Last week I argued that Dwight Eisenhower had a constructed a kind of theology of war by imagining that the cold war had turned America into one large foxhole. And because there are no atheists in foxholes, all Americans needed to find faith to fight an ideological war to prevent a real one.
Toward a Theology of War–The Veteran
This week I want to explore the other side of the looking glass, where America is at war but very, very few Americans actually feel themselves hunkered down in a collective foxhole. The transition from the Ike’s era to our own is significant not because Ike was necessarily more honest about war, but because the relationship between the public and war had yet to become a “culture” rather than an event. We might consider this drift in the perception of war by looking at three statements: the first is a watershed essay in Neocon thought, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” from Robert Kagan and William Kristol; the second is a seminal essay on the “state” of the military by Thomas Ricks, in the July 1997 issue of the “Atlantic.” And the third is a very recent post at “Home Fires,” a blog sponsored by the New York Times. While each piece is different in its intent and two are from one era and the third from another, I see them in conversation with each other over the role war plays in moralizing American society.
In Kagan and Kristol’s essay–celebrated at the time as a call to arms against the Clinton administration’s foreign policy–the two Neocons put their charge succinctly: “The remobilization of America at home ultimately requires the remobilization of American foreign policy.” The combination that had moralized America in the cold war had flipped–by the late 1990s, according to Kagan and Kristol, foreign adventures would provide moral clarity for Americans thus reversing the logic that the public’s moral clarity about the nation would guide America’s missions abroad. “It is foolish to imagine,” they asserted, “that the United States can lead the world effectively while the overwhelming majority of the population neither understands nor is involved, in any real way, with its international mission.” K & K provided a new understanding of war–war would moralize the nation.
The high opinion of the military implicit in Kagan and Kristol’s argument corresponded with an attitude about the nation that Ricks found within the military. In an obvious nod to the culture wars, Ricks wrote, “There is widespread agreement that over the past few decades American society has become more fragmented, more individualistic, and less disciplined, with institutions such as church, family, and school wielding less influence. Whatever the implications of these changes, they put society at odds with the classic military values of sacrifice, unity, self-discipline, and considering the interests of the group before those of the individual.” In a statement that echoed other culture warriors, William S. Lind, a military analyst and resident intellectual for the Marine Corp, declared that given the state of his nation, “The next real war we fight is likely to be on American soil.” Ricks observed that Lind’s statement echoed the sense that many soldiers had of the great distance between themselves and civilians. The military had become latter day Puritans living out a jeremiad in the name of an abstract understanding of their nation and pitted against evil from within as well as without.
That was before September 11, Afghanistan and Iraq. The New York Times started running its Opinionator blog “Home Fires” in 2007 to provide reflections for “men and women who have returned from wartime service in the United States military.” The question that pervades the entries here is whether we can call this era “wartime” and what it means to return from military service. In a post entitled “On War and Redemption,” from Timothy Kudo, a Captain in the Marines who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kudo ruminates not so much about how he can’t relate to folks stateside, but how difficult it is to relate the experiences he’s had without sounding incomprehensibly evil.
“It’s not the sights, sounds, adrenaline and carnage of war that linger,” he writes. “It’s the morality. We did evil things, maybe necessary evil, but evil nonetheless.” What did he do? He contributed to the killing of two unarmed Afghan men on a motorcycle. Kudo recognized that this is war and the war creates destruction–including the ultimately senseless killing of civilians. He can’t justify this action or the totality of hundreds, perhaps thousands of similar actions to the people who suffer. As a few of my colleagues said about the previous post, while most Americans might not sacrifice in these current wars, there are plenty who do.
What has troubled Kudo in a way that I think approaches a theological grappling of war is the collective, systematic engagement with the moral implications of war. “Civilians can’t shoulder the responsibility for killing, but” he asserts, “the social contract demands they care for those who do. And this is the great disconnect in our society now, because that feeling of responsibility is still locked behind the fences of our military bases.” A responsibility for what, though? According to Kagan and Kristol and perhaps an earlier iteration of Kudo’s peers in the military, it was for that abstract moral understanding of America. Now? The war remains in actions committed in it but does the war gesture toward something greater–does it reveal the meaning for which it was fought?
Kudo doesn’t want war to moralize America or to provide moral clarity to his civilian peers. He seems to want something that exists beyond war–something postwar–but can’t imagine that such a place exists when so few have attempted to come to terms with war. He wonders what, if anything, he killed for. In the comments section on his post, many readers scolded him for thinking he could find redemption in war at all. And yet, his point, it seems to me, wasn’t to ask for clemency but to wonder if war can ever make apparent the morality of a cause. Kudo’s wonder strikes at the heart of an imagined covenant that makes war more than mechanized slaughter. His experience, though, disturbs the confidence that we, the civilians he ostensibly fought for, know what that covenant means.