As Donald Trump demonstrated in his first address to Congress, no matter how objectionable a president may be, he can bring an assembly of politicians to its feet and disarm critics simply by invoking the secular faith--Americanism--and eulogizing the latest military man to sacrifice his life for it. Trump has indeed shown he can fill the role expected of any president: supreme head of what retired Col. Andrew Bacevich calls the Church of America the Redeemer.
Horace's declaration, "Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori"--"It is sweet and proper to die for one's country"--is just what poet Wilfred Owen called it: "The old Lie." Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky extended Owen's point when he had his protagonist in The Americanization of Emily tell a war widow, "We ... perpetuate war by exalting its sacrifices."
If we are ever to abolish America's permanent war state we will have to rethink the secular faith which holds that dying--and killing--for one's country is the greatest honor and virtue. In fact, killing and dying for a secular ideology--even so-called liberal democracy--is as bad as doing so for a theocratic one--even so-called radical Islam.
Navy SEAL William "Ryan" Owens died in a bungled special-ops raid in Yemen in late January. It was the first such operation Trump approved, although it was planned during the Obama administration and Trump has shifted responsibility to the generals.
"Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero--battling against terrorism and securing our nation," Trump said, adding that Owens died in a successful mission.
But Trump left out some facts. The raid killed at least 25 noncombatants, including children--among them an American citizen: the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the militant Muslim cleric and American citizen killed without due process in Yemen by an Obama drone nearly six years ago.
Moreover, the January raid failed in its mission to capture or kill leaders of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). And as NBC reported, contrary to Trump's claim, the raid "has so far yielded no significant intelligence."
The purpose of the raid has been clouded by conflicting statements, and NBC says "the Yemeni government disagrees" with the Pentagon's description of one of the victims as an AQAP leader.
But according to the secular faith, reckless blunders don't matter. All that matters is that a man gave his life carrying out orders issued by the high priests of the American Church in the name of National Security. It is heresy even to wonder if the death was in vain, if the noncombatant deaths constitute war crimes, or if the operation bore any relation to the actual security of the American people. Woe betide anyone who suggests (as some military people have) that such raids create militants who want vengeance against Americans for what they allow their government to do.
Trump's press secretary Sean Spicer said that anyone "who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and [does] a disservice to the life of Chief Owens," but, inconveniently, it was Owens' father who admonished Trump not "to hide behind my son's death to prevent an investigation" of the ill-conceived operation.
Remarkably, even Trump's critics were taken in. Van Jones, who portrays himself as a edgy left radical, gushed over Trump's shameful use of Owens' death. Trump "became president of the United States in that moment, period," Jones said on CNN. "That was one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics."
Hardly. But it shows that a secular faith can be as powerful as any theological faith.
Contrary to official dogma, the "war on terror" is neither defensive nor effective: There was no AQAP before the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan and Iraq roughly 15 years ago, and it has been bombing Yemen for years. (Bizarrely, it also helps AQAP by enabling Saudi Arabia's war against the Houthis in Yemen.)
The 9/11 attacks, the official excuse for the permanent war state, were acts of revenge--albeit immorally directed at noncombatants--for decades of lethal and oppressive U.S. actions against Arab Muslims. The already small terrorist threat in America could be further reduced by adopting a noninterventionist foreign policy.
Of course, any suggestion that the American Church does wrong is marginalized and kept from the public by defenders of the faith. As long as that's the case, innocents in other lands will continue to be killed and Americans like Ryan Owens will continue to die in vain.
Sheldon Richman, who lives in Little Rock, is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute.
Editorial on 03/17/2017
Print Headline: American Church