Writing High on War

In his unflinchingly honest book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, former New York Times correspondent Chris Hedges spoke of war as a drug—which he imbibed. He certainly looked happy in pictures of him taken during the wars in the former Yugoslavia that he covered for the Times, but that’s not the exact feeling he described. “I had a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning,” he explained to my friend and colleague Bob Abernethy in a June 2003 interview. “I had a sense of ennoblement. There is a rush in war. And it’s very hard, if not impossible, to re-create this feeling in anything else.”

War correspondents are well known for seeking that rush—although Anthony Shadid was wired differently. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist died a week ago after suffering an asthma attack while reporting on the conflict in Syria for the Times. (Yesterday two more journalists, an American working for The Sunday Times of London and a French photographer, died in shelling there by Syrian security forces.) Shadid did not like being called a “war” correspondent. “I don’t enjoy covering war,” he told an interviewer last year. But he did want to cover the Middle East, and he explained that when conflict becomes part of that story, “then I feel obligated to cover it.”

In one of the tributes following the tragedy, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post felt a need to point out that Shadid was “no adrenaline junkie.” The contrast with other battlefield scribes was implicit. Recounting times when Shadid (who died at 43) was shot and kidnapped while going after stories, Chandrasekaran added, “He did it because he wanted to know what was really happening. And that couldn’t be gleaned from a distance.”

Hedges’s book, on the other hand, is in part a chronicle of compulsion and exhilaration. His ultimate verdict on war has far less to do with glorification than with indictment, but as he described in the interview with Abernethy (adapted in a book that Bob and I did, The Life of Meaning):

In every conflict I’ve covered, you reach a point—and I think I reached this point certainly in El Salvador—where you feel that it’s better to live for one intoxicating, empowering moment than ever go back to the dull routine of ordinary life, and if your own death is the cost of that, then that’s a cost you’re willing to accept.

Almost inseparable from the addictiveness, in Hedges’s treatment, is the sense of meaning and purpose. He’s not just talking about war correspondents. He refers to the kind of meaning that soldiers find when they’re tested in battle, and that the civilian Serbs of Sarajevo found when they paraded in the streets at the outbreak of war against their ancient enemies, the Croats. On both sides in the Balkans, “people were ecstatic,” he recalled in the interview.

 A kind of euphoria often grips a country in wartime. And war is, of course, the very opposite of that. It is a bit like the beautiful nymph in the fairy tale that seduces you, and when you kiss it, it inhales the vapors of the underworld.

Just War = Good War?

Here’s where meaning drifts toward madness. And that is the fate of deadly force as portrayed also by some of the most compelling theological figures of the past few generations. Pope John Paul II, for example, was not known to wax meaningful about the ecstasies of war. He sounded more like a French existentialist when he spoke of war as “an adventure with no return,” and as always a “defeat for humanity.” John Paul’s was quite nearly a pacifist pontificate.

How far have these sentiments traveled from the classical Christian just-war theory? Not as far as they might seem.

St. Augustine, the architect of that intellectual tradition, believed that war could be morally justified under exceptional circumstances, but that doesn’t mean he believed in such a thing as a “good war,” as World War II has been called. Phillip Cary, a philosophy professor at Eastern University in Pennsylvania and an astute interpreter of Augustine, has thrown light on this fine distinction in his lectures and writings. Cary told me a few years ago that the post-9/11 rallying cry might be, “Fight in good conscience. The terrorists are the bad guys.” But he added that Augustine would say differently, “Fight in bad conscience. The terrorists are human beings and sinners just like you.”

It is a tragic and paradoxical place that war inhabits, in such a theological view—morally inescapable at times, but scarcely virtuous. …read more

The Exceptional American

In the United States, we the people cling to the idea that cherished values such as freedom and opportunity are somehow distinctively American. The accidental philosopher Yogi Berra expressed this sentiment beautifully in the late 1950s when he heard that the mayor of Dublin (as in Ireland, not Ohio) was Jewish. “Only in America!” he declared.

In many ways the role that religious faith plays in American politics is exceptional too. Unlike their counterparts in most Western democracies, American presidents continue to routinely invoke the deity in their addresses to the nation. Of course leaders of theocracies do the same, but the U.S. presidential invokers of faith also preside over a government that is religiously neutral. That is a rare juxtaposition.

In the American tradition, though, there’s an exception within the exceptionalism on this count. If you look at religiously tinged oratory by presidents at key times in our history, you’ll see that nearly all of them have tried, subtly or unsubtly, to cast their causes in the singular light of divine favor. All except, notably, Abraham Lincoln.

Instead of assuming the God-is-on-our-side posture, Lincoln proclaims in his Second Inaugural Address near the end of the Civil War, “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Instead of presuming to know the whole truth about the crisis at hand, Lincoln lays claim only to the partial truth that “God gives us to see …”

Lincoln is different.

God Talkers in Chief

I recently had occasion to dig through a well-chosen collection of ten major presidential speeches projecting religious themes, courtesy of Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and Boston College Magazine (which asked me to report on a student-led “God Talk” seminar sponsored by the center). The Boisi staff, including associate director Erik Owens and doctoral candidate in political science Brenna Strauss, selected the items, which are available here.

One set of those texts relates to the theme of “National Crisis and War” and features oratory by FDR, Reagan, Eisenhower, and George W. Bush in addition to Lincoln.

In one entry, Roosevelt delivers a radio message from the White House to a nation still somewhat unalarmed by the Nazi threat. It’s May 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. He warns that the Nazis worship no god other than Hitler and that our freedom of worship is at stake: “What place has religion which preaches the dignity of the human being, of the majesty of the human soul, in a world where moral standards are measured by treachery and bribery and Fifth Columnists? Will our children, too, wander off, goose-stepping in search of new gods?”

Similarly, primal religious emotions are painted on our struggles with foes in other commander-in-chief messages. These include Eisenhower’s First Inaugural Address in 1953 (he sees “the watchfulness of a Divine Providence” over America at the height of the Cold War), Reagan’s 1983 “Evil Empire” speech and Bush’s 2002 State of the Union, which introduced “Axis of Evil” into the lexicon.

Lincoln’s Ineffable God

And then there’s Lincoln, who was born 203 years ago on February 12. He’s the warrior-in-chief against the Confederacy, but there’s no Divine Providence watching preferentially over the Union, in his Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865), which is, as many have described, theologically intense. There’s no casting of political nets around God as Lincoln speaks of North and South:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

Lincoln holds out the possibility that North and South alike might continue to pay, and rightly so, for America’s original sin—slavery.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

He concludes:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln’s 703-word Second Inaugural is by far the oldest item in Boisi’s “National Crisis and War” packet, and yet, it’s the most modern in its outlook. Theologically, it is freighted with uncertainty, ambiguity, and a sense of moral tragedy (even our deepest convictions cannot capture the truth), but as he probes the divine nature with soberness and humility, Lincoln arrives at a clear-eyed affirmation of religious faith and American purpose. Yes, Lincoln is different. Lincoln is now. …read more

When So Little is at Stake

Recalling those who had reasons to resent, and didn't.

There’s no doubt that the cultural and ideological fissures in American politics have become more apparent in recent years with the election of Barack Obama, the rise of the Tea Party, and the pushback from Occupy Wall Street. Still, it’s tempting at times to look at our political leaders and say what is often said of academia—that the battles are so vicious because so little is at stake.

The Florida primary showcased a particularly nasty fight between two politicians who have little that separates them in policy substance: Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. They resent and resemble each other. For instance, both men supported health insurance mandates before they didn’t. And both of course have serious gripes with Obama (who, incidentally, adopted the originally Republican idea of insurance mandates as part of his healthcare reform package).

When aiming at Obama, the Romney-Gingrich fusillades can seem strangely out of proportion even to their obvious differences with him.

Take Romney’s claim that Obama wants to “turn America into a European-style entitlement society,” while he, Romney, would “ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.” The choice in November, if Romney finally carries the GOP flag, would actually be between two politicians who desperately want to position themselves as “reasonable centrists” in the general election, as John Harwood of the New York Times has pointed out. Put another way, the election would pit a Republican in favor of keeping the Bush tax cuts against a Democrat who would return to Clinton-era tax rates. That adds up to a difference of roughly four percentage points in the top marginal rate. It’s not what separates a socialist strongman from a friend of the free.

Gingrich’s clashes with Obama might be more profound ideologically. But could these possibly justify his assertion that he, Gingrich, honors the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence while Obama supports neither? As Speaker of the House during the ’90s, Gingrich did more than any other political figure to envenom the public discourse. He helped make it safe for politicians to habitually attack the decency and good faith of their adversaries.

No small amount of that incendiary rhetoric has rubbed off on the left. Many liberals have lapsed into the habit of condemning Republican “lies.” Very often, these alleged prevarications are really just matters of opinion, like the GOP claim that the rich already pay too much in taxes. To call them lies is itself a distortion.

When Things were Rotten

Plainly, there’s a lot to fight over in 2012. But there was far more at stake a half-century ago when Martin Luther King and the civil rights marchers, walkers, and sitters showed another way of relating to the opposition. You might say they had some serious differences with the segregationists. They were living in what was, for African Americans, a state of terror in the Deep South. But they steered a way to mutual understanding even as they took to the streets.

During the movement’s early years, King went to such lengths as to answer his hate mail respectfully—thanking his correspondents for writing, and proceeding to reasonably state his differences with these unreasonable points of view. (There was less time for that as the freedom campaigns intensified and the hate writers became more prolific.) During the few times he lost his cool with a segregationist or, some years later, with a supporter of the Vietnam War, King would reproach himself for hours, as his biographers (including Stephen Oates) have described. And then he’d pick up a phone and apologize.

Unlike today when political dialogue is often clogged with conversation stoppers like “lies” and “dishonesty,” King and his supporters found ways to keep the conversation going. They engaged in rational argument, as King did in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (in which he asked his white-clergy critics to forgive him “if I have said anything that overstates the truth,” and begged God to forgive him if he had understated the truth). He tried to open channels of discussion because of his belief that hearts could change, but also because, as a trained theologian, he could “see that some truth, however minuscule … may exist in quite opposite ideas and viewpoints,” as the social ethicist Rufus Burrow Jr. has noted.

In other words, everyone has a piece of the truth—not the most likely message of a Super PAC ad.

Yes, King denounced and confronted: history told him that oppressed people seldom gain their freedom by dropping hints. But he and his fellow campaigners made it clear enough that the prize they eyed was not just their own freedom. It was friendship and community with white America, what King often referred to, in rich theological tones, as “the beloved community.”

During this Black History Month, it’s worth recalling how civil rights activists often spoke large-heartedly about people who set off bombs in their churches or tacitly condoned the terror. It shouldn’t be too hard to practice a similar forbearance today with political rivals who would like to raise (or lower) taxes by a few percentage points. …read more

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