The New York Times
The New York Times Opinion
March 11, 2003
How a War Became a Crusade
By JACKSON LEARS
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J.
President Bush's war plans are risky, but Mr. Bush is no gambler. In fact he denies the very existence of chance. "Events aren't moved by blind change and chance" he has said, but by "the hand of a just and faithful God." From the outset he has been convinced that his presidency is part of a divine plan, even telling a friend while he was governor of Texas, "I believe God wants me to run for president."
This conviction that he is doing God's will has surfaced more openly since 9/11. In his State of the Union addresses and other public forums, he has presented himself as the leader of a global war against evil. As for a war in Iraq, "we do not claim to know all the ways of Providence, yet we can trust in them." God is at work in world affairs, he says, calling for the United States to lead a liberating crusade in the Middle East, and "this call of history has come to the right country."
Mr. Bush's speeches are not the only place one finds this providentialist spirit _ everyone from Christian fundamentalists to interventionist liberals is serving up missionary formulas: bogus analogies to the war against Hitler; contrasts between American virtue and European vice; denials that sordid material interests could have anything to do with the exalted project of exporting American democracy.
To those who worry about the frequent use of religious language, Mr. Bush's supporters insist that the rhetoric of Providence is as American as cherry pie. This is true, but it is crucial to understand that Providence can acquire various meanings depending on the circumstances. The belief that one is carrying out divine purpose can serve legitimate needs and sustain opposition to injustice, but it can also promote dangerous simplifications _ especially if the believer has virtually unlimited power, as Mr. Bush does. The slide into self-righteousness is a constant threat.
The great rhetoricians of Providence have resisted the temptation of self-righteousness. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail that "we will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands," he was seeking common ground with white Southerners, not predicting perdition for satanic segregationists.
Likewise, when Abraham Lincoln invoked Providence in his second inaugural address, his message to the victorious North and the defeated South was one of reconciliation. By characterizing the Civil War as a national expiation for the sin of slavery, he wanted "to bind up the nation's wounds" and make some moral sense of the appalling losses on both sides. At its best, providentialist thinking can offer a powerful antidote to self-righteousness.
Too often, though, American politicians and moralists have reduced faith in Providence to a religious sanction for raw power. In the 1840's, with the emergence of the idea that the United States had a manifest destiny to expand to the Pacific, the hand of God was no longer mysterious (as in traditional Christian doctrine) but "manifest" in American expansion. As for the natives who unproductively occupied the Great Plains, Horace Greeley, the journalist, said in 1859: "`These people must die out _ there is no help for them. God has given this earth to those who will subdue and cultivate it, and it is vain to struggle against his righteous decree."
By the end of the century, Senator Albert Beveridge and other imperialists had made Manifest Destiny a global project, insisting that God had "marked" the American people to lead in "the redemption of the world."
In the wake of World War I, Woodrow Wilson showed that it was possible to use redemptive rhetoric for aims that went beyond nationalism, and yet to still fall victim to hubris. By intervening in the war and ensuring a just peace, said Wilson, "America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world."
The failure of Wilson's postwar dream helped make most Americans skeptical of world-saving fantasies during World War II. Thus our most necessary war was also the most resistant to providentialist interpretation. It was a dirty job, and somebody had to do it: that was the dominant view, among policymakers and the public. Only in retrospect has World War II acquired an aura of sanctity.
To be sure, the cold war fitfully revived the nationalist uses of Providence, at least among true believers like Secretary of State John Foster Dulles _ not to mention Ronald Reagan, whose rhetoric arrayed the "city on a hill" against the Soviet "evil empire." But for most Americans, the failed crusade in Vietnam eviscerated the delusion that we had a sacred duty to export American ways _ by force if necessary _ to a recalcitrant world.
Until now. The proposed war against and rebuilding of Iraq has brought the sentimental, self-satisfied sense of Providence back into fashion. One might have supposed that an attack on our country would have rendered utopian agendas unnecessary _ as it did for most Americans during World War II. But while a war on terrorism may not need Providence to justify it, a war to transform the Middle East requires a rhetoric as grandiose as its aims. The providentialist outlook fills the bill: it promotes tunnel vision, discourages debate and reduces diplomacy to arm-twisting.
Worst of all, it sanitizes the messy actualities of war and its aftermath. Like the strategists' faith in smart bombs, faith in Providence frees one from having to consider the role of chance in armed conflict, the least predictable of human affairs. Between divine will and American know-how, we have everything under control. So the White House and its backers can safely predict that the unpleasantness will be over in a few weeks, with low casualties on both sides.
Combat veterans, from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf down, reject these scenarios. We can be sure that the soldiers in the Persian Gulf region do, too. This should come as no surprise: there has always been a chasm between the war planners and the soldiers on the ground. The planners are convinced that they can control outcomes; the soldiers know the arbitrary cruelties of fate at first hand _ maiming this one, leaving that one alone. They know the power of luck.
There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are not many believers in Providence in them either. Combat soldiers have always been less confident than politicians that God is on the premises. They have paid homage to an older deity, Fortuna. From the Civil War through the Persian Gulf war, American soldiers have festooned themselves with amulets and lucky charms _ everything from St. Christopher medals and smooth stones to their girlfriends' locks of hair. And why not? Ritual efforts to conjure luck speak directly to their own experience.
But the power of providentialist thinking persists, drawing strength from the fervent beliefs of Christian, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists. The more humane interpreters of those traditions are increasingly ignored, and the ideologues take command, convinced that they are doing God's will.
Certainly those of us who doubt the divinity (not to mention the efficacy) of the president's plan must continue to challenge it. But as we watch Mr. Bush prepare for righteous battle, ignoring the protests of "old Europe" and many in his own country, even the most rational among us might be pardoned for fingering a rabbit's foot from time to time.
Jackson Lears is author of "Something for Nothing: Luck in America."
Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/03/11/opinion/11LEAR.html
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