The Birds of War

Christopher Benfey in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_824 Oct. 03 17.29Is it to be war? It would seem so, now and for the foreseeable future. Yet the future seems, increasingly, unforeseeable, as the seers with furrowed brows, convened around the tables at CNN or PBS, predict the most extraordinary and contradictory things. Can the campaign against ISIS succeed without American “boots on the ground”? Well, yes and no. Can the Iraqi army become a reliable fighting force? That depends. Will the fickle American public—whipped into war fever by videotaped beheadings and an obscure group called Khorasan, apparently determined to attack the US from secret cells near Aleppo—still support the war when the November elections arrive? We’ll see.

When the Romans, those unsentimental warriors, considered launching a war in some far-flung locale on the margins of empire, they didn’t dilly-dally around with military experts. They consulted augurs, professional birdwatchers, who read, in the zigzag flight of birds, the course of the future, as clearly as words on the page. Such practices linger in our language whenever we “inaugurate” a president or find a course of action “auspicious.” Why shouldn’t we, like the Romans, take our bearings from the flight of birds? Would our expectations differ significantly from those of the so-called experts?

More here.