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Attention, Pentagon Lit Majors

October 8, 2010

Daniel Born in The Common Review:

I have an idea. What if every soldier and politician were required to be a lit major?

It sounds far fetched, I know. Textual critics would run the Pentagon. Generals and colonels commanding the tanks, Predator drones, and Green Berets would all be required to carry well-worn copies of Homer, Virgil, Wilfred Owen, Norman Mailer, Tim O’Brien, and maybe even Jacques Derrida in their briefcase next to the loaded Glock 9-millimeter pistol. In the case of our current nine-year-long struggle in Afghanistan, the required reading would be Kipling. Specifically, it would be his tale about two adventurers, Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, who journey to a remote part of Afghanistan named Kafiristan in search of power and treasure. They vow to make a nation out of that region’s ragtag bunch of tribes.

In my utopian plan, decisions about foreign policy and war-making activity of any kind (OK, let’s get comprehensive—also the craft of nation-building) would become the bailiwick of the literary elite: those enlightened souls who understand the meaning of the intentional fallacy and who can explain what Michel Foucault was talking about when he described the death of the author. The result of this literary mastery would be a world in which the quotient of wisdom applied to the most lethal of activities would be sure to rise—and perhaps casualties (and even war itself) would decline. Forget philosopher-kings. We’re talking about literary kings here. Practitioners of war would be immersed in the poetry and fiction and memoir and arguments that the cauldron of war has generated since the beginning of human history. To be sure, the niceties of international relations and psychological theories of aggression wouldn’t be glossed over. But they would take second place to the reading of literature, which, beginning with the Epic of Gilgamesh, has preoccupied itself repeatedly with the way humans kill one another in organized fashion—and has also sought answers to the burning question, Why? [More]


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