U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward a Theology of War–The Veteran

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.

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.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What exactly did Kagan and Kristol mean by “remobilization”? Were they actually advocating a more militaristic foreign policy, or simply one that was more interventionist than the posture adopted by Clinton during his presidency? There was a feeling throughout the ’90s that foreign policy wasn’t as important after the Cold War. I imagine Kagan and Kristol weren’t the only ones feeling a sense of drift in American foreign policy. And what did they have to say about those interventions Clinton did make, for example the Somalia debacle? This was the era when humanitarian intervention and nation-building entered the vocabulary. There was a prolonged debate about whether the US should get involved in things like that (e.g., Yugoslavia). What’s their take on that?

    In Kagan and Kristol’s essay–celebrated at the time as a call to arms against the Clinton administration’s foreign policy . . .”

    I suppose the question I’m asking is, How literal was that “call to arms”? Was it a call to start bombing the Russians, or was it more a sophisticated version of the stanard line that we can’t trust this pot-smoking draft dodger who can’t salute properly with responsibility for America’s foreign policy?

  2. “…American society has become more fragmented, more individualistic, and less disciplined, with institutions such as church, family, and school wielding less influence…”

    I believe that this quote by Ricks is the definition of American culture today. War and culture go hand-in-hand, and without a proper hold on communities, families and schools, America has became increasingly weak.

    Is the lack of support for America’s wars due to weak community structure? I don’t think so. I believe that the modern world has become so informed that individuals make decisions and choices based on what they understand to be the best for them. Nationalism is at an all time low in America. Americans are becoming disillusioned due to the lack of leadership during the wars we have pursued for the past decade. In order to build nationalism, America must build a better understanding of what we are fighting for. Moral clarity will work to activate a war, but is not used so well during the war.

    I would also agree with William S. Lind, when he stated that the next war America faces will be on our soil. I believe that with the lack of America’s support from its people, the next war will be brought to us because of our unwillingness to go to it…wherever it may be.

  3. Ray,

    that’s a compelling sequence of documents. i was struck by this:

    “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.””

    There’s of course a disconnect between a polity deciding to go to war, and the experience of individuals fighting that war. yet, i find something really troubling in the idea that, of course, civilians cannot shoulder responsibility, cannot even really *feel* responsibility, for what is done by soldiers in their name. you identify this, at least this line of questioning, with a theological perspective, i would suggest that it is really about a failure of politics–theology, or at least a religiosity of outlook, arises at least partly as a compensation for the absence of political options (by which i mean, the possibility of collective action).

    Kudo writes this, part of which i think you quote,

    “I joined the military when we were already long into this conflict. Aside from driving to San Francisco to protest the Iraq invasion, I quickly embraced the inevitability of these wars and relinquished their execution to the government. That was a terrible mistake. In 2006, as both wars raged and the Iraq conflict seemed doomed, I felt obligated to do something. I had no idea what I was committing to when I raised my right hand and took the oath. I realize that my decision was extreme, but it’s one I felt bound to. Only now do I understand the responsibility that military members bear, not only for the lives of others, but also for the consequences of their actions.”

    When did we begin to believe that joining the military is the right way to have an effect on (or, simply, an acceptable moral relationship to?) wars engaged in by one’s own country? i think it must have to do with the dissolution of the idea that we form a political community able to make meaningful decisions about how to direct the military, of the idea that the military is essentially a technical tool–one among many–at the disposal of the people in the form of the state.

    or, alternately, is it possible that this observation i’m trying to make is really a result of the gap between two texts written by well-established professional analysts describing macro-phenomena, and one text written by a veteran describing his own recent experience for a wide reading public?

  4. Ray (and Eric),

    I wonder to what extent the idea of “substitutionary atonement” is at play, not only in terms of the fact that soldiers serve in the stead of civilians, endure death and injury and trauma so that we don’t have to, but in the sense that we have arrived at a place where we allow our military and their families to do all our agonizing for us. The moral choices of war are individualized and meted out to the members of our all-volunteer military — their choosing or not choosing to re-enlist for a fourth or fifth or sixth tour of duty, and the personal and ethical and moral decisions that go into that choice are ones that the rest of us (think that we) don’t have to make.

    I was talking with my housemates last night about the duties and the role of military chaplains in combat — the idea that they do not carry and cannot use a weapon, no matter what’s going down around them. One of my housemates was incredulous that anybody would actually abide by these rules, and also bemused as to why such customs of combat even exist. I’m not a military historian and I haven’t done a lot of research into the cultural history of the armed forces. So I’d be interested in your commentary here. I’m guessing the idea of military chaplaincy has been treated extensively and well by historians — I don’t know the literature. But my off-the-cuff observation to my housemate was this: the chaplain’s “innocence” of the ways of combat is necessary. It is necessary for men (and women) who go into battle to kill or be killed to know that there is someone in their midst who is not willing to kill but who is willing to die.

    I wonder how it affects servicemembers to know that, by and large, the citizens in whose pay and in whose name they fight display not innocence so much as indifference. It is not that people have counted the cost, examined their consciences, and decided, “I can’t take on this burden,” but that they/we haven’t much thought about it at all. It’s not that American civilians can’t shoulder the moral work of sorting out the ethical implications of war and deciding what their duty or commitments may or may not be. It’s that civilians don’t seem to know that there is any moral or ethical burden to be borne in the first place. What soldiers do these days is not merely bear the burden of war, but bear the burden of thinking about it.

  5. Thanks to you all for your careful readings of this post.

    Varad: K & K wrote the essay in response to the culture wars as much as to foreign policy. I was struck by the inadequate attention they paid to actual foreign policy and the inordinate use of war-speak. Gary Dorrien is the one to read on this.

    Josh: Did the most recent wars help define what we might find worth fighting for? I am curious what you think we realized?

    Eric: The failure of politics in a time of war reminds me of the dozen or so books that have come out recently about the Civil War. Very few focus on politics; almost all of them speak to a theology of that conflict. Your observation is dead-on. As for your point regarding differences in perspective of the observers I quote, what struck me about all three was the way they considered the military in the abstract. I agree the military should be seen an arm of the civilian state, but what has happened since about the mid-1980s is the steady drift of the military to a realm that is quasi-religious. The military remains the most popular and trusted institution in national polls. Does that matter? I think it does, but I’m not sure what ideas have emerged to adequately describe it.

    LD: I have become very curious about how we talk about the military in general these days. I wonder if, like religion, we simply accept that we on the outside can’t really contest what is understood only by those on the inside of the military. And so I want to emphasize your last line because it gets to almost precisely what makes me want to write these days: as you said, soldiers also “bear the burden of thinking about” war.

    How do we think about war? How do we think about warriors, victims, chaplains, civilians, states involved in war? Shouldn’t we be doing a different kind of thinking than we are these days? It seems to me that it is not enough to condemn Bush, Jr. as naive or worse and then move on. I imagine Andrew and Tim might say something similar about the financial debacle. Perhaps there is an accounting that I have missed. I am curious about where one might sit to get insight that might strike us as original on our era of war.

    I don’t have an answer but will keep writing around one.

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