Chronicles of an Unjust War

by James Carroll



Chronicles of an Unjust War

by James Carroll

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We’re at war,” President George W. Bush said in Sarasota, Florida, on the morning of September 11, 2001. He said the words aloud, but he was speaking, in effect, to himself, as he first watched the television replay of the World Trade Center towers being hit by jet airliners. A primal response. Instant. And shaping. After watching the replay, the president began to move. His handlers told him he was himself a prime target of that war, and so Bush allowed himself to be shuttled from Florida to an air force base in Louisiana, and then to the supersecure headquarters of the Strategic Air Command in Nebraska. Soon enough, the president’s main emotion on this day would turn to shame, when he realized how this rush to a safe hole contrasted with the ordinary heroism of thousands in New York, Washington, and in the skies over Pennsylvania. When Bush finally emerged to address the American public, transforming his humiliation into rage, he formally defined the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as “acts of war.” To other nations he said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” At the wounded Pentagon, the president told a somber gathering of military officials that he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.”

On September 14, the president started the day at a prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington. The ritual was defined as ecumenical, with a Muslim presence, but the overwhelmingly Christian iconography of the cathedral—television cameras lingered on an especially literal rendition of the crucifixion—conveyed another impression entirely. The service was an expression of national grief, but it seemed equally an epiphany of martial will. As simply as that, images of Christian religion were starkly joined to America’s new purpose.

From the cathedral, Bush went straight to the World Trade Center site in New York. Standing atop the rubble, before a spread of American flags, the president declared, “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon.” On that same day, the U.S. Senate voted 98-0 and the House of Representatives voted 420-1 (with California’s Barbara Lee the lone dissenter) to give President Bush unlimited authority to use force against America’s enemies as he saw fit. National polls put the percentage of Americans in favor of “a major military campaign” at 90 percent. No one said whom the campaign should be waged against. In three days, the Bush war was begun, blessed by religion, affirmed by pundits, and authorized by Congress, although the war was yet to be defined.

Law Not War

September 15, 2001

How we love our country! For days now, we Americans, while mourning and shuddering, have felt the accumulating weight of our patriotic devotion. We are joined in the shocking recognition of what a rare and precious treasure is the United States of America. Our nation’s sudden vulnerability makes us shrug off, just as suddenly, the habit of taking for granted its nobility. We see it in the throat-choking empty place of the New York skyline, and in the gaping wound of the building beside Arlington Cemetery. We see it in the grimy faces of the resolute rescue workers, and in the implication that doomed airline passengers fought back against hijackers. We see it in the splendid diversity of our features, our accents, our beliefs, our responses even. Never has the national motto seemed more true: out of many, one.

But so far our main expression of this intense patriotism has been oddly in tension with its inner meaning, for the thing we treasure above all about America at this moment is the way it measures its hope by principles of democracy, tolerance, law, respect for the other, and even social compassion. Our supreme patriotic gesture in this crisis has been a nearly universal call for war, and indeed the growing sentiment for war, fueled by the rhetoric of our highest leaders, may soon be embodied in a formal congressional declaration of war. Before we go much farther, we should think carefully about why we are heading down this path, and where it is likely to lead. Do the rhetoric of war and the actions it already sets in motion really serve the urgent purpose of stopping terrorism? And is the launching of war really the only way to demonstrate our love for America?

Before going any farther, let me state the obvious. The nearly worldwide consensus that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington must be met with force is entirely correct. The network of suicidal mass murderers, however large and wherever hidden, must be eliminated. But force can be exercised decisively and overwhelmingly in another context than that of “war.” One of the great advances in civilization occurred when human beings found a way to channel necessary violence away from “war” and toward a new, counterbalancing context embodied in the idea of “law.” The distinction may seem too fine to be relevant in the aftermath of this catastrophe, but it is after catastrophe that the distinction matters most. The difference between “war” and “law” is not the use of force. The United States of America, with its world allies, should be embarked not on a war but on an unprecedented, swift, sure, and massive campaign of law enforcement. As the term law enforcement implies, the proper use of force would be of the essence of this campaign.

Why does this distinction matter? Four reasons:

  • War, by definition, is an activity undertaken against a political or social entity, while the terrorist network responsible for this catastrophe, from all reports, is a coalition of individuals, perhaps a large one. Law enforcement, by definition, is an activity undertaken against just such individuals or networks. By clothing our response to the terrorist acts in the rhetoric of war, we make it far more likely that members of groups associated by extrinsic factors with the perpetrators (Arabs, Muslims, Afghans, Pakistanis, etc.) will suffer terrible consequences, from being bombed in Kabul to being discriminated against in Boston. Furthermore, the rhetoric of war, as it falls on the ears of such people (a billion Muslims), makes it all the more likely that they will only see America as their enemy.
  • War, by definition, is relatively imprecise. Steps can be taken to limit “collateral damage,” but the method of war, in fact, is to bring pressure to bear against a hostile power structure by inflicting suffering on the society of which it is part. History shows that once wars begin, violence becomes general. As President Bush threatened, no distinctions are made. In law enforcement, by contrast, distinctions remain of the essence. Law enforcement submits to disciplines that are jettisoned in war. Do we really have the right to jettison such disciplines now?
  • War, similarly, is less concerned with procedure than with result; or, more plainly, in war the ends justify the means. In law enforcement, the end remains embodied in the means, which is why procedures are so scrupulously observed in criminal justice activity. To respond to a terrorist’s grievous violation of the social order with further violations of that order means the terrorist has won.
  • War inevitably generates its own momentum, which has a way of inhumanely overwhelming the humane purposes for which the war is begun in the first place. In the death-ground of combat violence, self-criticism can seem like fatal self-doubt, and so the savage momentum of war is rarely recognized as such until too late. The rule of unintended consequences universally applies in war. Law enforcement, on the other hand, with its system of checks and balances between police and courts, is inevitably self-critical. The moral link between act and consequence is far more likely to be protected.

What does “winning” a war against terrorism mean? How has hatred of America become a source of meaning for vast numbers whose poverty already amounts to a state of war? Must a massive campaign of unleashed violence become America’s new source of meaning, too? The World Trade Center was a symbol of the social, economic, and political hope Americans treasure, a hope embodied above all in law. To win the struggle against terrorism means inspiring that same hope in the hearts of all who do not have it. How we respond to this catastrophe will define our patriotism, shape the century, and memorialize our beloved dead.

The Pentagon Mourning

September 18, 2001

On January 22, 1943, the day I was born, the new War Department headquarters in Arlington formally opened. That the Pentagon and I share this anniversary came to seem a defining symbol of my life when, as the son of an air force officer who spent most of his career working in what insiders call “the Building,” I became intimately attached to the Pentagon. Erected on a site formerly known as Hell’s Bottom, the Pentagon replaced Washington’s original airport, Hoover Field, which, to make room for the massive new structure, was moved downriver and renamed National Airport. That detail of a lost history seems ghostly now, a week after a hijacked airplane retraced an ancient approach to make its deadly landing, killing many and plunging the rest of us in grief for the dead, and grief, even, for the Building.

It is not too much to say that, as a child going there after school to meet my father, I fell in love with his monumental place of work. Indeed, it became a kind of living monument to my love for him. Its corridors were a playground; its retail concourse a first shopping mall. Its uniformed men and women were my first idols. In those innocent days, no security guard hindered my explorations, although once or twice I was whistled down for sliding in my stocking feet on the broad ramps. As an invisible boy free to wander through hedges of battle flags and portraits of heroes hung on walls the color of robins’ eggs, I knew I could get lost in the maze, but I never did. And anyway, Dad would always find me.

And then, as a young man opposed to the war in Vietnam, it is not too much to say that I hated the Pentagon for a time, knowing too little. The antiwar demonstrations that took place there were, for me and many others, rites of passage into a different sort of patriotism. Yet unlike most of my fellow protesters, I was never able to see the Pentagon as simply evil, “the charnel house,” as some called it. Later I would understand that resistance to the escalations of Vietnam was going on as much inside the Building as outside—including objections by my father of which I knew nothing at the time. The war came between me and my father, a chasm we never bridged. So it is not surprising that, for many years afterward, I cultivated a careful indifference to the place.

Then, a few years ago, writing an article for the New Yorker, I spent some days rediscovering the Building and its complexities: the article was called “War Inside the Pentagon.” Interviewing one senior official, I felt a sudden chill on my neck and realized I was in my father’s old office, the exact room forty years later. In the corridor after that interview I was ambushed by feeling for the first dream I’d had of America. The dignity with which the Building stood guard over Washington from its position between the river and the cemetery had made it seem the very tabernacle of our nation’s virtue. In my young, untested mind the place had seemed holy.

Despite my decades-long disavowal of the god it worships, what I discovered last Tuesday, with so many others, is that the Pentagon forever occupies a cherished place in my heart. In my case, it is indeed as if the Building and I are twins, each carrying like marks of the moral complexity inherent in human life. The Pentagon was home to heroes of the struggle against Nazism and Stalinism, and to critics of the Vietnam War from within. Yet the Pentagon is shadowed by the dark history of our era, too. Vietnam, after all, remains a festering scar. Perhaps nothing defines the shadow better than the fact that the man who oversaw the Building’s construction, Brigadier General Leslie Groves, promptly moved on to oversee a next massive project—the Manhattan Project—which set in motion consequences that still spark the nightmares of the globe. The Manhattan Project’s very name resonates this week of the Manhattan attacks in ways we could never have imagined.

President Bush has defined the nation’s struggle as between good and evil, understandably. The murders of a week ago were nothing if not diabolical. Yet there is wisdom to be claimed from the life span of the Pentagon, for in these decades assumptions of absolute American virtue have been stripped from us, the way life strips every person of youth. At a certain point, we stop looking for our dads. We know that when moral complexity yields to a Manichaean vision dividing the world between angels and devils, it is human beings who get caught in the middle. As we grieve for the people who died at the Pentagon, let us also honor them by carrying our struggle forward not only with the courage for which the Building stands, but with the humility that its history requires of us.

This Crusade, This War

September 24, 2001

When President Bush used the term crusade last week, his spokespeople quickly disavowed it, and with good reason. But far from being a long-ago history that we can blithely abjure, the Crusades created a state of consciousness that still shapes the mind of the West, and if Americans don’t know that, many Muslims do. We should take the president’s inadvertent remark as an occasion to think about that.

Scholars count seven or eight Crusades as having taken place in the two-hundred-year period between 1096 and 1291. They were wars waged against Islam for control of what Christians called the Holy Land, but they also involved fierce conflict between Latins and Orthodox, and ultimately within Latin Christendom itself. It is not only that the savagery of these wars remains unforgotten in vast stretches of the world today, but also that the lines they drew remain contested borders even now—as the Balkans wars of the 1990s reveal. There are at least four key pillars of the Western mind that the Crusades put in place.

  • The Crusades were the first time that violence was defined by the church as a sacred act. “God wills it!” was the battle cry with which Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade in 1095. Anyone “taking the cross” to fight the infidel was offered indulgences, and, if killed, assured a place in heaven. The energy for war came from the conviction that, as President Bush put it in his address to Congress, “God is not neutral.” Crusaders go to war certain of God’s blessing.
  • The crusading mind divides the world between Us and Them. Indeed, the Crusades were a deliberate effort to get Europe’s princes to stop making war against each other in favor of war against an enemy outside, and it worked. The Crusades established a binding ideological consensus among Christians that led ultimately to unifying structures of politics and culture. Indeed, Europe did not become “Europe” until it defined itself against Islam, and that negation remains embedded in the West’s self-understanding today.
  • But a mobilization against an enemy outside inevitably led to a paranoid fear of enemies within. Anyone not participating in the new consensus was instantly in danger. The war against Islam abroad became a war against dissent at home. That is why “schismatics,” or Orthodox Christians, and Albigensian heretics were soon targets of Crusades, too.
  • But the ultimate enemy within, of course, was the Jew. The movement from the religious anti-Judaism of the early church toward the lethal antisemitism of modernity took its most decisive turn with the First Crusade, which was the occasion, in the Rhineland in the spring of 1096, of the first large-scale pogrom in Europe’s history. Church leaders repudiated violence against Jews in subsequent Crusades, but without ever repudiating the underlying theological assumptions that made it inevitable. Leaders today decry a generalized hatred of Muslims, but the character of their war against terrorism may make it inevitable.

Here are the questions this history puts to us:

  • Can we respond to this crisis without once more dividing the world between “us and them”? Is it wise, for example, for America to insist on a global choosing of sides, what Islam can hear as the same old call to arms? Can we not more subtly enlist the support of those caught in the middle, like Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf or other Arab leaders, without igniting their populations against them?
  • Must we define this conflict in the cosmic—and self-justifying— language of good versus evil? As is true of every human conflict, this one is morally ambiguous. There was no ambiguity about the evil of the September 11 assaults, but they arose out of a complicated set of prior conditions, some of which involve our own moral culpability. America must act in this crisis with the full knowledge of its own capacity for deadly mistakes and evil acts. America must not define dissent as disloyalty.
  • Is war our only possible response to this crisis? In addition to bringing terrorists to justice, wouldn’t we do well right now to initiate a massive, simultaneous effort to address the ultimate source of terrorism—the radical impoverishment of millions of people, especially in the Arab world, especially in the West Bank and Gaza? Can more come from America than cruise missiles and MTV?

The only way “this crusade, this war on terrorism,” in the president’s phrase, will not be a replay of past crimes and tragedies is if we repudiate not just the word crusade but the mind of the crusader. We can start by acknowledging, above all, that when humans go to war, God in no way wills it.

Gandhi’s Birthday

October 2, 2001

When Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, a self-appointed spokesman for the West, asserted last week the “superiority of our civilization,” one wonders what Mahatma Gandhi would have made of it. The question arises because today is Gandhi’s birthday. What is to be learned from a consideration of the present crisis in the light of the Indian national leader’s life and teaching?

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was born in India to a family of the merchant class in 1869. As a young man, he studied law in London and set out to practice in Durban, South Africa. His twenty years in South Africa were shaped by the struggle against that country’s racist structures. In his memoir, Gandhi gives the date of his conversion to nonviolent political resistance at a protest meeting in Johannesburg: the year was 1906, and the day was September 11.

Returning to India, Gandhi became part of the Home Rule movement, which, over the decades, developed into a full-fledged independence movement of which he became the main leader. Following strategies of noncooperation and civil disobedience, the movement grew. One of its great climaxes, in 1930, was the March to the Sea, where thousands gathered to make their own salt as a protest against a government tax on salt. Time in British prisons, rigorous public fasts, an extreme asceticism, and the discovery in his own Hindu religious tradition of spiritual resources that undergirded the great political struggle—these were marks of Gandhi’s life. He opposed not only British colonialism but also the Indian caste system; not only the raj but also the oppressions of India’s own petty tyrants. His followers bestowed on him the honorific “Mahatma,” or “Great Soul.” In 1947 the independence of India was achieved, but the conflict was not over. Muslim and Hindu factions were set against each other, a split that would lead to the establishment of two separate countries, Pakistan and India. Gandhi opposed the split. In early 1948, he undertook a public fast for the ideal of Muslim-Hindu amity. Within days, he was assassinated by an extremist from his own Hindu tradition.

Gandhian pacificism is admired in the abstract today, but in practice it is widely dismissed as too idealistic, and even as morally irresponsible. Gandhian pacifism is misunderstood as a refusal to resist evil or oppose violence, when, in fact, it spawned some of the most powerful acts of resistance of the twentieth century. Indeed Gandhian nonviolence proved to be an unstoppable force that led to political transformations around the globe, from the United States (Martin Luther King Jr.), to Ireland (John Hume), to the Philippines (Corazon Aquino), to the Soviet Union (Lech Walesa). The movement that recognized Gandhi as a founding hero was the greatest moral event of the century and, equally, one of the most politically effective.

To observe Gandhi’s birthday today, in the light of heightened dangers from terrorism, the prospect of conflict between the West and Islam, and the particular nightmare represented by nuclear weapons on the subcontinent, is to recall how very much was unfinished when Gandhi died. After all, a terrorist murdered Gandhi, Gandhi’s hope for Hindu peace with Islam failed, and his successors embarked on India’s own nuclear weapons program. But none of that removes the great insight that Gandhi brought to the world (and that I recall with help from the authors John S. Dunne, Martin Green, Sissela Bok, Taylor Branch, and Jonathan Schell). Beginning with a sentimental embrace of “love,” as found in Tolstoy’s reading of Jesus, and moving to an appreciation, in Thoreau, of civil disobedience, Gandhi invented a new notion of a nonviolent but coercive resistance. Conceived by a figure who crossed over from one culture to another and back, his idea is innately respectful of religious and cultural differences—unlike, say, Berlusconi’s. Quite simply, Gandhi relied on what he called satyagraha, or truth-force. The truth will set you free. Gandhi’s lifelong strategy was to bring about moments of epiphany when wide populations might come to decisive political and moral recognitions. Acts of resistance that lay bare the real character of evil, Gandhi taught, will lead to broad rejection of that evil. The history of the movements named above suggests that this is anything but the platitudinous meekness derided by those who prefer war.

The events of September 11 were the dead opposite of satyagraha, but they were a world-historic moment of truth, a profound laying bare of the evil of global terrorism. More than that, the savage assault against thousands of innocent civilians amounted to an epiphany in which the real meaning of anticivilian violence could be seen with rare clarity. At last, war against civilians, the main mode of war for half a century, is seen for what it is. The American response must enshrine both of these epiphanies—by resisting terrorism, but without an indiscriminate war. Mahatma Gandhi’s faith in the power of truth, and in the readiness of human beings to change when faced with truth, has never been a more vivid image of hope.

Religion: Problem or Solution?

October 9, 2001

Politicians and commentators are going to great lengths to affirm the religion of Muslims, rejecting the terrorists’ claim that the heinous crime of September 11 was an act of Islamic devotion. That is as it should be. Islam is a noble religion that emphasizes “surrender” to God and compassionate love for the neighbor. It is a source of meaning for millions, and, as the commentary insists, all but the smallest fraction of those millions reject violence and the savagery of terrorists. Islamic religious leaders have been forthright in condemning the murderous assaults against America. But something is lost in the well-intentioned assertion that Islam is a pure religion entirely unrelated to evil acts committed in its name. With so much violence being inflicted in the name of God by religionists of various kinds around the globe, an old question presents itself, and not just about Islam: is religion the solution, or is it the problem? Or is it both?

Britain’s prime minister Tony Blair said last week that the terrorist attacks were no more a reflection of true Islam than the Crusades were of the Gospels. Fair enough. But the comparison is instructive. Latin Christians would like to be able to say that the rampaging fanatics who, to cite only one instance, assaulted Jerusalem in 1099 were acting in ways that had nothing to do with Christian belief or practice, but in fact—and this is what makes the Crusades so chilling—that holy war was integrally tied to theology (violence of God), liturgy (the sign of the cross), and authority (Crusader popes). Today, we like to think of religion as one of those purely positive aspects of life, and we are quick to dismiss negative acts or attitudes spawned by religion as not “really” religious. The Vatican does this in asserting that the Catholic Church is entirely sinless, which means the crimes of the church (Crusades, Inquisition, etc.) were committed by “sinful members,” never by the church “as such.” Religion is good. If religion prompts bad behavior, it is not “real” religion.

But this way of thinking lets religion off the hook. It means we can deplore the “sins” of sinful members without asking hard questions about where those sins came from. To stay with the Christian example, were the endless acts of Christian antisemitism aberrations, or were they tied somehow to anti-Jewish texts in the New Testament, or to the fundamental way Christianity defined itself over against Judaism, and so on? If antisemitism was an aberration, an apology for acts of “sinful members” is enough. If antisemitism grew out of core beliefs and practices, apology is not enough. Core beliefs and practices would have to change. If crimes committed in the name of religion can be easily separated from religion “as such,” a full understanding of those crimes, and a way to resist them at the source, may elude us.

Obviously, I am talking here about all religions. It is misleading and unproductive to think of religion as purely good. Religion, like everything of the human condition, is ambiguous—partly good and partly bad; part solution, part problem. Religion has enabled major improvements in human life and still supports some of the world’s greatest works for good. But religion also easily confuses the object of its worship—God—with itself, often prompting human beings to make absolute claims that lead inevitably to absolute disaster. Feelings of religious superiority can and do lead to ranking by race, nationality, gender, and class. Religion can make unholy alliances with commerce and with conquest, as happened throughout the era of European imperialism. The univocal claims of monotheists can lead to contempt for human beings who do not share them, and the open-endedness of polytheism can undermine the distinctions essential to thought. And the certainty that often accompanies the phenomenon of “true belief” seems always to result in a cruel rooting out of what—or who—might threaten it. The religious impulse to die for the faith slides all too quickly into the impulse to kill for it.

There is no crime of which Muslims acting as Muslims have been accused that Christians, to cite only one other religion, do not also stand accused by history. To be religious is, first, to be repentant. The danger of a “clash of civilizations,” or even of a new holy war between the remnants of a Christian West and “the Islamic World,” will be far less if we all understand that we are alike as human beings. Our noblest impulses come inevitably intertwined with opposite inclinations that betray them. We religious humans must constantly submit to the judgment of history, practicing selfcriticism, always seeking the reform that will draw us closer to our best ideals. Certainly Islam is engaged in such a reckoning today. But this task belongs to all religious people—the only way to honor God and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Copyright © 2004 by James Carroll