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Hope Lies to Mortals

Michael's post on Wilfred Owen reminded of a few lines by another Brit poet, A. E. Housman. Housman wasn't a war poet; though he was popular in wartime and he wrote about men dying young, he wrote as a professor and classicist, not as a soldier—and he lived to be nearly eighty, while Owen died at twenty-five. I mention him because the following verses are a concise reproach to the way we live now. They're also easy to remember.

I to my perils Of cheat and charmer Came clad in armour By stars benign. Hope lies to mortals And most believe her, But man's deceiver Was never mine. The thoughts of others Were light and fleeting, Of lovers' meeting Or luck or fame. Mine were of trouble, And mine were steady, So I was ready When trouble came.

Hold that thought. In 2005, Christopher Hitchens was asked by the San Francisco Chronicle: "What kind of world do you want your children to inherit?" He gave this memorable answer, and risked drawing enraged soccer moms like a cloud of Africanized bees:

Struggle. I think most people want their friends or family to have a peaceful future. I don't think that's possible or desirable. Far too much work is done to make children feel their world is safe and reassuring. That's a tremendous waste of time for teachers, who should be spending time teaching poetry, history and science. For Valentine's Day at school, my youngest daughter, who is 12, sends a Valentine and gets one. When I was a kid, it was a day of extreme anxiety and tension, as it can only be and should be. One: Will you get a Valentine at all? Second, will you know who it is from? Because it would mean someone had or hadn't made an effort, and yours had already been sent. These anxieties are important. They prepare you for life. She gets a Valentine from the entire class. They might as well e-mail one from the headmaster to everyone. It's painless. Excitement-free. Risk-free.

What am I getting at with all this? That there are dangers to be recognized and prepared for is anathema to a large part of the public. This is evident not in the fact that people oppose the war in Iraq but in the way so many of them do. One is reminded of a kid putting aside a new toy he's just tired of: bored, ready for a new distraction, and impatient with the mess in the way of whatever it might be. Except the toy isn't, say, a Nintendo Wii. It's a new puppy, and the kid's just asked Mom to take it to the pound and have it put down.

It's easy to say we can admit defeat and go home if you're good at talking about the war like it's a war but treat it in your private thoughts like it's a conversation topic. It's more difficult if you're prepared to contemplate the "trouble," to put it as mildly as Housman does, that may come if it's put aside for the hope that things will just work out as they always seem to do. Guess who says it best.

This resolution is not about Congress taking responsibility. It is the opposite. It is a resolution of irresolution. For the Senate to take up a symbolic vote of no confidence on the eve of a decisive battle is unprecedented, but it is not inconsequential. It is an act which, I fear, will discourage our troops, hearten our enemies, and showcase our disunity. And that is why I will vote against cloture. If you believe that General Petraeus and his new strategy have a reasonable chance of success in Iraq, then you should resolve to support him and his troops through the difficult days ahead. On the other hand, if you believe that this new strategy is flawed or that our cause is hopeless in Iraq, then you should vote to stop it. Vote to cut off funds. Vote for a binding timeline for American withdrawal. If that is where your convictions lie, then have the courage of your convictions to accept the consequences of your convictions. That would be a resolution. The non-binding measure before us, by contrast, is an accumulation of ambiguities and inconsistencies. It is at once for the war but also against the war. It pledges its support to the troops in the field but also washes its hands of what they are doing.

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