143 War Against Terrorism

 One of the nation’s finest and most able scholars, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Professor of Social and political Ethics at The University of Chicago, provides helpful perspectives on our nation’s role in the Middle East in Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (New York:  Basic Books, c. 2003).  Prodded to write after America’s attack by Muslim terrorists, Elshtain defends President Bush’s response, especially when seen in the light of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 declaration of war against America, [entitled] “Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders (p. 3).  Unlike many naive folks in the West, bin Laden declares that the current conflict is at heart a religious struggle, a rekindling of a battle that has waxed and waned since Mohammed launched his conquests in 622 A.D. 

Summing up bin Laden’s agenda a Yale historian, Donald Kagan, has written:  “he and other terrorists have made it clear that the U.S. is ‘the great Satan,’ the enemy of all they hold dear.  And what these terrorists hold dear includes the establishment of an extreme and reactionary Muslim fundamentalism in all currently Muslim lands, at least which is a considerable portion of the globe.  Such a regime would impose a totalitarian theocracy that would subjugate the mass of people, especially women. . . .  No change of American policy, no retreat from the world, no repentance for past deeds or increase of national modesty can change these things.  Only the destruction of America and its way of life will do, and Osama bin Laden makes no bones about this” (p. 85). 

As a careful philosopher, Elshtain draws important distinctions between the terrorism of bin Laden  the just war tradition that has developed in Christian theology.   Islamic Jihad bears many of the marks of terror!   There is a striking similarity between the “reign of terror” orchestrated by the Jacobins in France in the 1790s and the policies of Moslem jihadists.  Elshtain grasped this when she attended a conference in Jerusalem in 1993 and heard a distinguished scholar, Bassam Tibi, explain that:  “[The] Western distinction between just and unjust wars linked to specific grounds for war is unknown in Islam.  Any war against unbelievers, whatever its immediate ground, is morally justified.  Only in this sense can one distinguish just and unjust wars in Islamic tradition.  When Muslims wage war for the dissemination of Islam, it is a just war. . . .  When non-Muslims attack Muslims, it is an unjust war.  The usual Western interpretation of jihad as a “just war” in the Western sense is, therefore, a misreading of this Islamic concept (emphasis mine)” (p. 131). Islamic jihad is simply a religious version of might-makes-right aggression.  Wars of conquest, waged to expand and install Islam, are just wars; terror tactics, so long as they advance the cause of Islam, are defensible.  The Muslim world is ever at war with the non-Muslim world.

The just war tradition, conversely, has ever sought to distinguish between moral and immoral conduct.  Given human sinfulness, there is a need for government, whose primary responsibility is to protect people.  Thus laws, judges, police, and soldiers are necessary to maintain order and punish evil-doers.  Early Christians, especially Augustine, accepted this and provided guidelines for Christians to follow in supporting the political order.  Elshtain rightly dismisses the historical errors of those who argue that the EarlyChurch was pacifist, indicating that the primary advocates of this position were theologians like Origin and Tertullian “who fell outside the Christian mainstream” (p. 51).  (In fact, soldiers were admired sufficiently to justify branding model Christians milites Christi, soldiers for Christ!)   “Jesus preached no doctrine of universal benevolence.  He showed anger and issued condemnations.  These dimensions of Christ’s life and words tend to be overlooked nowadays as Christian concentrate on God’s love rather than God’s justice.  That love is sometimes reduced to a diffuse benignity that is then enjoined on believers.  This kind of faith descends into sentimentalism fast” (p. 100). 

Following the admirably non-sentimental Augustine, Christian thinkers formulated the just war position, convinced that “To save the lives of others, it may be necessary to imperil and even take the lives of their tormenters” (p. 57).  Careful criteria were enumerated over the centuries and attained something of a consensus in virtually all branches of Christendom.  The late Reinhold Niebuhr, arguably the most influential American ethicist of the 20th century, was “hardheaded [in his] insistence that Christianity is not solely a religion of love” (p. 109), showing that love and justice ever work together in solid Christian ethics.

Thus, Elshtain wonders: “is the war against terrorism just?”  After examining the evidence, she responds:  yes it is!  There are, of course, thousands of Elshtain’s colleagues in the academy and pundits in the press who say no!  They resemble, she thinks, the “humanists” portrayed in Albert Camus’s novel The Plague.  Such folks refuse to judge things in terms of black and white–all is a fuzzy mixture of gray.  There are many sides to every question and every conclusion must be tentative.  Their talk, their terms, their preferences–but not discomfiting realities–define their world.  Consequently, they “are unwilling or unable to peer into the heart of darkness.  They have banished the word evil from their vocabularies.  Therefore, it cannot really exist.  Confronted by people who mean to kill them and to destroy their society, these well-meaning persons deny the enormity of what is going on” (pp. 1-2).  So, when Ronald Reagan called the U.S.S.R. an “evil empire” a chorus of criticism was unleashed against him.  When George Bush labeled Iraq, Iran, and North Korea “an axis of evil,” the same singers united in denouncing him. 

In fact, the mark of the modern academic is negativity!   Criticizing, finding fault, disagreeing with traditional views, earns one a seat in the faculty lounge.    As one experienced professor noted, “You don’t get tenure by praising American policy” (p. 88).  In most American universities, professors retain their anti-Vietnam War stance, ever questioning the legitimacy of the military and condemning America’s power in the world.  They seem trapped in a strange time-warp, unable to see the world apart from their youthful anger at the Vietnam engagement.  Thus you find professors alleging that America’s foreign policy is “fascist” and historian Mary Beard actually insisting that “the United States had it coming” when the terrorists attacked the nation on 9/11 (p. 93).         

Something of the same marks mainline churches.  In a chapter entitled “the pulpit responds to terror,” Elshtain demonstrates the degree to which American clergy share the leftism of the academy, for “a position best described as ‘pseudo’ or ‘crypto’ pacifism now dominates, certainly from our mainline pulpits”(p. 112).  Such preachers state the 9/11 devastation was less a murderous attack upon innocent people than a “wake-up call” for us Americans who need to examine ourselves and change our ways, to eliminate the “root causes” of terrorist anger.  A prominent evangelical, Tony Campolo (never one to allow historical ignorance to temper his rhetoric), as well as former President Bill Clinton, harked back to the Crusades, suggesting that Muslim terrorists were simply avenging the evils their ancestors suffered at the hands of Christian Crusaders.  Campolo and Clinton, of course, seemed often mute when confronted with the far greater numbers of Christians who have been slaughtered and enslaved as a result of Islamic Jihad!            Significantly, Albert Camus, in a 1948 statement, insisted that the “Christian has many obligations, and that the world today needs Christians who remain Christians.”  Camus professed that he did not share the Christian hope.  But he did share “the same revulsion from evil” (p. 123).  Elshtain clearly prefers the atheist Camus to the sentimental Christians, arguing that when confronting Terrorisism we must have the courage to both denounce and actively oppose it.   

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Immediately following September 11, 2001, one of the nation’s premier military historians, Victor Davis Hanson, wrote a series of articles that provided Americans historical and analytical insights with which to put things in perspective.  Those essays have been collected and published as An Autumn of War: What America Learned from September 11 And the War on Terrorism (New York: Anchor Books, c. 2002).   “At the very outset,” he says, “I was convinced that September 11 was a landmark event in American history, if not the most calamitous day in our nation’s 225 years” (p. xiii).  In response, “we must be retold that we war to remember the dead, to save the innocent, and to end the violence” (p. 12). 

We must understand the Muslim threat, which Hanson thinks is primarily a reaction against the West’s economic and military success in the Middle East.  Islamists hate Israel primarily because “Israelis have defeated Muslims on the battlefield repeatedly, decisively, at will, and without modesty” (p. 195).  Even more, the very existence of Israel illustrates “that it is a nation’s culture–not its geography or size or magnitude of its oil reserves–that determines its wealth or freedom” (p. 195).  Similarly, the United States, both as Israel’s ally and as the world’s foremost example of a successful modern society, incurs Muslim wrath.  “The Taliban, the mullahs of Iran, and other assorted fundamentalists despise the United States for its culture and envy it for its power” (p. 15).  We should have heeded early alarms, such as the PBS documentary, American Jihad, and intelligence reports that showed the rapid growth of terrorists rather openly operating in the United States during the 1990s.  Taking advantage of the freedoms–and frequently generosity–of their host country, they malignantly awaited opportunities to destroy her. 

Importantly, Hanson says, weakness–even the voluntary weakness of pacifism–never copes with the systemic hatred that fuels radical Muslims.  Long ago the Greeks decided that war, though often horrendous, was at times necessary to destroy evil powers and preserve civilization.  Today, if we understand the world, we must understand what we really are fighting for–”preserving Western civilization and its uniquely tolerant and human traditions of freedom, consensual government, disinterested inquiry, and religious and political tolerance” (p. 73).  Only military power can do this.  “It is an iron law of war that overwhelming military superiority, coupled with promises to the defeated of resurrection, defeats terrorists–in the past, now, always–whether they be zealots, dervishes, or Ghost dancers” (p. 155). 

But he wonders if we have the will to empower the military to do the same today.   Americans responded to Pearl Harbor, in 1941, with an anger and resolve that enabled them to support military action, despite horrendous battles, such as that at Okinawa, where kamikaze attacks destroyed 34 American ships and 12,000 servicemen died.  Folks at home wept, but they never marched in the streets demanding an end to the war.  Following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, however, many Americans seemed more fearful of offending Muslims’ feelings than responding with strength to their assault.

As was evident in Vietnam, “One of the first casualties of war is language” (p. 75).  This is often true of those who wage it, but it also distinguishes many of those how oppose it.  Hanson pointedly condemns those American university professors who posture and pontificate while undercutting their nation’s morale.  Having taught at FresnoStateUniversity for two decades, he anticipated that his colleagues would protest any military response to terrorism, such as the attack upon Afghanistan.  The ordinary working class people he knows (in addition to teaching Hanson farms his family farm) supported President Bush’s response.  But “nearly all of the opposition to our conduct in this war was expressed by professors and those in law, the media, government, and entertainment, who as a general rule lead lives rather different from those of most Americans” (p. xvii).  This elite tenth of the population, dominating “the media, the university, politics, foundations, churches, and the arts–is adamantly and vocally at odds with most Americans” (p. 92).  Anti-war protesters, marching in the streets and urged on by folks in classrooms and churches imagine “peace” comes through appeasement.  The courage of Churchill, the toughness of an earlier America, seems absent in too many sectors. 

Though some anti-war rhetoric appeals to an authentic Christian conscience, Hanson argues that it is secular, humanistic pacifists, including the “deviant offspring of the Enlightenment–Marxists and Freudians–[that] gave birth to even more pernicious social sciences that sought to ‘prove’ to us that war was always evil and therefore–with help from Ph.D.s–surely preventable” (p. 66).  Consequently:  “Pacifists shamed us into thinking that all wars were bad, relativism convinced us that we are no different from our enemies, conflict resolution and peace studies hectored us that there was no such thing as a moral armed struggle of good against evil” (p. 98), and the nation’s elite chattered about a principled policy of appeasement.

                Hanson reminds us of the intelligentsia’s penchant to distort the truth to serve its own ends.  Remember Vietnam!  American soldiers fought well, but the war was lost when the people lost the will to support it.  Yet the truth was rarely told.  “At the so-called bloodbath at Hue, the U.S. Marines lost 147, killed over 5,000 of the enemy, and freed the city in the worst street-fighting since the Korean War.  The siege of Khe Sahn was an enemy failure and resulted in 50 communist dead for each American lost.  In the horrific Tet offensive, a surprised American military inflicted 40,000 fatalities upon the attackers while losing fewer than 2,000” (p. 20).  Watching Walter Cronkite on CBS–or listening to Peter Arnett’s fabrications on CNN–in those years, however, one would never have guessed that Americans were prevailing in the struggle for Vietnam.                                                      

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Much that Victor Davis Hanson says in his essays grows out of his study of military history.  Carnage and Culture; Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (New York: Doubleday, c. 2001) illustrates the scholarship and analytical skill he brings to the discussion.  Importantly, as he admits, his “interests are in the military power, not the morality of the West” (p. xv), and there is little of the Christian concern for “just war” principles in the book.  He mainly argues that the citizen soldiers of the West, for a variety of sound reasons, have proved militarily superior to tribal warriors (such as Shanka Zulu), mercenaries (such as Hannibal’s corps), and despot’s conscripts (from Darius’ Persians to Japanese aviators).  “Warriors are not necessarily soldiers” (p. 446).

The famed Greek physician Hippocrates’ perceptive observation wears well:   “Now where men are not their own masters and independent, but are ruled by despots, they are not really militarily capable, but only appear to be warlike. . . .  For men’s souls are enslaved and they refuse to run risks readily and recklessly to increase the power of somebody else.  But independent people, taking risks on their own behalf and not on behalf of others, are willing and eager to go into danger, for they themselves enjoy the prize of victory.  So institutions contribute a great deal to military valor” (Airs, Waters, Places {16, 2}).

Hanson begins his book with an examination of the Greeks’ victory over the Persians at Salamis in 480 B.C.  The numerical odds certainly favored Xerxes’ forces, but one thing enabled the Greeks to prevail:  personal freedom, eleutheria, something unknown elsewhere in antiquity.  “No Greek citizen could be arbitrarily executed without a trial.  His property was not liable to confiscation except by vote of a council,” and to the Greek “the ability to hold property freely . . . was the foundation of freedom” (p. 36).  At Salamis, the Greeks were not merely resisting a despot’s designs, they were struggling to secure their most absolute moral values.  Free people, as Herodotus emphasized, “are better warriors, since they fight for themselves, their families and property, not for kings, aristocrats, or priests.  They accept a greater degree of discipline than either coerced or hired soldiers” (p. 47).  A century later Aristotle noted: “Infantrymen of the polis think it is a disgraceful thing to run away, and they choose death over safety through flight.  On the other hand, hired soldiers, who rely from the outset on superior strength, fell as soon as they find out they are outnumbered, fearing death more than dishonor” (Nichomachean Ethics {3.1116b16-23}). 

Thus began the West=s military tradition fully evident in republican Rome’s legions.  “The Roman republican army was not merely a machine.  Its real strength lay in the natural elan of the tough yeoman infantry of Italy, the hard-nosed rustics who voted in the local assemblies of the towns and demes of Italy and were every bit as ferocious as the more threatening-looking and larger Europeans to the north.  In the tradition of constitutional governance . . . the Romans had marshaled a nation of free citizens-in-arms” (p. 118).  In fact, the Romans transformed the Greek’s allegiance to the polis and developed “the concept of nation:  Romanness” that extended beyond the barriers of race and geography.  In time, Roman citizenship could be attained and enjoyed throughout the world by those who were willing to assent to and abide by its provisions.  As Hanson catalogues subsequent world-shaping battles at Poitiers, Tenochtitlan, Lepanto, and Midway, it becomes clear that a free people–and only the West granted such freedom–almost always prevails against totalitarian regimes.  Economic freedom, for example, provides the wealth that ultimately translates into superior weapons. 

The final chapter deals with the Vietnam war, with the Tet offensive as the focus.  Hanson demonstrates that the American military fought well and could have won the war.  But the media systematically distorted the truth concerning the war, exaggerating American atrocities and refusing to report far greater Viet Cong atrocities, manipulating the public to support an essentially socialistic agenda.  So too dissenters at home–Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, David Halstrom and Noam Chomsky–helped jaundice the nation concerning the war’s conduct and prospects.  These folks, of course, turned their backs on the millions who were liquidated by Communists when the U.S. withdrew from Southeast Asia in the 1970s. 

Broad in its scope, Carnage and Culture provides a thoughtful and readable overview of military history, certainly a significant segment of man’s past.