U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Brokaw and Bourne

While watching the reports about the mid-term elections, there was one person I looked forward to seeing. Not Jim Lehrer, or Chris Matthews, or even John Stewart; no, I looked forward to Tom Brokaw. Why? Because I thought he might bring up one issue that seemed forgotten—war! In an op-ed in the New York Times on October 17, Brokaw thumped his point: “The United States is now in its ninth year of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the longest wars in American history. Almost 5,000 men and women have been killed. More than 30,000 have been wounded, some so gravely they’re returning home to become, effectively, wards of their families and communities.” On Tuesday night, while the likes of Michelle Bachmann chanted about taxes and…taxes, Brokaw took a moment to remind his colleagues of the “blood and treasure” squandered by the wars on terror. But in the midst of a yet another round of the culture wars, real war got lost.

By calling attention to war, we might hope to have a vigorous debate about its costs, too. In the question and answer period that followed James Kloppenberg’s talk on Barack Obama as a pragmatist, Jackson Lears pointedly critiqued Obama’s handling of the war on terror. While we might find reason to admire or, at least, be sympathetic to Obama’s handling of the economy, health care, and education, his handling of the war on terror has been, Kloppenberg noted, deeply distressful. This exchange suggested that Obama’s failure might indicate a deficiency in his pragmatic thought. Might it also suggest a hole in our intellectual history? In other words, if the battles against Obama in the mid-terms illuminate the cultural wars, what does this failure to contend with real war reveal?

I asked this question knowing that we have intellectual histories of the culture wars, for an incisive treatment of this subject see the work of my USIH colleague Andrew Hartman. The significance of the culture wars, as Andrew writes in a blog posted earlier this year, is the “multiplication of mini-grand narratives.” We are awash in ways to explain the purpose of our age, our nation, and ourselves. The culture wars might not be good for politics but they do raise fundamental questions about the identity of the nation—this fractured, contested identity. Except, it seems, when we go to war. We dismiss each other’s view about art but, according to polls, agree on the heroism of American troops; we war over who gets to interpret the history of the nation but have faith that the nation, even when it is at war, is essentially good; and we wield religious views like weapons but find it entirely appropriate for our political leaders, in a time of war, to lead us in prayer. But in a dangerous twist, where the culture wars force us to recognize differences in ideas, wars tend to blur those differences until we become like Michelle Bachmann—in a trance, mouthing slogans.

Given my configuration above, what we have is an era of “multiplying mini-grand narratives” that has developed and continues to develop alongside and in some cases in relation to a grand narrative of war. The latter has an intellectual history, too. And we might investigate the irony of that history through the concept of civil religion.

The touchstone for thinking about contemporary versions of American civil religion remains Robert Bellah’s 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America.” Reading Bellah in light of our recent wars, what struck me was not so much his defense of civil religion but the fact that civil religion seemed most relevant and apparent to Bellah in times of war. The heart of his argument relied on the significance of what he called “times of trial.” He concluded that the United States did not fight wars for higher ideals as much as find its ideals in the wars that it fought. In short, American civil religion was forged in war. Sacrifice in the war for independence made apparent a civil religious covenant among Americans. The Civil War incarnated that civil religion through a massive blood sacrifice (to summarize Harry Stout’s recent application of Bellah). World War II certified the promise of civil religion through heroic sacrifice on behalf of ideals embodied by the original American covenant.

The postwar period offered a new twist to the evolution of American civil religion. This was an era in which the notion that America was a force of good in the world went from functioning basically as an abstraction to a historical proof. Because the United States has been in an almost constant of war and because for the first time the abstract notion of the American promise had unprecedented American military power behind it, American civil religion grew exponentially more significant and more dangerous.

Bellah wrote his original essay in light of Vietnam, a war, he argued, that did not disprove the idea that the nation could still be a force for good in the world. Out of the depths of one of the most divisive periods in American history, Bellah offered one of the most attractive versions of American civil religion as a historical proof, arguing that “American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality.” In short, Americans not only had a common creed that unified them but they also had a tradition of using that creed to evaluate their nation’s actions. In parlance that became popular following World War II, the United States was a nation “under God,” meaning, as Bellah explained, “the will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong. There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged; it is possible that the people may be wrong. The president’s obligation extends to the higher criterion.”[1]

Bellah suggested a way to claim moral authority in a time of moral tragedy by making adjustments in light of that higher authority. However, Ben Alpers, another colleague of mine at USIH, reminds us in a recent post that Randolph Bourne’s admonition regarding war haunts us. Bourne’s critique of pragmatist support for war included things familiar to us today: the cost of war in treasure and blood; the misguided expectation of a “gallant” war; and the contradictory logic that if a “war is too strong for you to prevent, how is it going to be weak enough for you to control and mould to your liberal purposes?” But perhaps Bourne’s most incisive observation was his lament that pragmatists led by John Dewey believed they could calibrate the techniques of war to the advancement of democratic values. In other words, winning a war made it possible for a philosophy of the good to flourish.

Yet, as Bourne so succinctly put it: “war always undermines values.” Indeed, calibrating values to technique in a time of war invites tragedy. And Bourne’s insight is devastating given our current predicament. Contemporary America is dangerously well-equipped to experiment with technique and tragically uninterested in contending with the psychic damage war has on its values. While our planners fiddle with troop levels, drone attacks, and secret-ops, thousands of soldiers stand to lose their lives for a war of almost no consequence. And while our electorate consumed its politics like so much tea, the wars have consumed at bit more of the national soul. Bourne castigated the young intelligentsia of his day for its infatuation with the technocratic side of war; in organizing for war they had forgotten to give much attention to reasons for fighting it. As our conversation about the role of intellectual history continues, is there a way to theorize war as we have the culture wars? Is there way to answer the call of Randolph Bourne and, of course, Tom Brokaw?


[1] Robert Bellah, http://www.robertbellah.com/articles_5.htm.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray: This is a very interesting post, but I still wonder if your use of civil religion obscures as much as it reveals. I can’t tell, do you agree with Bellah, or disagree? And more particularly, wasn’t Bellah ultimately wrong about the 1960s? After all, he also says this in his original 1967 essay: “[T]he relation between religion and politics in America has been singularly smooth. . . . [T]he civil religion was able to build up without any bitter struggle.” That is, I think you will agree, a funny thing to say in the late 1960s and seems to me to be touched with nostalgia for a false past.

  2. I too was distressed at the way the wars have been forgotten in the midst of all of the political rancor of this election cycle. And I am intrigued by the idea of using the concept of civil religion to examine this – sidebar: I attended the session on civil religion (having just spent a week on civil religion in my Intellectual History class the week before).

    The way that our civil religion has beatified soldiers while ignoring or altering the meaning of the wars in which those soldiers served is problematic. Never has this been more true than during the current wars. How many justifications, how many meanings, how many crucial causes have been ascribed to the current wars? The wars used to be at the heart of the current culture wars, but the culture wars shifted away from the wars and over to the Tea Party. Is there an official Tea Party position on the wars by the way?

    So back to civil religion; can we gain a better understanding of how the wars have been used in our popular culture or in our political culture? Can civil religion help us understand the near total absence of the wars from our political discourse (for lack of a better word) in the most recent election cycle?

    On the one hand, I don’t see how civil religion can answer those questions. Was there any polling asking people about Obama’s handling of the wars and whether or not that effected their voting choices? Have any of the insurgent candidates articulated a unique position on the wars? If the wars are not on people’s minds in the voting booth; if the winning candidates are not talking about the wars; if the losing candidates are not being forced out because of their handling of the wars; if the media have seemingly forgotten about the wars; if the only narrative remaining from the wars is “soldiers are heroes and deserve our respect”; then perhaps this is not an issue that needs to be viewed through the lens of civil religion.

    On the other hand it is clear that since Obama’s election the culture wars have only gotten more intense, more divisive, while being less and less about the wars. Since civil religion is a useful framework for understanding the culture wars, perhaps this is the way back to understanding the absence of any real discussion of the wars.

    I realize I have done little to advance any point of view here but I am trying to work through all of this after a long morning of grading.

  3. Thanks for both comments. The intent behind using civil religion is threefold: first, in the postwar period, the idea becomes something tangible to discuss–from Herberg and Niebuhr to the present day, it is a intellectual construction with a history. Second, that intellectual history, to me, is bound up with the nation’s history of war–which is a constant state from 1945 to the present. Third, chronicling the intellectual history of the debate over civil religion (which goes beyond Bellah) also helps suggest an intellectual history of war by providing a way to discuss the moral imperatives often present when the nation goes to war, protests against war, and attempts to evaluate the effects of war.

    In another post, I want to float an idea that civil religion might be understood in two basic ways: as a historical proof, and as a historical game. Both constructions assume that there is a basic desire for the United States to be a good nation but the ways in which the agents of these different modes of civil religion clash in their attempts to realize this goal say a great deal about why Randolph Bourne’s admonition to beware of the power of war so often goes unheeded.

  4. A very interesting post, Ray!

    Just a quick thought (as I have to run off to a faculty meeting): Most of our recent elections have avoided appealing to differences among the public on issues of war and peace. The Democratic and Republican leaderships essentially agree about the Afghan War (and in so doing, disagree with the majority of the public who have no way to express their exhaustion and–fairly passive and uninterested–opposition). There was no anti-war vote to cast last Tuesday.

    Nor was there one in 2008. Obama’s past opposition to Iraq was symbolically important in his primary fight against Clinton, but in the general election, both he and McCain promised to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Again, there was no viable opportunity to electorally express anti-war sentiments.

    The last time either party nominated a dove for president was 1972. And really nobody has come close since.

    There most certainly is a very active politics of war and peace, both in terms of (often successful) attempts by politicians to exploit war-mindedness and in terms of non-electoral expressions of opposition (the pre-Iraq War anti-war movement was as gargantuan as it was ineffective). But you won’t find the politics of war and peace in our general elections. This, incidentally, is what bipartisanship looks like.

  5. Ben – I find your post interesting and would ask you what we are to make of use of candidates war records and how they are used in different elections? For example, Bill Clinton’s lack of service was crucially important in 1992 and 1996 (when the Republicans ran a veteran against him). But in 2000 and 2004 if Democrats tried to mention the veteran status of their candidates as opposed to the Republican candidate they were accused of bringing up old and unnecessary information. In fact, in 2004 the service record of the Democratic candidate became a detriment. In 2008 the Republican candidate tried to play up his status as a veteran and a POW but more as an argument of experience vs. inexperience.

    I would agree that within the past few elections war issues have faded as both parties have moved closer together on how to pursue war.

    But how do these altering and conflicting views on the military service of candidates fit in with this understanding of the politics of war and peace?

    I would assert that there is another level of understanding that has forced the parties together. Democrats (while they have presided over the nation in times of war just as often as Republicans if not more so in the past century) have been label the party that is soft on war issues and weak on defense. Republicans have been able to sell their party as the strong on defense party. As such, when a Democrat runs he or she needs to step up the tough-guy rhetoric but when a Republican runs the assumption is that he or she is tough so those candidates do not need to have an actual record.

    Much in the way that Nixon had such strong anti-communist credentials he was able to go to China and the USSR but LBJ was afraid that any drawn down in troop strength in Vietnam would be political suicide, today Democrats feel a need to show toughness and walk the fine line between claiming they were not for the war but they won’t just bring it to an end because it was horribly mismanaged and unethical from the start.

    This is why Bill Clinton is still referred to as a draft dodger (even by liberals who liked him and voted for him) but the laundry list of major figures in the Republican Party who never went to Vietnam (Bush, Gingrich, Romney, Rove, Rice, etc.) or who never served (Rand Paul, Sarah Palin, etc.) and it never had any effect on their political careers nor is it really ever an issue.

    Perhaps it is less that the parties just generally agree on the war but that the culture wars have hemmed in the liberal party.

  6. The issue of the military service of candidates–as well as their toughness/masculinity–is a very interesting one. The GOP has been tagging Democrats as weak, initially on Communism during (and actually immediately before) the Cold War, for decades. At times this accusation has actually been linked to a trope of Democrats getting us into wars due to their supposed inability to keep us prepared. Remember Bob Dole’s denouncing “Democrat wars” during the 1976 presidential campaign. At least for the immediate future, the idea that only Democrats get us into wars is pretty much dead.

    But the exaltation of the military and the preference for “projecting American power,” though sometimes found together, aren’t the same thing. Donald Rumsfeld was both an advocate of a leaner military (in ways that the military itself disliked) and of aggressive use of that military. And the most openly isolationist figures in recent US political life are conservatives like Pat Buchanan who both exalt the military and frequently rue the uses to which it’s put.

    Democrats nominated John Kerry in part because they saw his war record (and his vote for the Iraq War Resolution) as a defense against the Republicans running a campaign against him like that run against Michael Dukakis, another veteran in fact , whose masculinity was challenged by Lee Atwater’s masterful if brutal 1988 Bush campaign. The Swiftboat Veterans for Truth proved these 2004 Democratic hopes to be tragically mistaken. Another earlier example of this phenomenon was the 2002 Georgia Senate race, in which the toughness of the incumbent Democrat Max Cleland, a triple amputee Vietnam veteran, was successfully called into question.

    Democratic presidential nominees have generally done best in years in which military toughness is simply not much of an issue (as it wasn’t in 2008, much to the annoyance of John McCain, whose campaign was counting on being able to cash in on it).

    Of course this dynamic has also played out in internal Democratic debates, both in Congress and in primary elections, between doves and hawks, debates which, since 1972, have overwhelmingly been won by hawks.

    In fact, I think there are three connected political strands here: 1) a largely symbolic politics of a candidate’s “toughness” which is (loosely) connected to military service, but is also connected to a variety of culture-war issues; 2) beliefs about the proper use of the US military; 3) beliefs about the proper size of the military budget and the care and feeding of the military-industrial complex. The first maps a pretty clear partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans. The second divides both parties, with a slender majority of Democrats and a large majority of Republicans favoring a very active use of the military overseas. On the third, there is an overwhelming bipartisan consensus among our nation’s political elite.

  7. Dear Ray & Others,

    I offer some random thoughts since I’m not sure which way this discussion is tending:

    1. I am continually impressed with the way that civil religion appears to be an after-the-fact, pragmatic framework that is used for either explanation or coping. And this seems reinforced by these lines from Ray (restating Bellah) in the post: “The heart of his argument relied on the significance of what he called ‘times of trial.’ He concluded that the United States did not fight wars for higher ideals as much as find its ideals in the wars that it fought. In short, American civil religion was forged in war.” This seems like Pragmatism straight from Dewey: truth arising from the situation and dealt with by parties who observed the events together.

    2. It appears to me that civil religion as an explanatory construct has both intellectual and emotional components. I brought up patriotism at the panel as something under-explored in the papers presented (though I missed Wendy Ball’s presentation). This would go to the vague commonality brought up by Anon 9:01 above: “if the only narrative remaining from the wars is ‘soldiers are heroes and deserve our respect’;”…then what do we have? When we speak in the language of ‘heroes’ and ‘respect’, we’re talking about a war-time civil religion that primarily operates under variations in emotion.

    3. Perhaps there’s an intellectual and cultural history of civil religion to be phenomenologically built on act of viewing flag-draped caskets? The rituals of transport, arrival, and viewing could be examined for empirical proof of a common civil religion in existence today.

    I apologize again for my scattered contribution. But I see many threads in this post and the comments above.

    – TL

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