Separating the Cross and the Sword

Wednesday, September 29th, 2021

By Robert C. Koehler

What is a gaffe but an inadvertent uttering of an awkward truth? For instance:

“This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.”

The “gaffe” part of George W. Bush’s post-9/11 announcement that the War on Terror had begun was, of course, his calling it a crusade. Doing so, as the Wall Street Journal put it at the time, was “indelicate,” because:

“In strict usage, the word describes the Christian military expeditions a millennium ago to capture the Holy Land from Muslims. But in much of the Islamic world, where history and religion suffuse daily life in ways unfathomable to most Americans, it is shorthand for something else: a cultural and economic Western invasion that, Muslims fear, could subjugate them and desecrate Islam.”

And of course we didn’t want them to think that when we started killing them, when we launched our shock-and-awe bombing campaign. War is secular, rational and absolutely necessary, period. A generation or so earlier, Bush’s use of that word in the context of war wouldn’t have been particularly controversial, because religion was still overtly part of the mix. But by 2001 its casual reference was no longer politically correct . . . even though its quiet blessing of the war machine was still crucial.

The Crusades, as Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in her 1997 book Blood Rites, served “to cement the fusion of the cross and the sword.”

I thought about all this the other day when, in the wake of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, or quasi-withdrawal, from Afghanistan, when a U.S. drone strike killed ten civilians, including (good God) seven children, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, initially referred to the strike as “righteous” — by which he meant, of course, necessary and justified.

Later, when investigation revealed that the (ahem) Hellfire missile had taken out ten innocent people, including Zemari Ahmadi, an aid worker for a California-based humanitarian organization, Nutrition and Education International, Milley pulled the word “righteous” back and apologized, calling the deaths “a horrible tragedy of war.”

Nonetheless, the word stuck. When we kill the people we need to kill, the action is, apparently, righteous. This quiet pseudo-truth opens up a glaring insanity, or so it seems to me. War is a fusion of the best of who we are and the absolute worst of who we are: courageous servants of a larger cause, ruthless killers and planet wreckers.

Facing up to the hell of war is done only in privacy, by individuals haunted by their actions. It is not done collectively, or at least not politically — war, I fear, is at the spiritual core of the political structure known as the nation-state. The human race hasn’t figured out how to live without borders, how to form a collective whole without an enemy out there lurking.

Not only that, as Ehrenreich points out, “war has dug itself into economic systems, where it offers a livelihood to millions, rather than to just a handful of craftsmen and professional soldiers. It has lodged in our souls as a kind of religion, a quick tonic for political malaise and a bracing antidote to the moral torpor of consumerist, market-driven cultures.”

All of which opens up enormous questions for those who see beyond — and are committed to ending — war. The first question is: Is doing so possible? How can we disentangle ourselves from the war economy?

We have to begin by desacralizing war and, in so doing, looking with clarity at the hell it creates . . . by which I mean, the hell we create. That means we have to be able to see beyond our borders, to see the whole planet, and its inhabitants, as sacred. Nick Turse takes a serious step in this direction by simply printing the names of many of the people our bombs and bullets have obliterated from the planet — and he suggests that perhaps we should expand the concept of the war memorial by putting the names not just of U.S. soldiers, but also of the nation’s war victims, on a wall, or at least imagining what such a wall would amount to.

The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., which contains the names of the 58,000 U.S. servicemen and women who died in the war, is 400 feet long. However, he pointed out, “a wall for the Vietnamese dead, counting combatants, of the American War would be nine miles long.”

Turse also had a suggestion regarding what a more honest war memorial would look like, quoting journalist Peter Maass, who wrote about three Iraqi civilians who were killed in their vehicle, a blue Kia van, by Marines in 2003. Maass, who was covering the war, saw the vehicle afterwards, with two men dead in the front seats, a woman dead on the floor in the back, the “blue van, with its tires shot out and its windows shattered by bullets, its interior stained with blood and smelling of death, with flies feasting on already-rotting flesh.”

Many years later, when Donald Trump signed a bill authorizing the construction of a War on Terror memorial, Maass suggested placing the bullet-riddled blue Kia on the National Mall.

You might call such a memorial righteous.