How wonderfully appropriate that the tape of Bill Clinton speaking in Australia on September 10, 2001, "just hours before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," should have emerged from the sink of time at the same moment as reports of the death of Theodore Van Kirk, navigator on the B-29, "Enola Gay," which dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan sixty-nine years ago yesterday. Here’s Bill, according to Fred Barbash of The Washington Post:
"And I’m just saying, you know, if I were Osama bin Laden … He’s a very smart guy. I spent a lot of time thinking about him. And I nearly got him once. . . "I nearly got him. And I could have killed him, but I would have had to destroy a little town called Kandahar in Afghanistan and kill 300 innocent women and children, and then I would have been no better than him. And so I didn’t do it."
For Bill as for many who came of age in the anti-Vietnam War movement, it is commonplace to treat foreign and defense policy as an excuse for moral posturing. But what do those he might have saved from the disaster of 9/11, or their families, care whether doing so would have made him "no better" than bin Laden, even if it did? Which, by the way, it wouldn’t have done. The job of the commander in chief is to defend the country against foreign enemies, not to prove himself their moral superior.
But then for Bill, as for so many of the generation of narcissists to which he (and I) belong, experience of the world hardly exists except as it relates to to himself and his ambitions. Over the years I have once or twice made mention of an incident reported by David Maraniss in his biography of the former president in which, while at Oxford in 1968, he went up to Stratford to see a production of King Lear. It must have been the one with Eric Porter (remember him as Soames from The Forsyte Saga?) in the title role, Patrick Stewart as Cornwall and Ben Kingsley as Oswald. Our Bill found the play deeply moving, reported his Oxford contemporary Darryl Gless — because it "prompted Bill to talk about his eagerness to go back to Arkansas" and involve himself in politics. The rest, as they say, is history.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what Shakespeare was going for in the "poor naked wretches" scene, which is the one that particularly got to Bill. It must take a positively heroic degree of self-absorption to say something like that in sublime unconsciousness of how ridiculously full of yourself it makes you look. I am reminded, too, of another of Bill’s dicta I have had occasion to comment on before:
"Anytime somebody said in my presidency, ‘If you don’t do this, people will think you’re weak,’ I always asked the same question for eight years: ‘Can we kill ‘em tomorrow?’ If we can kill ‘em tomorrow, then we’re not weak."
And, indeed, it would have been highly impolite for America’s enemies not to take Bill’s word for it, given his moral superiority and all, even if, somehow, tomorrow never came.
Such obtuseness would scarcely have been imaginable to the generation of the late Mr Van Kirk, whose comments on the morality of dropping the bomb were quoted in the New York Times obituary:
"We were fighting an enemy that had a reputation for never surrendering, never accepting defeat," he said. "It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence. . .Where was the morality in the bombing of Coventry, or the bombing of Dresden, or the Bataan Death March, or the Rape of Nanking, or the bombing of Pearl Harbor? I believe that when you’re in a war, a nation must have the courage to do what it must to win the war with a minimum loss of lives."
If he ever worried about being "no better" than the Japanese for having saved the lives of so many of his fellow Americans — very probably including the 19-year-old infantryman who would later become my father and who would have been in the invasion force for the home islands if there had been an invasion — he wisely kept it to himself.