Quaker Theology #9 -- Fall-Winter 2003
Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power In a Violent World. Jean Bethke Elshtain. New York: Basic Books, 2003. 240 pages. $23.00
Reviewed by Chuck Fager
First a bit of autobiography: Jean Bethke Elshtain and I were both undergraduates at Colorado State University, and late in my time there, we became acquainted. I recall with a smile a party where she, a known intellectual, amazed me by dancing wildly to the Beatles, at a time when I was still holding out against the "British Invasion" as a classical-music snob. Jean was the one who taught me better.
Later, our paths crossed again in Boston, when she was at Brandeis and I was sputtering along at Harvard. There, at some particularly low moments, she was very kind to me, and I still feel gratitude for her personal compassion in time of need.
A lot of water has gone over the dam since then. Jean, who was always headed into the academy, has had what is commonly called a "distinguished career" there, which I, not being an academic, have not followed closely. But my own path does put me in the way of books like Just War Against Terror, (JWAT) so I made haste to read it.
Thus it is with regret that I am obliged to report this is a dreadful book, a sub-par example of the genre called "neo-conservative," and one that I hope is not representative of her overall body of work.
I’m not the first to say this. Indeed JWAT has overall not fared well among the critics, as we will see below. Leaving aside the predictable kudos from the usual neo-imperial claque (e.g, Paul Berman in the New York Times, whose praise was damningly faint enough at that), even a brief online search shows it being savaged both from left and right.
I wanted, for the personal reasons stated above, to be sympathetic to an author thus besieged, but reading Just War Against Terror made it difficult.
The book opens by claiming Albert Camus’ help in constructing a straw man image of those who doubt the wisdom of America’s new imperial mission and the wars it is spawning, as fools who have "banished the word evil from their vocabularies." They are, she says, mired in a "naivete" which "can get thousands of innocents killed." (1-3) No actual people or statements are identified, but such a transparently underhanded way of painting critics of her argument with the guilt of the September 11 attacks hardly seems the way to avoid tendentiousness in the debate, not to mention responses that might become equally caustic, if less literarily pretentious.
Then she moves on explicitly to Al Queda’s attacks, and is soon spending several pages denouncing any attempt to understand or even to speak of what happened in other terms than those of her outrage and calls for vengeance. Any other terms are "misdescription"(16) and are simply, as she says three times, quoting Stephen Carter, "a pile of garbage" (13, 14, 20), or somewhat more loftily, indicative of "moral nihilism." (20)
Taking any other approach is to "traffic in distortions of language that lead to contortions of moral meaning," (11) though how we are thereby to understand what the belief in "martyrdom" could teach us about their pathological worldview (a very useful step, most intelligence agencies would agree, in ferreting them out and stopping them) is not explained, and evidently not her concern.
For Elshtain, Al Queda and their attacks represent, not instruments of "mass murder" (20) but the "heart of darkness," (12) and in dealing with them, "no political solution is possible." (19) With all this scorn and ridicule as preamble, it is hard to avoid the sense that the "robust politics of democratic argument" (20) the book claims to favor flows from a well poisoned from the outset.
Such generalized demonization of critics, actual and potential, is an all-too familiar neo-conservative rhetorical strategy, which I have encountered and exposed before. (Fager: 1992) Only a few days before this review was finished, Richard Perle, a central neo-conservative figure, repeated it almost casually at a televised Hudson Institute forum on the prospects for the "Neo-conservative moment," noting that the movement’s critics are "living in a fantasy world," and that they are persons in whom "visceral anti-Americanism runs deeper than any other value." There was no challenge to these comments from the audience or most of the other panelists; they are taken as established truisms by this constituency. Only the token non-neo-con panelist, Joshua Micah Marshall, voiced even a tepid dissent.
For Elshtain, this book marks a major departure from the more measured, ambivalent tone of her 1992 essay, "Just War as Politics: What the Gulf War Taught US About Contemporary American Life." (Decosse) That essay was somber, even melancholy, and declined to render a definite judgment on the 1991 war:
# . . . As we draw up the balance sheet in the matter of the Gulf War, whose effects will be felt for years to come, we must do so not only in mind of the strategic brilliance of the Desert Storm campaign, with its remarkable tote sheet "in our favor" on all counts, including combatant lives, but also in mind of malnourished Iraqi children; alongside breaking the war machine of an aggressive and despotic power. We must weigh the breaking of fundamental human relationships, some at their most fragile point, in the early weeks and months of lives as parents, especially mothers, and children were separated: in the same breath as we marvel over the peaceful taking and decent treatment of thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war, we must recount, with appropriate unease, the frenzied destruction of defenseless Iraqis on the "Highway of Death."
#The celebrations are over. The bands have played. The soldiers have marched. The confetti has fallen, creating multicolored drifts on city streets. Now is the time to get sober and to remember what St. Augustine taught: war and strife, however just the cause, stir up temptations to ravish and to devour, often in order to ensure peace. . . . de Tocqueville warned that military greatness was pleasing to the imagination of a democratic people. He feared the ephemeral but corrupting luster of such greatness. So does the just war thinker. (59, 60)
No such temporizing dilutes the righteous fervor of JWAT; evidently any lingering doubts were consumed in the smoke of the Twin Towers. Here all the important conclusions are made clear before the book gets to the just-war casuistry, "The Burden of American Power" that is its subtitle and Elshtain’s ostensible main subject. And what of the book’s version of the just war theory?
While less than twelve months old, the arguments in Just War Against Terror, (JWAT) have not worn well as a theological-ethical justification for the ongoing war. That’s partly because the ink had barely dried on her elaborately anticipatory defense of the Bush regime’s rationale for attacking Iraq, when this rationale evaporated in the unexpected, unfinished outcome of the actual war.
For instance, "By the time this book appears in print," she notes, ". . .we may be embarked upon the perilous course of a war against Iraq in order to force a murderous regime to disarm." (7; emphasis added.) When written, this was a faithful rendition of the line of the moment; how quaint it sounds now, only a year or so later, when the Washington regime’s explanations have moved from it through warding off imminent attack by weapons of mass destruction, to eliminating the potential for such weapons, to freeing Iraqis from a murdering tyrant, to simply shrugging off questions of justification in the face of the fait accompli the occupation seems to have become. As George W. Bush said to a TV interviewer in December 2003, "So what’s the difference?" (Stevenson)
But for me, what most undermines the book’s staying power is something else: the fact that when all its intellectual posturing is done, all the references to old Church Fathers and new ideologues have been trotted out, the linchpin of her thesis – that America, as the "world’s sole superpower," has acquired (actually, JWAT states that this right was "thrust upon it" ) both the right and duty to set the world straight, and has the capacity to do so – this notion is crumbling before our eyes.
Whether the US indeed has acquired any such "right" (even if phrased as a "burden") is, to say the least, debatable, even if it is expressed as guaranteeing "only" what Elshtain repeatedly calls "minimal civic peace." (46ff, 107, 187) I for one do not believe it. And whether our present level of military power gives the US government has a duty and a license to make war for this "civic peace" wherever it deems such lacking (and by her definition it is lacking in too much of the world) is likewise debatable, though here a stronger case can be made, at least for some cases such as Rwanda and Bosnia.
But even if one were to grant Elshtain’s belief in this right and duty – which despite her ritualistic mantra of purported qualifying and balancing seems reliably to come out exactly where the current White House wants to go – there remains a thorny third query: Is the US really as "super" a power as she so totally believes?
She approaches this question from her position as a fixture of the academic conference and issues-seminar circuit, which a casual websearch suggests she rides almost nonstop
Her knowledge base was also, it seems, immensely expanded in October of 2001, when she was among the august group of forty religious figures ushered into the Oval Office for a two-hour session with its occupant back in October of 2001. Besides yielding an evidently in-depth personal understanding of the administration’s character and leadership, this meeting also appeared to be something of a spiritual epiphany for her. Either that or a groupie’s dream come true; the breathless account of it written for her university colleagues leaves the reader unsure which rubric is more heuristic. (Elshtain: 2001)
I come at this from a different place, not in the academy but hard by the gates of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, one of the largest and most important military bases in the so-called "war on terror." And from here this issue of capability dwarfs the others, and offers the truest, most damning measure of the hubristic illusion on which is built what JWAT approvingly acknowledges as "imperialism.’" (166ff) I have argued that this self-assumed "mission" can be more accurately termed "messianic hegemonism" (Fager: 2003); but we’ll use her term as a shorthand here.
To get at this "superpower" question, it’s worth attempting some precision regarding the term, which Elshtain does not pause to define. In the strict military sense, what this now means, as I see it, is that the US war machine is able to go farther, and deliver more destructive force than any other existing military force, or combination of forces, and perhaps any other in history. It also means that few if any other militaries can effectively oppose such strikes, at least in the short term. In army jargon, the US can "break things and kill people" with unparalleled reach and efficacy. To this extent, the term "superpower" fits.
But this is only the beginning phase of exercising the "right" and "duty" of creating and enforcing "basic civic peace" in the world, or at least that much of it as the US regime chooses to notice. Installing such a "peace" in a place like, say, Iraq, also means occupying it, for an indefinite period. But unlike destruction, which has been largely technologized, occupation-cum-reconstruction takes, again to use army jargon, "boots on the ground." A great many boots.
And there’s the rub. Elshtain’s mission for the US is built on abstractions, hardly unusual for an academic. But occupation/pacification is a very concrete undertaking. It takes not only weapons, but many other human skills, linguistic and cultural to name but two. And what is already painfully clear is that the "world’s sole superpower" is radically "un-super"and massively under-equipped for this part of the imperial mission. Woefully, even pathetically so. Moreover, as it pursues these projects, its forces are indeed vulnerable, particularly to bloody guerilla insurgencies like that now tormenting Iraq.
Thus, our "superpower" status, while real, is much more limited and dubious than its more enthusiastic advocates presume.
How is that possible?
It’s simple, actually: the US has far too few troops and other skilled personnel for what Elshtain’s soulmates at the Project for a New American Century confidently refer to as "constabulary duty," a phrase selected, no doubt, with a wink and a nod to Gilbert and Sullivan. (Project) But the actual work of establishing "minimum civic peace" in Iraq is proving to be something other than a comic opera. Besides taking mounting casualties, the US forces there are also stretched to the breaking point, and beyond. (Hockstader)
One may not get much a of a sense of this at scholarly confabs in world-class hotels; but its ground-level reality is confirmed concretely every day in my work here at Quaker House. Yet one need not be a peace movement "grunt" to understand. Numerous eminent military and strategic figures who could hardly be tarred with the peacenik label have made this point analytically and cogently.
Not that the war party hasn’t tried to tar them. When General Eric Shinseki, a Vietnam veteran who lost a foot in combat there, told a Congressional committee last winter that occupation of Iraq would require 500,000 troops or more, his testimony was dismissed by "a high administration official" as "bullshit from a Clintonite." (Vest)
Whatever Shinseki’s political opinions might be, his numbers have gained considerable credibility since then. They were resurfaced and buttressed in November 2003 by no less a hawk than strategist Edward Luttwak. In a stinging New York Times analysis, aptly titled "So Few Soldiers, So Much To Do," he made a similar case. (Luttwak) And such technically civil exchanges aside, the casualty figures from Iraq underline their credibility daily.
So that’s just for Iraq, which along with Afghanistan are merely the beginning of the list of societies that meet and surpass the Elshtain/neoconservative criteria for calls on US power to establish "minimal civic peace." But the plain truth is we don’t have enough human beings under arms to achieve anything near that in either place. It is not even plausible, never mind realistic, without a uniformed military several times the size of our current 1.4 million force. The task becomes even more massive if one factors in the unmet demands of "homeland security," guarding vulnerable points within the US. (Tilford)
For me, this concrete test of capability throws the fantasy of new American empire, even in its most scholastically ethicized "civic peace" guise, into a cocked hat.
Why? Two reasons: One, this nation, yea even the "world’s only superpower," can’t afford the imperial war machine it now has in action, never mind the behemoth here envisioned.
Second, if the US did manage to raise, finance and equip the uniformed force required, doing so would turn the nation into a different, wholly militarized state, of the sort that peopled the last century’s nightmares.