easier fooled than convinced that we’ve played the fool. Yet, wisdom is gained in some measure by acknowledging our foolishness. We are tempted by the archetypal heroic journey to believe that our idea of good will triumph over evil against all odds. Bacevich’s history of America’s self-serving quest for stability in the Middle East tells us otherwise. By his count, Iraq War III is the fourteenth front, just since 1980, in which U.S. military forces have invaded, occupied, or bombed the Islamic world. Chaos unleashed does not order make. Burning the village does not save it. Overthrowing a regime does not create a nation. War begets war.