Myodicy, Issue 17, December 2002

This Means War!
A Christian
to 9/11

by Theodore Plantinga

George W. Bush has good reason to fear me. Now, I don't claim that he actually does fear me -- he probably doesn't even know that I exist. But if I could somehow get onto his appointment schedule right this afternoon and have a private hour with him, advising him on Iraq and Osama bin Laden and so forth, he would undoubtedly fear me. Or at the very least, he would regard me as a pain in the neck and wonder why his staff had let me into his office.

The problem with me is that I'm both a Christian and a Canadian. But Bush is also a Christian, so why should my religious affiliation be an issue? The problem, in brief, is that Christians, when not serving in high office, tend to be peaceniks and are prone to defending silly ideas that might sound good in a Sunday school class but are completely unworkable on the other six days of the week. Well-intentioned as they seem, Christians tend to line up on the wrong side when the crunch comes. Some would point to Jimmy Carter by way of example. Therefore, it is widely thought that Christian political philosophers are not to be taken seriously. Perhaps they need to be shown the door, politely but firmly.

Now, Christians can indeed get swept away; in this regard, they're just like other people. But once the first wave of war enthusiasm has passed, an enthusiasm which nowadays is fueled by righteous indignation, Christians tend to fall back into the old line about trying a peaceful solution via diplomacy -- war should only be a last resort, and so forth. Some Christians even declare themselves "pacifists."

As for Canadians, they are generally thought to be folks who duck a fight and talk piously about the United Nations and its role in solving conflicts, and so forth -- while shirking their responsibilities for keeping the world safe for democracy. They like to think of themselves as "gentler" than their cousins south of the border. And so I submit that President Bush would rather not hear from the likes of me. Or if I did make it into his office, he'd probably rather discuss baseball than hear me out on Iraq and terrorism.

Well, President Bush has nothing to worry about. Instead of trying to get in to see him, I thought I'd write this essay in which I offer some Christian philosophical advice on how we should respond to 9/11. Whether these ideas ever make their way to President Bush or those who advise him is hard to say; they may have to go up the food chain quite a way before they appear on his menu.

The heart of what I wish to say here came to me on that fateful day when the twin towers in Manhattan collapsed. I knew that US officials tend to look upon terrorist acts -- whether committed in the US or abroad -- as criminal deeds. The response to such deeds is quite familiar by now: stern government spokesmen (perhaps the president himself) appear on TV and promise that whoever is responsible for this outrage will be brought to justice. The FBI will investigate. "We will track you down."

But that's not what President Roosevelt said on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. His response was: "This means war." The USA had been attacked, and it would respond militarily. And on 9/11, once the smoke and dust had cleared, I recognized that something similar to Pearl Harbor had taken place. Some force or power had attacked the USA -- not just a band of criminals. This meant war -- not just a criminal investigation. And within a matter of weeks operations were underway against the enemy in Afghanistan.

During that first stage of operations, a great many North Americans seemed to support the US response -- I know I did. Canada participated in it. There were some encouraging results, although the chief culprit eluded us. Time went on, and gradually the nature of the "war" seemed to change. There was talk of invading Iraq as the next stage.

"Homeland security" also came under discussion. Laws were proposed and passed, both in Canada and the USA. Some of those laws seemed dangerous and excessive. And people began to wonder whether there might not be another way to deal with the aftermath of 9/11.

At that point many Christians reverted to their pacifist impulses. I felt the strong tug of pacifism myself, and I heard semi-pacifist sentiments from the pulpit of the church in which I worship each Sunday. It seemed that words of caution were in order. Foreign leaders who had been generally in support of the US response began to express their doubts: Canada's government also seemed lukewarm. What had happened to produce this change of heart?

Various factors could be mentioned, I suppose. One of them was the situation in Israel. On the day of the 9/11 attack, I thought to myself that Israel's hand would now be strengthened in its struggle against its enemies. I remember saying this to my classes. Over time I became more convinced of this, as more and more of the television news came to focus on the developments in Israel and on her borders. Many Israelis said, in effect, "Now the Americans will understand what we've been going through." But disenchantment with Israel also increased in certain circles.

Those who throw up their hands over Israel and her actions of late should read a fascinating new book by Caleb Carr entitled The Lessons of Terror (New York: Random House, 2002). The book purports to deal with the thesis that terrorism never works (a piece of good news that would gladden the hearts of Israelis), but it also argues that terrorism will always be with us (bad news). I am reminded of Kant's famous claim about metaphysics: it cannot accomplish what it claims for itself, i.e. to provide knowledge of the supersensible realm, yet the impulse toward metaphysics is ineradicable.

Many friends of Israel would agree that she is badly in need of some new ideas, but after 9/11 we also need new ideas in North America. The time for complacency is over. Carr provides new ideas, although they seem to sneak up on the reader.

Much of the book is a mildly revisionist reading of the history of warfare, arguing that it has been bloodier and more gruesome than most of us were aware when we sat through history lessons in school. Some will be disturbed and offended by Carr's thesis that terrorism (in his definition) is not an irrational activity in which a few fanatics and madmen engage in every age but the practice of the great military powers throughout the ages, including the USA.

His definition of terrorism is simple but chilling: "... warfare deliberately waged against civilians with the purpose of destroying their will to support either leaders or policies that the agents of such violence find objectionable." [Page 6, italicized; see also p. 53] There is plenty of this kind of warfare to discuss: his section on the Crusades (see pp. 42ff) is particularly disconcerting, since that epic slaughter of civilians (the bad guys were then called "the infidel") was undertaken in the name of the Christian faith.

Carr qualifies his thesis in an important way. It is not that terrorists are always unsuccessful: rather, the point to remember is that if they do succeed, it is in spite of their terrorism and not because of it. Their terrorist acts were counterproductive, but the terrorists may have won in the end anyway. Of course it is sometimes hard to judge whether certain acts branded as "terroristic" by Carr really did drag down the cause of some group or country that nevertheless managed to prevail over its foes. I would like to think that Carr's claim is true.

The book has a commendable positive intent: "The history of warfare against civilians has presented us with certain lessons from which we can illuminate principles that can guide us to a shift in our traditional behavior." [Page 225] The "we" in this case is the USA: Carr is an American. Carr wants to the USA to stop engaging in terrorist activity, as it has done off and on throughout its history. The USA has often made war in such a way that there were massive losses of civilian lives, losses that could have been prevented or minimized. And it has done so deliberately, he maintains: his commentary on General William Tecumseh Sherman's march through George during the Civil War is particularly telling in this regard (see pp. 139ff).

If the book has a hero, it is Frederick the Great, the eighteenth-century Prussian king who saw the value of setting limited objectives in warfare and keeping civilian casualties and disruptions to a minimum (see pp. 84ff, 229). In general, Carr's hope is that the thinking of Frederick will triumph. If this ever happens, the punitive and futile desire to engage in terrorism will be set aside, whether that desire is rooted in sheer frustration or in the arrogance so often found in those who possess a mighty military arsenal.

Carr advocates what he calls "progressive war," but most of the great powers (not just Nazi Germany but also Churchill's Britain and Roosevelt's USA) have engaged in "total war" instead. We may think of the second world war as a great triumph on the part of the good guys (as opposed to Vietnam, which was a "dirty" war), but for Carr World War II was a "no holds barred" conflict whose influence carried over into the postwar period that came to be called the Cold War.

Carr quotes from Colonel James Doolittle's advice to President Eisenhower during the 1950s: "It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed object is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human behavior do not apply." [See pp. 190-191] Doolittle had practiced what he preached during World War II, and now, during the Cold War, he and many others were in support of the ultimate strike against civilians -- the atomic bomb.

Political philosophy does not have much of a contribution to make to military strategy and geopolitics. But it can at least promote clarity. This I shall now attempt to do, without claiming originality for my ideas. We are boxed in, it seems to me, by certain limiting presuppositions. We need to expand the set of ideas we draw on as we ponder threatening developments on the world stage.

Philosophy is not an enterprise that aims to do the thinking for people in other walks of life. Sometimes philosophy serves mainly to prod people into becoming more clear. People are often unaware of the contradictions and murky areas in their thinking. For example, many people, when they see a quarrel underway, may have the desire to agree with both sides and so avoid the risk of losing friends. Philosophers are different in this regard -- they are willing to risk losing friends for the sake of being clear.

And the first thing we need to be clear about, as Christians, is whether or not we are pacifists in any proper sense of the term. If we are indeed pacifists, if we truly believe that force should never be used in responding to wrongdoing, we should avoid not just military conflict but also armed police protection. Both police work and military service can involve killing. We should not pretend to be pacifists because we enjoy striking a pose: we need to think through what we really believe in this regard.

Now, there are some Christian pacifists who understand just what pacifism is and what it may cost them. I respect them deeply, but I do not share their conviction about the use of force. I still believe in the tattered doctrine of the just war. In my estimation, to believe in police protection and to rely on it (as I do) is to have surrendered any claim to being a pacifist. And so I can say that most Christians -- especially Calvinistic ones -- are not pacifists and therefore should not oppose President Bush's response to 9/11 on principial pacifist grounds.

This is not to say that Christians should not be peacemakers and that they should not do some unusual things in the name of giving peace a chance. In many situations, including the current push for war in Iraq, it is reasonable to ask whether peaceful venues have indeed been exhausted. On the other hand, it is easier to make such pleas if one does not bear the responsibility of government. President Bush and others in positions of authority need to safeguard the lives of the innocent under their jurisdiction.

A second clarification with which political philosophy can help us has to do with the business of war versus crime. We may feel inclined to call both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 criminal deeds, and in a broad sense they are. But note that both were ultimately taken to be acts of war. One treats opponents in war differently than criminals. We need to reflect on why this is the case.

In some ways we are easier on criminals than on those who make war on us: we safeguard their rights, go to elaborate lengths to assure them a fair trial, expend public funds to protect them, and so forth. This is as it should be. But in some other significant ways we are easier on foes in wartime. Once we agree that we are at war with so-and-so, we accept the legitimacy of the conflict, so to speak. It's a bit like sports in that regard: we expect our opponents to do their best, and sometimes we even express admiration for them as we consider how they go about their activities. Moreover, we try not to harm enemy soldiers when there is no need. We take them prisoner and hold them in detention facilities rather than slaughtering them, as Stalin was more inclined to do. And at the end of the war we let them go and wish them well (think of President Lincoln's attitude toward the defeated South). We may even make friends with them, perhaps through such foreign aid efforts as the Marshall Plan.

This is how we act when we are on our best behavior. We forgot to do those things after World War I, and so we had to fight World War II. But after the second great war, we made friends with the Germans and Japanese. The generosity displayed after that great conflict was entirely in the Christian spirit. At the most recent Remembrance Day commemoration at Redeemer University College, where I teach philosophy, we also remembered the German war dead.

The key to such a magnanimous attitude is the idea that a war is fought fiercely, but when it's over, it's over. I got this impressed upon me by my father, who was a veteran of the illegal underground resistance in the Netherlands during World War II. He emigrated to Canada after the war and found that among his fellow immigrants were the some of the formerly hated Germans. Did this bother him? His attitude was: "The war is over." He and his comrades did what they had to do during the Nazi occupation; now it was time to get on with life and build the future.

In such attitudes lies an ancient recognition, namely, that war is in some sense legitimate. This may be a hard pill for us to swallow. We are reminded of Clausewitz's famous definition of war: "War is only a continuation of state policy by other means" (see pp. 126-127 of Carr). A strict pacifist could never make such an admission. And so a strict pacifist would not know quite what to do once a war was over. The Bible is realistic in these regards: "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven .... a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. [Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8]

Lest my "realist" defense of warfare be seen as endorsing the self-defeating behavior that Carr associates with terrorism, let me hasten to add that most of the great wars have not been conducted in accordance with the just war doctrine. Even if the cause was just, the means of waging the war was often unjust. In particular, US military leaders in our time have fallen in love with intensive bombing that serves little military purpose and mainly damages and embitters civilians, galvanizing their resistance and ultimately frustrating the purposes of the people doing the bombing. Carr makes this point in strong terms:

The first principle of responding to unlimited warfare against civilians is ... not to respond with similar behavior. This may, on the surface, sound like a simple enough idea, but it has proved to be one of the most stubborn problems in all of American military history, especially during the last century. And there has been no more persistent cause of this difficulty than the undying American belief in the strategic effect of long-range destruction, particularly bombing campaigns. Having failed to learn from the failure of strategic bombing to destroy the enemy's will in both the Second World War and Vietnam, the American air force once again went to the strategic-bombing formula not only during the Gulf War but during subsequent air campaigns in the Balkans, as well as during the various cruise missile strikes (which are improved but still problematic versions of high-altitude strategic bombing) that were launched against Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan during the 1990s. In all of these campaigns, civilian damage and loss of life varied in severity, but it was always present, and it always bred resentment and even hatred, not only among enemy civilians but among such victims of collateral damage as the Chinese, who saw their / embassy in Belgrade bombed (reportedly due to a CIA mapping error) in May 1999. The American air force has tried to dress up the dismal record of strategic bombing, of course, through the usual tactic employed by generals to defend a beloved tactic or weapons system: they have misrepresented events, as certainly as Hermann Goering in 1940-1941, misrepresented the state of the British people as being one of near capitulation, owing to the German air bombardment. [Pages 231-232]

What is needed, according to Carr, is a commitment to "progressive war." At this point I will depart from the role of expositor and develop the line of thought a little further along lines of my own devising. I maintain that we need to distinguish four qualitatively different uses of force on the part of any government.

The most extreme is nuclear warfare. Let's pray that such a thing never happens again, but let's also remember that it did happen in 1945. I would argue that it is possible to be absolutely opposed to nuclear weapons in any form, while still supporting conventional arms. But as for me, I do not hold such a position. Thus nuclear war stands as the ultimate use of force on the part of a government. What one would do after a nuclear war had been fought is not easy to foresee or plan out.

The mildest use of force is what the police engage in -- not just routine arrests of lawbreakers but also the occasional shootout with a gang of thugs. This may look like warfare on a small scale, but it is not. Once the battle is over the justice system is cranked up: rights are ascribed to the arrested thugs, and so forth. And we should bear in mind that the thugs need not be citizens to be eligible to be treated with such consideration. Even if they are aliens who are in the country illegally, their rights are respected.

Conventional warfare falls somewhere between these two. It involves old-fashioned armed forces and begins with a declaration of war, which normally comes after diplomatic negotiations have failed. The just war strictures on what sorts of things may be done in the conduct of war come into play here.

But we need a fourth category if we are to get the benefit of Carr's insights. Let's call it a limited conflict. It differs from the regular conventional war in that it does not need a surrender on the part of the foe for the hostilities to cease. The enemy in such a conflict could well be a nation. Carr cites the example of President Reagan's attack on Libya in 1986 (see pp. 246-247, 250-253), which was decisive, unannounced, and not in need of an endgame or exit strategy. It served its purpose. Was there damage to civilians and innocent by-standers? I would be surprised if the answer was no. But such damage was kept minimal, I believe.

When we consider the issue of the innocent civilians who get caught up in these limited conflicts, there is a harsh reality to be borne in mind, namely, that those who live with evildoers in their neighborhood run a definite risk of being injured or killed when the enemies of their neighbors strike back. The Palestinians come to mind here: innocent Palestinians are killed when Israel strikes back. This is much to be regretted, but it should not be forgotten that the peaceful element in the Palestinian population bears a minimal level of responsibility for warfare conducted by those who dwell in its neighborhoods. If terrorist attacks were conducted against the USA from my neighborhood, which is not much more than an hour's drive from the US/Canadian border, I would consider my property to be at risk, and I would be powerfully motivated to join with others in trying to halt the terrorism on my block.

The Libya model is in effect what was followed right after 9/11. America caught its breath and then declared: "This means war!" But the Libya model did not remain uppermost in the minds of US military planners. The early stages of the conflict produced some impressive results, but the question was soon asked: "What's next?" At what point should the USA and its allies have declared victory and announced that the military action was over? Such a point did not come. In this regard the parallel with Israel's situation is instructive.

Carr would not wish his limited strike conception of war (with Libya as example) to be confused with what the CIA used to do. Before its wings were clipped, so to speak, the CIA engaged in what are usually called "dirty tricks." It carried out such operations in many countries around the world. Those covert activities engendered an awful lot of resentment against the USA and lent support to a cynical conception of what the world's one remaining superpower ultimately stands for. In this regard the CIA operations have mainly been self-defeating, according to Carr, who would like to see the agency dismantled altogether (see pp. 241ff on the CIA).

The limited-strike approach to conflict needs to be upright and open, as the strike against Libya was -- no CIA-type secrecy. Do what you need to do and then announce to the world what you have done, taking the trouble to explain why it was deemed necessary. In giving closure to the event, you are at the same time opening the possibility of negotiation with the enemy you attacked. And peaceful negotiation aiming at a "live and let live" relationship should always be your hope and long-term objective.

When we declare our willingness to negotiate with an enemy with whom we are in military conflict, we are also steering away from the tendency to satanize or demonize that enemy. It might seem necessary or advisable on psychological grounds to demonize your enemy (especially when training troops to kill, for it would be hard to kill someone you don't hate), but in the end the apocalyptic impulse will get in the way of constructing a long-term peace.

Is President Bush then supposed to negotiate with Osama bin Laden? Probably not, but it should be made known that a cessation of hostilities with elements under his command would be welcome and negotiable. When prisoners are taken, as in Afghanistan, they need to be held for a while; as long as they are in custody, they are not undertaking operations against us. But they cannot and should not be held forever. The aim should be to make friends with them and eventually release them to what we hope will be a normal and peaceable life, just as German prisoners of war were released by the Western allies after the second world war. (Stalin, of course, was not of this mind: he liquidated many of the German prisoners-of-war he was holding.)

If the criminal model were used, one would have to consider bringing charges against all of the prisoners captured in Afghanistan. This would be a very time-consuming and expensive undertaking, and probably not in the interests of the USA. But in letting the prisoners go, we would be recognizing that there was something understandable and perhaps legitimate about their having taken up arms in the first place.

A likely objection at this point is: what about Nuremberg? I do not maintain that the war crimes trials in Nuremberg after World War II should not have taken place. They were conducted by the victorious allies, but I would like to think of them as having been sponsored, in effect, by a United Nations tribunal, somewhat like the one behind the trials now underway in The Hague. We should avoid creating the impression that it is a victor's duty after a war to place the vanquished -- or at least some of their leaders -- on trial.

In any armed conflict there is potential for "crimes against humanity," but such charges should be regarded as exceptional rather than normal. We have to learn to live with the idea that those who made war on the USA or Canada or both are not necessarily criminals for having done so. The ordinary German soldier in World War II was not a criminal, and so we disarmed him after the war and wished him well in his peacetime occupation. As for those who perished fighting for the German cause, we were willing to include them in our commemorations recently at Redeemer.

The situation of the state of Israel (about which Carr does not have all that much to say) sheds some light on these issues. When people in the West cry out against what Israel is doing and plead with Israel to follow the "peace process," they should ponder the theoretical possibility that Israel is really at war in my sense of limited war. Israel is being attacked (in true terrorist style, with civilians very often the deliberate targets), and it is striking back in the way Carr would approve, via limited goals.

Now, it must be admitted that in the last couple of years, Israel, with Ariel Sharon at the helm, has strayed beyond limited-war objectives of the sort that would win the approval of Frederick the Great. But if we take a longer perspective on Israeli history, we can see that what Israel has done is for the most part is what Carr would expect a state to do.

Israel needs to disable the forces that are attacking it. This it tries to do by killing some Palestinian leaders, arresting and detaining lower-level attackers, and destroying facilities that are used in the attacks. It's no simple assignment, for much of the time the world's television cameras are trained upon its troops as they carry out their operations. (The USA found out how difficult it is to fight a war covered by television when it ran aground in Vietnam.)

Should the Israelis negotiate? Some of the hotheads say: "Never! We will conquer more land and achieve what we want by military means alone." But the saner leadership offered by men like Shimon Peres says that Israel has no choice but to negotiate, regardless of how furious it may be with the attackers and those who encourage them. And so negotiations do take place -- even under Ariel Sharon. But the negotiations are conditioned somewhat by what happens on the military field of play.

We in the West need to be more sensitive to Israel's need to strike back. It is fair to criticize Israel for killing and maiming civilians and needlessly destroying their means of existence, but the civilian population does house the attackers who bring death and destruction to Israel's cities and towns. President Bush understands Israel's need to strike back, and so does Carr. But he also criticizes Israel's tendency to fall back into what he calls terrorism. And he notes that Menachem Begin, one of Israel's former prime ministers, had quite a career as a terrorist back in the days when Palestine was still under British control (see pp. 213-214).

I don't know whether President Bush will read Carr's book or be told about it, but I believe he should take heart from it. The book has lessons for US policymakers and military leaders: Carr writes passionately and has some tough things to say about his own country, but in the end his advice is aimed at America's welfare. And I believe the book has the potential to lead Christians and Canadians and other Monday-morning quarterbacks to think a second time before they issue cheap criticisms of what the USA is doing in response to the 9/11 attacks.

There is a final question that needs to be addressed. One might be convinced by Carr's reasonings and the ideas I have offered here but still feel moved to ask: why not make war in the limited way that is suggested against foes like the al-Qaeda network while still defining what al-Qaeda is doing in criminal terms? The answer, I believe, is that the US would then run a very serious risk of eroding civil liberties on a permanent basis, with the result that the quality of life in that great democracy would decline markedly. In that case, the terrorist attackers would have won a great victory. The preservation of the rights and freedoms of ordinary Americans is by itself a significant victory over the terror network. [END]

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