Glory, glory hallelujah

If you want an acerbic taste of what might be called Niebuhrian irony, see the gallows humor of American soldiers in Chris Collins’ front-line* McClatchy report from Iraq, “South of Baghdad, U.S. troops find fatigue, frustration“:

Standing in a small room in the Iraqi home they’d raided an hour earlier, a dozen soldiers from the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division were trading jokes when 1st Sgt. Troy Moore, Company A’s senior enlisted man, shouted out.

“We’re bringing democracy to Iraq,” he called, with obvious sarcasm, as a reporter entered the room. Then Moore began loudly humming the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Within seconds the rest of the troops had joined in, filling the small, barren home in the middle of Iraq with the patriotic chorus of a Civil War-era ballad.

The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” embodies exactly the kind of naively revolutionary, millennial optimism that Reinhold Niebuhr made a career out of shouting down. Due to my preoccupation with the scatological eschatology of our friends LaHaye and Jenkins, I’ve tended to spend a lot of time here with the errors and oddities of premillennial dispensationalism. But that is only one form, and not even the dominant one, of the millennial fervor that has, periodically, played such a large role in American Christianity and American history. The “Battle Hymn” is the almost-official theme song of that millennial fervor.

When performed well, the song can give you a sense of the attractiveness of that millennial spirit. That allure, and its influence in our culture and history, is reflected in the many echoes of Julia Ward Howe’s lyrics in our literature and political rhetoric. It is a beautiful song,** but it is also, explicitly, a crusader’s hymn. It is a distillation of the Civil War minus all of Lincoln’s doubt, sorrow and humility. (Look again at his Second Inaugural, which serves almost as a rebuttal of this song.)

The arrogant, vainglorious dreaming of the Project for a New American Century — the people who pitched and promoted, but never planned for, this war — is the latest expression of this millennial optimism. That implicit millennial vision has at times been stated explicitly, as when Condoleezza Rice spoke of the recent fighting in Lebanon as the “birth pangs” of democracy in the Middle East (an allusion to the mini-apocalypse of Matthew 24). The dreamers of PNAC preached a “fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel,” but the soldiers of Company A know better. The Lord hasn’t been seen in their hundred circling camps.

American millennialism needn’t be as explicitly religious as the “Battle Hymn,” although even in its most secular forms it remains a kind of religious faith. One of the most memorable portrayals of this secular millennialism is that of Alden Pyle, the title character in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, of whom Greene’s narrator, Fowler, says, “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

In an astonishing speech last month*** President Bush attempted to cite The Quiet American — including that very description of Pyle — as part of some sort of argument for why the American occupation of Iraq must never end. I’ve been too flabbergasted by the perverse audacity of that to comment on it (Greg Mitchell does a good job of responding), but here’s a bit of a post I wrote on all of that back in mid-December, 2003:

Greene’s most important novel today has to be The Quiet American, in which he tells the tragic story of two unlikely friends: Thomas Fowler and Alden Pyle.

Fowler is world-weary, disillusioned and, if not exactly corrupt, thoroughly compromised. Pyle is in many ways his opposite — young, naive, idealistic. Pyle, Fowler tells us, semi-reliably, was “determined … to do good, not to any individual person, but to a country, a continent, a world.” He was innocent, and therefore dangerous: “Innocence always calls mutely for protection, when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it; innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

The two men are presented as opposites — one disillusioned, the other illusioned. If you read the novel — and the world — convinced that Pyle and Fowler represent the only available options, then you are left with despair. Surely there is some option available to us other than inhuman detachment and the violent idealism of plastic explosives.

When one reads the audacious plans of the PNAC … in the light of Greene’s novel, what’s striking is the way its authors seem to combine the worst elements of both Fowler and Pyle. It exhibits both Pyle’s unbridled, hubristic idealism and Fowler’s cynical regard for the naked power of imperial hegemony. …

What’s particularly annoying — and offensive — is the habit that the PNACes have of treating all of us who disagree with their destructive Pylesque idealism as though we are defenders of Fowler’s cynical views (the old “you’re objectively pro-Saddam” sophistry). This accusation reveals a despairing failure of imagination, as well as a refusal to listen to what is actually being said. …

That failure of imagination and refusal to listen — to critics, to reality — were on full display in Bush’s speech, which concluded with this starkly millennial assertion:

So long as we remain true to our ideals, we will defeat the extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will help those countries’ peoples stand up functioning democracies in the heart of the broader Middle East.

Glory, glory hallelujah. Let’s loose the fateful lighting of “our ideals.” But yet, as tends to happen, the terrible, swift sword has come to supplant the ideals we claimed it served. The soldiers of Company A appreciate that, even if Bush doesn’t.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The front-lines, in this case, being the living room of a private home. The purveyors of the stabbed-in-the-back myth of Vietnam like to say that war was really fought in the living rooms of America, as the public watched it unfold on their televisions. These same revisionists, hoping to escape accountability for the current unwinnable war, are pitching the same lie about the conflict in Iraq. It turns out the lie is partly true, though, since this war is literally being waged in living rooms, just not in American ones.

** The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was quite probably the first music I ever heard. It was playing on every radio and television in the hospital the night I was born. I don’t remember this, of course, but I have since seen footage of that rendition. The song was sung by two choirs at the Lincoln Memorial, accompanied by the brass section of the U.S. Marine Band and all the residents of Resurrection City. It was the end of a long day, a day that began with a funeral in New York and ended with the only night-time burial in the history of Arlington National Cemetery. That grave context made the song something other than a shallow expression of millennial optimism. It became instead, as it was in the speeches of the man buried two months earlier, an expression of millennial hope. And hope and optimism are not the same thing. I sometimes even think they may be mutually exclusive.

*** Read that speech and you’ll see what I mean about the dolchstosslegende.

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  • sapote3

    alright, I’m going to throw this out there and accept that it’s far-fetched: I really do see this song as kind of being the equivalent of anti-globalization folk-punk with violent lyrics: it’s written by someone who believes in violence as a metaphor, who believes, after a fashion, that people will throw down their arms and greet us as moral liberators. It’s not written by someone who has actually contemplated the reality of shooting a guy in the face over a political disagreement. It’s like all of us who as teenagers were all “revolution! Now!” without considering the actual human tragedy that that entails.
    The fact that this hymn, in all of its bloodthirsty-only-in-theory naivety, keeps being sung long after the author of the lyrics rejected its message tells us some interesting things about how we see ourselves.

  • sapote3

    cjmr, I know, I’m just startled. I’ll hopefully let that tangent die a natural death now.

  • Rick

    Just going into comments about Fred’s first footnote cite of “Stabbed in the Back myth”. Pardon me, I can’t help myself on this thread highjack, the revisionist history about the Vietnam War just burns me up.
    The right seems to be blind to the fact that popular support of the war waned after Tet68 not because Walter Cronkite, but because of Gen. Westmoreland. Tet68 show the American public that Westmoreland’s rosy reports that his war of attrition was destroying the VC and NVA lacked credibility. While Tet was a major military defeat for North Vietnam, it accelerated the reversal of popular support of the war in the US.
    The worst is Nixon. Nixon turned down a peace agreement with North Vietnam when he took office and then kept the US in the war for four more years, and about double the count of US dead to its final number. The irony was the final peace agreement was virtually the same terms presented in 1968 by the North Vietnamese.

  • Aww, I was going to respond to nieciedo, but Ian pretty much said everything I would have.
    So, um, hey, nieciedo. Good to see you popping in. Haven’t seen you around here in a while.
    Rick: Yeah, but it’s been popularized for a long time. I’m pretty sure that Rambo said he was going back and “they” weren’t going to be able to keep him from winning the second time around.
    It’s also fascinating if you watch 300 as neocon propaganda (and it’s almost impossible not to) to see that very stabbed in the back scenario being set up there. And it’s all the more damning since that subplot is nowhere to be found in Miller’s original graphic novel…
    Oh, and for some fun revisionist history, learn about how The South Was Right!. I picked that up at my local Barnes & Noble just to see how long it took for my BS detector to go off and I put it down a paragraph in to the description on the dust jacket…

  • Ursula L

    But what’s wrong with having a dream of better things, something you believe in strongly enough to fight and die for?
    Well, it’s quite likely that the people you are fighting with don’t particularly want to fight, or to die, and you’re forcing both the violence and your ideal on them against their will.
    Fighting also rarely makes things better. Odds are, the people you think you’re “helping” will actually be made worse off.
    It also tends to dehumanize the other. Listen to Shrub talk about the costs of helping the Iraqis – he counts only US lives as the cost of his war. Because he believes the Iraqis are being “helped” by his little jihad, they aren’t seen as loosing anything in the fight, but only as being possible beneficiaries.
    It leads to a bad miscalculation of human responses and interests, as well. If you think your cause is wonderful enough to fight or die for, you’re going to project that approval into the minds of the other side. “Welcomed with flowers as liberators” just doesn’t happen when you are the attacker. At best, the occupied will sullenly accept your occupation as inevitable. More likely, people will resist.
    Such enthusiasm also leads to other acts of evil. If the cause is worth fighting for, and worth dying for, isn’t it worth stealing for? Or lying for? Aren’t kickbacks to your friends, contracts to your financiers, and the plunder of war justified as payment for you doing the great thing you’re fighting for? Isn’t it justified to torture others, if it furthers the cause? If you’re willing to kill, a thousand lesser wrongs become minor in comparison.
    People who say their cause is “worth fighting for and dying for” rarely see themselves as dying. It’s a sanitized way of saying that they think their cause is worth killing for. And the sentiment needs to be judged as one would judge any other murderous intent.

  • ako

    But what’s wrong with having a dream of better things, something you believe in strongly enough to fight and die for?
    Not necessarily anything. Potentially a lot. It depends on how you fight, what good dying does, and what you do with those that don’t share your dream.
    Fighting can mean standing up. It can mean gathering, resisting, and not bowing down to tyrants. It can mean fighting back. It can also mean revolutionary terrors, dropping bombs on people in order to bring them freedom, and massacres. It can be used to mean literal, violent fighting, or non-violent struggles and effort.
    Dying for a cause can set an example of courage and persistence. Or it could be a waste of a life; eliminating all the other good you could do.
    And as for people who don’t share your dream, well, you see how argumentative we all get over nearly anything. Even with the best effort at persuasion, pretty much any cause is going to have firm and consistent opponents. And attempting to do anything specific means there will almost certainly be a good chunk of people who oppose it from good motives.
    So someone fighting for a dream of better things could be non-violently opposing those who want to forcibly keep them from those better things. They could be violently defending yourself from attackers. Or they could be doing violence to all of those who don’t embrace their dreams. And the more grandiose the vision, the more often people tend to go for the last option. Which is why I’m wary of the “Let’s fight and die for this!” stuff.
    And I’ll admit, I like the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” too. ;-)

  • Jeff

    Jeff was obviously only kidding about “One Sunday mornin'” being te National Anthem of Ireland. Jeff did find a wealth of Scottish and Irish songs, including “One Sunday mornin'”, here. No particular order that I can see, but lots of fun songs.

  • hapax

    I get a “403 Sorry, you aren’t allowed here!” message from that link.
    Sorry, it worked for me. Try this one
    I’ve always kinda liked Battle Hymn of the Republic, but that’s because, like Fred, I associate it with the Civil Rights movement and my mother holding a candle for Bobby with tears streaming down her face. As far as US anthems go, I vastly prefer America The Beautiful (“confirm thy soul with self control, thy liberty with law”) or even Take Me Out to the Ball Game (wouldn’t it be nice if our political system worked on the “three strikes and yer out!” principle?)

  • Jeff

    wouldn’t it be nice if our political system worked on the “three strikes and yer out!” principle?)
    Not if it’s anything like the legal version. ‘cuz that? Sucks!

  • rm

    In that AP article on Edwards’s health plan . . . I dunno, I think I smell journamalism. That is, I think his stump speech is being twisted into something he didn’t say, like Gore’s and Kerry’s. It’ll take watching, but I don’t think there is anything to this.
    Anyhow, that’s quite a false equivalence between a health care proposal and a disastrous war begun on false pretenses that hurts one’s own country while worsening all the problems one wanted it to solve, distracting one’s country from other pressing problems, and along the way killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions.
    Yes, my brand is Purina Troll Chow(tm). Why do you ask?

  • rm

    Q: How do you know when a Unitarian hates you?
    A: He leaves a burning question mark on your lawn.
    More U.U. jokes.

  • Glory, glory hallelujah – Riverbend made it out of Iraq alive, with her family.

  • Nenya

    OMG YAY! She’s alive!! I’m so glad.
    (And that is an amazing piece of writing. Sometimes it all seems so far away and theoretical, or at least happening to people who speak a strange language and think strange thoughts. But now I’ve just read Riverbend. Very sober here.)

  • sapote3

    rm: Glad tidings of reason and fact (reason and fact)!

  • Jeff

    In that AP article on Edwards’s health plan . . . I dunno, I think I smell journamalism.
    I thought so too, so I checked his web-site. Seems pretty accurate to me.

  • Patrick Neilsen Hayden said, some years ago, that the Battle Hymn of the Republic, was one of the most blood-curdling battle songs he could think of, if one imagined it sung with all the Puritan fervor of the devout who settled Massachussetts.
    When I thought of it in that light (and sang it to myself, with an angry passion; and an enemy in mind) I realised he was right. It taps into so many of the darker motivations, glossed with a moral rectitude, Divine purpose and self-rightousness that it is as potent as bagpipes.
    I’m a professional soldier, and I don’t want to face an army which can sincerely sing such a hymn.

  • Ryan Ferneau

    Sometimes I’ll sing it as “Glory, glory, halle-BOOYAH”. Of course, there’s also the version about nightwear.