When the Scholar turned 75 in 2007, we asked our friend the historian Ted Widmer to read through the whole run of the magazine, something he did cheerfully, or at least without complaint. In his witty report, he detected, among other things, a tendency in the publication to overcelebrate even inconsequential anniversaries—although, by the 50th, he observed, “there was no longer a vivid sense that the magazine’s survival constituted a miracle worthy of beatification.” Still, in that general vein, Widmer asked at the end of his piece, “Will there be a 100th anniversary?” He ran through a gloomy litany of why there might not be: “Sound bites are shrinking, attention spans narrowing, and public language is degraded 24/7, from the vapid ad slogan to the lying speech to the vowelless text message.” His analysis was that the odds were stacked against us, but his conclusion was, “What a perfect place to be!”
So here we are at 90. Nobody will accuse us of overcelebrating this anniversary, but we share the joy our predecessors had in the continued existence of the magazine, and the pride they had in its excellence. We are filled with gratitude to our discerning readers, our gifted writers, and the steadfastness of Phi Beta Kappa, which launched the magazine at a bleak moment—January 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression—and has sponsored its existence ever since. Does being an idiosyncratic but rational voice make our situation any less precarious now, in these determinedly irrational times, than it was 15 years ago? No, not in the least, and what a perfect place to be. Stick with us, and with luck we’ll see you in 10 years.
Elizabeth D. Samet teaches English at West Point, which puts her in a strong position to observe military culture, and to do it with a humanistic eye. She understands that the young future military leaders at the academy must learn to be both confident and optimistic if they are to lead troops into battle. But, as Samet writes in our cover story, she worries that there has developed not only at West Point but also in the military in general an unrealistic commitment to what Colin Powell called “perpetual optimism.” The appalling end to the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan discredits two decades of assurances by military leaders that progress was being made and that the disaster our involvement turned out to be was not just around the corner. But who, in a military unable to admit defeat, was going to tell our civilian leaders that any sort of victory was unattainable? And even in defeat, the focus was on the success of the airlift and not its tragic 20-year prelude. Are we as a nation complicit in this unwillingness to contemplate losing? Of course we are. Just look at how quickly our interest in the matter has faded.
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