On Laments, and the Bashing of Infants on Rocks

The folks over at the blog P.OST: AN EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY FOR THE AGE TO COME (it’s a fascinating blog I read frequently, and it’s sharpened my understanding of how I read scripture) have an interesting take on Psalm 137, which begins as a lament in exile and ends as, well, as a wish for mass murder…

(1) By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
(2) On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
(3) For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
(4) How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
(5) If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
(6) Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
(7) Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!”
(8) O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!
(9) Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

That last line is troublesome to many. What to make of such an aspiration, such a desire? (I wrote a song based on this psalm, and wanted very much to incorporate that last line, but the song wouldn’t let me, as much as I tried.) For the folks at P.OST, while the psalm is part of “our story” as Israel/church, we don’t “have the right” to misinterpret this verse by somehow assuming it belongs specifically to us, or speaks to our time and our circumstances:

We don’t have to suppose that these are our sacred texts. There is nothing wrong with rejecting the psalm as a “lament belonging exclusively to the piety of ancient Israel”. The Bible means what it meant and speaks to us on that basis. That is not a bad thing. It is a good thing.

Fine. I guess I can agree with this, so far as it goes. This particular psalm is the product of a time and place, and speaks to a circumstance — life in exile along to Euphrates River, serving the very people who drug you into exile — that is not ours. So, the sentiment at the end doesn’t have to be ours either.

Except… There have been times in my life, like the circumstances surrounding the end of my first internship while at seminary, that left my feeling very angry, very alone, very abandoned. It was that very experience that gave me the ability to see in scripture something of the story of my life, and the story of the church (I have sketched an outline for a book that compares the fate of the church today in the face of modernity and enlightenment to conquest by Assyrians and Babylonians, and that we face another exile, on the banks of rivers of Babylon, serving and entertaining cruel masters who have destroyed our cities and carried us off). How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land, especially to people who demand we sing for their amusement?

These are human feelings, feelings that are no strangers to us even as God’s people. As is the desire for vengeance, to see the pain and suffering of those who have inflicted such on us. And it’s okay to have them. To speak them. To even give them up to God in prayer. Anger as well as sadness and despair is one of the marks of lament.

Note, however, what the psalm does not say or do. It proclaims a judgment upon Babylon, and calls down blessing upon those who will destroy it. Who will murder its children. It is confident in that judgement. The one making the lament does not seek God’s approval to go and himself (I’m assuming here) inflict vengeance upon the Babylonians, and their descendants. It does not agitate, or organize, or demand. It does not call for war or liberation. It’s not the call of the powerful with a state, an army, and an arsenal. It’s not Genesis 34. This is the cry of the powerless, the conquered, the scattered, and it is assumed in the passage that the vengeance coming upon doomed Babylon and its daughters will be done by someone else.

It will be God’s vengeance. Not Israel’s. Not ours.

The vengeance of God, in this instance, is a thing to be trusted in and waited upon. It invokes the primal saving act of God, the rescue of God’s people Israel from slavery in Egypt, from that horrible moment when Israel believed itself done, ready to be overrun, trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s rapidly advancing army:

Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again.  The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.

This may not be pleasant thing to hear, and it may shock our modern (or post-axial) sensibilities to hear one of God’s people invoking God’s blessing upon horrific violence. But Psalm 137 gives us space, not just to lament in sorrow, but also in rage, and even to express our desire for murderous retribution. It is okay to want these things.

At the same time, the passage is coherent with the rest of God’s saving action for Israel, and Israel’s understanding of the ways its God has redeemed it time and again — through miraculous acts that demand Israel’s patience and it’s inaction. This is still true, and because of that, we can read this psalm without simply or solely discarding it. However, it’s not okay to do violence because our vindication, our vengeance, our redemption belongs to God and to God alone. Who will fight for us. We have only to be silent, and to wait.

Elisha and Hazael -or- One Biblical Response to War and Suffering

There’s a little story in 2 Kings, one of the Elisha stories, that absolutely fascinates me.

7 Now Elisha came to Damascus. Ben-hadad the king of Syria was sick. And when it was told him, “The man of God has come here,”  8 the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the LORD through him, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’”  9 So Hazael went to meet him, and took a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camel loads. When he came and stood before him, he said, “Your son Ben-hadad king of Syria has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’”  10 And Elisha said to him, a“Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover,’ but the LORD has shown me that he shall certainly die.”  11 And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was embarrassed. And the man of God wept.  12 And Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women.”  13 And Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The LORD has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.”  14 Then he departed from Elisha and came to his master, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.”  15 But the next day he took the bed cloth and dipped it in water and spread it over his face, till he died. And Hazael became king in his place. (2 Kings 8:7-15, ESV)

Where to start?

What I find most fascinating about this story are verses 11 and 12. “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women,” Elisha says to Hazael. He sees, perhaps in a vision, or perhaps simply because he grasped Hazael’s character, the violence that Hazael will do to Israel — to God’s people — once he becomes king of Syria.

And what does Elisha do?

He cries.

No press conference. No demand for a pre-emptive strike. No war without end. No condemnations. Not even any warnings, so far as we are told. Just a tear. Or two. Because he sees the suffering that’s coming. Suffering that likely comes — Hazael makes much war against Israel in subsequent chapters of 2 Kings — though Elisha’s vision is all we get in the way of details.

Hazael, as king of Syria, will wage horrific war, kill women and babies. He will kill unborn children. Again, the writer(s)/editor(s) of 2 Kings say this comes to pass because “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (2 Kings 13:3). Hazael appears to die a natural death, and his son appears to lose much of what Hazael conquered. So it goes.

Oh, and Amos calls down doom upon “the house of Hazael” and “the strongholds of Ben-Hadad” (Amos 1:4).

But that’s it.

It’s an important story. Because much of our modern theological conversation about evil demands that those who are “self-identified” good people must act. To stop horrific evil. Such as the evil Elisha clearly see Hazael ready to perpetuate.

But nothing of the sort happens in scripture. If Elisha does anything, it isn’t said here. Hazael leads an army, an army that inflicts much death and destruction. And this is seen as God’s judgement on Israel for its idolatry (1 Kings 12:25-33). The Assyrians would later conquer Israel, and its people would vanish. (Actually, no, they would become Samaritans.) Now, we tend not to see God’s judgement at work that way, and when we do, it’s generally to make tawdry political points. Because that seems to be all we’re capable of anymore.

It speaks to the pointlessness of our ethics. Our ethics demand the exercise of our power because they assume the exercise of power. Our ethics assume power. We don’t know what to do when we don’t have any. Elisha is not powerless — the episode in 2 Kings 6 when he strikes an entire Syrian army blind, but only to mislead them, not to defeat them — shows what power Elisha has. He could have easily dealt with Hazael had he wanted to. But his is the power of the prophet — the one who pronounces the word of God. He leads a Syrian army into a trap, and then commands mercy. And a feast. It’s not a permanent peace, but there is no permanent peace this side of the eschaton.

Elisha not only foretold the coming awfulness, in a way, he also anoints the man — an Assyrian leader, no less, one of the enemy’s, one of the oppressor’s, commanders — as king who will inflict that awfulness. It’s a strange tale, one that leaves our ethical sense reeling a bit.

And that is the point, I think. Sure, Hazael will be one of many imperfect instruments of God’s justice upon God’s people. But this is not an easy book of moral tales, a guide to good behavior, recipes on how to do right and succeed at life. It is the story of God’s people in all its wonder and brutality.

It is our story. We need it because of the wonder. And the brutality.

“War is America’s Altar”

Stanley Hauerwas spends a couple of chapters of War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity dealing with the role of war in the American national and religious identity. He begins with an evaluation of just war theory and “realism,” particularly the approach to Christian governance espoused in the 20th century by Reinhold Niebuhr. (Niebuhr is never one of Hauerwas’ favorites, and in his Gifford Lectures, Hauerwas is heavily critical of Niebuhr’s failure to have an ecclesiology — Niebuhr sees no role for the church as bearing God or witnessing to God’s presence in history in a world of nation-states.)

After briefly evaluating Augustine and Martin Luther, Hauerwas writes:

Reinhold Niebuhr understood himself to stand in this “realist” tradition. In 1940 in his “Open Letter (to Richard Roberts),” Niebuhr explains why he left the Fellowship of Reconciliation: he did not believe that “war is merely an ‘incident’ in human history” but rather that it “is a final revelation of the very character of human history.” According to Niebuhr the incarnation is not “redemption” from history as conflict because sinful egoism continues to express itself at every level of human life, making it impossible to overcome the contradictions of human history. Niebuhr, therefore, accuses pacifists of failing to understand the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith.” From Niebuhr’s perspective, pacifists are captured by a perfectionism that is more “deeply engulfed in illusion about nature than the Catholic pretensions, against which the Reformation was a protest.” 

“Just war” proponents argue that war is justified because our task as Christians and as citizens is first and foremost to seek justice. Paul Ramsey understood his attempt to recover just war as a theory of statecraft to be “an extension within the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.” Ramsay saw, however, that there was more to be said about “justice in war than was articulated in Niebuhr’s sense of the ambiguities of politics and his greater/lesser evil doctrine of the use of force.” That “something more,” Ramsey asserted, is the principle of discrimination, which requires that war be subject to political purpose through which war might be limited and conducted justly, that is, that noncombatants be protected. 

Yet it is by no means clear if just war reflection can be yoked consistently to a Niebuhrian realism. Augustine and Luther’s “realism” presupposed there was another city [the church] that could at least call into question state powers. For Niebuhr, realism names the development of states and an international nation-state system that cannot be challenged. Niebuhrian realism assumes that war is a permanent reality for the relation between states because no overriding authority exists that might make war analogous to the police functions of the state. Therefore each political society has the right to wage war because it is assumed that doing so is part of its divinely ordained work of preservation. “Realism” therefore, names the reality that at the end of the day in the world of international relations, the nations with the largest army get to determine what counts for “justice.” To use Augustine or Luther to justify this understanding of “realism” is in effect to turn a description into a recommendation. (p. 23-24)

Which is my primary complaint with Martin Luther, who describes well but proscribes poorly in his essay on the use of temporal power and what Lutherans (and others) have come to call the “two kingdoms” theology.

Hauerwas then deals a little with international law and the nation-state order, which now requires that governments undertake war with just intentions.

This means that a war can be undertaken only if peace, which is understood as a concept for a more “embracing and stable order,” be the reason a state gives for going to war. The requirement that the intention for going to war be so understood as an expression of love for the enemy just to the extent that the lasting order be one that encompasses the interests of the enemy. (p. 25)

Which leads to a wonderfully snarky comment from Hauerwas:

And pacifists are said to be unrealistic?

And Hauerwas begins to get down to the centrality of war, particularly total war, in the context of American democracy. He focuses heavily on the Civil War because it became the moral template for how Americans understood themselves and what war did for, to and with them.

I think the lack of realism about realism by American just war advocates has everything to do with them being American. In particular, American advocates of just war seem to presume that democratic societies place an inherent limit on war that more authoritarian societies are unable to do. While such a view is quite understandable, I want to suggest that democratic societies, or at least the American version of democracy, are unable to set limits on war because they are democratic. Put even more strongly, for Americans, war is necessary to sustain our belief that we are worthy to be recipients of the sacrifices made on our behalf in past wars. Americans are a people born of and in war, particularly the Civil War, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a people set apart. (p. 27)

Hauerwas then reviews how pastors and preachers on both sides of the Civil War saw the war as both an atonement for sin but also as a blood sacrifice necessary if the American people were “to inherit their providential destiny.” (p. 30) Such ideas became enshrined in the few short words of the Gettysburg Address, which Hauerwas describes as “chilling” (and rightly so):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Which prompts Hauerwas to write:

A nation determined by such words, such elegant and powerful words, simply does not have the capacity to keep war limited. A just war that can only be fought for limited political purposes cannot and should not be understood in terms shaped by the Gettysburg Address. Yet after the Civil War, Americans think they must go to war to ensure that those who died in our past wars did not die in vain. Thus American wars are justified as a “war to end all wars” or “freedom.” Whatever may be the realist presuppositions of those who lead America to war, those presuppositions cannot be used as the reasons given to justify the war. To do so would betray the tradition of war established in the Civil War. Wars, American wars, must be wars in which the sacrifices of those doing the dying and the killing have redemptive purpose and justification. War is America’s altar. Confronted by such a tradition of war, the attempts to justify war using just war considerations, no matter how sincerely done, cannot help but be ideological mystifications. (p. 32-33)

War, then, in the American context, is a continual redemptive sacrifice, a sacrifice that redeems the world, that redeems America. It is purpose. It is meaning. It may be the only real shared meaning Americans have.

Finally, Hauerwas notes that while there was ink about the need for the Civil War before and during the conflict, a conflict that would redeem and remake the nation (simply consider the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), the war itself — and its outcome — provoked almost no theological reflection either by the winners (many of whom wandered away to other causes) or by the losers.

In his book, The Civil War as Theological Crisis, Mark Noll asks why the Civil War, in contrast to past wars, produced no “deep theological insights from either elites of the masses.” At least one of the reasons may be be, as Noll amply documents, that religious thinkers in America assumed the people of America had a covenantal relationship with God. America was identified with the ttibes of Israel in which is was assumed that the federal union “created a higher bond than the bond constituted by the unity of all Christian believers in the church.” This was combined with the confidence of the Enlightenment that the common man was capable of reading Scripture without guidance from any authority, which meant that it was a simple matter to read God’s providential will for political events. The war did not force American Christians to deeper theological insights because the war was, for America, our church. (p. 33)

The closest one can come, I think, to a re-evaluation of the war theologically is the speed with which abolitionists disappeared, and with it any real commitment to racial equality (aside from its use to punish the occupied Confederacy as Reconstruction wore on), which suggests to me that the commitment to civil and social equality was pretty ephemeral to begin with. (I recall reading somewhere that many religious abolitionists were of an apocalyptic mindset to begin with, and when the war ended not with the creation of New Heaven and New Earth but with Ulysses Grant sending the defeated rebel soldiers home with their horses so they could plant the next crop amidst the ruins of their towns and cities, was fairly much of a let-down.

But the importance even today of the Gettysburg Address in explaining the Civil War — indeed, most American wars since — shows that the war prompted almost no theological reflection. Not then, and certainly not since. The Civil War became the central sacrifice, the central liturgical act, in the religion that is The United States of America. And it must be understood that way.

* * *

Next time, I’m going to skip a few chapters. There’s a couple of I’m going to skip because I don’t think they add much. Hauerwas does some of his best writing on the subject of justice in this book. And he spends a very silly chapter defending Martin Luther King in what I consider to be a very un-Hauerwassian way (yes, that would make me an Hauerwassian against Hauerwas).

But Isn’t That The People’s Job?

I’ve noticed some heartburn in the West from the New Year’s message delivered by the Korean Central News Agency (there’s no permalink, click on the article “Joint New Year Editorial):

We must develop our single-minded unity without interruption into the solidest one which is carried forward generation after generation. Kim Jong Un, the supreme leader of our Party and our people, is the banner of victory and glory of Songun Korea and the eternal centre of its unity. The dear respected Kim Jong Un is precisely the great Kim Jong Il. The whole Party, the entire army and all the people should possess a firm conviction that they will become human bulwarks and human shields in defending Kim Jong Un unto death, and follow the great Party for ever. [Emphasis added – CHF] We must become true persons who keep pace with their leader and his true comrades who work untiringly to creditably realize his intentions however hard the times are.

I’m not entirely sure what the heartburn is about. Isn’t this what all governments, more or less, demand of the people they govern? That they become “human bulwarks and human shields” defending the state and its leadership, which never puts itself or its members at risk?

I mean, I know we live in an era in which this kind of sacrifice for the state is passé. Which is why in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, George W. Bush asked not for sacrifice, or commitment, but rather told Americans to “go shopping,” visit Disney World and “enjoy life.” Clearly, the sacrifice was for a small group of others to make. The war would not even get paid for by raising taxes (which is, to be honest, what governments ought to do in wartime to cover expenses, if for no other reason then to show people that war is burden to bear and ought not to be a permanent condition). Clearly, Bush would not openly ask Americans to be a bulwark and a shield for his leadership. No Western leader in our consumerist age would. Or could.

Americans are very lucky, right now. The United States can wage war almost with impunity. There is little cost and little risk. Our capital-intensive form of war needs fewer and fewer bodies (the age of the mass armies has passed as has the age of the mass factory and the mass office and even the mass media), and thus does not need to conscript anyone. Those we attack are weak and far away, and possess no ability to retaliate in an effective manner. And so no American leader need demand that Americans be “human bulwarks and human shields” against some enemy, real or imagined.

But aren’t we anyway? I can imagine that American leaders would, if the need arose, toss away the lives of the people they govern without any thought. A day will come — I believe this fully — when American planes will bomb a people who can and will fight back. Effectively. We have for so long fought that weak that we have no idea what it is to fight the strong and the resolved. I do not know when that day will come, or who those people will be, but between our decaying power and our righteous (but terribly misguided) certainty that we are history’s meaning and direction, I believe it will come.

And then you watch. The demand will be made that we be bulwarks and shields. It will come.

What Happens to Obsolete Military Alliances

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in the early 1950s in response to the consolidation of Soviet power in Eastern Europe and the “dropping” of Iron Curtain across the continent. It was designed to fight exactly one war — World War Three, the grand clash between the United States and the Soviet Union fought primarily in Europe and the North Atlantic (hence, I bet, the alliance’s name).

There were several different “scenarios” for such a war, and by the 1970s, it became institutionalized as beginning in the Fulda Gap, a place that was once between the Germanies* where Soviet motorized rifle divisions would first drive into Western Europe. But it would have been a global endeavor.

In any event, the USSR and its attached military “alliance,” the Warsaw Pact, went out of business in 1991. Kaput without any real kablooey. At that point, it would have been perfect for NATO, its one and only trained for war now an utter impossibility, to have had a great victory big party, invite the losers in a show of magnanimity and shower them with food, beer and wine, woken up the next morning and in the blurry headache of the hangover, gone right out of business. American troops should have permanently left Europe with a promise that, if needed, we’ll come back. And in order to prove that, we’ll practice coming back every now and again.

Instead, NATO did not go out of business. It found new things to do, focusing on stuff like international trade, climate change and the drugs trade. (I wonder how many good conservative American militarists know that U.S. money for NATO funds action on global climate change?)

And since that one-and-only war became an impossibility, NATO has waged four wars — in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Libya. NATO remains engaged in all of these places, with troops on the ground still maintaining peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, troops on the ground maintaining not much of anything in Afghanistan, and planes buzzing Libya bombing stuff with no sign the bombing is accomplishing much or that it will ever come to an end.

So this is what happens to obsolete military alliances — they just wage war until they are finally beaten (or exhausted, same thing) and only then can they truly go out of business. At some point, some people may begin to wonder: what was the point of winning the Cold War, anyway? Because I’m not sure I know.


*That just looks so strange, referring to Germany in the plural.


I’m fascinated by how NBC reported this story of a fight that broke out on a United Airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to Accra, Ghana. At about the 2:30 mark of the report, the reporter says:

The pentagon told us it costs $9,000 per plane per hour for an F-16. There were two involved here. 

If I may. It’s funny how suddenly the cost of using military forces becomes relevant only when the operation involves something remotely resembling the actual defense of the United States. When U.S. forces are used to patrol the skies of some far away land — or bomb that same land — then cost no longer matters. I don’t recall ever hearing how much patrolling the no-fly zones over Bosnia or Iraq cost, how much the bombing of Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have cost, how much the occasional air strikes on Somalia have cost. Or the drone strikes in Pakistan.

Forgive me for thinking that somehow the defense of the United States actually involved defending the country. Clearly, it doesn’t. Actually defending the country appears to be something we as Americans simply cannot afford. But killing people abroad? Apparently we can’t be bothered with accounting for the costs of that.

Bin Laden’s Death and a Matter of Honor

I was working for the Saudi Press Agency at the kingdom’s U.S. embassy in Washington when the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq in March, 2003. The Saudis I knew were not terribly supportive of the invasion, but they didn’t like the Iraqi government much either. They also knew there wasn’t much they could do, and that the Kingdom was tacitly supporting the invasion.

In the first week of the invasion, when the Iraqi army appeared to give little effective resistance to the American advance, a few Saudis I met in the embassy were a little glum. “We don’t expect them to win,” one told me. “But they do need to fight well. They need to show they can and are willing to fight to protect their country and their families.”

There is no sin in losing to a superior force if you at least acquit yourself honorably on the battlefield. This is both a matter of honor (in the premodern sense) and dignity (in a modern sense)*. To be utterly overpowered, to never have a chance to fight and die in a “fair” fight, to feel that you have been defeated fairly rather than unfairly is, I think, almost as important as whether you win or lose. The West’s way of war — technologically effective, impersonal, overpowering and overwhelming — is a way of war of the deprives those who are defeated of their honor and dignity. (This matters, because it’s impossible to make peace or even reconcile people to their defeat if they do not believe they maintain some amount of honor and dignity in the fight. It means that “winning” wars in such ways effectively does not matter.)

To stand, to fight, to even die like men — that’s important. We ignore that reality at our peril.

This came to me last night as I considered the scant reports we have now of Usama bin Laden’s death at the hands of U.S. commandoes in north-eastern Pakistan. As of this writing, it appears he died on his feet, fighting, and it was important that he did so. I do not know if this was intentional or not, but the Obama administration gave bin Laden an honorable death. Granted, unlike Saddam Hussein, bin Laden probably reconciled himself to dying years ago. And with his faith, he likely had no fear of dying either. I suspect he was not inclined to be captured alive.

And capturing him alive presented any number of problems — where to keep him, how to treat him, how public a spectacle he is to become. Treating him the way U.S. forces treated Saddam Hussein, the public humiliation of something like a health checkup, photos of bin Laden in a cage in Cuba, would have enraged too many people. Granted, Saddam was a coward who talked big about fighting to the end but hoped, instead, to live and rule another day. He did not. The American desire to humiliate bin Laden was intense, and it is good we were not given — and did not take — the opportunity to act upon our worst impulses.

This doesn’t matter because somehow those waging war on the United States will say to themselves, “the Americans are now honorable, so we can stop fighting.” They won’t stop. But in the outrage to come — about the violation of Pakistani sovereignty, the dumping of the body at sea — many will at least be able to say bin Laden died fighting, that he died like a man. There will be some begrudging admiration from friend and foe alike. It will provide something resembling an ending.

The only problem I have with how the administration has acted has been with what they did with the body of bin Laden. I would have seriously considered giving the body to the Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia, knowing that the burial rules and customs of the Wahhabis require burial in an unmarked grave. The Bin Ladens could have buried their wayward and long-disowned son deep on private property and no one would ever know where. It does, however, make sense that the administration feared they would no longer have control over the conversation if they released the body. The burial at sea — I suspect with the presence of a Muslim cleric and maybe a Muslim service member or two for a proper funeral — was basically a dumping, a way to easily get rid of a now-inconvenient artifact, something too hot to handle. It’s clever they are justifying this by motioning to bin Laden’s “religious beliefs,” but this was all about not wanting to keep the trophy too long.

Because it would have been too tempting to want to do something awful to the body. Something humiliating. (I can just see the likes of John McCain and Joe Lieberman demanding that Bin Laden’s body be publicly displayed and “desecrated”…) Something that would have only angered Muslims across the world. It would have been Americans at their absolute worst. In according Usama bin Laden the dignity of dying in a firefight, dying on his feet, and then dumping his body in the deep blue sea, the Obama administration has also according the Muslim world a matter of respect. Some honor. Some dignity.

Real power is knowing when you don’t have to, and don’t need to, and probably shouldn’t, lord it over others. There’s much that I don’t like about Obama, and the actions of his administration, but he does have a more sophisticated and effective understanding of power than many in the GOP, who confuse barking orders and threatening people with real power.  Who confuse brutalizing and humiliating people with defeating them. And, like Israel’s Likudniks, confuse strength with aggression and domination.


* I have come to believe that dignity and honor are roughly the same thing. Honor being a pre-modern, very tribalist notion (that requires a community), while dignity is its modern and much more individualistic articulation.

Obama’s Speech

I haven’t listened to a presidential speech in a while. I boycotted all of Bush Jong-Il’s speeches, and was right to do so, since listening to him simply made me angry. And up to last night’s speech on Libya, I had also ignored Barack Obama. When presidents talk, I just get angry. Last night was not much different.

Mostly it was twaddle and nonsense. Americans are not “reluctant” about using force, given the number of times we’ve gone to war since 1950 and the constant state of war since 1948. If anything, we are less reluctant about killing brown people now than we ever have been, merely because there is no other great power to threaten us if we go too far. Obama mentioned the Libyans who helped the pilot whose F-15 fighter-bomber crashed without also noting that the Marines who came to rescue the pilot fired upon those same Libyans and injured a number of them (and killed several, if I remember the reports right).

And of course there’s the idiocy of humanitarianism. I cannot even begin to express how foul and evil a justification this is for making war, the helping and bettering of others and the protection of the “innocent.” Obama stated as one justification for bombing Qaddafiy’s forces the fact that Muammar Qaddafiy used his air force to bomb civilians in cities who could not fight back. If this is a criteria for intervention, I wonder when the United States and its NATO allies will bomb Israel in defense of Gaza, which itself is regularly pounded from the air by Israeli fighter-bombers and whose people cannot adequately fight back or defend themselves against attack.

Oh, right. Never.

I have long had a disdain for much of the ethics of war in the West, with Just War Theory and all of that. I have been told I do not understand how these things work, and maybe that’s fair, but I don’t see the long, deliberative process at work that these processes of reasoning out when a government should go to war seem to require or mandate. All I see is justification after the fact, the decision to go to war first and then a self-righteous declaration that war is being fought allegedly not for our advantage, but to benefit of the people we are “helping.” George W. Bush could have given most of that speech, and it was completely in line with Obama’s intention to have America continue to dominate the world he set forth in the Nobel Peace Prize* (sic) speech. I also see essentialism at work, that the people making the decision to go to war are good people, the people they are fighting are bad people, and the people they are defending are innocent people — and it is always this way. There is never any reflection about the suffering our actions cause, and that we might not be the people we think we are, that the evil will so clearly see in others also resides in us, and is easily empowered by our self-obsession with our goodness and righteousness.

I also do not understand this focus on “innocence.” I remember from the time of the Bosnian War, meeting various Leftists in the United States and reading European Leftists who complained the Bosnian Muslims were not properly “innocent” because they (unlike European Jewry in the WWII) had the audacity to fight back, and thus were undeserving of help. Theologically, this makes utterly no sense, since in the Christian frame of ethics, none are innocent save Jesus Christ. “Innocence” should not be a requirement for assistance. But this also becomes self-serving, because we decide to justify our help by determining the people were are aiding (by bombing them) are “innocent” somehow and the people we don’t help are clearly guilty and deserve to be bombed by whoever isn’t us that’s bombing them. Again, this isn’t well-thought out prior reasoning, it’s after-the-fact justification. Always.

(Honest, I really do not understand this, and am convinced the desire to “save innocents” and inflict “justice upon the guilty” is really an excuse to exercise power, dominate others and inflict suffering upon people. I see no other reason for any of it. Helping them is only a cover for these things. If someone could explain this innocence thing, I’ll listen. I won’t be convinced, but I promise I’ll listen.)

And that last bit leads to another important point — every bleeding heart humanitarian has someone’s suffering they simply do not care about. Or are willing to empower and call righteous. (See Gaza.) So, in the end, their humanitarianism is completely situational and very selective. And they refuse to be called on this, since they are self-righteous — good people waging war to defend the innocent from evil. As an excuse to wage war, it is too noble, to attractive. It will lead, has already led, to far too much war, destruction, and domination.

Obama did touch upon the one real reason the West should act — because had Qaddafiy won two weeks ago (and if he still wins), refugees will flood not only Egypt and Tunisia, but Italy, Malta and Greece as well. Hundreds of thousands, probably more than a million. Qaddafiy would have been in charge of a broken, sanctioned, blockaded, impoverished country with few resources. Libyans would have suffered greatly under those sanctions, as Iraqis did in the 1990s. He would have had no reason to behave himself in Africa or elsewhere, and his connections with some of the world’s worst regimes would have been the only economic ties he would have been able to retain and strengthen. The material support Qaddafiy gave to Al Qaeda in Iraq beginning in 2007 would have continued, and probably also strengthened. (That many Iraqi veterans of the anti-US war in Iraq are now fighting Qaddafiy’s regime is proof that even dictators can face blowback.) Once Europe and the world more or less committed itself to supporting the rebels in their struggle to overthrow Qaddafiy, they were in.

And there is only on way this ends — with the death of most or all of the senior Libyan officials on the sanctions list of UN Security Council Resolution 1970.

I have the same argument for those who complain about the West’s “failure” to stop the Nazi efforts to exterminate European Jews in WWII: the only way to help them is to the bring the war to as quick an end as possible. You “protect” the civilians of Libya by waging a war that removes the threat as quickly as possible. That threat, as just about everyone has concluded, is Qaddafiy’s government. Obama and Nikolai Sarkozy do seem to understand that, and they do seem to be waging war toward that end (even if they are rather cagily or stupidly saying they aren’t).

So I don’t so much object to Obama’s actions as I do his language, which is dishonest, deceitful, self-righteous and self-serving in the extreme. And those words he did mean — all that crap about humanitarianism — are frightening and horrific. Because they promise war without end.


* Some people suggest Obama ought to return his Peace Prize. That isn’t fair. The Nobel committee was merely premature in giving him the award. Sitting American presidents who have won the prize — Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919 — have always done so after they waged their wars of mass destruction and slaughter (Roosevelt the Philippines War, Wilson the Great War to End All Great Wars and Make the World Safe for Democracy and Reparations). The committee acted in haste. Obama needs at least one more war, and then he will be properly eligible for the Peace Prize.

What The Resolution Really Says

Something caught my eye the other day as a read through UN Security Council Resolution 1973 — the resolution that authorizes military action against Libya to “protect civilians.” This is the operative section is paragraph four, which comes after wading through many paragraphs of preamble (“Recalling,” “taking note of,” “reiterating,” “considering,” blah blah blah):

4. Authorizes Member States that have notified the Secretary-General, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, and acting in cooperation with the Secretary-General, to take all necessary measures, notwithstanding paragraph 9 of resolution 1970 (2011), to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory, and requests the Member States concerned to inform the Secretary-General immediately of the measures they take pursuant to the authorization conferred by this paragraph which shall be immediately reported to the Security Council …

Two things. First, the purpose of the resolution makes the defense of civilians and civilian areas under attack the purpose of the military action. This, of course, is cover for assisting the rebels, but suppose the military situation turns, it could just as easily be invoked by Qaddafiy’s government to demand protection for Tripoli. It won’t happen (the protection, not the call), since the goal of the intervention — at least from the Anglo-French perspective — is the end of Qaddafiy and his government. Neither country will use their military to protect him or his forces, or cities he controls, even if the “law” allows it.

The second thing, however, is more interesting. The resolution explicitly excludes a “foreign occupation force.” This has been taken to mean (by the press) no ground troops, but that’s not what the words say. It doesn’t say “foreign combat force,” it says “foreign occupation force.” This is enough wiggle room to drive the French Foreign Legion or a Marine Expeditionary Unit through. The difference, in my mind, is simple — no one can send troops in to occupy and govern Libya, but it says nothing about troops in to help the rebels fight.

I’m not saying that will happen, or was even planned. But lawyers write these documents very carefully. If they had wanted a resolution that would explicitly forbid all foreign (non-Libyan) ground troops from being in the country as part of this, it would have said so. That it doesn’t suggests someone (in Paris, probably) wanted to keep the option open.

Not How You Help Anyone

Sometime in 2004 or 2005 — probably mid-spring 2004, I do recall the season — I sat in a rather posh little cafe having lunch with Amatzia Baram discussing what was then the state of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq. Baram was one of Israel’s leading experts on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a sometime advisor to Israeli Labor governments, and of course a decorated veteran of the IDF. He is also very charming and very funny. I had taken a class from at Georgetown during his sojourn in the United States (which included a stint at the spectacularly misnamed US Institute for Peace). He had taken something of an interest in my career, and was curious as to how I was doing and where I was going.

But we were also discussing the problem of Iraq. I had opposed the invasion, and he — while not opposing it — did not consider it particularly wise. He also said the occupation had turned out to be a disaster, though he believed on both points, the invasion and the occupation, that there really was no choice.

I disagreed. I said there was a choice.

Baram liked a challenge. In his class (which was people mostly by overeager undergrads begging and whining for an “A” because otherwise Goldman Sachs would not look kindly on their applications), we did an interesting little role play exercise — he was Saddan Hussein and students each took the role of April Glaspie, hoping somehow that we could say something to dissuade Saddam from his August 1990 invasion and occupation of Kuwait. I still believe that telling Saddam, when he referred to Kuwait as a “Gerbil’s hole,” that even gerbil holes are someone’s home, was clever. But nothing could probably have kept the Iraqi army in Iraq that summer.

In any event, Baram asked me what the choice was. I said it was simple: grab a chunk of Iraq, the southern part of the country from Al-Nasiriyya east, including Basra, and hold the far western board with Jordan, and then mobilize and equip an Iraqi rebel army. (It would have been harder in the north, given the lack of Turkish cooperation, but it could have worked given the lack of control Iraq had over its own air space.) Provide them air support, let them organize the government, and then let them do the fighting. With support. As they gained parts of the country, Iraqis would have likely defected and rebelled, knowing they were backed by US air power, and that there was an Iraqi alternative to the Baa’ath government. It had the beauty, I argued, of keeping the United States out of direct control of any kind over Iraqi civil government, and it invested Iraqis in their own liberation.

I think it would have worked, allowing the Iraqis to rise up and seize their own dignity and liberate themselves. Baram dismissed it out of hand, saying it would not have. We’ll never know.

So we come, a few years later, to Libya. I admire and respect the rebels, and was very optimistic — too optimistic, it turns out — for their prospects during the first few days of the uprising against Qaddafiy. I had hoped the rebels would be able to prevail without Western military help. It became clear about 10 days ago that wasn’t possible. And once that became clear, I had hoped any Western military assistance could have cooperation given to a roughly equal partner.

And now that hope has been dashed too.

The statements that came out of Washington and Paris (and I’m guessing London too, though thank God Tony Blair has shuffled off to retirement and we’re not hearing his prissy and sanctimonious voice on this) in the last few days, since the passage of UN Security Council resolution 1973, has been maddening, reminiscent of Bosnia and Kosovo and some of the more thoughtful neoconservatives on Iraq. “We must protect civilians from the Qaddafiy government, which has lost all international legitimacy.”

I can see this nonsense coming out of Washington, but for Sarkozy to say it, when his own government recognized the rebels a week ago as the legitimate government of Libya, boggles my mind. It’s as if that rebel government, for the purposes of war-making, no longer exists.

This is the West’s moralizing at its worst. We protect the innocent from the evil. We are the powerful good who always ride to the rescue. Our bombs always fall with the noblest of intentions, and that makes those killed by them less dead. The Libyans have become objects — as people always seem to — in our self-obsessed moral drama. Always helping innocent victims against evil. Always doing good in a world full of bad.

Our idea of helping people is to do for them, not to do with them. This permeates the entire ethic of help grown in the West, its secular and religious notions.

Instead, the Libyans can and should have been full partners in a fight for dignity and freedom. Recognize their government and they become full participating subjects, partners, and not merely objects in a liberation and protection fantasy that we have created, in which we are the only real moral actors and everyone else is simply a spectator or an object, who exist only to receive the order we do. I would have thought someone in the Quai d’Orsay would have gotten that (Washington is incapable of understanding that non-Americans and non-Israelis have any sense of dignity, certainly any dignity worth fighting and dying for), but clearly not. So, the cavalry flies off across the Mediterranean. To save the innocent people of Libya!

(They aren’t so innocent. Many senior figures from the Qaddafiy regime now inhabit the rebel government. You do not get to be Qaddafiy’s interior minister by holding ice cream socials. You do not rebel against a government like Qaddafiy’s merely by marching and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Innocence should not be a requirement for help, but it seems morally to be.)

I fully expect the Libyan rebels and the exiles supporting them to wholeheartedly accept the assistance. It saves their rebellion, and any hopes they have for an immediate future of a Libya they govern. But the stakes have changed. Because they no longer really are partners in their struggle. The language used by Western leaders clearly states that. Had Obama or Sarkozy talked about aiding the Libyan rebels, or had Washington recognized their government (which it should), that would be one thing. But the talk is of protecting civilians. The same kind of nonsense talk the prolonged the Bosnian War, and deprived the Bosnians the right to fight and die like dignified human beings.

Western leaders are hypocrites no matter what they say or do. All people are. But the powerful are especially vulnerable to such charges, usually because they are so self-righteous about the power they use and when and why they use it. If “protecting civilians” oppressed by their own governments (or not, from the standpoint of Paris) is the gold standard for the use of virtuous power, then where do you stop? Who will protect the civilians of Bahrain? Of Yemen? Of Palestine? Or of those Libyans who die from Western bombs or rebel guns? Oh right. Nobody.

This isn’t to say the rebellion isn’t worth supporting. Qaddafiy and his government are worth getting rid of. The Libyans themselves tried to, and bless them, it wasn’t quite enough. Absent the rebellion, the West would be right not to topple even an odious regime like Libya’s. But I had hoped this time might be different. That we could treat the Libyans like equal women and men in a fight for liberty and dignity. The chance was there.

But clearly, we’re not capable of taking it.