Nous sommes tous français

Hello to my friends in Paris! I’ve been reading about a new book titled, “The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography,” by Graham Robb. Robb bicycled 14,000 miles around France, and spent four years researching the country’s history from the time of the Revolution to World War 1. Before railroads and telegraph lines, France was not one nation, but many isolated sub-nations, with their own languages or dialects, often practicing pre-Christian rituals, often extremely hostile to outsiders.

We know that Germany too was a relatively new construction in 1914. We also know that wars are usually fought between elites, using commoners to do the actual fighting. Putting a loosely knit nation on a war footing is one way to consolidate its disparate population: Nous sommes tous français!

A corollary is disparaging political opponents as non-nationalists, traitors to the idea of a unified nation. This got me thinking about 9/11, that great unifying moment. The moment was just that, short-lived, destroyed by divided opinions about the Iraq War. Perhaps, though, we got it wrong from the beginning, and misinterpreted 9/11. What was attacked on 9/11? Not Heartland America, nor Christian America. Damage to Trinity Church in Manhattan was incidental.

No, the targets of 9/11 were our financial and military cathedrals, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And what ideologies better represent the United States in the 21st century than our economic power, backed up by our military power? They are the public faces of our elites, and the means by which they expand and maintain their power.

While it is true that most of the casualties on 9/11 were merely employees, this is always the case in modern warfare: Commoners with little actual stake in the elites’ ideologies are sent out to die for a cause not their own. Though we maintain the belief in a unified nation, a quick glance at the yawning gap between the elites and the rest of us gives an entirely different picture.

Rabid xenophobes aside, most Americans now believe the Iraq War was a big mistake. Overwhelming evidence proves the elites’ poster boy, George W. Bush, told blatant lies to con us into supporting the war. While most Americans agree on those points, I’m sure few of them will agree with my analysis of 9/11. I don’t think we should have shrugged it off. I think the way we got started in Afghanistan was smart, joining forces with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. But even though Osama bin Laden directly attacked the cathedrals of our elites, their interests were better served by diverting our attention to Iraq. The reason is obvious: Iraq has oil, Afghanistan does not.

Being part of the elite often means being arrogant, and ours are no exception. The Iraq War has gone badly, but so, too, has the war in Afghanistan. Which economic class is profiting from the wars, and which class is fighting and dying in them?

We can’t have people, Americans or foreigners, committing mass murder. Even so, we need to pay attention to all aspects of our foreign policy and its consequences. We especially need to understand that in today’s world, the interests of our leaders are not necessarily the same as our own. We can agree on the need to defend our country without automatically agreeing on the means. Americans on both sides of the war debate have more in common with one another than we do with our country’s current leadership.

Our leaders show little interest in unifying us, but we can do it ourselves if we understand that our country’s growing class differences are the root of our political differences. Our political-financial elites (their numbers are not limited to the Republican Party) have misled us for too long. If we non-elites are going to invest our blood and treasure in foreign adventures, we have a right — no, an obligation — to know the truth. It isn’t unpatriotic to ask, “What’s in it for us?” It’s just common sense. We’re all Americans.

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