Straw Men & Holy Wars

Charles Gibson’s interview of Sarah Palin is the buzz of the blogs the past few days. In particular, was Charlie’s challenge on her prayer for the troops, taken out of context and misquoted, yet asserted by Gibson to be her “exact words.” He then followed up with the question “Are we fighting a holy war?”

Gibson, who has worked hard to maintain his media image as a fatherly, soft-spoken news anchor, was revealed, unsurprisingly, to be quite a partisan. No news there — his questions seemed tailored to echo the Obama campaign message, that she is inexperienced, out of her league in foreign policy, a Bush clone, and a religious extremist.

But the real essence of his question about her prayer for the troops was not his mangling of its context, nor his selective quoting. Behind the thin veil of concerned seriousness lies an unspoken presupposition which marks a significant departure from our national history and tradition. What Gibson was in effect saying, is that any war fought by America — or to be more precise, any war fought by a non-Democrat administration — cannot be considered a moral good, and therefore worthy of blessing by God.

The key tipoff is his follow-up question about a “holy war.” One wishes, in some rational world, that Gibson might be asked a question or two in response to his question — to wit: Are US troops now being sent overseas to fight in the Middle East fighting for a mission — seeking and destroying terrorists — which is indeed morally good? No waffling now –a yes or no answer will suffice.

We live, of course, in a world of no small moral ambivalence. Even a war such as World War II, perhaps the best example of a “good” war, is nevertheless filled with many morally troubling subchapters. While few would argue that the fight against Nazi aggression and Japanese imperialism was not a necessary, noble, and morally justified struggle, nevertheless that same struggle entailed many scenes which trouble the soul. The firebombing of German and Japanese cities, the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, and other such events of WWII seem to contradict its noble and moral aims in light of the horrible means needed to achieve such aims in modern technological warfare.

Ambivalence about U.S. wars has grown much greater in the half-century since World War II ended, with conflicts of more disputable moral clarity such as Korea, Vietnam, and the two Gulf wars. Gone is the moral certitude and high purpose we held in fighting Hitler and Tojo; the clarity of opposing a brutal, imperialistic nation-state led by a maniacal dictator has faded to shades of gray with wars battling a worldview such as communism, or the even more nebulous non-state entity of Islamic terrorism.

Our enemies now are no longer goose-stepping armies crushing Europe or naval armadas flying the Rising Sun, but rather shadowy groups and individuals wrapping themselves in the cloak of religion and moving in and through civilian populations and across national borders, seemingly woven into the very fabric of the societies which foster and support them. They are both seemingly invisible and masters of deception, turning murder to glorious holy martyrdom, enabled by instant communication and the media, while undermining the moral premises of those who resist their nihilistic and brutal amorality.

Americans are now sated with extraordinary wealth and materialism, and equally drunk with the delusion that moral absolutes, right and wrong, good and evil, can no longer be determined with any certainty — and are perhaps irrelevant in our postmodern age. The Grand Inquisitor on his media throne demands to know if a vice presidential candidate is calling for a holy war; should we not ask him in response whether he judges our current battle against those who would murder us to be, at least in principle, a morally good and noble pursuit? Is it a moral good that our troops have liberated some 50 million people from two of the most oppressive regimes in history? Is it a moral good that our soldiers seek to protect innocent Iraqi citizens, at great risk to their own lives, while seeking out and destroying those who would wantonly murder them? We may argue — and have argued to the point of exhaustion — whether this particular war in Iraq was ill-conceived, ill-executed, bad strategy, or even the wrong use of costly resources and precious lives which might have been better used in other ways. But is the goal righteous, Charlie? Is the ideal noble? Or are you simply too sophisticated and jaded to embrace such judgmental, absolutist, undiplomatic and intolerant terms, in a nuanced world awash with gray?

So let us set aside the question of holy war, Mr. Gibson — do you believe that liberating the Iraqi people, and destroying Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups is, if not a “holy war”, then at least a noble and honorable and morally desirable pursuit? Or might this same war, in a parallel universe, pursued by an administration which was run by Democrats, be praised as a heroic assault on our enemies? Why do so many of us suspect that it is not the war, but rather those in political power who prosecute the war, which must be morally condemned by you?

No sane person should believe, in my opinion, that Sarah Palin intended to send off these soldiers on a holy war, to smite the infidel — but sanity is an increasingly rare commodity today, it seems. Is it not an appropriate thing, for those who believe in a God who represents, in virtually all religious belief systems, a being of pure moral goodness, to pray that soldiers being sent to battle might be called to do that which is good, and noble, and honorable, and to fulfill their mission to defend the nation which they love and wish to serve with the highest moral character and courage?

In a world of moral purity, there would be no war; there would be no murderers, no torture, no oppression, no poverty, no dictators, no greed. War is, in the truest sense, hell — it embodies the murderous anger and hatred men have for one another. And in this world, evil as it is, men are sometimes called to be violent, even murderous — not for malevolent motives, but rather to overcome malevolence. In our current secular postmodern world, though, goodness is no longer defined by such an absolute standard, a moral code established by a good God. Goodness has become, de facto, the empowerment of those who believe exactly as we do. Our politics now dictate our principles, rather than the opposite. A war prosecuted, for whatever reasons, by a president who prays, must therefore be a “holy war”; it is by the standards (if they may be called that) of postmodern secularism no different then jihad, no less evil than a suicide bomber on a school bus or an airplane hijacked as a missile.

In a few short minutes, it was this very struggle which played out in Gibson’s interview: if you are a conservative, or God forbid a Christian, and pray for those who defend us, you are an extremist, a religious nutcase whom God is calling to slay the infidel. It is the war between those for whom right and wrong are neither absolute nor easily discerned, and a worldview which believes that man may both discern and act upon that which is good in an absolute sense — and especially in a redemptive sense, where we may turn something evil, such as the horrors of war, into that which is an instrument — albeit an imperfect one — in bringing about good.

The secular mindset cannot grasp that in a morally corrupt world filled with evil, that some might be called to seek the wisdom and power of God to resist evil and defend the good, and through such prayers seek the hope and character to transform the world in some small way to a place where good overcomes evil.

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