On the eve of war, some (rambling) thoughts intrude. I know of many who see the world through the eyes of CNN. It is their only source for news. Many times I have heard acquaintances come to work in the morning all a flutter with the latest news update from CNN and subject it to 'deep thoughts' and eternal significance. Whether the issue is al-Qaeda or Afghanistan or war in Iraq or this Democrat or that Republican, their opinions simply ape those heard on cable TV that morning. As soon as CNN moves on to another subject, so do they.
It might be the case that CNN speaks with great authority and truth, but it is manifestly not the case that one can be well informed by getting his world view from one source. I must add that the major media outlets---CNN, BBC, NPR, ABC, CBS, NBC (sorry for all those acronyms), The New York Times, The Washington Post, The LA Times, Reuters---all speak with one voice. They agree on the essentials of what passes for educated opinion on: the role of he UN, multilateralism, religion in the public square, US foreign policy, the military, the Kyoto Treaty, public education, abortion, environmentalism, global warming, conservative thought, liberal thought, affirmative action, the death penalty, the 2nd Amendment. These media affirm each other, refer to each other and congratulate each other. There are no real dissenting voices among them. As for the US media, their members vote overwhelmingly democrat, few attend any sort of religious service (recall the Washington Post front page as referring to most religious people as 'poor, uneducated and easily led') and most content themselves with living in a few enclaves on the East and West coasts of the US. (One common joke among them is that the great central mass of the US is little more than 'fly-over territory'.)
Now, their view of the world might just be true in all essentials, but that is not the point. One can hardly be informed by listening to one view, however elevated and profound that view seems to be. One must---and I emphasize must---read and study widely to get any sort of accurate idea of how the world really is. I harangue my students constantly on this theme (besides telling them not believe anything I say!) Imagine if one's view of Judaism were obtained only from a study of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion; or if one's view of conservatism were obtained only from memorizing the words of Dan Rather; or if one's view of history were obtained only from Howard Zinn; or if one's view of US foreign policy were obtained only from Henry Kissinger.
In our internet age there really is no excuse not to be acquainted with as many views opposing your own as time allows. To do less (and here I am speaking as a teacher) is to be ignorant and to do a great disservice to our students. To do less is to succumb to intellectual sloth. To do less is to cease to be a teacher at all.
And so the war has begun, either a "war of American aggression" or a "war for the liberation of Iraq." Take your pick---or come up with your own pithy slogan. As in all wars people will die---they are dying as I write these words. The innocent and the guilty, the soldier and the civilian, the willing and the unwilling: all will mix together in the dreadful reality of nation against nation.
It is instinctive to abhor killing. But it is a bit of a stretch to thus conclude 'because war means killing, and killing is abhorrent, war itself must be wrong.' What this is really saying is that the preservation of one's life is the highest moral value, that "there is nothing worth dying for," that one must strive for 'peace at any price,' or more crudely (and from another era), 'better red than dead.' But does a look at human nature and a reading of history justify such a conclusion? Well, no.
In fact, what we find is that there are indeed things worth dying for, that the maintenance of one's life is not the highest imperative, that there are indeed things worse than death---slavery, for example. Mothers give their lives for their children, fathers for their sons, husbands for their wives, soldiers for their nation, slaves for their freedom. For them their desire to live is outweighed by a higher value; for them there are things worth dying for. Or as a Christian must believe, the greatest possible love is to give your life for your brother. He believes that all who do so will see the face of Christ.
Of course, those who give their lives might simply be wrong-headed idiots. And of course, those who think this might simply be cowards---or in Aristotle's phrase, "natural slaves."
It must be stated that the above in no way justifies this war or any war. But the idea that this war is wrong because people will die must be thrown out of court.
One of the many conceits of the latter 20th century was to number its world wars as one and two. Unhappily, these were not the first true world wars with which history has blessed us.
As far as we can divine from history the first world-wide conflict (as the world was defined at the time) began at the death of Ashurbanipal (ruled 669-626 BC). He was the self-proclaimed " Great King, the Mighty King, the King of the Four Corners, the King of Universal Reign, the King of the World, the King of Assyria." His empire encompassed all of the ancient Middle East (modern Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait), and---to use modern names---parts of Turkey, Iran, southern Russia, Armenia and Libya. The hated Assyrian empire was attacked everywhere all at once (an early type of 'shock and awe'?). Avenging armies from Scythia, Babylon, and Persia set the ancient world aflame as they moved on the Assyrian citadels of Nineveh, Kalah, Asur and Dur-Sharrukin. This world war---the first world war---ended with the destruction of Nineveh in 612 BC.
Or consider the Greco-Persian Wars (496-479 BC). Persia then stretched from the north of Greece to Egypt to Libya to southern Russia and on to the Hindu Kush. These wars were fought between this immense empire and a few city-states of Greece. The entire eastern Mediterranean was involved, and parts of Sicily as well. Later expeditions would push Greek arms beyond the Euphrates (401 BC), and Alexander (356-332 BC) would continue the conflict into India and the Arabian Peninsula. So perhaps this world war actually lasted until Alexander's death, which would earn it the dubious title of 'the longest world war.'
The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) certainly was a world war. Involving parts of modern Spain, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Greece, Italy, Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, Macedonia and France---in fact all the western Mediterranean---and its effects were felt far beyond these areas. Or how about The Crusades (1095-1204)? They involved all of Europe and the Middle East as well as parts of Africa and the entire Mediterranean.
There are other candidates: The Mongol invasions of the 13th century come to mind. What we now call Korea, China, Mongolia, northern India, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and the Middle East, Russia, parts of Eastern Europe---and a whole lot of the "-stans" (Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and so on)---were convulsed by these terrible horsemen from the Steppes. Or how about the Seven Years War (1756-1763)? Or the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815)? Both certainly qualify. Both involved fighting in Europe, the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa and parts of Asia.
After 1815, the world was more or less quiet until the guns of August, 1914. And it has never been quiet since, alas!
To conclude this dismal note, may I suggest to the reader that we have already begun the next world war? I will not give it a number.
Could someone please explain the primary purpose of the United Nations? If you say 'to prevent wars' then it has been a manifest failure since it began. (And no, I will not list every war since 1945. Who has that kind of time?) Why has it failed, and failed so demonstrably?
Short answer: the set up of the Security Council cannot work as it is currently constituted. There are five nations each possessing a veto on the other. If these five saw their national interests as coinciding most or all of the time, then there would be no problem. Differences would be worked out, deals would be done, checks would be cut, dinners would be scheduled, scotch would be served. This is not the case.
China is the most obvious problem. This regime took power in 1949 after years of war both civil and defensive. It then invaded Tibet and busied itself with the extermination of an ancient culture, the slaughter of Buddhist priests and the raping of Buddhist nuns. Not sated, China invaded Korea and spent the next three years sending its young men against the guns of the US military there. More than one million of her soldiers perished. But China was just getting warmed-up. Still to come was the 'Let 100 Flowers Bloom' campaign (1956-57), the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), all with associated bloodlettings, famines, gulags, killings, slogans, upheavals and lunatic fanaticism. All told perhaps 100 million---yes, million---died in these government imbecilities. (By the way, this makes the syphilitic Mao the number one killer of all time.)
China marches on. It makes periodic threats to Taiwan, blusters about sending missiles to Los Angeles, steals advanced technology, forcibly aborts its women, murders Catholic priests, kicks infants to death in the streets (one baby per family, you know), crushes all dissent, executes 15,000 of its citizens a year, runs over students with tanks, and exports weaponry of all sorts to various grimy and gruesome regimes. Quite the charmer!
So, where do the perceived interests of China and those of the US coincide on national security issues? They do not; indeed they are diametrically opposed on weapons proliferation, the independence of Taiwan, support for terror regimes, human rights issues. (I should add that when one says 'China' one actually means a handful of old men in the politburo in Peking. They are the ones who count, no one else.) China and the US cannot even come up with a bilateral policy toward the goofy hermit-monsters who run North Korea, something absolutely in the Chinese interest to solve.
Now take France (please): Its desire, its driving force, its number one goal as expounded in private and public is to reduce the military, cultural, political and economic influence of the US whether in the UN or in the real world. France sees herself as the prime mover of a united Europe dominated by---why France, of course. There is no other way that she can have much influence in the world. (After all, the world can only consume so much cheese.) And who knows? If this policy succeeds France might perhaps be strong enough one day to marshal the military power to conquer the Ivory Coast! Its policy is the opposite of whatever the US wants, no more and no less. Now just where can France and the US work together on security issues? France has actively hindered US efforts in the Middle East, in NATO, in the Cold War against the USSR and in the hot war against Iraq. If France is an ally, what would an enemy look like?
Getting anything of value done with these two veto wielders on the Security Council is tedious, time consuming and fruitless, a sterile exercise costly in blood and treasure. For the US to go to the UN allows China to pretend that it is a normal state out for the common good; it allows France the pretence of power and to exert influence far beyond what her military and economic assets really are.
This war and the long diplomatic ballet that led to it clarified these things very well. It exposed true friend (England---again) and true foe (France---again and again and again) and true impotence. So let the UN (short one member) have a new address. May I suggest Paris or Peking?
Time for some theology here. Forget all those college classes where you learned that war is caused by an arms race, entangling alliances, capitalism, imperialism, a "revolt of the masses," poverty, religion or appeasement. The cause of war is sin. (Yes, you read correctly.) Sin occurs when man chooses to act contrary to the moral law, thus against his own human nature. It is a corruption of the natural, a man warring against his own flesh. A creature at war with himself can hardly be expected to abide his brother, least of all the foreigner.
Sin leads the unrepentant into more sin as assuredly as gluttony leads to obesity, which leads to more eating and more gluttony and more obesity and...well, you get the idea. The little sinner becomes the big sinner. Even a normal fellow trapped in such a spiral of sin can do great damage to himself and his family and his neighbors. A father addicted to gambling soon brings his family to ruin, and might rob his neighbor to support his habit. Now imagine him at the helm of a nation. He will first wage war against his family---his subjects---and then his neighbors---those unfortunate nations that border his. We have seen this dreary result: coup, assassination, secret police, the gulag, a war machine, torture chambers, nighttime arrests, disappearances, internal decay. With the institutions of a nation now in his control, his capacity to sin is much magnified. A drunkard can do little harm while on a tricycle; behind the wheel of an automobile he can do a great deal. Mr. Hussein is exactly this type. So was Hitler. And Mao. And Pol Pot. And Stalin.
None of these monsters died repentant as far as we know, and all were devoured by their sin. Stalin died in horror imagining that wolves were coming across a snowfield to devour him; Mao died an obese syphilitic, dominated by his terror-shrew wife; Pol Pot died malarial while being run to ground in the jungle; Hitler, palsied, shaking and drug-addicted, died by his own hand in a bunker---Hussein's fate most likely.
The cure of this sin is what we see today: a war to end a war---in this case a war to end Hussein's war on his own people and on his neighbors and on the world. The disease has gone beyond home remedy, now surgery is required. It does no good to prattle about "No War in Iraq!" The war in Iraq began when Saddam and his Baathist Party seized control of that nation in 1979. What Iraq has become nothing but a reflection of Hussein; it is his soul writ large, just as Nazi Germany was really the face of Hitler---a point he made time and again. What Hitler wrought upon humanity was what he had wrought upon his own soul---death, destruction, oblivion. Hussein is doing likewise.
None of these killers would have made much of a dent in history had their chosen career paths led them to become managers of laundromats. The more influence a sinner can wield, the more damage he can do. A father destroys a family, a mafioso a city, a dictator a nation, and a tyrant with absolute power can destroy absolutely.
Democracy, 'the worst form of government except for all the others,' manages to corral the sinful impulse by spreading power among several branches of government while forcing politicians every so often to take their case to the voters. A truly sinful man can therefore not do too much damage to a state or to its neighbors. In the dictatorships so beloved in UN councils a criminal ruler can multiply his crimes. In Iraq's case the crimes are so great that outside intervention---surgery---is needed. (And as I write these words the physician is at the gates of Baghdad.)
It would be easy if we could just separate all the sinners among us---every Hussein and Stalin and Hitler and all of their ilk---and simply put them in camps (or send them to France). Alas, this is not the case. As Dostoyevsky said, sin cuts right down the middle of every heart. Through yours. Through mine.
As long as there is sin there will be war---and murder and rape and adultery and addiction and corruption and theft and lying and lust and greed and envy. Not a cheery thought to end this missive.
Much of our world---at least what we now term 'the West'---was once referred to as Christendom. That is, over a large swath of the globe Christianity was the governing idea in all things: law, morality, culture, philosophy, education. This is no longer the case. One can refer to a post-Christian West, but any mention of a 'Christendom' would be met with a blank stare. The world, shall we say, has moved on.
The effects of this 'moving on' are everywhere. A common one has been the frequency that a person terms himself an atheist. This moniker has achieved a sort of status, as if a person so defined has somehow risen above the ancient---or worse, Medieval---belief in God. (None of that silly superstitious dogma for him!) It is fair to ask him, then, in what does he believe? If he says he believes in Zeus, he has just substituted one god for another God---and he is nuts. If he says he believes in Satan, well, again this is simply substitution of one belief for another---and he is damned. If he says that he believes in reason, again substitution has occurred---and the guillotine beckons. (Recall what the worship of 'reason' accomplished during the French Revolution.) There is no escape from this problem, for in all cases oura so-called 'atheist' has just changed from believing in one God to believing in another. One can change from a belief in God to a belief in Obi-Wan Kanobi, but one still believes something.
That something can be a thing we do not usually connect with worship. One 'atheist' frequents prostitutes: well, his god is sex. Another injects heroin: well, his god is drugs. Another ignores his family children so that he can gamble: well, his god is the casino. In fact as soon as one abandons belief in a higher being, some lower being comes rushing into the void. The early Christians knew these lower beings as demons.
In reality, one who stylizes himself as an 'atheist' is just confused. He is really an agnostic. This type will tell you that any supreme being is unknown and unknowable. It might be bold---and a bit precocious---to stake a claim to agnosticism while young. To remain so into adulthood is to succumb to cowardice and sloth.
What about the fellow who claims he believes in nothing? This is an impossibility, for even the solipsist and the nihilist believe in themselves while denying the existence or relevance of any other being. The fellow who says he believes in nothing actually worships the guy who stares back at him in the mirror.
'The King is dead.' Or as the Persians would say, 'Shah-mat.' Or as we say in chess, 'checkmate'. Game over. It does not matter at all how many pawns and bishops and rooks you take; to leave the King standing is to leave the game unfinished, a draw, incomplete; it is to guarantee another game. As in chess, so in war. Victory can only come when the King is killed. Or as MacArthur would say---as he did say---"There is no substitute for victory." Indeed there is not. As I write we are learning this painful lesson again.
A look at history points out this military truism: Victory comes when the enemy leadership is killed or surrenders unconditionally to the tender mercies of his conqueror. His territory is occupied, your own flag is run up over his capital, you force your will upon him and his nation, his ideology is thrown into the dustbin of history. Nothing else will do. To do less is to have to fight your enemy yet again, to spend more blood and treasure, to risk defeat.
We are now making war upon Iraq---again. We are doing so because the first war upon Iraq---and let us speak frankly here: this war is against Saddam Hussein and his henchmen from the Tikriti tribe that form his Baathist regime---left a monster in power. (Again let us again speak frankly: If you object to my calling Hussein a monster, you simply have not studied the history of Iraq since 1979. The evidence is documented and available to anyone who wishes to know. If Hussein is not a monster then the word has no meaning.) Saddam's reign of terror over his people and any of his neighbors unlucky enough to be in his gun sights encompasses the entire catalogue of horror and inhumanity. Nothing done by Hitler has not been done by Hussein. Indeed, Saddam has improved upon the master: lowering opponents into acid, raping daughters in front of fathers---one of the job descriptions of the Iraqi regime includes 'professional rapist'---tossing victims into plastic recyclers and placing the remains in plastic bags to be used for fish food. Quite an imagination this gentleman has! Who doubts now that Gulf War I was a brilliant tactical victory but a terrible strategic defeat. Hussein was left in power---while his enemy Bush senior was tossed out of office!---and in the intervening 12 years he has slaughtered some 500,000 of his own. And now we are 'over there' again, but this time to end this war the only way it can be ended: Shah-mat.
Here is a brief catalogue of military errors of this type. The story is instructive, as history should be---if we read it.
Rome, the master of invincible legions that conquered most of the known the world, was not free from this type of strategic mistake. The emperor Domitian invaded Dacia (modern Romania) and began the first of a series of Dacian Wars (85-89; 101; 106). Domitian left the war unfinished and the king of Dacia, Decebalus, still enthroned. These wars were only concluded when Dacia was overrun by the emperor Trajan. The Dacian king killed himself, and Dacia was absorbed into the empire. We all know the story of Carthage. It took three wars to convince Rome of her strategic error in leaving the African state in existence. In 146 BC this error was rectified. Rome left 'not a stone upon a stone,' and Carthage exists now only in the pages of Flaubert and Polybius and Livy. Rome should have known better from her experience in the Macedonian Wars (214-205; 200-197; 171-168). In the first two she had left the king Philip V on his throne. More troubles ensued, of course, leading the Romans to finally eliminate the ancient Macedonian kingdom in 168: Shah-mat. End of problem.
Greece could not overcome the strategic problem of the Persian Wars (496-479). In a series of brilliant tactical victories (Marathon 490, Salamis 480, Plataea 479, Mycale 479) and two successful holding actions (Thermopylae 480, Artemisium 480) the Greeks drove the Persians out of Greece and much of Ionia. But the Greeks did not possess the material and political resources to invade Persia proper and kill its king, and so they could not end the wars for good. Thus the war with Persia continued, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, always dangerous. It was left to the semi-Greek Alexander (356-332) to finish the job. He saw the problem with clarity and so took his lethal phalanxes to Persia herself, destroyed the Persian capital at Persepolis and ran its king Darius III to ground (330): Shah-mat.
Napoleon, the 'disturber of the peace of the world,' was left on the island of Elba after his first abdication (1814). The results were predictable: He escaped after seven months, entered France, and began to conscript another generation of boys for a new army and a new series of wars. Again the Congress of Vienna had to go to war against this usurper (1815). Still the Corsican was left alive, but hopelessly imprisoned on the island of St. Helena until his death (1821). Not exactly shah-mat, but good enough.
What did the 'victory' over Germany in 1919 bring but another and far more terrible war? England, France and the US could have easily then occupied Berlin and hung the Kaiser and his generals, thus insuring that there would be no Hitler. But German territory was left inviolate, requiring another war against her to settle the matter. The cost of this strategic error was 60,000,000 dead. I should mention the Korean War (1950-1953). Whatever one thinks of the dispute between Truman and MacArthur, the end of this war at the status quo antebellum left Kim Il-Sung in power. Now the entire world must suffer the threats from his violent and unstable son---for now.
In fact, the successful wars against Japan and Nazi Germany show how war is won: Tokyo and Berlin were occupied, the ideologies of Japanese militarism and Nazism exterminated, their instigators sent to the gallows: Shah-mat.
You can see the strategic problem of Israel. No matter how many wars she wins against her enemies, peace never comes. It is not in Israel's power to force her will upon her foes, and so the regimes that have waged relentless war against the Jewish state continue to exist, continue to plot, continue in their attempts to destroy her. Only one nation can solve Israel's dilemma, and it is rather busy at the moment in another part of the neighborhood. But not for long.
I could go on, but you get the point. Do not go to war unless you are committed to an uncompromising victory. This now appears to be the case---finally. Even generals and presidents can learn. (The jury is still out on college professors and journalists.)
Ceterum censeo, delenda est Saddam.
Forget Al Capone, Jesse James, Albert Anastasia, Lucky Luciano, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, Son of Sam, the Boston Strangler, Jack the Ripper, Vito Genovese, Dutch Schultz, Machine Gun Jack McGurn, Pittsburgh Phil, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Billy the Kid, Butch and Sundance, the Barkers, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bugs Moran---in fact, forget all of their ilk, all the murderers and robbers and mafiosi and rapists and thieves and hustlers and racketeers and loan-sharks and pimps and drug dealers and cheap hustlers that have graced the pages of dime novels and 'B' movie scripts. Toss them all out. They were all cut-rate, two-bit, dime-store and penny-ante pikers, bumblers and incompetents, none worthy of the criminal calling. To deem them outlaws is grant them a respect they have not earned. It is a terrible insult to the real pros, the true masters of the art of murder and rapine.
And who are these champions in the contest of death and destruction and mayhem?
You know them already. A short list: Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Sennacherib, Mao, Castro, Stalin, Hitler, Ahuitzotl, Idi Amin, Mithridates VI, Lenin, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Kim Il-Sung, Shaka Zulu, Scipio Minor, Ogodei, Napoleon, Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander, Ashurbanipal, Nebuchadnezzar II, Sargon II, Tiglath-Pileser III: now here is a roster of the greatest killers of all, gold medalists in their craft, experts in their field. They devoured---and some still devour---men and nations and civilizations. They went from kill to kill only to be stopped by death natural or otherwise---and some are still killing. And what makes them so different from the others listed above? What gave their genius for slaughter its proper scope? What do the masters have that the cheap hoodlums do not?
Short answer: They were all government employees. The others were mere freelancers, a bunch of laissez-faire catch-as-catch-can mountebanks. These fumblers had no state organs to supply their impulses with real killing power, no tax base to pay for legions of soldiers and secret police, no subject populace to enslave, no economic base to turn to the immensity of war, no fearful sycophants to make easy their paths to glory, no coterie of dilettante intellectuals to explain away their every outrage, no gulag of schools to indoctrinate their people into the party line. They built no prisons, but could end up in one; they invaded no nations, but were always hiding from their own; they designed no gallows, but often swung from them; they devised few exquisite tortures, for their time did not allow for such frivolities. They slept in few palaces, attended few feasts, seldom wore fine clothing, built no skull racks, incinerated no cities, gassed no populations, called no press conferences, dug no mass graves, plowed no killing fields, spilled no oceans of blood and carried out no genocide. Compared to the lives of the champions, their own were mostly 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.'
Your chances of running into another one of these hopeless incompetents is almost nil. But who can escape government and all its minions?
Home Professional Pages Personal Pages Sabbatical Itinerary
Essays Backpacking Entries Diary and Commentary