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The American Tradition of Statecraft is a Cliché

In 1936 C. S. Forester published The General, a savage takedown of British military policy during what was then known as the Great War. The narrative recounts the career of Lieutenant General Herbert Curzon, KCMG, CB, DSO, a mediocre career soldier vaulted to prominence as a senior commander organizing the slaughter of British troops on the Western Front. 

Although a work of fiction, The General captures the essence of the “lions led by donkeys” school of World War I British historiography, depicting Curzon not as an evil man but as a stubborn fool. While coveting promotion and welcoming responsibility, he possesses none of the moral or intellectual qualities required to address the challenges posed by modern industrialized warfare.

Curzon is personally brave and utterly out of his depth, genuinely devoted to King and Country and a positive menace to his own troops. In the book’s climactic episode, at the very moment of maximum danger, Curzon mounts his steed and charges into battle. The results for horse and rider are predictable.

Of Britain’s overall conduct of the war, Forester writes that “men without imagination were necessary to execute a military policy devoid of imagination.” When I recently reread The General for the first time in several decades, that passage struck me as capturing the essential defect of U.S. national security policy since the end of the Cold War. Imagination? In Washington, D.C., it has gone missing in action.

Read the full piece in Boston Review.

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