The Unwisdom of Barack Obama Is he weak? Arrogant? Ambivalent? Don’t overthink the president.

At this dramatic time, with a world on fire, we look at the president and ponder again who he is. Mr. Obama himself mocked how people see him, according to a remarkable piece this week by Peter Baker in the New York Times. NYT +1.10% “Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president,” he reportedly said, sarcastically, in a meeting with journalists before his big Syria speech. Zbigniew Brzezinski told Mr. Baker the president’s critics think he’s a “a softy. He’s not a softy.”

Actually, no one thinks he’s a softy. A man who personally picks drone targets, who seems sometimes to enjoy antagonizing congressional Republicans, whose speeches not infrequently carry a certain undercurrent of political malice, cannot precisely be understood as soft.

But we focus on Mr. Obama personality and psychology—he’s weak or arrogant or ambivalent, or all three—and while this is interesting, it’s too fancy. We are overthinking the president.

His essential problem is that he has very poor judgment.

Storm clouds and sunny hillsAnd we don’t say this because he’s so famously bright—academically credentialed, smooth, facile with words, quick with concepts. (That’s the sort of intelligence the press and popular historians most prize and celebrate, because it’s exactly the sort they possess.) But brightness is not the same as judgment, which has to do with discernment, instinct, the ability to see the big picture, wisdom that is earned or natural.

Mr. Obama can see the trees, name their genus and species, judge their age and describe their color. He absorbs data. But he consistently misses the shape, size and density of the forest. His recitations of data are really a faux sophistication that suggests command of the subject but misses the heart of the matter.

You can run down the list. His famous “red line” comment was poor judgment. He shouldn’t have put himself or his country in that position, threatening action if a foreign leader did something. He misjudged the indelible impression his crawl-back would make on the world.

Last month it was the “I don’t have a strategy” statement on the Islamic State. That’s not something an American president attempting to rouse the public and impress the world can say. But he didn’t know.

ObamaCare top to bottom was poor judgment. It shouldn’t have been the central domestic effort of his presidency, that should have been the economy and jobs. He thought his bill could go forward without making Republicans co-own it, thought it would be clever to let Congress write it, thought an overextended and undertalented federal government could execute it. He thought those who told him the website would work were truthful, when he should have been smoking out agendas, incompetence and yes-sir-ism. He shouldn’t have said if you like your doctor you can keep him. That was his domestic red-line comment. It was a product of poor judgment.

The other night, at the end of his Syria speech, he sang a long, off-point aria to the economy. Supposedly it would be ringing and rousing, but viewers looked at each other and scratched their heads. It didn’t belong there. It showed a classic misjudging of his position. The president thinks people are depressed because they don’t understand how good the economy is. Actually right now they are depressed because he is president. It was like Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech. It wasn’t a bad speech, but he wasn’t the person who could give it because voters weren’t thinking malaise was the problem, they were thinking Mr. Carter was. He couldn’t relieve public unhappiness because people had come to think he was the source of it.

Mr. Obama misjudged from day one his position vis-à-vis Republicans on Capitol Hill. He thought they were out to kill him. Some were! That’s Washington. But Republicans in 2009 were more desperate than he understood, and some could have been picked off, because they thought he was the future and they didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history. To get their support on health care he would have had to make adjustments, bend a little so they could play ball without losing all standing and self-respect. He couldn’t do it. He didn’t see their quandary. He allowed them to stand against him with integrity. That was poor judgement!

Libya? Poor judgment. A nation run by a nut was turned into a nation run by many nuts, some more vicious than the dictator they toppled. Russia? The president misread it, which would only have been a mistake, if a serious one, if it hadn’t been for his snotty high-handedness toward those who’d made warnings. To Mitt Romney, in debate, in October 2012: “The 1980s—they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.”

He misjudged public reaction to the Snowden revelations, did not understand Americans were increasingly alarmed about privacy and the government.

He can read a poll, but he can’t anticipate a sentiment.

On scandals, and all administrations have them, he says something ringing, allows the withholding of information, and hopes it will all go away. Does Benghazi look to you like it’s going away? Was the IRS’s reputation buttressed by his claims that there wasn’t a “smidgen of corruption” within it, or was its reputation ruined by its stonewalling?

In his handling of the Islamic State the president has been slow to act, slow to move, inconsistent in his statements, unpersuasive, uninspiring. No boots on the ground, maybe boots on the ground but not combat boots, only advisory boots. He takes off the table things that should be there, and insists on weird words like “degrade”—why not just “stop and defeat”?—and, in fact, “ISIL.” The world calls it ISIS or Islamic State. Why does he need a separate language? How does that help?

In another strange, off-point aria, reported by the Times’s Mr. Baker, the president told the journalists that if he were “an adviser” to ISIS, he would have told them not to do the beheadings but to send the hostages home with a note instead. Can you imagine FDR ruminating about how if Hitler wanted to win over Americans he wouldn’t have invaded Poland, he would have softly encircled it and then thrown an unusually boisterous Oktoberfest?

Meanwhile time passes. The president’s own surrogates this week seemed unsure, halting, sometimes confused. A month ago there was a chance to hit the Islamic State hard when they were in the field and destroy not just their arms but their mystique. At this point we are enhancing it. It is the focus of all eyes, the subject of the American debate. Boy do they make us nervous, maybe they’re coming across our borders.

Maybe all this is the president’s clever way of letting time pass, letting things play out, so that in a few months the public fever to do something—he always thinks the public has a fever—will be over. And he will then be able to do little, which perhaps is what he wants.

But none of this looks clever. It looks like poor judgment beginning to end.

The Genocide of Mideastern Christians Americans haven’t suddenly turned interventionist. They’re moved by the Islamic State’s particular evil.

President Obama would have been rocked the past few months by five things. One is the building criticism from left and right about his high need for relaxation—playing golf while the world burns. Another is that he misread the significance and public power of the beheadings of American journalists. Third, he has been way out of sync with American public opinion on Islamic State, which must be all the more galling because he thought he knew where Americans stood on the use of military force. Fourth, with his poll numbers declining (32% approval for his handling of foreign policy, according to The Wall Street Journal and NBC), it has probably occurred to him that he is damaging not only his own but his party’s brand in foreign affairs. (Yes, George W. Bush did the same to his party, but Mr. Obama was supposed to reverse, not follow, that trend.) Fifth, he surely expects he is about to take a pounding from the antiwar left.

Most immediately interesting to me is the apparent change of mind by Americans toward military action in the Mideast. The president’s long-reigning assumption is that a war-weary public has grown more isolationist. But, again according to the WSJ/NBC poll, more than 6 in 10 back moving militarily against Islamic State. Politicians and pundits believe that this is due to the gruesome, public and taunting murders of the U.S. journalists—that Americans saw the pictures and freaked out, that their backing of force is merely emotional.

I think they’re missing a big aspect of this story.

Christian refugees

Christian refugees take shelter in an empty construction site in Erbil, Iraq.

A year ago the American people spontaneously rose up and told Washington they would not back a bombing foray in Syria that would help the insurgents opposed to Bashar Assad. That public backlash was a surprise not only to the White House but to Republicans in Congress, who were—and I saw them—ashen-faced after the calls flooded their offices. It was such a shock to Washington that officials there still don’t talk about it and make believe it didn’t happen.

Why was there such a wave of opposition? In part because Americans had no confidence their leaders understood the complications, history and realities of Syria or the Mideast. The previous 12 years had left them distrusting the American foreign-policy establishment. Americans felt the U.S. itself needed more care and attention. By 2013 there was a new depth of disbelief in Mr. Obama’s leadership.

But there was another, powerful aspect to the opposition.

Evangelical Christians and conservative Catholics who would normally back strong military action were relatively silent in 2013. Why? I think because they were becoming broadly aware, for the first time, of what was happening to Christians in the Middle East. They were being murdered, tortured, abused for their faith and run out of the region. And for all his crimes and failings, Syria’s justly maligned Assad was not attempting to crush his country’s Christians. His enemies were—the jihadists, including those who became the Islamic State.

In the year since, the brutality against Middle Eastern Christians, and Islamic State’s ferocious anti-Christian agenda, has left many Christians deeply alarmed. Jihadists are de-Christianizing the Mideast, where Christianity began.

An estimated two-thirds of the Christians of Iraq have fled that country since the 2003 U.S. invasion. They are being driven from their villages in northern Iraq. They are terrorized, brutalized, executed. This week an eyewitness in Mosul, which fell to Islamic State in June, told NBC News the jihadists were committing atrocities. In Syria, too, they have executed Christians for refusing to convert.

In roughly the past 18 months, all this has broken through in Christian communities, largely by way of Christian media, including Catholic news services and the Baptist press. The story has been all over social media. Pope Francis has denounced what is happening; the Vatican is talking about just-war theory.

Rep. Chris Smith, the New Jersey Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, this week called what is happening “a genocide.”

“It is a global phenomenon, but dramatically in the Mideast,” he said.

I told him I thought the journalists’ beheadings had put a public picture on a crisis of which Christians in America have now become aware.

“An emphatic yes, with exclamation points put after it,” he replied.

No one—at least not the United Nations or other international bodies, and not the administration—seems to be keeping official records. Mr. Smith suggested that when people don’t really want you to know the scale of a problem, they don’t gather the numbers. He has pressed both the U.S. government and the U.N. for statistics and specifics—how many Christians have been killed, abused, sent fleeing and from where. “It’s all, ‘I’ll get back to you.’ When they do, it’s threadbare answers that don’t say a whole lot.”

The anguish and indignation of American Christians at what is being done, by Islamic State, to their brothers and sisters in faith is surely part of the reason Americans are backing U.S. action against the terror group.

It would surely also be a misreading of the polls to announce the American public is suddenly “interventionist.” There is no reason to believe they have any appetite for romantic or aggressive forays into invasions, occupations or nation-building efforts. What they want to do—and they wanted to do it last month—is respond to a group that is unusually evil, even by Middle Eastern standards.

There is also no reason to infer from the polls that Americans hold to the illusion that moving on Islamic State would create new order and peace in the Mideast. Those illusions tend to live more in Washington than on-the-ground America. If Islamic State is hit hard enough, it may be killed, but nothing else will be fixed. The Mideast will continue in brutal chaos, but Islamic State, as Islamic State, will be done or at least damaged, and surely that is worth something. At the very least a message will be sent.

If the president were a more instinctive man, or rather if his natural instincts were more in line with those of your average American clinger, he would have moved quickly, sharply and without undue drama. He would have bombed Islamic State when it was a showy army in the field, its fighters driving stolen armored vehicles down highways in the sand, in their black outfits, with their black flags. They are not terrorists hiding in holes and safe houses. They are not doing Internet showbiz from caves, they are seizing and holding territory. They say they are the caliphate, and they intend to expand. They are killing and abusing many, not only Christians. They are something new and deadly.

My guess is two things are not acceptable to the American people. One is the full-scale commitment of scores of thousands of troops to invade and occupy a country. The other is a diffident, confused, unfocused, unserious campaign.

The American people are not suddenly recommitted to a decadeslong drama. They do want to see bad guys taken out. Their timetable, I suspect, would be “Let’s start last month.”

Joan Rivers: The Entertainer

There was nobody like her. Some people are knockoffs or imitations of other, stronger, more vivid figures, but there was never another Joan Rivers before her or while she lived. She was a seriously wonderful, self-invented woman.

She was completely open and immediately accessible. She had the warmth of a person who found others keenly and genuinely interesting. It was also the warmth of a person with no boundaries: She wanted to know everything about you and would tell you a great deal about herself, right away. She had no edit function, which in part allowed her gift. She would tell you what she thought. She loved to shock, not only an audience but a friend. I think from the beginning life startled her, and she enjoyed startling you. You only asked her advice or opinion if you wanted an honest reply.

Her intelligence was penetrating and original, her tastes refined. Her duplex apartment on the east side of Manhattan was full of books in beautiful bindings, of elegant gold things on the table, lacquered boxes, antique furniture. She liked everything just so. She read a lot. She was a doctor’s daughter.

We met and became friends in 1992, but the story I always remember when I think of her took place in June 2004. Ronald Reagan had just died, and his remains were being flown from California to Washington, where he would lay in state at the U.S. Capitol. A group of his friends were invited to the Capitol to take part in the formal receiving of his remains, and to say goodbye. Joan was there, as a great friend and supporter of the Reagans.

That afternoon, as we waited for the plane to land, while we were standing and talking in a ceremonial room on the Senate side, there was, suddenly, an alarm. Secret Service men and Capitol police burst into the room and instructed us to leave, quickly and immediately. An incoming plane headed for the Capitol was expected to hit within minutes. “Run for your lives,” they commanded, and they meant it. Everyone in the Capitol ran toward the exits and down the great stairs. Joan was ahead of me, along with the television producer Tommy Corcoran, her best friend and boon companion of many years.

Down the long marble halls, down the long steps . . . At the bottom of the steps, in a grassy patch to the left, I saw Joan on the ground, breathless. Her high heel had broken, the wind knocked out of her. I’m not going any further, she said to Tommy. Keep going, she said. I should note that everyone really thought the Capitol was about to be attacked.

I stopped to ask if I could help, heard what Joan had said to Tommy and then heard Tommy’s reply: “I’m staying with you.”

“Run!” said Joan. She told him to save himself.

“No,” said Tommy. “It wouldn’t be as much fun without you.” He said if anything happened they’d go together. And he sat down next to her and held her hand and they waited for the plane to hit.

Needless to say it didn’t; some idiot flying an oblivious governor had drifted into restricted airspace. I don’t know if they ever had any idea how close they’d come to being shot down.

But that was a very Joan moment, her caring about her friend and him saying life would be lesser without her.

*   *   *

I was lucky to have known her. I owe it to Steve Forbes, the publisher and former presidential hopeful who, with his family, owned a chateau in France near the Normandy coast. It was the family’s custom once a year to invite friends and associates for a long weekend, and in the summer of 1992 I went, and met Joan. Talk about a life force.

We all stayed in beautiful rooms. Joan amused herself making believe she was stealing the furniture. It rained through the weekend, which Joan feared would make Steve and Sabina Forbes blue, so she organized a group of us to go into town to a costume-rental place so we could put on a show. All they had was French Revolution outfits, so we took them, got back to our rooms, and Joan and I wrote a play on what we announced were French revolutionary themes. Walter Cronkite, another guest, was chosen by Joan as narrator. I think the play consisted mostly of members of Louis XIV’s court doing Catskills stand-up. It was quite awful and a big success.

The highlight of the weekend was a balloon lift, a Forbes tradition—scores of huge balloons in brilliant colors and patterns would lift from the grounds of the chateau after dawn and travel over the countryside. It was so beautiful. I stood and watched, not meaning to participate, and was half pushed into a gondola. By luck Joan was there, full of good humor and information on what we were seeing below.

We held on hard as we experienced a hard and unplanned landing on a French farm. We were spilled out onto a field. As we scrambled and stood, an old farmer came out, spoke to us for a moment, ran into his farmhouse and came back with an old bottle of calvados. He then told us he hadn’t seen Americans since D-Day, and toasted us for what America had done for his country. No one was more moved than Joan, who never forgot it.

*   *   *

I last saw her in July. A friend and I met her for lunch at a restaurant she’d chosen in Los Angeles. It was full of tourists. Everyone at the tables recognized her and called out. She felt she owed her fans everything and never ignored or patronized an admirer. She smiled through every picture with every stranger. She was nice—she asked about their families, where they were from, how they liked it here. They absolutely knew she would treat them well and she absolutely did.

The only people who didn’t recognize Joan were the people who ran the restaurant, who said they didn’t have her reservation and asked us to wait in the bar, where waiters bumped into us as they bustled by. Joan didn’t like that, gave them 10 minutes to get their act together, and when they didn’t she left. But she didn’t just leave. She stood outside on the sidewalk, and as cars full of people went by with people calling out, “Joan! We love you!” she would yell back, “Thank you but don’t go to this restaurant, they’re rude! Boycott this restaurant!” My friend said, “Joan, stop it, you’re going to wind up on TMZ.”

“I don’t care,” she said. She felt she was doing a public service.

We went to a restaurant down the street, where when she walked in they almost bowed.

She wouldn’t let a friend pay a bill, ever. She tipped like a woman who used to live on tips. She was hilarious that day on the subject of Barack and Michelle Obama, whom she did not like. (I almost didn’t write that but decided if Joan were here she’d say, “Say I didn’t like Obama!”)

She was a Republican, always a surprising thing in show business, and in a New Yorker, but she was one because, as she would tell you, she worked hard, made her money with great effort, and didn’t feel her profits should be unduly taxed. She once said in an interview that if you have 19 children she will pay for the first four but no more. Mostly she just couldn’t tolerate cant and didn’t respond well to political manipulation. She believed in a strong defense because she was a grown-up and understood the world to be a tough house. She loved Margaret Thatcher, who said what Joan believed: The facts of life are conservative. She didn’t do a lot of politics in her shows—politics divides an audience—but she thought a lot about it and talked about it. She was socially liberal in the sense she wanted everyone to find as many available paths to happiness as possible.

*   *   *

I am not sure she ever felt accepted by the showbiz elite, or any elite. She was too raw, didn’t respect certain conventions, wasn’t careful, didn’t pretend to a false dignity. She took the celebrated and powerful down a peg. Her wit was broad and spoofing—she would play the fool—but it was also subversive and transgressive. People who weren’t powerful or well-known saw and understood what she was doing.

She thought a lot about how things work and what they mean.

She once told me she figured a career was like a shark, either it is going forward or it is dying and sinking to the ocean floor. She worked like someone who believed that, doing shows in houses big and small all over the country, hundreds a year, along with her cable programs, interviews, and books. She supported a lot of people. Many members of her staff stayed for decades and were like family. Because of that, when I visited the hospital last week, I got to witness a show-business moment Joan would have liked. A relative was scrolling down on her iPhone. “Listen to this,” she said, and read aloud something a young showbiz figure who had been lampooned by Joan had just tweeted. She said it was an honor to be made fun of by such a great lady. “Joan will be furious when she sees this,” said the relative, shaking her head. “She won’t be able to make fun of her in the act anymore.”

It was Joan who explained to me 15 or 20 years ago a new dimension in modern fame—that it isn’t like the old days when you’d down a city street and people would recognize you. Fame had suddenly and in some new way gone universal. Joan and a friend had just come back from a safari in Africa. One day they were walking along a path when they saw some local tribesmen. As the two groups passed, a tribesman exclaimed, “Joan Rivers, what are you doing here?!”

She couldn’t believe it. This is Africa, she thought. And then she thought no, this is a world full of media that show the world American culture. We talked about it, and I asked, beyond the idea of what might be called Western cultural imperialism, what else does the story mean to you? “It means there’s no place to hide,” she said. They can know you anywhere. At the time, the Internet age was just beginning.

Her eye was original. Twenty years ago, when everyone was talking about how wonderful it was that Vegas had been cleaned up and the mob had been thrown out, Joan said no, no, no, they are ruining the mystique. First of all, she said, those mobsters knew how to care for a lady, those guys with bent noses were respectful and gentlemen, except when they were killing you. Second, she said, organized crime is better than disorganized crime, which will replace it. Third, the mobsters had a patina of class, they dressed well and saw that everyone else did, so Vegas wasn’t a slobocracy, which is what it is becoming with men in shorts playing the slots in the lobby of the hotel. The old Vegas had dignity. She hated the bluenoses who’d clean up what wasn’t mean to be clean. No one wanted Sin City cleaned up, she said, they wanted to go there and visit sin and then go home.

*   *   *

Joan now is being celebrated, rightly and beautifully, by those who knew and loved her. They are defining her contributions (pioneer, unacknowledged feminist hero, gutsy broad) and lauding the quality of her craft.

But it is a great unkindness of life that no one says these things until you’re gone.

Joan would have loved how much she is loved. I think she didn’t quite know and yet in a way she must have: You don’t have strangers light up at the sight of you without knowing you have done something.

But we should try to honor and celebrate the virtues and gifts of people while they’re alive, and can see it.

She was an entertainer. She wanted to delight you. She wanted to make you laugh. She succeeded so brilliantly.

The World Needs a Clarion Obama can’t lead a coalition if nobody can follow his thinking.

It is a muddle, a murk and a desperate-looking thing, the president on the subject of the Islamic State.

The Islamic State is the junior varsity. No, it is a “cancer.” We will “degrade and destroy” it. No, we’ll render it “a manageable problem.” It’s all so halting, herky-jerky and, for a great power, embarrassing. Ich bin ein Limiter of Spheres of Influence. Mr. Obama has been severely criticized and soon will change the story with a new statement. Actually to a degree he already has, in his joint op-ed piece Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Our countries “will not be cowed by barbaric killers.” That’s good, not being cowed, but what does it mean and for how long?

Obama on the mountainWhat is extraordinary in this moment of high, many-fronted peril is that the president’s true views and plans are not only unclear to the world but a mystery to his countrymen.

You want to think he is playing a cool, long game, that there’s a plan and he’s acting on it. He’s holding off stark action to force nations in the region to step up to the plate. The comments of the Saudis and the Emiratis are newly burly. Good, they have military power and wealth, let them move for once. He is teaching our Mideast friends the U.S. is not a volunteer fire department that suits up every time you fall asleep on the couch smoking. In the meantime he is coolly watching new alliances form—wasn’t that the Kurds the other day fighting alongside the Iranians?

Mr. Obama’s supporters frankly hope that there’s a method to the madness, that he is quietly, behind the scenes and with great subtlety pulling together a coalition that will move. But this is more hope than knowledge, and a coalition would need a leader. You have to wonder if potential coalition members won’t think twice about following such an uncertain trumpet. They have reason to doubt Mr. Obama’s leadership, and it is not all due to his current, contradictory statements. Once again, the Syria “red line” episode shows itself an epochal moment. The president’s decision not to act after Syria used poison gas on its citizens showed other leaders of the world that this president will make a vow—a public yet personally tinged one, of great consequence—and feel free, when the moment reaches crisis levels, not to come through. It wasn’t that he looked dishonest, it was that he looked unserious. With the hard human beings who run the world, that is deadly.

People say Mr. Obama hasn’t spoken on the Islamic State with sufficient “passion,” but the world at the moment probably doesn’t need more passion. He needs to speak with clarity, conviction and most of all credibility. Politicians always think they have to reach people’s hearts. They have to reach their minds.

Some questions:

Is the administration’s foreign-policy apparatus as rudderless, ad hoc and faux-sophisticated as it looks?

Is the president starting to fear, deep down, that maybe he is the junior varsity?

Who at this key moment is the president talking to? The world of American foreign-policy professionals is populated by some brilliant and accomplished men and women who’ve been through the wars. Is he seeking their counsel?

The problem is really not that the president, as he said, does not yet have a strategy. It is that the world doesn’t know and the country doesn’t know how, deep down, he thinks about the Islamic State. What is its historical meaning and import? Is it something new that requires new thinking? Is it a game-changer in the region? Does it, alone or in league with others, actually threaten the United States? Or are the threats more like bluster as it attracts new members from throughout the world and work to hold the ground it’s seized?

What is the president internally committed to doing? Is he dodging a decision or has he made one?

What has more than five years of White House experience taught him? All presidents learn on the job, but because he tends to blame others for his woes and, like many of his predecessors, avoids public reflection on his mistakes, we don’t know how events have shaped his thinking. For instance: Deciding against his political nature to be militarily proactive and topple Moammar Gadhafi of Libya in 2011 was, pretty clearly, a mistake. Does he think so? A monstrous little dictator was removed, which left an opening for people who were more monstrous still, who murdered our ambassador, burnt our consulate in Benghazi and have now run us out of Tripoli. What did the president absorb from this that now affects his thinking?

Mr. Obama loudly insisted Bashar Assad of Syria must go, then did nothing to help his opponents. Assad was thus turned from an often dangerous and duplicitous adversary to an embittered and enraged formal foe. Was that progress? How does it fit into the current drama? Does Mr. Obama fear that if the U.S. goes after the Islamic State in northern Syria it will strengthen Assad’s position? If so, should it be the most crucial and immediate fear? Isn’t the Islamic State a more dangerous and pressing threat? If it is, can a deal be made with Syria for the U.S. to move militarily for a limited time within the relevant part of that nation?

Does Mr. Obama conflate “go back to Iraq” with “move decisively against ISIS through bombing, with limited troops on the ground guiding and gathering intelligence”? Does he believe these are the same thing? If so, why?

An overriding question: To what extent will the passage of time erode the U.S.’s ability to move effectively and decisively? Does the chance of effectiveness recede as the days pass? Is the administration working with its eye on the clock?

Does Secretary of State John Kerry speak for the president, and is he reflecting the president’s views when he speaks? Mr Kerry has been both strong and resolute in his condemnations of the Islamic State. One wonders, more than ever now, the extent to which he is involved in a bit of freelancing, going forward with relative independence from White House political hands. If he is, good for him. But NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell wondered this week if the difference in comments between Mr. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey—all of whom have been more informative and more verbally hawkish than Mr. Obama—constituted an internal administration conversation that is now being played out in public. That would be interesting, to say the least, if it’s true.

You also have to wonder if Vice President Joe Biden’s remark on the Islamic State—”We will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice”—was also part of a private conversation gone public. Mr. Biden is irrepressible and likes to say ringing things, but his remark came across to me as a foreign-policy version of his famous 2012 comment that he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage. It was his way of forcing the issue and pushing for an action he thought both advantageous and correct. Three days later, the president announced that he had reached the same conclusion.

American Diversity and the Wild West On a visit to the country, a city dweller reflects on the nation.

Moran, Wyo.

Tenderfoot is in big sky country. On the drive from the airport to the ranch, the Tetons, a range of great splendor and dignity that Tenderfoot had thought were two mountains called Grand, are spread before her. It is dusk. To the left the Snake River curls softly against the road. To the right, open fields, working ranches, herds of buffalo. In the air the scent of sage. The sky is huge, a dome of softening blue. All this is expected—this is how the West looks—yet the real thing startles and overwhelms. You stare dumbly at the wonder of it.

“God’s country,” her host says, not as a brag but with awe still in his voice after more than 20 years here.

Tenderfoot’s host, a friend of many years, a substantial and numeric man, tells her Wyoming facts. There are fewer people in this state than any other. (“They must be lonely,” she thinks.)

Tenderfoot doesn’t really like to be in a place where there aren’t a lot of . . . witnesses. She’s from the city and knows the canyons of downtown, the watering holes of the theater district. She knows her Brooklyn, her Long Island, her Jersey, is a walker in the city and a lost rube in the country. She is here because she loves her friends and will go far to see them. She does have a relationship with the American West and does in fact love it, but it is the West as mediated by John Ford, Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry. She doesn’t really know the real one.
Enlarge Image

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, Wyoming Getty Images

Lower Falls

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River, Wyoming

“I’ll fill you in on the bears,” her host says. They’ve been coming in closer, charging hikers down hills and sauntering across property. Tenderfoot nods in a way she hopes looks offhanded, like someone who knows the facts on the ground, the lay of the land, the curve of the bend. In that tone, she asks which are worse, the black bears or the brown ones, and, um, which have the claws. “The grizzlies can kill you,” she is told. She receives this with equanimity. “I will never leave my room,” she thinks.

The next day the conversation again turns to bears, and her host reminds everyone: “You go for a hike, just bring your bear spray.”

“Um,” says Tenderfoot, “do you spray it on yourself like bug spray? Or do you spray it on the bear?”

Another guest, sympathetically: “You spray it toward the bear. Like Mace.”

“That’s what I thought,” Tenderfoot says.

She is game for riding and asks for a horse that is short, lame and stupid. They give her an Appaloosa named Grumpy. He is huge and gray and looks like something the conquistadors rode. Tenderfoot is ready to love him. She pats his thick neck and says sweet things like, “You and me, Grump.” They go forward and it is beautiful—the stately lope, the soft, intelligent snorting—and she is barely offended when he tries to wipe her off on the side of a barn.

Later, loping slowly up a trail by a creek, past aspen and cottonwood, sage and pine trees, past spruce and willows and Indian paintbrush, she sees something on the ground.

She is now already speaking economically, like a Westerner.

“Big twig.” she says.

“Actually that’s a rattlesnake,” says her guide. This happens in Tenderfoot’s imagination but might as well be real.

Grumpy is in charge and knows his trails, barely stumbles. She likes the easy sway. It is mesmeric. “This is how the cowboys did it,” she thinks, “this is how they put up with the boredom and peace.” She looks down at Grumpy’s massive neck and thinks of . . . Cole Porter. “If Grumpy falls down here I’ll shoot from the stirrups with a flock of the foot and tumble in the opposite direction.” Being a writer, she knows she will write of the fall and need the names of things. “Is that a ravine or a valley?” she calls out to her friends. Silence. “It’s a stream bed,” somebody says.

In the coming days she would hike, mostly because she doesn’t want her friends to call her Tenderfoot Lazybones. She will announce one night that she went on a 7.2-mile hike up a mountain and saw a blurry furry thing 10 feet tall and scared it away with a sound and a stick. It is perhaps closer to the truth that it was a half-mile amble on a hill and she saw a squirrel, but nobody presses her. And anyway that squirrel was big.

In between walking, staring at the stream and the sunflowers, walking through the tack room and staring at horses, Tenderfoot reads a wonderful book called “Wyoming Folklore,” a collection of oral histories from old-timers who, in the 1930s, were asked for their memories of the wild Wyoming where they’d grown up. Their stories were gathered by young writers working for the Federal Writers Project. It was a brilliant use of tax dollars because it was an act of real conservation: If these histories hadn’t been written down they’d have been lost to us all forever.

The stories, told by non-garrulous people in old age, tell of a lost, brute, beautiful world, and the tough, hardy, crazy people who lived in it: cowboys, miners, French peddlers, Irish railway men, German surveyors, desperadoes, drunken soldiers. Parents fleeing disappointment who couldn’t settle down and dragged their hungry children through the wilderness looking for the perfect spot. Indian medicine men, mad prospectors, loggers, serial killers. The storms that bore down from nowhere and left 15 feet of snow. The Cheyenne on the warpath, the U.S. Army on the warpath, towns that rose up against soldiers and their rough ways. Cattle everywhere. Flash floods turning creeks into raging rivers. “It really rained in those days,” said an old cowboy. Lightning made cattle panic and stampede over cliffs.

The legends of buried treasures, of lost mines, of gold nuggets large as wheat kernels. The sudden, raging wildfires. “Just as far as we could see east and west, just one inferno of flames,” said one pioneer. A change in the wind was death to all. No firefighters; only a stream or a river could check a blaze.

The cold and privation, the sheer endurance it took to live in old Wyoming, in the wild, wild West.

At meals Tenderfoot tells stories of what she’s read, but her friends already know them. Still, they are beautiful and powerful to her, and give rise to a thought she’d had before.

People say Americans are by nature isolationists, an odd thing to say of a people who came from everywhere on earth and stay in touch with everywhere. Maybe the truth is that America is so vast, so varied, contains so many different cultures and histories, which in turn give rise to different assumptions and even ways of being, that it has been the work of more than two centuries for America just to know itself. Europe is all bunched together, of course they know each other. We are spread out on a vast continent. it takes a while to take it all in. We’re not uninterested in other countries, we just have so many nations right here.

The 2016 Battle Heats Up Already Mrs. Clinton just made a serious nomination challenge a lot more likely.

I think things just got sparky, a term I once heard a military figure use to denote a battle that has both commenced and turned hot.

In her interview in The Atlantic, with Jeffrey Goldberg, Hillary Clinton sounded as burly and hawkish on foreign policy as John McCain. That’s not a surprise to longtime Hillary observers, though that she chose to declare it so uncompromisingly at so early a point in the 2016 presidential cycle, is. Mrs. Clinton came into politics from the McGovern wing of her party, but that was long ago. She has been more publicly hawkish since she ran for the U.S. Senate in New York in 2000 and 9/11 happened a year later. She famously voted for the Iraq war, which opened up running room for a young man named Barack Obama.

Everyone knew that Mrs. Clinton would have to detach herself politically from Mr. Obama, an increasingly unpopular president. But she was his secretary of state for four years, so the distancing would have to be done with some deftness and delicacy, and deeper into the election cycle, not now. Instead, it was done with blunt force. In the interview Mrs. Clinton went square at the president’s foreign-policy vision, or lack of it. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff,’ is not an organizing principle.” This is both true and well stated, but it is remarkable to hear it from, again, a person who until February 2013 was his secretary of state, presumably an intimate and part of the creation of his foreign policy.

Just as remarkable, by throwing down this gauntlet Mrs. Clinton starts an argument within her party that might have been inevitable but certainly could have been delayed and, with pleas for unity, softened. By starting the argument now she gives time, space and reason for a progressive Democratic opponent to arise.

*   *   *

The 2016 Democratic presidential cycle has begun with this interview and has begun early.

The tone and content of Mrs. Clinton’s remarks seem to assume a Democratic Party base that is or will prove to be in broad agreement with her hawkishness.

But is that the feeling of a major portion of the Democratic Party base right now?
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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sits between Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., right, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in 2013. Associated Press

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sits between Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., right, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in 2013.

You can see the progressive pushback in David Axelrod’s remarks when he took to Twitter to remind Mrs. Clinton that stupid stuff “means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.” The Obama White House is reportedly angered by Mrs. Clinton’s remarks. Left-wing websites have taken issue with her.

Mrs. Clinton was always going to have a challenger or challengers for the party’s nomination, and in fact needed one: She needs someone to beat for the nomination, she can’t just glide to it. At the same time it was in her interest to own a lot of political ground and give no big stark issue to the left. But she’s given them one now, and she is probably going to get a bigger challenge than she thinks.

Who might it be? Democrats are suddenly full of names—that itself is significant, they weren’t a few weeks ago—but the first person who always comes to mind could cause Mrs. Clinton a lot of trouble.

In a smart piece in The Washington Monthly, writer David Paul Kuhn takes a look at Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and reminds the political class not to write her off and not to assume that her stated position up to now—that she does not intend to run for president—will hold.

Mr. Kuhn notes that Ms. Warren has a powerful appeal among the party’s activist left. Her rhetoric is pure firebrand: “The game is rigged . . . and the rich and powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress.” She draws big, enthusiastic crowds. Mr. Kuhn quotes Democratic campaign veteran Joe Trippi, who suggests things may be more dynamic than they look: “The progressive wing is looking for a candidate.” With Hillary, as they say, Democrats are falling in line but not in love.

Yes, Mrs. Clinton is the favorite; yes, she has the money, the clout, the stature, fame and relationships. But she’s no populist, and populism is rising. Hillary is close to Wall Street; they’re her friends, her donors, they hire her for big ticket appearances. Ms. Warren has no use for Wall Street; they’re the ones who crashed the economy and got away with it. Mr. Kuhn notes that Ms. Warren’s signature line—the game is rigged—is no longer radical; it is the view of 6 in 10 Americans in some polls that our economic system unfairly favors the wealthy.

Ms. Warren would also take Hillary’s most powerful argument—that it’s time for a woman president and she is an accomplished woman—off the table.

I’d add two points.

One is that Ms. Warren has the hard-to-quantify power of the person who means it. She’s a real leftist, she didn’t get it from a poll. Second, though Ms. Warren and Hillary are almost the same age (65 and 66, respectively) they represent two wholly different political experiences. They are of different Democratic generations.

Hillary is a post-Reagan liberal. Her generation of liberalism was defined by a reckoning with and accommodation to popular modern conservatism.

Ms. Warren is a post-crash progressive. She came to politics during and after the financial crisis of 2008, and her political message was shaped by it. To some in the base Ms. Warren may seem fresher, more pertinent.

As for her repeated statements that she does not plan to run for the presidency in 2016, Mr. Kuhn notes that Barack Obama said things like that in the years before 2008. Then he ran.

*   *   *

On the Republican side, of course, no one’s certain who’s running; some of those who think they might won’t, some who think they won’t might. But, as a smart party veteran said the other day, the primaries could in time turn into Rand Paul Versus the Guy Who Isn’t Rand Paul, the guy who stands for a greater perceived moderation.

But what if the nominee were Rand Paul? And he went up against Mrs. Clinton? The Kentucky senator would, presumably, be to her left on foreign policy. That would be historic enough. But what would the GOP’s establishmentarians, its money men and opinion shapers, do if the 2016 election came down to Mr. Paul versus a more moderate-seeming Hillary? They just might choose Mrs. Clinton. Bolt the party, or sit this one out.

We could see a rising populist candidate pretty much split the Democratic Party this year, and a rising libertarian one pretty much split the Republicans.

Yes, we are getting ahead of ourselves. No, this is not where you’d put your money, in part because it’s too dramatic, and when you expect history to get dramatic it often doesn’t, just as when you don’t it sometimes does.

But only months ago people were thinking 2016 might be ho-hum, a Bush versus a Clinton, with mournful commentary about the decadence of America’s acceptance of political dynasties. Maybe it will be sparkier than that. And maybe the sparkiness began this week, with that interview in The Atlantic.

Out of Many, Two? They may not mean to do it, but America's political leaders are deepening the nation’s divisions.

I had a conversation this week with an acquaintance of considerable accomplishment in the political and financial worlds. The talk turned to how some prospective presidential candidates seem to be running to lead two different countries. Rick Perry, say, and Elizabeth Warren experience, see, reflect and approach two very different realities. The conversation then took a surprising turn. My acquaintance said it’s possible the U.S. in our lifetimes will simply break up, tear apart. This might not be so terrible, he said, it would probably work out fine. He spoke not with an air of alarm but philosophically and almost cheerfully, which took me aback. I think a lot about the general subject of what deeply divides us, occasionally with a feeling of some alarm. I mentioned that America has been more or less politically divided since I was a young woman—I remembered Time magazine had a big piece on “The Two Americas” in 1969, when I was a teenager. Back then divisions played themselves out in such national arguments as Vietnam and Watergate.

I realized after our conversation that throughout my adulthood I had thought of America as more or less divided, with 20% or so in the center who politically hold things together. I remembered Lee Atwater told me, in 1988, that every presidential election takes place in the 20 yards in the center of the field.

At the same time I had always assumed that America was uniquely able to tolerate division. Shared patriotic feeling and respect for our political traditions left us, as a nation, with a lot of give. We could tug this way or that, correct and overcorrect, and do fine.

Tattered FlagMy concern the past few decades has been that we’ve lost or are losing some of that give, that divisions are sharper and deeper now in part because many of the issues that separate us are so piercing and personal. Vietnam and Watergate were outer issues. Many questions now speak of our essence as human beings. For instance: In the area of what are called the social issues, there are those (I am one) who passionately believe there must be some limits on what is legal, that horrors such as those that occurred in the office of Kermit Gosnell remind us that at the very least babies viable or arguably viable outside the womb must be protected. They can’t just be eliminated; if that is allowed we have entered a new stage of barbarism, and the special power of barbarism is that once unleashed it brings more barbarism. A worldview away—a universe away—are those who earnestly insist that any limit on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy constitutes an illegitimate restriction on the essential rights of all women—that abortion is a personal concern, not a societal one.

One side is trying to protect a human life, the other a perceived right. Both sides in some way represent a different country with different assumptions and understandings of what is compassionate, decent, right.

And abortion of course, though a major, grinding issue, is only one. At the moment the border, the National Security Agency, privacy, overregulation and ObamaCare chafe away. My fear is that the issues mount, increase and are experienced as a daily harassment by more and more people who, public education being the spotty thing it’s been, are less held together than in the past by a unified patriotic theory of America, and consequently less keen on—and protective of—our political traditions. And things begin to fray very badly, even, down the road, to breaking points.

What do our political leaders do to make things better? Or worse? Here I turn to a surprising yet understandable dynamic that I think exists among them. It is that people grow up in a certain environment and tend to think that environment, and its assumptions, are continuing and will always continue. After the beginning of the great recession I saw the money gushing out of Washington to stabilize the system, to reward political cronies, to keep people afloat, to grease all wheels. There was a lot of waste, as is always true in government but is truer when the spigot is fully open. But not many in Washington seemed deeply concerned. The waste, the long-term deficits, the pumped-up Fed, the fear of impending bankruptcy—all gave rise to a feeling of alarm among many in the country. But not among many in Washington. Why?

I came to think that policy disagreement aside, it was that most people in politics grew up in and were surrounded by, in the first 30 or 50 years of their lives, an incredibly, historically affluent America, one whose financial strength was so mighty it could absorb any blow. This fact of their lives became their reigning assumption: You can do any amount of damage to America and it will be fine.

The country they grew up in is the country that lived in their heads. But when they brought their pasts into the future it kept them from seeing the present, in which America could actually be harmed, even go bankrupt.

I think this dynamic applies to assumptions among the political class regarding unending American unity. In the lives of every American now in politics the country has always managed to maneuver itself through rocky shoals, eased its way through changes, survived every challenge not only intact but stronger.

That has been the past so they think it is the future. I think this keeps them from seeing clearly the chafing, antagonized, even fearful present. No nation’s unity, cohesion and feeling of being at peace with itself can be taken for granted, even ours. They have to be protected day by day, in part by what politicians say. They shouldn’t be making it worse. They shouldn’t make divisions deeper.

In just the past week that means:

The president shouldn’t be using a fateful and divisive word like “impeachment” to raise money and rouse his base. He shouldn’t be at campaign-type rallies where he speaks only to the base, he should be speaking to the country. He shouldn’t be out there dropping his g’s, slouching around a podium, complaining about his ill treatment, describing his opponents with disdain: “Stop just hatin’ all the time.” The House minority leader shouldn’t be using the border crisis as a campaign prop, implying that Republicans would back Democratic proposals if only they were decent and kindly: “It’s not just about having a heart. It’s about having a soul.” And, revealed this week, important government administrators like Lois Lerner shouldn’t be able to operate within an agency culture so sick with partisanship that she felt free to refer to Republicans, using her government email account, as “crazies” and “—holes.”

All this reflects a political culture of brute and mindless disdain, the kind of culture that makes divisions worse.

They do this because they do not understand that they have an actual responsibility to hold this thing, America, together, every day. The more placid, more cohering nation they grew up in is in the past. Unity, cohesion and respect are no longer things that can be lauded now and then in prepared remarks. They actually have to be practiced.

The World the Great War Swept Away In 1914, Europe was prosperous and what followed was unimaginable.

In this centennial year of the Great War some things have not been said, or at least I haven’t heard them. Among them:

All the smart people knew the war would never come. The continent to which war came was on such an upward trajectory in terms of prosperity, inventiveness and political culture that it could have become—it arguably already was—a jewel of civilization. And the common man who should have wept at the war’s commencement instead cheered.

John Keegan went into these points in his classic history “The First World War,” published in 1998.

His first sentence is beautiful in its simplicity: “I grew up with men who had fought in the First World War and with women who had waited at home for news of them.” His father and uncles saw combat, his aunt was “one of the army of spinsters” the war produced.

His overall assessment is blunt: “The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict.” Leaders who lacked “prudence” and “good will” failed one after another to stop an eminently stoppable train of events that produced a conflagration. That was tragic not only in terms of loss of life, and psychological, physical, emotional and even spiritual injury to survivors, but because the war destroyed a rising, bettering world: “the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent.” It of course also left “a legacy of political rancor and racial hatred so intense” that it guaranteed the world war that would follow 20 years later, which by Keegan’s calculation was five times as destructive of human life. Auschwitz and the other extermination camps “were as much relics of the First as the Second world war.” “They have their antecedents . . . in the fields where the trenches ran.”
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A promenade at Boulogne Wood in Paris in 1900. Getty Images

Boulogne Wood

A promenade at Boulogne Wood in Paris in 1900.

World War I didn’t do nearly as much material damage as World War II. No big European city was destroyed in World War I, and the Eastern and Western fronts ran mostly through forests and farmlands, which were quickly returned to use at the war’s end. “Yet it damaged civilization, the rational and liberal civilization of the European enlightenment, permanently for the worse and, through the damage done, world civilization also.”

Prewar European governments, imperial ones included, paid formal and often practical respect “to the principles of constitutionalism, the rule of law and representative government.” Confidence in those principles all but collapsed after the war: “Within fifteen years of the war’s end, totalitarianism, a new word for a system that rejected the liberalism and constitutionalism which had inspired European politics since the eclipse of monarchy in 1789, was almost everywhere on the rise.” To Russia came communism, to Germany Nazism, to Italy fascism and Spain Francoism. All these infections spread from a common wound: the dislocation and death of the great war.

The world swept away had been a rising and increasingly constructive one, where total war was unimaginable: “Europe in the summer of 1914 enjoyed a peaceful productivity so dependent on international exchange and co-operation that a belief in the impossibility of general war seemed the most conventional of wisdoms.”

Informed opinion had it that the disruption of international credit that would follow war “would either deter its outbreak or bring it speedily to an end.” And the business of Europe was business. Industrial output was expanding; there were new goods and manufacturing opportunities, such as the production and sale of internal-combustion machines. There were new profit centers, new sources of raw materials, including precious metals. Populations were increasing. Steamships and railways were revolutionizing transport. Capital was circulating. “Belgium, one of the smallest countries in Europe, had in 1914 the sixth largest economy in the world,” thanks to early industrialization, new banking and trading methods, and industrial innovators.

Europe was increasingly international—independent nations were dealing and trading with each other. “Common Christianity—and Europe was overwhelmingly Christian by profession in 1914 and strongly Christian in observance also”—found frequent expression in philosophical and political pursuits, including the well-being of labor. Movements to restrict working hours and forbid the employment of children were going forward. European governments were spurred by self-protectiveness: Liberalized labor laws were a way to respond to and attempt to contain the power and appeal of Marxism.

“Europe’s educated classes held much of its culture in common.” They knew Mozart and Beethoven and grand opera. ” Tolstoy was a European figure,” as were Victor Hugo, Balzac, Zola, Dickens, Shakespeare, Goethe and Dante. High-school students in England were taught French, and French students German. Study of the classics remained universal, scholars from all the countries of Europe knew Homer, Thucydides, Caesar and Livy. All shared the foundational classics of philosophy, Aristotle and Plato.

Europe as a cultural entity was coherent and becoming more so. By the beginning of the 20th century tourism “had become a middle-class pleasure” because of railways and the hotel industry that followed.

But Europe was also heavily armed. All countries had armed forces, some large and costly ones led by influential, respected figures. What do armies in peacetime do? Make plans to kill each other just in case. Keegan: “[A] new era in military planning had begun; that of the making of war plans in the abstract, plans conceived at leisure . . . and pulled out when eventuality becomes actuality.” What do soldiers who’ve made brilliant plans do? Itch to use them. Europe’s armies came to see their jobs as “how to assure military advantage in an international crisis, not how to resolve it.”

Soon enough they had their chance.

As you read of the war and its aftermath, you are always stopped by this fact: There is no recorded instance of masses of people gathering together to weep the day it was declared. They should have. The beautiful world they were day by day constructing was in jeopardy and ultimately would be consumed. Yet when people heard the news they threw their hats in the air, parading and waving flags in every capital. In Berlin “crowds thronged the streets shouting, cheering, singing patriotic songs.” In London the same. In St. Petersburg thousands waved banners and icons. In Paris, as the city’s regiments pushed off, “an immense clamour arose as the Marseillaise burst from a thousand throats.”

Western Europe hadn’t had a big and costly ground war since 1871. Maybe they forgot what war was. Surely some would have liked the drama and excitement—the interruption in normality, the break in the boring dailiness of life. Or the air of possibility war brings—of valor, for instance, and shown courage. Camaraderie, too, and a sense of romantic engagement with history. A sense of something to live for—victory.

Once a few years ago a reporter who had covered wars talked about this with a brilliant, accomplished, famously leftist editor in New York. At the end of a conversation on a recent conflict the reporter said, quizzically: “Why is there so much war? Why do we do that?”

“Because something’s wrong with us,” the editor replied.

I told him it was the best definition of original sin I’d ever heard.


There are reasons for traditions and arrangements. Sometimes they are good and sometimes not, but they are reasons, explanations grounded in some sort of experience. I had a conversation about this a few years ago with a young senior at Harvard who on graduation would go to work for a great consulting firm that studies the internal systems of business clients to see if they can be bettered. He asked if I had any advice, which I did not. Then I popped out, with an amount of feeling that surprised me because I didn’t know I had been thinking about it, that he should probably approach clients with the knowledge that systems and ways of operating almost always exist for a reason. Maybe the reason is antiquated or not applicable to current circumstances, but there are reasons for structures, and if you can tease them out they will help you better construct variations or new approaches. I can’t remember why but this opened up a nice conversation about how consultants walk into new jobs with a bias toward change—the recommendation of change proves their worth and justifies their fees—but one should be aware of that bias and replace it with a bias for improvement, which is different.

Connected to that, I’ve spent a lot of the past 10 years reading histories of war—how and why they came about, what happened within them, how it all ended, and what the ending produced. This led, somewhat to my surprise, to becoming engrossed in histories of battles, and discovering a natural and previously unplumbed interest in topography, artillery, logistics, generalship, the readiness of armies, transport, field communications, provisioning, etc.

One thing you find yourself interested in as you read histories of the British armed forces is why the army, the establishment and the people of the country put up with the purchase system, the tradition whereby England’s wealthy aristocrats and noblemen bought commissions in the army and paid lump-sum amounts for increases in rank.

The historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, a writer of magnificent ease, style and wit, addresses this in “The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade,” published in 1953.

“The purchase system . . . which enabled a rich man to buy the command of a regiment over the heads of more efficient officers, appears at first sight as so childishly unjust, so evidently certain to lead to disaster, that it is almost impossible to believe that sensible people ever tolerated much less supported it,” she observed. And yet, she wrote, the system expressed an important British principle; famous victories were won with it in place; and even the Duke of Wellington, that master of administration, backed it.

Why? For what were at the time good reasons.

“No sentiment is more firmly rooted in the English national character,” writes Woodham-Smith, “than a hatred of militarism and military dictatorship.” Edmund Burke reflected this when he declared, in Parliament: “An armed disciplined force is in its essence dangerous to liberty.” The attitude was pervasive and sprang from the 17th century experience of Cromwell’s Major-Generals. Woodham-Smith: “The people of England were then subjected to a military dictatorship, they were ruled by Army officers who were professional soldiers, and, who, though admittedly the finest soldiers in the world, usually had no stake in the country, and often were military adventurers. Their government was harsh and arbitrary, and the nation came to detest the very name of the Army.”

Restoration of the crown followed. So did a national determination never again to allow the army to be led by men who would lead a military revolution and impose military dictatorship.

And so the idea of the purchase system, introduced in 1683 when the standing army was formed. Men could become officers if they came up with enough money to buy a commission or make a significant down-payment. This, writes Woodham-Smith, meant officers would, by definition, be “men of property with a stake in the country, not military adventurers.” Additionally, the price of a commission functioned as a spur to good behavior: A man dismissed for bad actions lost what he had paid. Shallowly perhaps, but for the English not insignificantly, wealthy officers put on a good show: they dressed their regiments in colorful, well-tailored uniforms and saw they had the best horses.

From 1683, both Crown and Parliament agreed that officers of the British army would be drawn from “the class that had everything to lose and nothing to gain from a military revolution.”

This approach was very different from that of the other great powers of Europe, which used as officers professional soldiers who were dependent on their salaries, who used high military rank to enhance their social standing and often used it to build fortunes. The officers of the English system didn’t have to do that: They were already rich and titled.

The purchase system was adopted to help prevent revolutions and the rise of Napoleons; the system, existing within an army that was well-managed, well-led, properly administered and populated by troops with a fighting spirit, would in fact defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.

It worked, haphazardly and not without problems—some officers were fools or second raters, and some men of talent, vision and even military genius never rose because they lacked the money to buy the position that would give a stage to their gifts—for almost 200 years, being more or less abolished by 1870.

Why? Because even though the government by nature held a bias for the wealthy and aristocratic, the system in the end was recognized to be not only abusive of humble talent, but increasingly abused and rigged by the wealthy, some of whom bought captaincies, never bothered to show up, and started swanning around London calling themselves Captain. There were bribery scandals. The system was finally judged to be destructive to the operations, efficiency and spirit of the entire army.

So it was abolished.

But the system existed for a reason, as all structures, systems and ways of operating do.

Bonus information: Cecil Woodham-Smith was a woman. Cecil was really her first name. From the author page of “The Reason Why”: She was from an Irish family, the Fitzgeralds, with deep military ties: Her father served in the British Indian Army, her mother’s family included a general who fought under Wellington and was killed at Waterloo. She wrote a greatly admired biography of Florence Nightingale, bearing the name of its subject, published in 1950, and “The Great Hunger,” a history of the Irish famine of the 1840s, published in 1962. She was named a Commander of the British Empire in 1960. Did Woodham-Smith know most readers thought her a man? Probably. Certainly. But being a woman in her field and area of expertise wouldn’t have been seen by readers, critics or academics as a plus, so she was luckily named. Anyway, this too speaks of a system and tradition that had poor reasons.

The War That Broke a Century A king, a kaiser, a czar—all were undone as they realized what they had unleashed with World War I.

Next week marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. It was the great disaster of the 20th century, the one that summoned or forced the disasters that would follow, from Lenin and Hitler to World War II and the Cold War. It is still, a century later, almost impossible to believe that one event, even a war, could cause such destruction, such an ending of worlds.

History still isn’t sure and can never be certain of the exact number of casualties. Christopher Clark, in “The Sleepwalkers” (2013), puts it at 20 million military and civilian deaths and 21 million wounded. The war unleashed Bolshevism, which brought communism, which in time would kill tens of millions more throughout the world. (In 1997, “The Black Book of Communism,” written by European academics, put the total number at a staggering 94 million.)

Thrones were toppled, empires undone. Western Europe lost a generation of its most educated and patriotic, its future leaders from all classes—aristocrats and tradesmen, teachers, carpenters and poets. No nation can lose a generation of such men without effect. Their loss left Europe, among other things, dumber.

Reading World War I histories, I have been startled to realize the extent to which the leaders or putative leaders of the belligerent nations personally suffered. A number of them fell apart, staggering under the pressure, as if at some point in the day-to-day they realized the true size and implications of the endeavor in which they were immersed. They seemed to come to understand, after the early hurrahs, that they were involved in the central catastrophe of the 20th century, and it was too big, too consequential, too history-making to be borne. Some would spend the years after the war insisting, sometimes at odd moments, that it wasn’t their fault.
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King George V visiting a soldier's grave

Illustration of King George V visiting a soldier’s grave on the Western Front during World War 1.

As Miranda Carter shows in “George, Nicholas and Wilhelm” (2010), the king of England, the czar of Russia and the kaiser of Germany were all in different ways wrecked by the war.

Kaiser Wilhelm, whose bombast, peculiarities of personality and lack of wisdom did so much to bring the conflict, folded almost from the start. Two years in, he was described by those around him as a “broken man”—depressed, lethargic, ill. An aide wrote of him as “violent and unpredictable.”

Barbara Tuchman, in the classic “The Guns of August” (1962), notes how in the early days of the war Wilhelm’s margin notes on telegrams became “more agitated.” (“Rot!” “He lies!” “False dog!”) In time, top brass shunted him aside and viewed him as irrelevant. The kaiser rarely referred to the sufferings of his people. Ms. Carter writes: “Wilhelm had always had difficulty in empathizing with others’ difficulties.” When his country collapsed, he fled to Holland, where in conversation he referred to his countrymen as “pigs” and insisted that the war was the fault of others. He died at age 81 in 1941, two years into World War II.

King George V did have empathy, and it almost killed him. Touring the Western Front, he suffered at the sights—once-rich fields now charred craters, villages blasted away, piles of dead bodies. He aged overnight, his beard turning almost white. Ms. Carter writes that he now surveyed the world with a “dogged, melancholic, unsmiling stare.” A year into the war, a horse he was riding on a visit to the front got frightened, reared, and fell on him. The king never fully recovered from the injuries. Years later, he was haunted by what he called “that horrible and unnecessary war.” In 1935, war clouds gathering once again, he met up with his wartime prime minister. The king, wrote Lloyd George, “broke out vehemently, ‘And I will not have another war, I will not.’ ” He also said that the Great War had not been his fault. He died the following year.

Czar Nicholas II of Russia, of course, would lose everything—his throne and his life, as his family would lose theirs. But from the early days of the war he too was buckling. His former chief minister, Vladimir Kokovtsov, called Nicholas’s faded eyes “lifeless.” In the middle of conversations, the czar lost the thread, and a simple question would reduce him to “a perfectly incomprehensible state of helplessness.”

Two years in, Kokovtsov thought Nicholas on the verge of nervous breakdown. So did the French ambassador, who wrote in the summer of 1916: “Despondency, apathy and resignation can be seen in his actions, appearance, attitudes and all the manifestations of the inner man.” The czar wore a constant, vacant smile, but glanced about nervously. Friendly warnings that the war was not being won and revolution could follow were ignored. For him, in Ms. Carter’s words, “Contradiction now constituted betrayal.” At the end, those close to Nicholas wondered if he failed to move to save his throne because he preferred a crisis that might force his abdication—and the lifting of burdens he now crushingly understood he could not sustain.

Then there is Woodrow Wilson at his second Versailles peace conference, in the spring of 1919. Negotiations were draining, occasionally volatile. The victors postured, schemed and turned on each other for gain. They had literally argued about whether windows should be opened, and about what language should be the official one of the talks. (They settled on three.) President Wilson developed insomnia and a twitch on the left side of his face. He was constantly tired, occasionally paranoid. After a trying meeting with France’s finance minister, Louis Klotz, Wilson joked with a friend of his weariness: “I have Klotz on the brain.”

He may have. Weeks earlier, weak and feverish, he had physically collapsed. It was a flu, a cold, possibly encephalitis. He rallied and returned to work but sometimes appeared impatient, euphoric or energized to the point of manic.

On the afternoon of May 1 at the peace conference, Wilson suddenly announced in his office, to his wife and his doctor, Adm. Cary Grayson, “I don’t like the way the colors of this furniture fight each other.” As biographer A. Scott Berg notes in “Wilson,” published last year, the president continued, saying: “The greens and the reds are all mixed up here and there is no harmony. Here is a big purpose, high-backed covered chair, which is like the Purple Cow, strayed off to itself, and it is placed where the light shines on it too brightly. If you will give me a lift, we will move this next to the wall where the light from the window will give it a subdued effect. And here are two chairs, one green and the other red. This will never do. Let’s put the greens all together and the reds together.”

Mr. Berg : “Wilson’s bizarre comments did not end there. He described the Council of Four meetings, how each delegation walked like schoolchildren each day to its respective corners. Now, with the furniture regrouped, he said each country would sit according to color”—the reds in the American corner, the greens in the British.

Grayson didn’t know what to think. Perhaps it was nervous exhaustion, perhaps a sign of something more serious. After returning to the U.S., Wilson launched a grueling campaign for America to join the League of Nations. That fall, in the White House, he would suffer the stroke or strokes that would leave him disabled the rest of his life.

So what are we saying? Nothing beyond what I suppose has long been a theme, which may be a nice word for preoccupation, in this space: History is human.

And sometimes it turns bigger than humans can bear.