Liberals Are Ambivalent About War Against Evil
MythicAmerica explores the mythic dimension of American political culture, past, present, and future. The blogger, Ira Chernus, is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Apocalypse Management: Eisenhower and the Discourse of National Insecurity.
Since the shootings in San Bernardino I’ve posted two columns. One analyzes the dynamics of America’s urge to wage war against evil itself. The other points out that liberals must accept some of the blame for this persistent urge.
But I don’t want to be unfair to liberals. Most of them advise us to respond to the Islamic State with what amounts to a moral crusade against evil, and as in all crusades they tend to dehumanize the enemy. Yet liberals also suggest more caution and moderation than conservatives (who mostly seemed inclined to “bomb the shit out of ‘em,”as Donald Trump put it, saying out loud what so many other right-wingers may be thinking).
Exhibit A: the president. After the Islamic State (IS) murders in Paris, Barack Obama called the IS “barbaric terrorists ... the face of evil” and labeled their actions “an attack on all of humanity.” If the IS fighters are barbarians who target all humanity, they clearly stand outside of humanity. They are some other species, merely appearing to be human.
Yet Obama claimed that the heart of the problem “is the ideology that they carry with them and their willingness to die” for it. “The narrative that ISIL developed of creating this caliphate makes it more attractive to potential recruits. ... They are very savvy when it comes to social media.” Only human beings are capable of the rational thought that produces ideological narratives purveyed through social media.
And Obama recognized that, since they are human, they are influenced by the ways their opponents respond to them: “Part of the reason that it is important what we do in Iraq and Syria is that the narrative that ISIL developed of creating this caliphate makes it more attractive to potential recruits.”
Hillary Clinton has apparently moved hawkishly to the president’s right, saying “We need to crush ISIS ... break the group’s momentum and then its back.” But Hillary, too, believes that “online or offline” we are in “a war of ideas against an ideology.”
Bernie Sanders (who calls himself a democratic socialist but aligns in his policies with the left wing of historic liberalism) goes a step further. Though he agrees that “our priority must be … to destroy the brutal and barbaric ISIS regime,” he immediately adds: “and importantly to address the root causes underlying these brutal acts. ... to create conditions that prevent fanatical extremist ideologies from flourishing.” So we can affect their behavior by our own choices. (Perhaps Sanders is thinking of the conditions Pope Francis has enumerated: “Terrorism feeds on fear, mistrust and the despair born of poverty and frustration.”)
These top liberals are following a time-honored American tradition of ambivalence. The earliest English settlers on the eastern seaboard never reached a consensus: Were the native peoples they found here human? Some, like John Eliot and Thomas Morton, answered with a definite “Yes” and reached out to form community with the Indians. Others, like Captain Miles Standish, treated the Indians as nothing but wild beasts of the forest who had to be eradicated for civilization to advance.
These were Puritans, of course. From the time they first exterminated a whole tribe (the Pequots in 1636) they explained their violence with Protestant theology: If irrational beasts took the form of human beings, they must be devils in disguise, or at least agents of the devil. Like all devils, they were bent on (to use one liberal pundit’s words about the IS) “slaughter for its own sake.” So no changes in the white man’s policies could affect the red beast’s madness. The only option was annihilation. Some Puritans used this as convenient justification for stealing land. But many, no doubt, solemnly believed their own ideology.
The same ambivalence about the humanity of the Indians plagued white America for another three centuries or more (and perhaps still does, in some ways, today). Thomas Jefferson, the icon of liberal rationalism, was confident that all human beings could learn, some day, to conciliate their differences reasonably. As president he made treaties with the Indians, as one nation to another, clearly implying their humanity.
Yet Jefferson wrote that some Indians would surely "relapse into barbarism ... and we shall be obliged to drive them, with the beasts of the forest into the Stony [now Rocky] Mountains.” Even worse, “if ever we are constrained to lift the hatchet against any tribe, we will never lay it down till that tribe is exterminated.”
The Civil War saw a similar kind of ambivalence. Preachers on both sides urged their flocks to see the contest in apocalyptic terms, pitting divine goodness against devils in human form. The only way to deal with absolute evil was to wipe it out. Yet only gradually did Abraham Lincoln move toward giving his generals license to fight what the historian of U.S. warfare Russell Weigley called the “American way of war” -- the war of total annihilation. Once given the green light from the White House, Generals like Grant and Sherman were willing to oblige.
From then up to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, Americans have shown the same double-edged approach to war. Large numbers -- especially liberals -- have often opposed war either before it began or after it was over (or both, as in World War I and the Iraq war). But when U.S. forces were actually fighting, a large majority of the nation -- including liberals -- has seemed quite willing to view the fight as a moral crusade against inhuman evidoers, thus a war that need observe no limits.
Before the Civil War, though, two centuries of fighting Indians had already created the template. A vast number of white Americans were ready, and remain ready, to believe that our enemies are bent on evil for its own sake and that nothing we have done, or can do, could have any impact on the enemy’s behavior. Why has this view of the enemy as non-human devils won out so often?
The Civil War offers the clearest example of a truth that historians of every American war have discovered: War has typically broken out at times when the public as a whole was divided, or at least deeply confused, about its sense of national identity. White Americans have typically used their wars to create at least the illusion of consensus about what it meant, and how good it was, to be a white American.
This, too, goes back to the earliest days of English settlement. Jill Lepore made the point persuasively in her history of King Phillip’s War, the Puritans’ effort to do God’s work by exterminating all the tribes of New England in 1675.
The English colonists, “plagued with anxieties of identity,” used their victory to draw “new, firmer boundaries ... between what it meant to be ‘English’ and what it meant to be ‘Indian.’” By defining themselves “against the Indians’ savagery,” which was “considered inhuman,” they “attempted to carve out for themselves a narrow path of virtue.”
But “the same cultural anxieties,” Lepore concluded, “would continue to haunt them ... their descendants ... [and] peoples from other parts of Europe” who came to these shores. So white America “would fight uncannily similar wars over and over again.”
Perhaps it could not be otherwise. America has often been explained as a noble, yet fragile, experiment: People with no common ethnic or culture heritage and frequently not even a common language, trying to create a unified society built only on a set of abstract ideals that are honored more often in the breach than the observance. No wonder we can rarely agree with any certainty on who we are.
War offers a relief from that uncertainty by letting us say, “We may not know exactly who we are, but we are for damn sure not them, the enemy.” To gain the full measure of the illusion of unity and the relief it brings, we must insist that we are the absolute opposite of our foes in every way. We need a boundary higher and sturdier than the Stony Mountains to separate “us” from “them.”
The highest, sturdiest boundary line of all is the one we erect between our absolute good and the enemy’s absolute evil. As a nation steeped in Protestant lore, most of us cannot fully escape turning that line into a moral dualism of God’s people versus the devil. Even if we know that we are safer treating the foe as human beings, unconscious forces push us toward apocalyptic imagery of annihilating the devil.
Time and again Americans have shown themselves willing to act out that imagery even at the risk of their own lives. They have made war against a foreign devil their highest priority, even though war meant more Americans would die.
Perversely, that may have been the point: the more American deaths, the stronger the conviction that the enemy was indeed a devil, the absolute opposite of our own national goodness. So more American deaths became the surest way to create an illusion of unified national identity, an illusion that allowed us to avoid yet again the troubling uncertainty about what it means to be an American.
This pattern has typically been most popular among political conservatives. But at least since Woodrow Wilson led us into World War I, modern liberals have also been prey to its seductive appeal.
That appeal is all the stronger when the belief reigns across the political spectrum -- as it has since FDR led us into World War II -- that our enemies aim to conquer and destroy our entire nation. Today, conservatives like Pat Buchanan openly call the Islamic State “devils who came to kill us,” triggering that fear for the nation’s very existence (even though the IS obviously has nowhere near the capacity for such total devastation). Such claims stand as further proof that the enemy is an inhuman devil. That familiar sense of homeland insecurity becomes a stronger moral justification for annihilating the foes. And it makes the conviction of clearly defined American identity, unity, and absolute goodness all the stronger.
We need only recall the days after the 9/11 attack to understand how reassuring all this could feel.
The nation’s leading liberals are obviously concerned about the anxiety of identity. But when they address it directly, they are almost always talking about taking in refugees. “Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” the president says. And to bar only Muslim refugees is “not American. That’s not who we are.”
Hillary Clinton reads from the same script: “Discriminating against Muslims, slamming the door on every single Syrian refugee—that's just not who we are. We are better than that." So does Bernie Sanders: “We will not turn our backs on the refugees ... We will do what we do best and that is be Americans.”
Our top-ranking liberals obviously want all Americans to agree on just what it means to be an American. But using the refugee issue to promote a sense of clearly-defined, enduring national value isn’t working very well. It just ends up fueling a more divisive debate.
These liberals may not realize the lesson of history: The words most likely to cement a stronger consensus on American identity and values are their words advising us to use military force against the IS. Public opinion will give liberal candidates more praise than blame, and very possibly more votes, when they pledge to go on dropping bombs, even though those bombs are the most powerful recruiting posters for the IS. So, however unintentionally, the top liberals are reinforcing the old pattern.
If IS attacks continue we may discover a bitter truth: Beset by so much confusion and dissension about what it means to be an American, the people as a whole may not make their own safety their highest priority.
The people may once again be willing to sacrifice American lives on the altar of an illusion of a unified, permanent national identity. They may be willing to offer that ultimate sacrifice to avoid accepting what may be America’s fate, or indeed America’s privilege: an insoluble uncertainty, and a conversation that goes on without end, about who we, as a nation, really are.
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