“Mission Accomplished”: Fictive Victories at the End of History
On July 4, 2021, standing before a crowd of one thousand people on the White House lawn, President Joe Biden declared independence from Covid-19. Leaning fully into the holiday’s symbolism, he remarked that in 1776 Americans had “the power of an idea on our side,” while “today there’s the power of science.” Widespread vaccination promised to bring the pandemic to an end: “We can live our lives. Our kids can go back to school. Our economy is roaring back.” Though accompanied by prudent disclaimers that the virus was not yet vanquished, the speech was in effect a declaration of victory over the scourge of Covid-19, a promise that the worst was behind us and that the end was near. Several months later, this cheery optimism has faded to a palpable sense of despondency as the vaccination effort stalls and new cases reach for peak levels. The news cycle replays prior traumas on loop: ICUs are overflowing, children face a third year of disrupted schooling, and Covid mitigation efforts have become another front in the ongoing Culture Wars. Will this thing never end?
President Biden’s July 4 speech belongs to a particular category of official proclamations dedicated to marking the end of something painful, dangerous, or traumatic. In past decades such speeches were typically reserved for announcing the end of wars against more traditional adversaries. The signing of cease-fires during WWI and WWII both occasioned presidential announcements, as did the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam. As of late though, endings have turned out to be more fictive, with the benefit of hindsight rendering such aspirational declarations hubristic or downright delusional. Recall, for instance, George W. Bush’s infamous declaration of “mission accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” he claimed, seemingly unaware that the real war had yet to begin.
Moreover, the president promised that with the fall of Saddam Hussein, Americans had inched closer to another ending as well: “The battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001 and still goes on…The war on terror is not over, yet it is not endless. We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide.” Twenty years after the attacks of 9/11, and coming on the heels of a tumultuous retreat from Afghanistan that yielded little beyond record profits for defense contractors, we are still waiting for that ship to come in. Indeed, as the historian Samuel Moyn has argued, over the last two decades the US has bequeathed the world “a disturbing new form of counterterrorist belligerency, at once endless and humane.”
At home and abroad, then, the present cultural moment is marked by a strange relationship to endings. On the one hand this entails seeking endings that never seem to arrive, like that to the Covid-19 pandemic or the “forever wars” of American empire. Sometimes the longing for resolution is so powerful that it threatens to overtake reality, as if it were possible to end a crisis by means of a speech act alone: Covid is over. Mission Accomplished. Everything is back to normal (the longing for which is its own type of catastrophe). The politicians’ speeches may indicate that the state of emergency has passed, but the gravediggers always know better.
What lies behind this impulse to declare victory, however prematurely? What is it about endings that prove so seductive, even when elusive? And finally, how might we understand this yearning for certain ends amid the dread that circulates about other possible ones: the end of coral reefs, of seasons, of liberal democracy, of hope for a better world?
Seeking the end assumed a different tenor in centuries past. Within the Christian religious imaginary that became dominant in the Western world, the end was an apocalyptic confrontation between the forces of good and evil, the promise of Christ’s return and the end to human strife.
It was longed for, at times anticipated by various sects, but also deferred and postponed without resulting in a widespread loss of faith. For their part, the Jewish sages whose views are collected in the Talmud cautioned against “forcing the end”—of using human agency to create conditions that were supposed to prevail only in the messianic age (the Jewish messiah would redeem the world, not end it). It was this provision that inspired widespread contempt toward Zionism among Orthodox communities prior to the Holocaust, and which still animates some of them. Many people clearly pined for the end—of human suffering, if not necessarily of the world itself—but were also able to accommodate themselves to its infinite deferral. Only divine intervention could redeem the mess of human history, and the messiah was known to tarry.
In the early nineteenth century, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel introduced a new element into the quest for endings with his Philosophy of History, namely, the possibility that the engine of historical progress might deliver redemption in this world. Hegel described his work as a theodicy, yet it departed in key ways from the premodern tradition of asking why a just God would allow evil to exist or why good things happen to bad people—questions which were largely regarded as either unknowable or even impious in centuries past. Job received no satisfactory justification for his suffering, which seemed to confirm that the ways of God were beyond human comprehension. In the Talmud (Menachot 29b), God shows Moses the tortures reserved for Rabbi Akiva, arguably the greatest of sages, and chides his prophet to “Be silent” when he tries to make sense of the learned scholar’s terrible fate.
Given this background, Hegel knew he was treading on dangerous theological ground in trying to locate some reason in history—some reason for history—something that could confirm that divine justice would ultimately triumph and justify the horrors that came before. He was unique not in asking what could redeem past monstrosities—that slaughter-bench of history “upon which the happiness of nations, the wisdoms of states, and the virtues of individuals were sacrificed”—but in locating redemption in the realm of human affairs.
For Hegel, the realization of the divine will on Earth was evident in the gradual unfolding of Spirit in time, and the essence of Spirit was freedom:
It is this final goal—freedom—toward which all the world’s history has been working. It is this goal to which all the sacrifices have been brought upon the broad altar of the earth in the long flow of time. This is the one and only goal that accomplishes itself and fulfills itself—the only constant of events and conditions, and the truly effective thing in them all. It is this goal that is God’s will for the world.
Hegel’s Philosophy of History discarded the need to tie redemption to an eschatological ending. It was rather the future course of history, and the progressive realization of freedom, that would justify the pain of the past and offer reassurance that there was some grand plan behind the chaos. “This good, this Reason—in its most concrete representation—is God. God governs the world: the content of His governance, the fulfillment of His plan, is world history.” Locating reason within history was the only thing that could justify its bloody course, and in that sense, serve as “a justification for the ways of God.”
Hegel’s dialectic is crucial to understanding how the suffering of the past could be redeemed in the future through the onward and upward march of history. The traveler tinged with sorrow at the “vanquished splendor” of Carthage or Palmyra would do well to remember this view of historical development, which is both cyclical and progressive. Hegel took note of the idea, common in Eastern traditions, that life leads to death but that death also leads to life; this view is cyclical but not necessarily progressive. Hegel’s history includes a forward and upward movement: “When Spirit consumes the outer shell of its existence, it does not merely go over into another shell, and it does not merely arise rejuvenated from the ashes of its embodiment; instead, it emerges as a purer Spirit, exalted and transfigured.” That is to say, the cycles of history will include some devastating episodes, but so long as they are an integral part of the dialectical process of Spirit refining itself, they too can be rationalized as the means by which freedom progresses.
The language of sacrifice, laced as it is with theological resonance, is not at all misplaced in Hegel’s text given its religious scaffolding. It arguably still felt apt for earlier generations of Americans who fought earlier wars, particularly those that yielded something worth fighting for: national independence, the abolition of slavery, the defeat of fascism. Yet the logic of sacrifice requires a moment of resolution, a point from which one can survey the wreckage and declare that “it was all worth it in the end”—and moreover, that something more grandiose might still await in the future. In the words of President Truman upon Japanese surrender during the Second World War, “Only the knowledge that the victory, which these sacrifices have made possible, will be wisely used, can give them any comfort. It is our responsibility—ours, the living—to see to it that this victory shall be a monument worthy of the dead who died to win it.” Within the dominant political imaginary, it is only through the declaration of victory that we redeem the fallen, such that their “sacrifices” won’t prove to have been in vain.
Less than three decades later, another US president trotted out the language of sacrifice, but the effect fell flat. “Let us be proud of the two and a half million young Americans who served in Vietnam, who served with honor and distinction in one of the most selfless enterprises the history of nations. And let us be proud of those who sacrificed, who gave their lives, so that the people of South Vietnam might live in freedom, and so that the world might live in peace.” Did anyone believe these words, even as they were being spoken? That the lost lives were truly “sacrifices” and not waste? That something would follow that could offer redemption, which would serve, not incidentally, also to absolve those who directed the war effort?
Scholars working on ethics and violence have cautioned against the continued use of the sacrificial mode to narrate contemporary horrors. Writing of American gun violence, for instance, Patrick Blanchfield has noted:
Sacrifice is, strictly speaking, a transactional concept. Something is given up in exchange for something else. The implicit paradigm here is of a loss that leads to redemption, a forfeiture that purifies. But there is nothing redeeming, or that could ever redeem, a dozen dead children.
Instead of using the lens of sacrifice, we should think of the toll of American gun violence as waste, pure and simple. Waste in many ways—as lives cut short, as potential squandered, as futures foreclosed. But also waste beyond any sense that restricts the lives of the murdered to mere human capital—waste as absolute, irredeemable carnage that generates only more destruction in its wake.
Similarly, in Ecce Humanitas, the philosopher Brad Evans surveys the religious roots of sacrificial violence and its transposition into modern political discourse. “The sacrificial is precisely that which allows for the unbearable to become tolerable….It enables the exceptional event to appear as something altogether necessary, all the while it keeps hold of the exceptional act in order to normalize the violent will to rule.” These interventions gesture at how ill-fitting the logic of sacrifice has become in the present era, where the ongoing nature of crises—endless war, mass shootings, and climate disasters—serves to continually deprive us of resolution, a vantage point from which to survey the damage and indeed, justify it in that classic Hegelian sense. The threat that hovers over the current situation—of desired endings that do not come even as catastrophic ones appear on the horizon—is that it might not all be worth it in the end, in which case sacrifice morphs into waste, and thereby also skirts redemption.
It was this dark realization that hovered over the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Were this the Hollywood rendition, twenty years after 9/11 should have been a great moment of resolution: a nice bow tied around a flourishing democratic and capitalist—oh so capitalist—state in Afghanistan, but instead it seemed as if we had run in a two-decade long circle, only to end up back at the starting line. The reality, as I’ve noted elsewhere, is actually a bit more dire: we are not back in the same spot, but in a much worse one. The ensuing media meltdown and sense of exasperation among policy elites brought into focus that resolution is also a quest for redemption, and that it is hard to accept the former without the latter. “As Western powers line up to leave, it’s difficult to overstate the tragedy of a situation where thousands have been killed, millions have become refugees, and trillions of dollars in resources have been burned only for Afghanistan to end up where it started 20 years ago.” This, from a Foreign Policy briefing last August, encapsulates ways in which the reality of waste upsets the attempt to narrate past suffering as sacrifice.
Perhaps human suffering was easier to bear in earlier times, before our friend Hegel started rooting around human history for the traces of redemption. And perhaps there is still something to be said for refusing to follow his lead. In his remarkable memoir of Auschwitz, If This is a Man (often rendered as Survival in Auschwitz in English), Primo Levi tells the story of the great “selection” of October 1944, during which Nazi officers survey the bunks and decide who will live and who will die. An older man, Kuhn, manages to eke by this round and responds by praying aloud, offering an animated thanks to God for sparing his life. But Kuhn, Levi tells us, is not a mere supplicant offering gratitude to a power beyond his control. “Kuhn is out of his senses.”
Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no proprietary prayer, no pardon, no expiation of the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.
To justify the past is to find a reason why things had to be this way. The search for endings, so visible in our politics, is inseparable for this quest for redemption—cue Nancy Pelosi at a memorial thanking George Floyd “for sacrificing your life for justice,” as if systemic racism had been vanquished as a result of his murder.
Writing these words, on the twentieth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11—and still resenting the fact that it is nigh impossible to mourn that day’s loss of life and potential without being drafted into a racist and imperialist agenda—I am not terribly interested in why things had to turn out this way. Perhaps it is the historian’s training, but I crave contingency: the possibility that we might not need to craft narratives to justify what was lost, but rather to live in a world where the loss did not occur at all. And barring that, to see it as dreadful and wasteful, not sacrificial, to mourn more fully by resisting the temptation to impart it with meaning or necessity. This is the least we owe the dead: to regard their passing neither as foretold nor required but, following Levi, as an abomination.
To believe that the past did not have to unfold in the way it did is also to assert that the pathways for the future remain undetermined. In the final reflection of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin recalled that the Jews were forbidden from telling the future, but instead instructed in remembrance. “This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment.” Perhaps the soothsayer is the closest approximation for those prophets of the modern age who foretold the end of hunger, of disease, of ideology, indeed, of history itself. Their certitude nurtured a tendency to regard a better future as a guaranteed inheritance rather than the result of an ongoing struggle. “One reason why Fascism has a chance,” Benjamin wrote, “is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm.” If periodic annihilation is just part of the ebb and flow of a dialectical process tending toward freedom, then why get too worked up about the death camps being built in the distance?
Benjamin suggests that a reorientation toward the future is necessary to avoiding this ethical and political pitfall, one that regards progress as neither inevitable nor impossible. Indeed, as he wrote regarding the prohibition on fortune-telling mentioned above, the future held promise precisely because it was unknown: “every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.” Perhaps we are better off leaving the redemptive work to a messiah who is always running late than casting around for some moment of finitude to justify what has been.
 G. W. F. Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Leo Rauch (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1988), 24.
 Hegel, 22-23.
 Hegel, 39
 Hegel, 18.
 Hegel, 76.
 Harry S. Truman, “Radio Address to the American People After the Signing of the Terms of Unconditional Surrender by Japan,” September 1, 1945, radio broadcast, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/radio-address-the-american-people-after-the-signing-the-terms-unconditional-surrender.
 New York Times, “Transcript of the Speech by President on Vietnam.” Jan. 24, 1973, https://www.nytimes.com/1973/01/24/archives/transcript-of-the-speech-by-president-on-vietnam-essential.html
 Patrick Blanchfield, “Guns and the ‘Price We Pay for Freedom,’” New York Times, November 8, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/08/opinion/guns-freedom-texas-shooting.html
 Brad Evans, Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021), 5.
 Colm Quinn, “The West Prepares for the Fall of Kabul,” Foreign Policy Morning Brief, August 13, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/13/the-west-prepares-for-the-fall-of-kabul/
 Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Touchstone Books, 1996), 130.
 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Shocken Books, 1968), 264.
 Benjamin, 257.
 Benjamin, 264.