Visit the blog
announces a new imprint

Search Articles

Search Authors

Advanced Search

Join our Mailing List
Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Our Opinion

War and Peace

I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America….[T]he majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them. Not that he is in danger of an auto-da-fe, but he is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution… those who blame him criticize loudly and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.
– Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, I, XV, pp. 263-264.

It began many months ago, in the midst of fear and mourning, incomprehension and rage, confusion and despair. Our attorney-general, the officer of our federal government specifically, constitutionally entrusted with the protection of our liberties and rights as citizens, declared that anybody who questioned his reconsideration of some of those liberties and rights – who wondered how thousands of legal but “Arab-looking” residents of this nation could be summarily rounded up on suspicion of being nothing more than…Arab-looking; who, generally, asked questions; doubted the validity of what seemed to be hastily concocted and collectively punitive prosecutions; and dissented from peculiar and novel interpretations of age-old Anglo-Saxon legal concepts such as habeas corpus – were giving comfort to the “enemy” (indistinct and amorphous), aiding and abetting the “terrorists” (equally indistinct and amorphous), and were, therefore, for all intents and purposes, traitors to their country and fellow citizens. When it was pointed out to him that some of the staunchest opponents to his criminalization of difference at this, most critical, moment in our history since the fall of the Berlin Wall were local police chiefs around the country who refused to follow orders to arbitrarily arrest their fellow citizens on no evidence whatsoever and on even less presumption of guilt, John Ashcroft was not impressed. Mr. Ashcroft is nothing if not resolute; he has, after all, been born again, touched by the Lord’s grace (no similarities implied here to the likes of Osama bin Laden). Not for him the petty, inconsequential disputations of mere mortals. He is a man on a Mission.

Would that we all survive it. For a long time, discretion seemed to be the better part of democratic valor in our Republic. It finally became clear, sometime toward summer’s end, however, that our president was going to add another war to our preexisting crusade against the evil ones (which our secretary of defense warned might last 40 years). There was, apparently, another, really Evil One we had ignored when we declared our first war (they crop up faster than weeds on a Georgetown lawn). Less than a couple of weeks ago in fact, just to ensure that we also had an “objective” justification for our policies, our president released a “national security strategy” in which, in black and white, we forewarn all and sundry that “defending the United States, the American people and our interests at home and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders…we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively.”

History Lessons
Somewhere among Forty Years Wars, unilateral global preemption, contempt for other people’s elections (more on this shortly), and a notion of “evil” that seems to have been lifted from the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwas against the Great Satan, one espies the unmistakable resurrection of that Leviathan, which we thought we had buried with the Cold War, called the National Security State – this time rearmed with the force of Empire. And, it seems, “historical precedent.” According to The New York Times (“Beating Them to the Prewar,” David E. Sanger, September 28), Condoleezza Rice, our president’s national security adviser, has lately hijacked Daniel Webster to defend our government’s theories about striking first, acting alone, and, by and large, singlehandedly destroying any final illusions about an “international community.” The study of history never having been a hallmark of our American way of life, however, this cynical appropriation only betrays Dr. Rice’s sad ignorance of our own past, does Webster a manifest injustice, and is, in every sense, distinctly unintelligent.

Evidently, the former Stanford professor is unaware that Daniel Webster was first elected to Congress in 1812 as an opponent to our then-war with Britain, which was – and we hope Dr. Rice at least knows this – the last time a foreign enemy fought on our soil. (Indeed, the attacks on September 11 were the first time we Americans had been so assaulted since the British – they of the “special relationship” – burned down our capital.) Despite Webster’s legendary devotion to our constitution – or, probably, because of it – he apparently saw no contradiction between his patriotism and his dissent from that war, even though it directly struck at our homeland. It’s no coincidence, of course, that it was Webster who famously formulated the conjunction of union with liberty, “now and forever, one and inseparable.”

Dr. Rice seeks to inflate the cogency of her arguments artificially by resorting to the wisdom and counsel of this nation’s greatest citizens of the past. There is method to her madness, however. While the madness, unfortunately for her, lies in her clear inability to understand the subjects of her study, the method lies in the subjects themselves. In that straightforward sense at least, we would be remiss if we did not follow her sterling example, which is why we now turn to one of our greatest writers of the nineteenth century – and certainly the creator of our deepest, most authentic, and most abiding self-images as a nation. He was also the most prominent, uncompromising, and astute opponent of American imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century (although every member of our current administration would undoubtedly be “shocked, shocked” to learn that). The excerpt below concludes his essay, “The War Prayer”:

O Lord, our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sport of the sun-flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with tears, stain the snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever- faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

Thus did Mark Twain beseech heaven in 1905, at his most sardonic, relentless, and disillusioned. We await our own writers, our own “public intellectuals,” today – Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag excepted – to stand in line and honestly, genuinely, claim Citizen Clemens’s mantle. (Any similarity between the prayer above and the fate of Iraq at our hands, by the way, is not only uncannily prescient but the clearest sign of Twain’s genius.)

You can fool some of the people…
And yet, it was bound to happen, at some point, by someone. In the event, it was the man elected president of the United States who decided finally to speak up. (It doesn’t matter, incidentally, if he did so out of courage, conviction, or calculation. As Michael Peachin points out in his analysis of the German elections in this edition of, there are times in human affairs when an act itself carries precedence over its rationale – as September 11 proved in the ghastliest way.) Al Gore can fairly be accused of many things, but precipitousness and inconstancy are not among them; he remains, as always, distressingly stolid and averse to imagining any possible world other than his own. No matter, whatever else we think of him, we all now owe him a debt of gratitude for finally deciding to contest the policies of the man who occupies the office that rightly belongs to his critic.

Mr. Gore’s intervention, quickly maligned in the most Tocquevillian manner, nevertheless opened up the sluices. Permanently burdened by his unceasing conflation of citizens with subjects, our president immediately accused the senior house of our federal legislature of being “not interested in the security of the American people,” which, in turn, led the Senate’s majority leader to denounce the president’s statement as, rightly, “outrageous.” Despite the by-now-standard reflexive breast-beating of the punditocracy and politicians, the events of the last week were all, in fact, a good thing for our democracy, and for the Republic for which it stands. It was a sign that there’s life still in seemingly anachronistic notions of self-government in which we once upon a time pledged allegiance as a nation. (Some day, our Republican fellow citizens will explain to the rest of us their party’s course from Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens to our current administration.)

It also confirmed, albeit in a much more constrained and tentative manner, the truth exemplified in Germany’s recent elections that democracies function best when they function democratically. A few months ago, Gerhard Schröder had been consigned to history; months before that, the pundits (German, this time) were speculating on the parliamentary end of the Greens, predicting that the Free Democrats (hoping to amass almost a fifth of the vote) would keep them from getting to the five-percent threshold needed for national representation. Herr Schröder, of course, is still chancellor; the Greens posted their best national results ever, becoming kingmakers in the result; and the Free Democrats managed to scrape together just a little over seven percent, instead of the 18 percent they had convinced everyone was within their grasp. Democracy does have a way of making the best and the brightest seem rather dim.

The question now is, Will Washington pay attention? For the truth is that, as Michael Peachin stresses in his article, if it hadn’t been for our president, the chances were good to excellent that Edmund Stoiber would now be appointing his cabinet ministers. Does our government understand that transparently simple truth? Last Saturday, a rally of anywhere from 150,000 (police estimate) to 400,000 (organizers’ estimate) was held in London protesting Tony Blair’s kneejerk identification with the United States on Iraq; in Rome, on the same day, 50,000 marched in the streets protesting their government’s indifference to popular sentiment on the same subject. Does anybody in Washington have any idea of what’s going on in the rest of the world? Does anybody care? (And, by the way, humility dictates that a president who was appointed to his position in unprecedented fashion by a one-vote majority of the Supreme Court should be more circumspect in his criticism of other nations’ electoral processes.)

It is actually in exercising precisely this function of presenting the world to our fellow citizens that the leadership, as well as most of the media, of the Greek American community has failed miserably. As much as this truth might be uncomfortable, bitter, or even resented by many Greek Americans, Greece is in fact a part of Europe, not merely geographically, but culturally, socially, and politically. As such, Greek Americans are in the rare position – and have the singular obligation – to communicate and explain European sentiments to their fellow citizens knowledgeably, articulately, and directly. Unfortunately, Greek American leaders seem less interested in transmitting Europe’s arguments on a (continually increasing) number of issues on which Europe justly disagrees with us than in unthinkingly echoing American threats against Europe or – most often – cravenly keeping silent as they await, with bated breath, their next invitation to a White House photo-op.

Last week, on September 26, a quarter-page statement appeared on the op-ed page of The New York Times with the heading, “War With Iraq is Not in America’s National Interest.” It was signed by 33 preeminent scholars of international affairs and military and security studies from some of our most prestigious universities. Among them was one of this nation’s most important military sociologists and the most important sociologist of the Greek American community, Charles C. Moskos. Anyone who knows him knows that Prof. Moskos is a man of profound moderation, deeply conservative in many (the best) ways. He is also a man who loves his country (and Greece) deeply. His example should bestir, and shame, most of us – and certainly everyone in what passes as the Greek American community’s leadership.

Page 1 of 1 pages