As politics began to fill the sky above New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, I was strolling vaguely in the direction of my last class of the day an ocean away, in Geneva, Switzerland. Not long after the world realized how low America’s defenses were, it was becoming disconcertingly apparent that its vulnerability was also, in some way, my own. The foul assault on my distant homeland was a blow for which my deep but narrow patriotism was wholly unprepared. It was for me — almost alone among compatriots in my cohort — a nightmare that kept me awake for many nights. In those bleak, lonely hours a broader patriotism was formed, a Paine-like sense that the cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind. The finest thing, I soon found, about being overseas during this vital period of moral and political maelstrom was that it furnished an abiding love for the country I thought I had left behind.
Around the time I was becoming aware of a remote but enlarged allegiance, Scott L. Malcomson was undergoing a similar emotional process more or less in reverse. Living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan, Malcomson, then an editor for the op-ed page of the New York Times, became homesick at home. He was gripped, as I was, as all sentient beings were, by “the temporary insanity of being able to think and talk of nothing else and yet finding no relief in thinking and talking.” In Generation’s End: A Personal Memoir of American Power after 9/11, he proceeds by way of a series of diary entries to explain the swirl of those events, and how they led him — in the words of the handsome introduction by George Packer — into a “lover’s quarrel” with his country. It is not terribly odd that this string of vignettes did not emerge until nearly a full decade after the original scene. Such a jarring, world-historical event takes time to process. One cannot hope to take its full measure in a blink, and Generation’s End repays a little reflection for this reason.
Malcomson’s prose has a raw, sinewy feel to it, and the result is a deeply humane, pellucidly intelligent work about the world as it seemed, at least for a spell, to go dark — or, to paraphrase Churchill, if not dark, then certainly stern. Malcomson describes the pervasive sense of anxiety in those days with a rather evocative power. A week after watching the towers collapse, Malcomson passes by Union Square Park and glimpses a photo caption that reads: “Cultural institutions now see a role in helping the city return to normal.” He sagely reflects: “I could not think of a single good reason to return to normal, and there were many reasons not to, our dead being the main ones.” After observing such routine but surreal details of a city visited by war, he manages to find his way home, where he feels “as though we were animals pushing as far as we could into our burrow.” Until hell passes.
There is a feistiness here, especially when the author discusses the agents who desecrated his hometown and incinerated 3,000 of its workers. He thinks of Osama bin Laden as “bingeing on God in a cave.” Appalled by the grisly, gloating broadcasts from al-Qaeda maniacs, Malcomson confesses the real possibility that “the only way” to modify their primitive take on the world “was to kill them.” Indeed, he even finds himself “wondering whether there wasn’t some way I could get over to Afghanistan and kill these men myself.”
He sets to work trying to understand America’s “new imperial moment” (for that is what it was, though arguably not all that new). Before long, he turns a skeptical eye on both the innocence of his country and the virtue of its might. “We had been ignoring the rest of the world, and now we had paid a high (but somehow, also, deserved) price for that ignorance.” The word “somehow” does a lot of work here. You want to seize the man by his scrofulous lapels and demand how, precisely, such an appalling judgment could be deployed so lightly in the pages of what is, for the most part, an exquisitely nuanced book.
His ostensibly cosmopolitan disposition turns strangely provincial when he classifies September 11 as a strictly American trauma. To take this view, as Malcomson appears to have done, is to accede to the notion that these enemies are ours alone, rather than the enemies of civilization. At the Times, he hastily commissions opinion pieces from veteran policymakers like Brent Scowcroft and James Baker — “they were not imperialists, humanitarian or otherwise” — that he hopes will dampen any ardor for a long war, much less a wider one. All this is of a piece with his larger plea for a cold-eyed, Eisenhowerian prudence in the conduct of foreign policy.
His attention fixes, inevitably, on the question of Iraq. The Bush administration’s muscular approach — “a trend,” he does well to recall, that it was “taking over from its predecessor” — was that of a “geostrategic gunslinger.” (One must be encouraged that he explicitly concedes that liberalism once had a stake in this war, a concession that is unheard of these days.) The author’s impatience with Washington’s presentation of the case for war is not entirely misplaced. He scores some winning lines at the expense of the president’s uncomplicated rhetoric. Mr. Bush’s moral clarity “had many virtues,” he allows, but “it was not at all appropriate in speaking to adults.” This symptom of hubris was made worse when infused with a grotesque piety — a style that Malcomson considers sectarian and needlessly divisive, and I agree vigorously. “It is one thing for our nation to be under God, quite another to be for God.”
None of which is to indicate that the author harbors any illusions about the nature of Iraq under the “absolute power” and “contemptible rule” of the Baath party. To the contrary, the view he takes is downright neoconservative: The region had been treated to “war upon war” by the “psychopath” Saddam Hussein. Now, even “his peace was like war. You couldn’t help wondering if that was what he wanted; it kept Iraqi society in the form that best perpetuated him.” For a psychopath with an insatiable appetite for war “to be zealously pursuing weapons of mass destruction was hideous beyond imagining.” In the light of all this, “the war, it was becoming clear, had not ended. It hadn’t even really begun in 1991.”
This tough-mindedness does not prevent Malcomson from unleashing vituperative attacks on the dethroning of Saddam Hussein, in which he claims to witness a “descent into imperial aggression.” This “far-flung imperialism, to me, seemed contrary to the basic nature of Americanism,” he writes — rather frivolously, in my view. For many of us, an imperial posture in the world — to guarantee unmolested sea lanes or to thwart mass slaughter — fully comports with the American character. The reason for his trepidation, too, seems mistaken: “I doubt you can have a democratic empire.” Many of us doubt that you can have democracy without a relatively benign world order. To state the case in another way, it is easier to imagine the sundering of republican virtues by an isolationist America that flinches from international responsibilities than by an empire of liberty that takes them seriously.
Malcomson seems to have an eye for the drawbacks of the anti-imperial position, but one never quite gets the feeling that he gives this suspicion its due. He is too enamored of “soft power” for that, as well as too disparaging of the harder varieties on offer. He feels that American influence is gaining too much sway in the world, and is not adequately sequestered. His contention is that, “intoxicated by power,” Mr. Bush “was trading in our legitimacy and democratic charisma for a respect based in fear. It was undignified; he was diminishing our national dignity.” Well, then.
In early 2003, Malcomson leaves the New York Times for the United Nations. The expression “absence makes the heart grow fonder” could never have been coined for this author, whose most affecting chapter is his last, entitled “Geneva.” His description of the atmosphere of this Swiss oasis, like “Paris frozen in the 1950s,” is very well wrought. He tells of his work in the service of a brilliant diplomat from Brazil, Sérgio Vieira de Mello. De Mello appeared to be the living embodiment of “a vigorous United Nations.” Even Mr. Bush took note, in a simple handshake, of the man’s physical prowess. Malcomson observes that he (de Mello, not Bush) had “a certain cowboy eagerness for a challenge,” which led him to fill the U.N.’s vacant mission in postbellum Iraq.
On Aug. 19, 2003, while Malcomson was catching his breath on a family vacation in New England, de Mello was drawing his last at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, which served as the U.N.’s Iraqi headquarters. The reader’s heart sinks at this assassination, almost as much as Malcomson’s own. I choose the word “assassination” with care, since the terrorists’ communiqué marked the death of the U.N. representative who had overseen the independence of East Timor from “Muslim” Indonesia — a profane amputation of the Caliphate.
Malcomson intends his title, and his book, to be an elegy for the generation whose understanding of its place in the world met its end amid the “burning grounds of Islam” (to borrow Fouad Ajami’s imagery). It had grown up thinking, or perhaps feeling, that America was, if not always a force for good, at least the world’s “indispensable nation.” In the post-9/11 age, however, it came to the forlorn belief (always forlorn) that hyperpower was more trouble than it was worth. “I saw no beauty left in absolute certainty,” he confesses. There have been a rash of such liberal laments in recent years, and this is arguably the most elegant of the lot. For these poor souls, the charred ruins of Mesopotamia present a more battering experience than a single day’s strikes, searing as they were, in lower Manhattan and the nation’s capital. The problem with their agitating for “a humbler American role abroad” is that such retrenchment would smother the hopes of those secular Afghan and Iraqi democrats to whom we made solemn promises. So long as America does not draw down its power in that benighted region, the enemies of civilization will continue to be stymied, and the dreams of deliverance which have attended that power will continue to be dreamt.
Though not by Malcomson. No more. “This America-centric world was under a devilish spell; I wanted out of its circle,” he concludes. The gravitational force pulling him to the serene shores of Lake Geneva was a desire for the quiet life: “to get away from American power, to put it to one side — to escape from the kind of power that made people want to attack you, the way we had been attacked on September 11.” Geneva is liable, I can attest, to engender such a desire in strangers, or to deepen it if they carry it with them on arrival. The primary lesson from September 11, perhaps the only one Malcomson’s generation failed to learn, is that there is no chance of such escape in a globalized world — and no place for it in the policy of a great nation.
— Brian Stewart is comments editor at National Review Online.