War Without End, Amen

War Without End, Amen October 9, 2012
Photo credit: Al Jazeera

One of the disturbing legacies of the past two decades is that war has become something of a national pastime, a spectator sport in which the United States deploys its wealth and power, not to mention the bodies and futures of its soldiers, in order to establish the principle enunciated by neocon Brett Decker that “Evil advances when America isn’t feared or respected.” Neocon theorist Michael Ledeen once bluntly suggested the means by which such fear and/or respect is to be achieved: “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” That conviction was endorsed explicitly in the pages of National Review by neocon columnist Jonah Goldberg, who called himself an “admirer” of the “Ledeen Doctrine.” But Goldberg isn’t alone. Versions of the “Ledeen Doctrine” have been adopted and promoted by neocons of every stripe, and it is on florid display whenever one of them says something like Decker, above. “Fear” of and “respect” for America must be extracted at the point of a cruise missile or at the business end of an M1 Abrams tank.

If Mitt Romney is elected next month, the neocons will be back in a big way. Romney’s national security advisory team counts among its members a number of the most prominent neoconservative theorists and bureaucratic practitioners, including Eliot Cohen, Kim Holmes, Eric Edelman, Robert Kagan, Walid Phares, Dan Senor, and others. They, like Mitt Romney and his five strapping sons, share one thing in common: none of them ever bothered to wear the uniform of the United States, much less actually fight in any of its wars. They are “scholars” and bureaucrats (or missionaries and businessmen, in the case of the Romneys) for whom war is an abstraction and the lives of soldiers and civilians mere distractions from the grand vision they share. That vision is characterized five core convictions, as described by Colonel Andrew Bacevich (US Army, Ret.):

  • That American global dominance is a benign force for good;
  • That the unilateral exercise of American power is the only thing keeping the world from chaos;
  • That military force is the most efficient and effective means of asserting American power (or as Michael Ledeen put it, “peace in this world only follows victory in war”);
  • That the military power of the United States must therefore be continually, inexorably enhanced;
  • And that war should be the principal means of extending American universal values (“freedom,” “democracy”) to a world that desperately wants them, even if it doesn’t know yet, and even if it resents their imposition at gunpoint.

One can detect the influence of this messianic, militarist nationalism in yesterday’s foreign policy speech by Mitt Romney at the Virginia Military Institute, and especially when the GOP presidential candidate announced that “It  is the responsibility of our President to use America’s great power to shape history.” This statement was of a piece with Romney’s declaration to the VFW convention in July, when he said (bold mine):

I am not ashamed of American power. I take pride that throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair. I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced. I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever. And I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.

This sort of idolatry would be bad enough if it were not echoed by Catholic apologists for war and American empire, notably George Weigel, who in a recent column endorsing the exercise of American “hard power” wrote, “Americans are not imperialists by nature; yet history has thrust global responsibilities [read: empire] upon us. How shall we respond? From behind? Or from ahead?” I guess the one-word answer to the first of his rhetorical questions is: WAR! Contrast that view with that of Pope John Paul II, the subject of Weigel’s biography, Witness to Hope: “Pervading nationalism imposes its dominion on man today in many different forms and with an aggressiveness that spares no one. The challenge that is already with us is the temptation to accept as true freedom what in reality is only a new form of slavery.” And, “Humanity should question itself, once more, about the absurd and always unfair phenomenon of war, on whose stage of death and pain only remain standing the negotiating table that could and should have prevented it.” And, “Violence and arms can never resolve the problems of men.” And, “War is always a defeat for humanity.”

Lest anyone think that this post is some sort of back door endorsement of Barack Obama, think again. At least Romney and his cohort (not counting Weigel, who should know better) come by their convictions honestly. Prior to his inauguration in 2009, there were reasons to think that Barack Obama would think and act differently. But in truth his foreign and national security policies have been neoconservative to the core. Four years on and we’re still blowing up villagers in Pakistan (at least 447 and possibly as many as 880 since 2009). The drone war has widened under Obama to include Yemen and Somalia, and even US citizens abroad, who may now be assassinated without charge or trial.  And of course there was the misadventure in Libya, where the United States launched hundreds of cruise missiles and over 1,200 sorties of combat aircraft. The man who accepted a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, saying “War is justified only when certain conditions were met; if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence,” has become a global warrior at last. And given his radical expansion of the national security state at home – from warrantless wiretapping to indefinite detention to high-tech surveillance of the civilian population – Obama has to be considered one of the greatest enemies of American civil liberties ever. It is yet another reason why I can no more cast a vote for him than I can for Romney.

The differences between Romney and Obama when it comes to the exercise of American military power are negligible. I believe that if Obama is re-elected, Israel will be at war with Iran within six months, with strong American military and moral support. By contrast, I believe that if Romney is elected, the United States will be at war with Iran within six months, supported morally and militarily by Israel. What’s the difference, really? War is war, and the innocent dead or maimed don’t care about the finer points of military strategy. As the Holy Father said, “War is always a defeat for humanity.”

I’ll leave the last word to Chris Hedges, the author and former war correspondent for the New York Times. Unlike Romney, his progeny, Obama, most of the neocons “scholars” and bureacrats, all the chickenhawks on television and radio and the internet, and the vast majority of the American people, Hedges has actually seen war. Up close. Sunday night he gave a talk, sponsored by Veterans for Peace (of which I am proud to be a member), commemorating the 11th – 11th! – anniversary of the Afghan War.

Many of us who are here carry within us death. The smell of decayed and bloated corpses. The cries of the wounded. The shrieks of children. The sound of gunfire. The deafening blasts. The fear. The stench of cordite. The humiliation that comes when you surrender to terror and beg for life. The loss of comrades and friends. And then the aftermath. The long alienation. The numbness. The nightmares. The lack of sleep. The inability to connect to all living things, even to those we love the most. The regret. The repugnant lies mouthed around us about honor and heroism and glory. The absurdity. The waste. The futility.

It is only the maimed that finally know war. And we are the maimed. We are the broken and the lame. We ask for forgiveness. We seek redemption. We carry on our backs this awful cross of death, for the essence of war is death, and the weight of it digs into our shoulders and eats away at our souls. We drag it through life, up hills and down hills, along the roads, into the most intimate recesses of our lives. It never leaves us. Those who know us best know that there is something unspeakable and evil many of us harbor within us. This evil is intimate. It is personal. We do not speak its name. It is the evil of things done and things left undone. It is the evil of war.

We do not speak of war. War is captured only in the long, vacant stares, in the silences, in the trembling fingers, in the memories most of us keep buried deep within us, in the tears.

It is impossible to portray war. Narratives, even anti-war narratives, make the irrational rational. They make the incomprehensible comprehensible. They make the illogical logical. They make the despicable beautiful. All words and images, all discussions, all films, all evocations of war, good or bad, are an obscenity. There is nothing to say. There are only the scars and wounds. These we carry within us. These we cannot articulate. The horror. The horror.

War gives to its killers a God-like power to take life. And there are those here tonight that have felt and exercised that power. They turned other human beings into objects. And in that process of killing they became objects, machines, instruments of death, war’s victimizers and war’s victims. And they do not want to be machines again.

We wander through life with the deadness of war within us. There is no escape. There is no peace. We know an awful truth, an existential truth. War exposed the lies of patriotism and collective virtue of the nation that our churches, our schools, our press, our movies, our books, our government told us about ourselves, about who we were. And we see through these illusions. But those who speak this truth are cast out. Ghosts. Strangers in a strange land.

Who are our brothers and sisters? Who is our family? Whom have we become? We have become those whom we once despised and killed. We have become the enemy. Our mother is the mother grieving over her murdered child, and we murdered this child, in a mud-walled village of Afghanistan or a sand-filled cemetery in Fallujah. Our father is the father lying on a pallet in a hut, paralyzed by the blast from an iron fragmentation bomb. Our sister lives in poverty in a refugee camp outside Kabul, widowed, desperately poor, raising her children alone. Our brother, yes, our brother, is in the Taliban and the Iraqi insurgency and al-Qaida. And he has an automatic rifle. And he kills. And he is becoming us. War is always the same plague. It imparts the same deadly virus. It teaches us to deny another’s humanity, worth, being, and to kill and be killed.

There are days we wish we were whole. We wish we could put down this cross. We envy those who, in their innocence, believe in the innate goodness of America and the righteousness of war and celebrate what we know is despicable. And sometimes it makes us wish for death, for the peace of it. But we know too the awful truth, as James Baldwin wrote, that “people who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” And we would rather be maimed and broken and in pain than be a monster, and some of us, once, were monsters.

I cannot heal you. You will never be healed. I cannot take away your wounds, visible and invisible. I cannot promise that it will be better. I cannot impart to you the cheerful and childish optimism that is the curse of America. I can only tell you to stand up, to pick up your cross, to keep moving. I can only tell you that you must always defy the forces that eat away at you, at the nation—this plague of war.

Sometimes I feel like a motherless child?
A long ways from home
A long ways from home

Towering about us are banks and other financial institutions that profit from war. War, for some, is a business. And across this country lies a labyrinth of military industries that produce nothing but instruments of death. And some of us once served these forces. It is death we defy, not our own death, but the vast enterprise of death. The dark, primeval lusts for power and personal wealth, the hypermasculine language of war and patriotism, are used to justify the slaughter of the weak and the innocent and mock justice. … And we will not use these words of war.

We cannot flee from evil. Some of us have tried through drink and drugs and self-destructiveness. Evil is always with us. It is because we know evil, our own evil, that we do not let go, do not surrender. It is because we know evil that we resist. It is because we know violence that we are nonviolent. And we know that it is not about us; war taught us that. It is about the other, lying by the side of the road. It is about reaching down in defiance of creeds and oaths, in defiance of religion and nationality, and lifting our enemy up. All acts of healing and love—and the defiance of war is an affirmation of love—allow us to shout out to the vast powers of the universe that, however broken we are, we are not yet helpless, however much we despair we are not yet without hope, however weak we may feel, we will always, always, always resist. And it is in this act of resistance that we find our salvation.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Robert Martin

    This Anabaptist Mennonite appreciates this article…

    • Mark Gordon

      Thank you, Robert.

  • Jordan

    Excellent as usual, Mark. A certain +1.

    What you have not mentioned in your article is the notion held among not a few Americans that the United States is an “elect” or “exceptional” nation. What many (including myself) view as national aggression and even a post-imperial colonization, others view as the necessary role of the United States within temporal and even eschatological history.

    I am aware that the mutation of Calvinist thought known as “American exceptionalism” is present in some American evangelical Christian circles. I am less aware of the way in which LDS theology and ideology incorporates American nationalism. I faintly undertand that Mormons also believe in a connection between their vision of eschatology and American exceptionalism. Although Mitt Romney strikes me more as a party leader in the Westminster sense than as a presidential candidate with a strongly personal ideological drive, I do wonder if his faith impels him towards neoconservative stances similar to Bush the Younger.

    Catholicism has weathered the rise and fall of many empires. Perhaps we American Catholics, following after the wisdom of Pope John Paul II, have the unique mission to place Caesar in proper perspective for our fellow Americans and even fellow human beings of the world.

    • Mark Gordon

      Thanks, Jordan. I’ve dealt with “American exceptionalism” in a couple of past posts, including “The Fire This Time” and especially “Turning Around.” The one truly exceptional thing about the United States is our monotonous insistence that we are so exceptional.

  • Chris Sullivan

    I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known

    If meant literally, that’s pure idolatry. It is God, not the nation state or military power, which is the greatest force for good the world has ever known.

    God Bless

    • Julia Smucker

      That’s exactly what I’ve said before. Glad to see I’m not the only one saying it.

      Psalm 146 is a great antidote to idolatry and has helped me hold things in perspective in previous election years.

  • Rat-biter

    “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”

    ## If Ledeen really meant that, & if that ever becomes US foreign policy doctrine, the US will be no different from any other tyranny, not exceptional even in its arrogance and violence and pride. A dose of Isaiah 14 seems appropriate, for the lament in verses 12 following was directed against a world-tyrant, the ANE’s only super-power:

    http://esv.scripturetext.com/isaiah/14.htm

    Why can’t the US “mean business” by doing good instead ? Does Ledeen thingk the US was always 350,000,000 strong, and always a world power ? Without God it is dust and ashes, mere nothing.

  • I watched recently the first few minutes of a documentary called, “The World Without Us”, that basically makes the same arguments as those of the hawks cited. Their example was the NATO intervention in Balkans that supposedly stopped the slaughter in the 1990’s. Then they turned around and made the argument that lives were saved in this instance, and how many more lives could have been saved if the US had just gone into Rwanda and Sudan, for example. The question begging to be asked was, “Well, why didn’t they intervene?” Answer: Because we only intervene when it’s in our “best interest”, because we are an empire.

    Many honest religious thinkers who take the Book of the Apocalypse seriously and aren’t American state that if anyone is a good candidate for the Beast in John’s vision, it is the United States of America. No one wants to hear that, but wealth and power, contrary to North American beliefs to the contrary, are never, ever neutral. Almost without exception, they cannot be used for good, and they are always the result of ill-gotten riches. The United States, the richest and most powerful nation in history, cannot possibly be an exception. On the other hand, if we were to take the martyred Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría’s idea of a crucified people, that is, a people who suffer under the yoke of capitalism, war, and imperialism, and apply it to our situation, I would have to say that it is the ambition of our leadership (and not a few of their supporters) to continue to be a crucifying people. Better to nail others to the Cross of hunger, poverty, and death, than to be nailed to that Cross. Anyone who is remotely sympathetic to Christianity cannot be comfortable with that endeavor.

    • The USA isn’t the first Babylon, and it probably won’t be the last. Great article, Mark.

      • Mark Gordon

        Thanks, Nate.

  • Ronald King

    Mark, Thank you for posting this. I will respond to Chris Hedges’ statement. From 1986 to 1991 I had a contract to provide group and individual counseling services to Viet Nam veterans and their families. The pain of war was accompanied with many defenses to protect self and others from seeing and feeling the continuing internal struggle between innocence and horror/evil. This struggle is in my opinion proof that they have retained their innocence in spite of what they have experienced or have done. We are wired to experience the symptoms of violence because we are wired to love. These symptoms are signals communicating to us that we must endeavor to love more than we have ever known possible. We are wired to love as Christ loves and anything less makes us partners to the violence all around us. This violence is what prevents life from entering this world, or if life does enter this world then it likely becomes indoctrinated into the violence of interpersonal relationships built on competition in which self and others become either good or bad objects depending on how one responds to the potential threat of the other.
    If each of us would have the crystal clear awareness which Chris Hedges describes above we would join to end violence rather than chasing our tails around responding to each and every perceived threat to our mindless level of comfort and security within our faith and our social status.

    • Mark Gordon

      Thanks for your insight, Ronald.

  • @ Mark Gordon —

    Excellent, Mark. Thank you.

    • Mark Gordon

      Thanks, Robert.

  • Doc Fox

    Mark, this was powerful, and all too true. I posted the link on Facebook with a note that anyone who thinks war is glorious must read it, that anyone who wants to understand war better, should read it. And, Chris, I hear you, brother!

    • Mark Gordon

      Thanks, Doc.

  • Good stuff as usual Mark, thanks!

  • Great post Mark.

  • Lindsay

    This is a great post. I really appreciated you sharing Chris Hedges’ talk.
    I recently read a critique of President Obama that readers of this post might find interesting: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/why-i-refuse-to-vote-for-barack-obama/262861/