Mary Dudziak’s new work on war and time resonates with me. For those unfamiliar with Dudziak’s argument you can read about it in her new book “War Time” and in an excellent essay in the California Law Review entitled, “Law, War, and the History of Time,” (2010). In brief, Dudziak argues that while we have traditionally assumed that wartime is a time of “exception” (ala Giorgio Agamben), for at least the last ten years it seems wartime has replaced peacetime. As she writes in the law review essay: “Viewing war as an exception to normal life, however, leads us to ignore the longstanding persistence of war.”
Marking Time through War
I couldn’t agree more. In a book that I have just completed, entitled “God and War” (due out in July 2012), I noticed and attempted to play upon references to time in the debate over how war shaped different versions of an American civil religion. What follows is a brief review of some of the more interesting comments I found about time and war.
In my introduction, I found it important to deal briefly with Randolph Bourne’s warning that war was “the health of the state” because through war the state exercised its ultimate power to command sacrifice. What Bourne probably didn’t imagine was that his country would enter a period of almost perpetual war. And thus, as war became a constant presence in American society, it also became something more than the political barometer Bourne suggested. I argue that war grew from a moment to reckon with immediately following America’s atomic bombing of Japan (the photo above is from Hiroshima) to, in our time, a source of almost theological inspiration for the nation. Along the way, a variety of actors also considered how the idea of war had grown increasingly commonplace.
One of interesting debate emerged immediately after the end of World War II that questioned whether America was in a period that could accurately be considered “post” war. The folks who wanted to return to civilian life certainly thought so. Within ten months of the war ending in Europe, nearly 11 million men and women left the military. Yet, unlike in the time of war itself, in the postwar era the nation had to prevent attacks and rally Americans intellectually as much as economically and militarily. In other words, the postwar era required leaders to frame rhetorically the imperative to sacrifice in order to stave off another war–the use of war as a means of understanding time had not ended. Most Americans agreed that following the next world war there would be no need to name a new time of war–for that war would be the last.
If we jump to the president that perhaps did more than any other to incorporate war into American life we see an interesting tension. Dwight Eisenhower knew war intimately and believed that in order to stave of a real war, he needed to rally Americans through a rhetorical or, as I argue and others such as Will Inboden contend, a theological war. And so Ike made clear that America was in a time of war that demanded fealty to the national cause–he said in a public campaign called “Back to God,” “there are no atheists in foxholes…in a time of test and trial, we instinctively turn to God for new courage and peace of mind.” For Ike, the cold war made American into one large foxhole.
I argue that the nation remained in that foxhole for the rest of the cold war. Until, that is, Reagan’s near death experience. Others will contest this view, but I agree with John Diggins’s assessment that it was Reagan who first articulated that the cold war was over (or would soon be over) in a way that pushed a substantially different understanding of time in the postwar era. Obviously, Reagan used the cold war to support a brutal war in Latin America, but he also believed and seemed willing to act on perhaps his most famous and notorious statement: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” A radical notion of time if ever there was one.
While the cold war did end, the idea that war continued to shape American life continued. As an organizing force that gave meaning amidst an “age of fracture,” war became too impossible to imagine doing without. For Reagan’s successors, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, war defined their time in office–for both, the lack of the cold war seemingly haunted them and the persistence of real war punctuated their lackluster time in office with moments of heroic pronouncements.
But the reliance on war struck theologian Stanley Hauerwas as dangerous. During the first Gulf War and crystallizing in the second, Hauerwas developed a critique of war that got at the way it began to replace any other organizing principle in American life. Among his most searing statements to this effect was one he made in a debate with Richard John Neuhaus (founder of the journal “First Things”). Hauerwas declared: “War names the time we send the youth to kill and die (maybe) in an effort to assure ourselves the lives war lead are worthy of such sacrifices…War makes clear we must believe in something even if we are not sure what that something is, except that it has something to do with the ‘American way of life.'”
Does war have something to do with the American way of life? For Hauerwas, religious support of war meant that war, rather than Christology, replaced the central way to understanding meaning in “our time.” Interestingly, it was Eisenhower who in his farewell address suggested the dangers that Hauerwas pounced on. Ike ended his presidency as he began it, using prayer to convey his hopes for the nation. In his final prayer as president, he counseled Americans that they needed to become comfortable with a new understanding of time. He could not see a time that when the world would be truly postwar, nor did he believe he could hasten the postwar period by resorting to war. And so he asked for patience so that “in the goodness of time” a postwar period might be realized.
Are we beginning to imagine such a period as America draws down in Iraq and Afghanistan? And what will the absence of war do to our collective and therefore abstract understanding of the nation?
In the coming weeks, I hope to look at the theology of war in different guises and with different observers, from soldiers to professors.