Memorial Day yesterday got me thinking (quite rightly) about those who serve in the American military, which got me thinking about those who serve those who serve in the armed forces—our military chaplains.
During my last semester at Yale Divinity School, I managed to convince a professor of American history to oversee an independent study on the intersection of American morality and military. Early on in my reading (and with great consistency) a name began to appear: Father Francis Patrick Duffy. ‘The most decorated army chaplain in American history,’ my textbooks told me, ‘America’s favorite priest,’ these histories insisted—and I couldn’t resist. He was everything I hoped for in a case study on the sometimes overlapping, sometimes opposed agendas of American Catholicism and American Militarism. I checked out every book that mentioned him and dove headlong into his life.
This turn-of-the-century-cleric managed to confound, elude, and exceed expectations for the myriad of roles he played throughout his life: A man of the cloth and the uniform; a member of ‘the old faith’ and an early ecumenist; a professor of philosophy, a parish pastor, and a patriot; a Canadian-born Irishmen who set records in his service to the American military. Early in his life, the Catholic Church found him suspect for his promotion of liberal, modernist philosophy (which at the time was condemned as heresy), but by the time of his death, Patrick Cardinal Hayes—the leader of the Archdiocese of New York—declared that “the church will long mourn the loss of a most devoted son.”
If I’m being honest, the consistency with which he earned such an abundance of rare distinctions made me skeptical. Duffy sounded more myth than man. I didn’t believe his story to be anything more than some modern, American hagiography—after all, religious and military cultures alike depend on the inspiring stories of their canon of saints and heroes. I figured Father Duffy was one of those hybrid-mythic-historic figures in which we ‘believe’—with a wink and a nod. He functioned, I suspected, as a symbol for the ideal; the kind of historical ideal we might think we’re referring to when certain crowds want to ‘make America great again’ but which perhaps never actually existed. In my attempt to discern the man through the thick cloud of praise that surrounded him, I found myself operating out of a hermeneutic of suspicion (if you’ll allow me the phrase) as I began reading various historical works—including the diary he kept during his time in France during World War I.
Duffy’s famous text, Father Duffy’s Story: A Tale of Humor and Heroism, of Life and Death with the Fighting Sixty-Ninth, served as the loose basis for the 1940’s Hollywood movie about World War I, “The Fighting 69th!” starring Pat O’Brien as Duffy himself. I learned that before he was a chaplain in the Spanish-American War for the New York Fighting 69th Regiment—famously referred to as the Fighting Irish 69th (and then the renamed-Rainbow Division) Father Duffy was a professor of philosophy at a seminary in New York. After surviving both wars he returned to Manhattan, where he became pastor at Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street in Times Square. Just steps from that parish, where he served faithfully for many years, the legend himself is solemnized by a bronze statue of Duffy in his military uniform, stoic against a 17-foot granite Celtic cross in the heart of Times Square.
And if an oversized monument in Times Square weren’t enough to convince a person of Duffy’s larger-than-life reputation, the lofty praise of the editors of Commonweal upon his death in 1932 surely will:
He was a brilliant scholar, a witty talker; he had an almost fabulous physical bravery, which made him a legend among the lifesavers during the war; and earned him practically every earnable decoration; and, to crown it all, a handsome, electric presence, very much in the military manner.
Despite my skepticism over all his accolades (and, to be fair, my skepticism about our collective capacity for honesty in the American memory) I was pleased—and sincerely surprised—to find that Father Duffy wasn’t reflexively patriotic, as my cynicism had subconsciously assumed. Rather, he was sober and calculated about the gravity of war. He spent his chaplaincy burying the dead, hearing confessions, exhorting the soldiers to virtue, and writing letters—over 100,000 in all—to the families of living and fallen men back home.
A dozen books and countless anecdotes confirmed Duffy’s seemingly impossible perfection. I read texts that catalogued the work of World War I chaplains; the poetry of Joyce Kilmer, who became a dear friend of Duffy’s while they served together in France; I visited his statue in Times Square; I read accounts of the thousands of people—all claiming to be Duffy’s close friend—who processed down 5th Ave for his funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I tried everything I could not to fall for the folklore, only to reluctantly admit that he was, indeed, much more than a myth.
“Ray McGovern, a former CIA officer who gave the daily brief for President George H.W. Bush, is pretty well known in the intelligence community. He's become a Christian antiwar leftist who goes around bearing witness. Whatever his views, he's harmless.”
—Sidney Blumenthal in an email to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, February 18, 2011
When Ray McGovern was a fresh-faced recruit to the CIA during the Kennedy administration, he was awestruck by the words from the Gospel of John engraved on the entrance of the original headquarters building: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Those words have stuck with him throughout his career—first during his twenty-seven years as a specialist in Soviet foreign policy at the CIA, and now as a critic of the CIA and U.S. foreign policy. McGovern says there was no damascene moment in his transition from being an analyst to being a dissident, and that he remains a true-believer in the original mission and political independence of the CIA. He argues that, beginning in the 1980s and culminating in the “intelligence fixing” that led up to the Second Gulf War, the analysis branch of the CIA, which was supposed to be an objective fact-finding department, gradually became subservient to the political goals of the executive branch.
McGovern’s indignation at this development was on full display at a press conference in 2006 when he challenged Donald Rumsfeld to explain his September 2002 claim that there was “bulletproof” evidence of links between Al Qaeda and the government of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. A four-minute exchange ensued, with Rumsfeld denying that he had lied. (You can find the exchange on YouTube.)
McGovern has met with both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, and maintains an active schedule speaking and writing on U.S. foreign policy and intelligence. In March, I had a chance to speak with him about Syria and U.S. foreign policy at large.
Nicholas Haggerty: Why did it take five years to get to a ceasefire in Syria?
Ray McGovern: When the Arab Spring moved to Syria, initially it was a grassroots movement. There’s no denying that Assad clamped down with great cruelty, and that served to inflame the situation. But it was not very long till the CIA was sent in there to find “moderate” rebels so that they could assist in causing Assad all manner of troubles and perhaps even bring him down. Why did we do that? What’s in it for Washington? Assad was not a threat to us. He was cooperating with the United States in the War on Terror. He was helping to find terrorists and he was one of the people who took some of our detainees to be tortured and held in prisons while we figured out what to do with them.
One of the main factors is that Israel has inordinate influence on the policymakers at the State Department and in the White House. Syria has been on Israel’s list of countries for regime change since 1996, when several U.S. neocons wrote a paper for Netanyahu just before he became Prime Minister the first time. The paper was “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” The authors made it very clear that the objective would be to foment real problems in Iran, Syria, and Iraq—against all manner of countries in the Middle East that might support Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.Read more
In ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America, reporter, teacher, and translator Gene Palumbo—who has lived in El Salvador since he moved there to cover the civil war in 1980—has written a unique remembrance of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It is comprised of stories from priests and nuns who knew him throughout his clerical life: as a young "docile" auxiliary bishop of San Salvador passively aligned with a corrupt social order; as a rural bishop who spent full days visiting residents of far-flung hamlets and when necessary confronted the National Guard to demand prisoners be released; and as the prophetic martyr "spontaneously proclaimed... a saint" at his funeral by the people of El Salvador and beatified by Rome one year ago yesterday.
The vignettes Palumbo compiles reveal just how much the people influenced Romero, more than how Romero influenced them. As one example, years after a shouting match with parishioners during a Mass in San Salvador, Romero returned and apologized for the incident, saying:
I now understand what happened that day, and here before you I recognize my error.
I was wrong and you were right. That day you taught me about faith and about the Church. Please forgive me for everything that happened then.
The shouting match had started when the parishioners asked Romero to explain why he had justified, on behalf of the bishops conference, a military invasion of the National University. His late apology was received with tearful applause and—as one nun attested—"all was forgiven."
Read the full article here.
The funeral Mass for Daniel Berrigan, SJ, will be celebrated Friday morning at St. Francis Xavier Church in New York. Over the course of several years in the 1960s and early '70s, Commonweal featured a number of pieces both by and about the noted peace activist and poet. Here we present a selection of articles from our archives, with excerpts.
From “How to Make a Difference,” by Daniel Berrigan, August 7, 1970:
What we seek, acting coolly, politically, out of the truth of our lives and tradition is to pull the mask of legitimacy from the inhuman and blind face of power. We seek at the same time, to open the eyes of more and more of our friends, to bring a larger community of resistance into being. We seek moreover to awaken to the facts of life, those Americans who continue to grasp at the straws of this or that political promise; and so put off, day after day, year after year, the saving act of resistance, allow innocent men to be imprisoned, guiltless men to be kicked out of America, good men to die.
But if even a few men say no, courageously, constantly, clear-sightedly, more men will be drawn to say no; fewer men likewise will continue to say yes, and so to lose their manhood, their soul, their brothers.
From “Selma and Sharpeville,” by Daniel Berrigan, April 9, 1965:
The Gospel of Saint John, in the Zulu tongue, so strange to American ears; sibilants and the clicking of tongues, with only the names Jesus, Mary, Peter, John, coming through. And about the third hour, they crucified Him . . . . A white priest, in the pulpit of the black church; my fellow Christians. He can hardly remember what he had to say to them. But at the end, the veneration of the Cross. A, great wave starts forward: mothers with children, young men, the very old. Three priests move among them, holding the crucifix to their lips.
And spontaneously, as is the way with Africans, the chant starts; first, as one voice, hardly rising above the sough of bare feet, that sound which above all sounds is like the sea, on a mild evening. The song is the Zulu dirge for a fallen warrior. They are bearing Him homeward to his village after battle. His name is Jesus, great King, black Warrior. Easily, with infinite delicacy and naturalness, the song breaks into harmony; two parts, then four, then eight, as a yolk divides, or a cell . . . Jesus, great Warrior, we mourn you. O the beauty, the youth, the empty place. Who shall plead for us, who shall lift our faces, who shall speak wisdom?
The Zulus have a saying: he who is behind must run faster than he who is in front. Even to the Cross. Even when the Cross is held in white hands. Shall the white man time us, even to the Cross? Does he any longer even know the way?
From “Notes from the Underground, or, I Was a Fugitive from the FBI,” by Daniel Berrigan, May 29, 1970:
May 7 marks exactly a month since I packed the small red bag I had bought in Hanoi, and set out from Cornell, looking for America. So far, it has been a tougher and longer voyage than the one which set me down in North Vietnam some two years before.
In the course of that month, I have changed domicile some six times; this in strict accord with a rule of the Jesuit Order, making us, at least in principle, vagabonds on mission; 'It is our vocation to travel to any place in the world where the greater glory of God and the need of the neighbor shall impel us.' Amen, brothers.
It may be time for a modest stock-taking. The gains sought by such felonious vagrancy as mine, are in the nature of things, modest to the point of imposing silence on the wise. The 'nature of things' being defined simply as: power. It is entirely possible that any hour of any day may bring an end to the game; the wrong chance meeting, a thoughtless word of a friend, a phone tip the possibilities are without end. But one takes this for granted, and goes on, knowing that practically all of us are powerless, that the line dividing the worth of one's work from inertia and discouragement is thin indeed. (What manner of man today exudes confidence, moral spleen, righteousness, sense of messiahship at once cocksure, and dead serious? God, who grants us very little these days, at least keeps us from that.)
From “My Brother the Witness,” by Daniel Berrigan, April 26, 1968:
[I]n general, the bishops have played the war straight American. And the war's end will probably find few of them in any way interiorly changed in their understanding of the Church, of the meaning of violence, or indeed of their own office.
Which is not to say that the Church has felt no tremors. It is only to suggest that in the Catholic instance, the power structure has followed the culture, its sedulous ape. Still, in an exciting and even unique way, the war has altered the face of the Church as no former American war has done. For the first time in our national history, significant numbers of Catholics, including a few priests, are in trouble.
The war has also seriously thrown into disarray the timetable of renewal which the Church had set for itself. That schedule included beyond doubt the building of strong, open and affectionate relationships between the bishops and their communities. Alas, alas. The war has deepened and widened a tragic cleavage which issues like birth control, school systems, speech and its freedoms and unfreedoms, control of properties and income, had already opened.
From “Taking Fr. Berrigan Seriously,” by the Editors, August 7, 1970:
There are various ways of not taking Daniel Berrigan seriously. The easiest is to dismiss him, his brother and the other destroyers of draft files at Baltimore, Catonsville, Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, as "kooks" or "romantics" … There is, however, another, more sophisticated way of not taking Daniel Berrigan seriously. Which is to follow his exploits vicariously while avoiding one's own responsibilities, to nod admiringly at his words, and then to return him to that corner niche conveniently reserved for plaster saints. …
Father Berrigan is far too significant a figure to be dismissed in either of these ways without risking great loss. He, and his brother Philip, are calling for a moral revolution, a regeneration that is based on the personal conversion of individuals through acts which break them off from established powers of the world and which link them, through suffering and the fate of being outcast, with the poor and the oppressed. Now that message is not exactly "political," as we have come to understand politics in the age when ideologies are supposedly outdated. The Berrigans' message is sometimes mysterious, incomplete, paradoxical; and we confess to suffering something of a "metaphor gap" with Daniel Berrigan when he writes of future political change as putting on a "new garment," creating "a new mankind." Their message, to the scandalizing of some and the embarrassment of many, is however very much the message of the Gospel; and the problems they present, mystery and metaphors and all, are precisely the problems the Gospel presents.
We do not want to dismiss Daniel Berrigan, nor to canonize him, nor to co-opt him. We wish to respond to him from our own position, agreeing and disagreeing, hoping that the dialogue may prove useful to the antiwar movement and the church.... [continue reading here]
Amid the many remembrances of Daniel Berrigan, I want to highlight a biography of him and his brother Philip that was reviewed in Commonweal by David O'Brien in 1997. The review itself paints a fuller picture of the "life and times" in which the Berrigan brothers were shaped, and describes the significance of how they went on to shape the lives and times of many others—particularly American Catholics.
We get a glimpse of the Berrigans' family life in upstate New York. They grew up in the Depression with a father who "brooded over his failures," whose "anger overwhelmed the love of their mother, and who made leaving home easier." Yet "Dado" left copies of the Catholic Worker around the house and helped set up a Catholic Interracial Council in Syracuse, exposing his sons to Catholic social teaching. The brothers began creating discomfort "amid the conformist self-congratulations of fifties' Catholicism":
It began as fairly modest efforts to awaken the lay apostolate and challenge the church's own racism, then to respond to Pope John XXIII and the council, then to confront their country's bloody war in Vietnam.
By then, O'Brien summarizes, a Catholic peace movement was capturing national attention, and it seemed the church at all levels began to face the problems that had long troubled them. "But it was never enough," O'Brien writes, "less because [the Berrigans] were radicals, which they were, than that the nation's capacity for violence, and self-deception, was far greater than anyone suspected."
The biographers make clear the difficulties Daniel and Philip each faced as priests and laity: "Both loved being part of the church, and were hurt that some Catholics seemed more angry at them than at the warmakers."
On nuclear weapons, "the most important issue of their time," O'Brien concludes:
[T]hey faced the truth while far too many spent their talents seeking ways to justify the unjustifiable. The gifted moderates now seem convinced that they helped 'our' side 'win' the cold war, while the Berrigans still prefer, in Dan's words, 'to be as marginal as possible to madness.' It is possible that only on those margins, with people like these that alternatives to madness can be imagined, a necessary step to the much desired renewal of our country and our church.
You can read the full review here.
In 1971, Commonweal published an interview with Sr. Elizabeth McAlister, co-founder of Jonah House in Baltimore and member of the "Harrisburg Seven" group of anti-war activists and clergy. She was a sister-in-law of the recently deceased Fr. Daniel Berrigan. This interview may now be of interest to those curious about how Berrigan and his companions understood their actions at the time.
Harry J. Cargas: Who are you, who do you see yourself as being, particularly in reference to the Catholic Church?
Sister Elizabeth McAlister: Our effort, and specifically in answer to your question on my effort, has been really to deemphasize personalities. I would only be interested in answering that question from the basis of how the Gospels have formed my life or how I'm trying to allow them to form it or how we must respond to men in the way that Christ wanted us, really commanded us to respond to men.
HC: Which is consistent with your notion of viewing the war in human terms?
EM: That's right, in terms of men. But this is something all of us are obliged to do. At the same time we must seek to live in such a way that life itself becomes attractive to others, which I think is what the Gospels ask us to do, too. The Christian communities grew because people were amazed that Christians loved one another that they could manifest things like joy and hope at a time when joy and hope seemed to be totally unjustified. And that's our obligation now, too. They could live with a lot of simplicity and put value on the things that arc most valuable which I would say are human relationships, community, friendship which of course can only be preserved in the Lord.
HC: And yet, judging from something else I heard you say, you’re saying the way we live the Gospels is through crisis.
EM: This is something I'm still trying to work out . . . it’s been my experience that a friend in risk draws me into a situation of deeper risk and by my own risk others are drawn into it. But as I said, I didn't understand why that must be until someone pointed out to me the principle behind it. When you begin living this way, you begin to constitute a threat. It's really very strange, but you do. The early Christians constituted a threat to the powers, although they had nothing in terms of guns, position or the things that the world calls power. But there was something about the way they lived and the values that they tried to make live that threatened the existing structure, because the existing structure was based on the use of human beings rather than respect for human beings.Read more
Nicholas Clifford’s profile of Simon Leys in the latest issue of Commonweal mentions the late Sinologist’s interest in a revolutionary Chinese writer named Lu Xun (1881-1936). During the Cultural Revolution, Leys sought to defend Lu Xun’s legacy from the attempts of the Chinese Communist Party—and intellectuals in the West—to appropriate him as a Maoist icon. Although Lu Xun maintained left wing and patriotic commitments throughout his career, he never joined the Chinese Communist Party. Mao himself allegedly admitted that Lu Xun would “either have gone silent, or gone to prison” if he lived through the anti-dissident campaigns of the 1950s.
It’s a good thing that the Cultural Revolution-era debate on Lu Xun has settled on Simon Leys’s terms. The problem, however, is that his legacy is now under attack by a different kind of sanitizing exaltation. Gloria Davies, author of a recent biography on Lu Xun, writes that post-Maoist scholarship has often reduced his revolutionary polemics to “an example of mere intellectual factionalism.” So I’ll take Clifford’s essay on Simon Leys as an opportunity to ask: Who was Lu Xun and why should we know him better?
Julia Lovell's brief but illuminating introduction to her recent translation of Lu Xun's collected fiction is a good place to start. Lovell recounts how the social decay that marked late-imperial China played out on a microcosmic level in Lu Xun’s family. He was born into a gentry-class family in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, but his grandfather’s imprisonment for bribery and his father’s failing health laid a heavy burden on the family finances. It seems hardly shocking, then, that Lu Xun (whose given name was Zhou Shuren) abandoned the imperial examination system—the traditional path to success in China for an ambitious young man—that his forbears had followed.Read more
A conference for which the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace was one of the co-sponsors met in the Vatican on 11-13 April. Participants affirmed a statement calling for the Catholic Church to “re-commit to the centrality of Gospel Non-violence” and asking for Pope Francis “to share with the world an encyclical on nonviolence and Just Peace.” Some of the more important paragraphs:
The time has come for our Church to be a living witness and to invest far greater human and financial resources in promoting a spirituality and practice of active nonviolence and in forming and training our Catholic communities in effective nonviolent practices. ...
Clearly, the Word of God, the witness of Jesus, should never be used to justify violence, injustice or war. We confess that the people of God have betrayed this central message of the Gospel many times, participating in wars, persecution, oppression, exploitation, and discrimination.
We believe that there is no “just war”. Too often the “just war theory” has been used to endorse rather than prevent or limit war. Suggesting that a “just war” is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict. ...
We propose that the Catholic Church develop and consider shifting to a Just Peace approach based on Gospel nonviolence. A Just Peace approach offers a vision and an ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict. This ethic includes a commitment to human dignity and thriving relationships, with specific criteria, virtues, and practices to guide our actions. We recognize that peace requires justice and justice requires peacemaking.
The statement put me in mind of a dialogue on just war and pacifism that was held in Washington, D. C., in January 1973.Read more
If we can't hope for peace at Christmas time, then when? In that vein, Yoko Ono has taken out an ad in today's New York Times "from John and Yoko" with the tabloidy upper-case headline: WAR IS OVER! and the fine print, "If You Want It." Many will dismiss it as double fantasy, but not those who have read David Carroll Cochran's thoughtful cover story in the current Commonweal: "A World Without War: Why It's No Fantasy."
After noting how once entrenched attitudes have changed toward slavery and capital punishment, he writes:
The best news from research on armed conflict is how infrequent it has become. War still exists, of course, as news accounts from Syria and Ukraine remind us every day, but there has been a gradual long-term decline in war across the past several centuries, one that has dramatically accelerated in the past sixty years. Whether measured by the number of active wars or the number of battle deaths per capita, we may be living in the most peaceful period in human history. Wars between states, especially those between great powers, have virtually disappeared. In many parts of the world, countries still have disputes but don’t even consider using war to resolve them. The Greek debt crisis, for example, sparked serious conflict within the European Union, but nobody thought Germany was going to invade Greece, even though collecting national debts was once a common reason for war. The thought of the United States going to war in order to resolve various differences with Canada or Mexico over trade or pollution or drug trafficking is now as improbable as the thought of two doctors in Peoria fighting a duel over a medical-ethics complaint.
Today’s wars are almost all civil wars fought within impoverished, frail, or failed states. There is no reason to think that the tools of peacemaking emphasized by Catholic social teaching cannot be effectively used to bring such states into existing zones of peace, where war is simply no longer considered a valid option.
Yoko Ono was in the news earlier this month when she tweeted that more than 1 million people have been killed by guns in the United States since her husband John Lennon was fatally shot by Mark David Chapman on December 8, 1980. That war can end too, if we want it.
In a sprawling forty-five-minute address to the United Nations this morning, Pope Francis again urged world leaders to take practical measures to protect the environment, avoid armed conflict, and protect the most vulnerable.
After “reaffirming the importance” of the UN in working to promote justice and human rights,” the pope prodded the assembly to pay attention to the “victims of power badly exercised”: the environment and the “ranks of the excluded.” He warned against “false rights” presented by “the world”—and then he asserted a new one: “a true ‘right of the environment’ [derecho del ambiente, in the original Spanish] does exist,” Francis said. That is a very big deal.
Before the publication of Laudato si’, there had been some speculation about whether the encyclical would speak of the environment itself as having rights. After Francis told journalists that human beings had lorded their power over nature Robin Darling Young asked:
Was he really implying that created nature—the environment—has rights of its own? Such a view on the part of the pope would be a significant development in Catholic thinking about the inherent worth of creation apart from the humans who dominate it. We shall soon find out if he meant it.
It sounds like he did.Read more
President Obama spoke at American University on August 5. In defense of the Iran nuclear agreement he said many things, worth thinking about. Among them a recognition that U.S. and Israeli national interests (at least as seen by PM Netanyahu) are not congruent:
OBAMA: "I have also listened to the Israeli security establishment, which warned of the danger posed by a nuclear armed Iran for decades. In fact, they helped develop many of the ideas that ultimately led to this deal. So to friends of Israel and the Israeli people, I say this. A nuclear armed Iran is far more dangerous to Israel, to America, and to the world than an Iran that benefits from sanctions relief.
"I recognize that prime minister Netanyahu disagrees, disagrees strongly. I do not doubt his sincerity, but I believe he is wrong. I believe the facts support this deal. I believe they are in America's interests and Israel's interests, and as president of the United States it would be an abrogation of my constitutional duty to act against my best judgment simply because it causes temporary friction with a dear friend and ally.
"I do not believe that would be the right thing to do for the United States, I do not believe it would be the right thing to do for Israel."
Earlier this month, I happened to turn on the PBS NewsHour and caught a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s decision to send another 450 military “advisers” to help train the Iraqi army in its fitful fight against ISIS. One of the panelists was Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, among other books. Also on the panel were Ret. General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of policy at the Department of Defense, and Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense. Zinni, Flournoy, and Panetta were all supportive of sending more advisers and even expanding the scope of the rules of engagement. Not surprisingly, Bacevich was skeptical. As he saw it, whatever skills the U.S. military might instill in Iraqi forces, they will not “be able to transfer the will to fight, which would seem to be the fundamental problem.”
Panetta was hawkish and optimistic about an expanded U.S. military mission. He seemed to think that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be pressured into arming its Sunni and Kurdish partners in the north. “We’ve got to push the Iraqis,” he said. No one asked why we would have more leverage with the Shiites now than we did when we had a hundred thousand troops in Iraq. Panetta insisted that ISIS posed a grave threat not just to U.S. interests abroad, but to our domestic security. Bacevich responded that Panetta was “vastly exaggerating” any threat ISIS might pose to the United States. Given the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we “ought to be a little bit humble” about thinking that U.S. military can fix problems in that part of the world. Bacevich observed that we had in fact created many of those problems by invading Iraq in 2003. “The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “U.S. military intervention in this region creates greater instability, not stability.”
Isn’t that a simple statement of fact? Evidently not to Panetta. He reads recent history quite differently. “The fact is, we’re good at counterterrorism,” he said. “The reality is that we know how to do this without deploying the 101st Airborne or a large number of brigades.”
I confess to being nonplussed by that statement. Does Panetta honestly think Iraq and Afghanistan have been rousing counterterrorism success stories? I suppose that might be true if the goal was to occupy both countries indefinitely. But there are limits to American dominance, and limits to what we should ask of our men and women in the armed forces.
To his credit, Bacevich was having none of what Panetta was selling. “With all due respect,” he answered the former secretary of defense, “we don’t know how to do this.”Read more
I recently went to a memorial service at my hopelessly politically correct alma mater for a former mentor and dear friend. He had died last November at 89, after a half-dozen torturous years in a nursing home. The son of a Methodist minister, he had been a commanding presence on campus, with a voice that was made for the unamplified lectern, if not the pulpit. His interest in churchgoing had atrophied many years before I knew him, or so I understood. Melville seemed to have replaced Scripture, although Wordsworth took on much of that burden as well. The service was well attended, and I had an opportunity to say hello to several former teachers. On such an occasion one is uncomfortably reminded that the college teachers who seemed to possess so much gravitas at the time were much younger than I am now. Where have all the years gone? The answer is both obvious and yet often hard to grasp.
Several of my mentor’s academic colleagues as well as a former student of his spoke. The former student had been a leader of the African American community and quite a fire-brand. I remember an inflammatory speech he gave one night when the campus gathered to debate joining the national student strike. It was the spring of 1970. Nixon had invaded Cambodia and the Ohio National Guard had killed four student protesters at Kent State. A tense time. This was also the heyday of the Black Panthers, and racial tension was pervasive on campus. There were several violent incidents. This former “revolutionary” is now the pastor of a non-denominational church, and speaks with a modest, self-deprecating sense of humor. How crazy, in retrospect, things were back then.
When I arrived at my small liberal arts college/university in the fall of 1969, all students and faculty were asked to read Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, about the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Momentous things appeared to be in the offing, and events surrounding the student strike seemed to confirm that suspicion, at least to some of us eighteen-year-olds. Richard Wilbur, the university’s poet in residence, felt called upon to issue a note of caution. In his poem “For the Student Strikers,” he wrote: “It is not yet time for the rock, the bullet, the blunt/Slogan that fuddles the mind toward force.” Blunt slogans were hard to avoid.
Remarkably, Mailer turned up on campus during the student strike. Blunt he could be, but slogans were not high on his list of rhetorical tools.Read more
George Weigel seems quite immune to irony. In a recent column, be opines on what he sees as “The Catholic Church’s German Problem”. Yet in the run-up to the pope’s encyclical on the environment, perhaps a more appropriate headline would be “The Catholic Church’s North American Problem”. As we all know, the sound and fury surrounding a document that has not yet been published is simply unprecedented. And it is equally clear that this sound and fury is coming overwhelming from the United States—from its noisy cabal of libertarians, free market fundamentalists, oil and gas industry vested interests, and climate science denialists.
Full disclosure: I was involved in last month’s symposium at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences entitled “Protect the Earth, Dignify Humanity: The Moral Dimensions of Climate Change and Sustainable Development”. As I noted before, this symposium brought together some of the world’s top climate scientists, development practitioners, and religious leaders, and it was opened by Ban Ki-Moon. It also had the dubious distinction of being gate-crashed by the worst emblem of this “American problem”—the Heartland Institute, which uses quack science to mock the idea of climate change while upholding the virtues of the unlimited extraction of fossil fuels. More than one person noted in private that this is indeed an American issue, and it is being driven by American financial interests.
And who provides cheap intellectual cover for these radicals and dangerous extremists? None other than George Weigel. In the aftermath of our symposium, he noted that it “assiduously excluded those skeptical of the U.N.’s global-warming orthodoxies” – as if the subject of anthropogenic global warming was actually subject to debate outside the hermetically-sealed chamber occupied by this cabal.
Circling back to his attack on the German Church, the lesson Weigel draws is that of “a cautionary tale about the effects of surrendering to the spirit of the age.” Yet I would contend that few American Catholics in the modern era have surrendered more to the spirit of the age—the age of Reagan and the resurgence of free-market liberalism and aggressive militarism—than George Weigel.Read more
We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:
Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:
The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.
Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,” Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy.
Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?
Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religions, and Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe.
See the full table of contents here.
We've posted two new stories to the website.
First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.
Read the whole thing here.
Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:
…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.
Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?
Read the whole editorial here.
On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:
Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.
Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...
Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.
Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:
I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”
Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.
Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.
"All journalists are manipulated." I have to say, that line Judith Miller used in her interview with Jon Stewart this week is irking me. It's probably true, certainly for myself, that at some time or another, skillful PR people have managed to mislead, sidetrack, obstruct and otherwise manipulate every reporter.
But part of the job is to recognize when that's being done, and Miller, promoting her new book The Story, comes across under Stewart's questioning as willfully oblivious to that.
During the interview, Stewart calls Miller's attention to a September 8, 2002 front-page New York Times story Miller wrote (with Michael Gordon, as she noted) showcasing the Bush administration’s contention that Saddam Hussein had “embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.”
Stewart pointed out the phrase that says administration “hard-liners” were arguing that the first “smoking gun” to be sighted from Saddam's supposed build-up could be a “mushroom cloud.” (Condoleeza Rice used the line publicly the same day, and President George W. Bush repeated it in a speech the following month.)
“It’s a very powerful line, and it explains their thinking,” Miller responds.
Stewart retorts that the phrase originated with a White House speechwriter, Michael Gerson. “It’s a political line directly tied to the White House,” he says. In other words: recognize that it's spin.
"Jon, were we not to report what it was that had the community, the intelligence community to be so nervous about Saddam?" Miller replies. "Were we supposed to keep that from the American people?"
Stewart: "No-- you should have reported it though, in the context that this administration was very clearly pushing a narrative and by losing sight of that context by not reporting"--
Miller: "I think we did, the story said"--
Stewart: "I wholeheartedly disagree with you."
Miller: "Now, that’s what makes journalism."
Stewart: "It’s actually not what makes journalism, so let’s continue with this."
David Kertzer's biography The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe was awarded a Putlizer Prize earlier this week. Kertzer was able to write it because of the recent opening of the Vatican archives covering Pius XI’s papacy. The complex details of the seven years it took Pius and Mussolini to negotiate two agreements--a political treaty that recognized the pope’s sovereignty over Vatican City and a concordat that regulated the church’s position in the Italian state--is the subject of this book, told through vivid biographical sketches of Pius and Mussolini's personal lives leading up to their positions of power, and how these personalities both clashed and compromised:
With strong opinions and an increasingly authoritarian manner, the pope shared the fascists’ opposition to communism even as he continued to distrust their sincerity and press for greater influence over Italian society.
If you're thinking of reading it, James Sheehan wrote a great review for us last September.
Making my way into the depths of international news, I was surprised to read that Pakistan had said, "NO," to sending troops to back up the Saudi war againt the Houthis in Yemen. The Saudis have been bombing the Houthis trying to stop their advance into the south of Yemen. General opinion seems to be that bombing alone will not do it, hence the call for Pakistani troops since the Saudis appear not to have a serious ground force of the sort that would be required.
The Pakistanis said, no: their president said no, and then the Parliament voted no. Why? It was not entirely clear, especially since Pakistan is the recipient of very significant loans and gifts from Saudi Arabia as well as the Gulfies.
Here are two reports that provide more information and analysis.
Bruce Reidel at al-monitor reports on the Pakistani assessment and vote on the request and offers a brief analysis of the "no" vote.
Patrick Bahzad at Pat Lang's blog offers a more extended analysis and some interesting speculation on how the Iran nuclear agreement may be shifting the geo-politics of the region, including Pakistan's relations with Iran and China.
UPDATE: Another factor that came to light today: the Saudis wanted only sunni, not shiite soldiers from Pakistan. The Pakistani army is said to be 70 percent sunni and 30 percent shiite. Pakistan has enought troubles without igniting a sunni-shiia war on their own territory.
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