With the publication Tuesday of Hillary Clinton’s “Hard Choices,” a long-running partisan dispute is bound to intensify. The former secretary of state’s book launch, likely the prelude to a presidential run, will add more fuel to the Benghazi controversy — soon to be the subject of yet another Republican-led congressional investigation. Lost in the inevitable Washington back-and-forth will be a basic facet of the human condition: All violent confrontation involves a level of radical uncertainty.
Clinton’s 34-page chapter on the 2012 deaths in Libya of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans represents her fullest effort to explain the murky incident. At a Senate committee hearing in 2013, Clinton responded to a Republican’s accusing demands for clarification on the attack with an angry outburst. “Was it because of a protest,” she asked, “or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’ll go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”
Republicans have interpreted these comments as evidence of callous disregard for the deaths of State Department personnel, or as part of an Obama administration cover-up of its own negligence. They are neither. Instead, Clinton was legitimately frustrated with an absurd Monday-morning search for perfect clarity. The violent attack on the US consulate in Benghazi unfolded in a shroud of complexity born of fearful reports, unknown intentions, mysterious assailants, partial information, an incoherent narrative — the so-called “fog of war.”
Although the attack occurred during demonstrations that may have been sparked by an inflammatory anti-Muslim video, a subsequent investigation showed that a premeditated “terrorist” assault, perhaps timed to the Sept. 11 anniversary, had also occurred. After the fact, Republicans accused the Obama administration of having been purposefully misleading in the home stretch of a presidential campaign. Ever since, GOP demands for a more certain narrative — what did they know and when did they know it? — have reeked of partisanship. In her book, Clinton refuses to back down: “I will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans.”
Yet more than politically motivated push-back is at issue here. The “fog of war” is a phrase attributed to the German theorist Carl von Clausewitz, but the words he actually used were “the fog of uncertainty,” pointing to an essential characteristic of situations of violent force. Clinton is insisting that, in real time, in the face of broken systems of command, communications, and control, uncertainty can and does prevail. “Was the situation fluid? Would we reach conclusions later that weren’t reached initially?” Yes.
But fluidity and inconclusiveness are unwelcome in a highly politicized realm, where every story must have its tidy beginning, middle, and end; its moral; its villains and its heroes. Congressional hearings forbid ambiguous outcomes, as if absolute truth were always waiting to be uncovered.
Well, no. “The quest for certainty,” the psychologist Erich Fromm has written, “blocks the search for meaning.” In her book, Clinton writes, “[T]here will never be perfect clarity on everything that happened . . . but that should not be confused with a lack of effort to discover the truth or to share it with the American people.” Can the American people live without complete knowledge of tragic happenstance? We will have to.
The same problem showed itself last week when a fierce debate broke out about Bowe Bergdahl, even before the released POW had made it home from Afghanistan. Was he a hero worthy of the yellow ribbons festooning trees in his hometown, or was he a deserter and traitor? Mystery clouded the exact circumstances of his capture — had he deliberately put himself “outside the wire”? That initial uncertainty was enough to draw venom. When his emails surfaced, they showed a young soldier troubled by what he was seeing — “ashamed to even be an American.” Inevitably, a firehose of moralizing condemnation was aimed his way. As if many other uniformed Americans had not become disillusioned with the war. As if extremities of fear and alienation had never pushed combatants into places they wanted no part of. Hero? Villain? In all likelihood, Bergdahl himself doesn’t know.
A civilized society must engage in detached reconsideration of choices made in war, but equally necessary is an understanding that such detachment itself distorts all after-the-fact reckoning. And when politics dominates the inquiry, distortion soon turns into blatant falsehood.James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.