Americans want our wars to be crusades

Muslims often say the word “jihad” is misunderstood.  They say the word “jihad” means struggle, and the “great jihad” is the struggle against your own sins and weaknesses, while fighting enemies on the battlefield is a “lesser jihad.”

The use of the word “crusade” by Americans is just as broad.  When we Americans use the word “crusade,” we mean a fight for good against evil.  Movements for social reform or religious revival are called crusades.  A “crusading reporter” has a mission to expose corruption and social evils.  General Eisenhower’s memoir of the Second World War was entitled Crusade in Europe.

We Americans like to think of our wars as crusades, as righteous struggles to eliminate evil.  We are reluctant to go to war unless it is a crusade, and we don’t have any staying power unless we convince ourselves we are in a crusade.  We don’t like to think that our government wages war out of economic self-interest or for geopolitical advantage, just like other governments, and we become cynical and angry when we find out that it does.

We were told our Revolutionary War was a crusade against the tyranny of King George III.  We were told the Mexican War was a crusade to extend American freedom from sea to shining sea.  We were told our Civil War was – on both sides –  a crusade against the enemies of American freedom.  We were told that the Spanish-American War was a crusade to liberate the Cubans and Filipinos from the tyranny of Spain.  We were told American intervention in the First World War was a crusade to make the world safe for democracy against the threat of Kaiser Wilhelm’s despotism.

Disillusionment held us back from crusading against Nazi Germany – rather the Germans declared war on us.  But Hitler really was as evil as our government’s propaganda said he was.  The Allies may not have been morally pure, and the Second World War may not have made the world safe for democracy, but we look back on that war as a good war, a war that saved the world from totalitarian barbarism.

After the Second World War came the Cold War.  Stalin arguably was as evil, or nearly as evil, as Hitler, but it was hard to present the Cold War as a crusade because, unlike the Second War War, its aim was only to create a barrier evil, not to eradicate it.   American interventions in Korea and Vietnam quickly became unpopular because they were not crusades.  They did not promise an end to evil.

Nations with an aristocratic tradition regard war as a normal activity.  The purpose of a hereditary aristocracy, after all, is to breed people trained from birth for fighting and military leadership.  They don’t require high moral justifications for war.  But we Americans don’t like to face the fact that we go to war for economic, geopolitical and other morally impure reasons.

During the 1991 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush said it was about “jobs, jobs, jobs” – meaning that the U.S. economy required us to control the oil of the Persian Gulf.  This explanation met with indifference, and we soon were told that Saddam Hussein was equivalent to Hitler.

The Cold War was a strange era in American history. We came to take it for granted that we had to be ever vigilant against an implacable enemy whose purpose was to destroy everything we held dear.  When the implacable enemy imploded, our policymakers seemed not to know what to do.  It was as if life was meaningless without the need to struggle against an existential threat.  Our government began a search for new enemies.

A curmudgeonly conservative named Walter A. McDougall stated the problem with this.

Walter McDougall

To preach a crusade is a dangerous thing, for you may just succeed in launching one, in which case you may inspire fanaticism and black-and-white judgments, and so lose the ability to keep the violence proportional and channeled toward realistic ends.

Preaching crusades can also risk the opposite outcome.  Like the football coach whose pep talks wear thin, a President who turns every cause into a holy one, every enemy into a Hitler, and every conflict into a genocide, may soon find his audience sinking, exhausted and disbelieving, into the very cynicism he hopes to surmount.

One of my Lenten disciplines this year was to re-read the works of George Orwell.  His description of the political debasement of the English language was chilling in light of the linguistic gymnastics of our present leaders. But what struck me most was that his empire of Oceania ruled by Big Brother in 1984 represented the pure Crusader State.  Oceania is always at war, but for no specific reason, and against enemies that are constantly shifting, but always depicted as utterly evil.  The wars are low-level affairs fought on distant fronts, but just enough terrorist strikes occur in London itself to stoke the fury and fear of the home front.  Nor can the war ever be won, for the permanent Crusade is what justifies Big Brother’s rule.

via Epistulae No. 14.

McDougall wrote those words in 1999 about the Balkan crusades of President Bill Clinton, but his words apply just as well to the crusades of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

I would summon the committees responsible for foreign affairs and defense and insist they stage a Great Debate of the sort that occurred in the late 1940s.  At that time the question was whether the Truman Doctrine, which rhetorically committed the U.S. to defend all countries on earth, was really in the national interest, and if so, how the government proposed to do it and pay for it.  Today the question would be whether the pledge of recent administrations to eliminate terrorism and tyranny everywhere and democratize the Middle East is really in the national interest, and if so, how to do it and pay for it.

In short, let’s get a grip on our pretentious rhetoric before it carries us over the cliff.

via Epistulae No. 14.

It is possible that someday we Americans will face a real threat to our national existence.  When that day homes, I hope we will not have become so cynical and weary about imaginary threats that we fail to mee it.

Click on The Challenge Confronting Conservatives: Sustaining a Republic of Hustlers for Walter A. MacDougal’s complete article.  (Hat tip to Robert Heineman for the link.)

Click on Hands Off the Globe for a review of MacDougall’s 1997 book, Promised Land, Crusader State (which I haven’t read.)

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