Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Justifications of the Prayers of the War Prayer

There's a great little fifteen minute animated film, to which I've already seen several links, and to which I expect to see many more -- and for good reason: it's terrific. Kevin Drumm describes the background here. The brief version is that Mark Twain wrote a brief story -- really a parable -- called The War Prayer, which his friends and family and editors entreated him not to publish, and so was published only after his death. Now, a hundred years later, some filmmakers have made an animation of it, with the complete text read over the animations.

Twain's story, brief as it is, is easily summed up: he presents a country, festooned in flags and fervent in patriotism, praying for success in a coming war. A mysterious man shows up and points out a fact about this prayer:
Is it one prayer? No, it is two -- one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him Who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken... When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory--*must* follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer.... [That is,] 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...
And so on and so forth. It's a good story: go read it, or go watch the animated version.

What interests me is that this won't give pause -- not a second, not a tenth of a second -- to anyone who is not already doubting the wisdom of this war. Or any war. Twain is already preaching to the converted. (In some sense he knows this, since his closing line is "It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said." But in some sense you can't write a parable like this without hoping that it will touch those at whom it is aimed.)

So my question is: why don't they care? Or, more accurately, what will be their defenses against this most terrible of accusations -- that they are praying (literally or figuratively) for "little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports 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"? (In the unlikely event that they consider at all, that they watch the film, read the words, and think of what they have done.)

Here's what they'll say -- to others, to themselves. Maybe even, in comments here, to me.

1) They started it.

This is the basic justification -- one offered as recently as last week by the chief warmaker himself: "they attacked us even before we were in Iraq"! It is, of course, a lie -- and a racist lie at that: Iraq did not attack us; Al Queada did -- a group of 19 terrorists who, as it happened, not only had not connection to Iraq, but did not even include any Iraqis.

But it's all "they" to the prayers of the war prayer: and so they pray for the deaths of others.

2) We have a right to defend ourselves.

This is the next step -- a complicated one for those who care about reality and facts, since the supposed threat, Saddam's WMD's, did not exist (which even had it existed was extremely unlikely to actually threaten us). Now it morphs into the fact that we have to defend our troops against the current attacks -- which is totally question-begging, since of course we wouldn't have had to if we hadn't invaded, and we wouldn't any more if we would withdraw -- or to keep "them" from "following" us home, which again is simply disconnected to reality and facts.

But reality and facts mean nothing to the prayers of the war prayer: and so they pray for the deaths of others.

3) We're there to help those people.

This is the current favorite -- and a hard one it is, too, since we have killed hundreds of thousands of more people than would have died under even so brutal a dictator as Saddam -- most likely more than half a million. (If you've heard the lies about the study's methodology -- which is standard and accepted, even by the U.S. government, in similar questions that don't involve current U.S. wars -- read this defense of the methodology, based on the first Lancet study.)

Still, despite the death; despite the millions of refugees our actions have created; despite the basic destruction of Iraqi society, our kick-starting of a civil war likely only to get worse (and whose prevention is now among our chief justifications)... despite all that we have done, they still say we're there to help. We went in to help.

But only our intentions and not our actions count to the prayers of the war prayer: and so they pray for the deaths of others.

4) We're not out for conquest, like those Twain depicts.

And of course even our good intensions are partial at best. As Atrios has tirelessly pointed out, we're not there to fight some pseudo-liberal fantasy of what the war might be, or might have been: we're there fighting George Bush's war, and that's all we'll fight for at least the next twenty months.

And part of Bush's war is the construction of permanent bases, which continue to be built and whose maintenance we continue to insist on. Part of Bush's war is the privatization of the Iraqi oil that we did not oh of course not invade for. Part of Bush's war is staying for the sake of staying, staying so Bush won't loose face, staying to send a message to groups (like Al Queada) that weren't in Iraq before we went and to whose benefit our presence there has been.

But because they take as axiomatic that America is good, the realities of this imperialism means nothing to the prayers of the war prayer; and so they pray for the deaths of others.

5) No one could have known it was based on lies, or would go so badly.

Never mind that millions of us said so before the war in this country alone, not to mention the overwhelming majority of the world's population elsewhere. Never mind the abundant warnings about precisely what has happened. Never mind that even the threats warned about were hardly sufficient to justify an aggressive (and hence immoral) war.

Even so, those who said we had to go, and now say 'oops' as if it was a glass they'd broken and not the bodies of hundreds of thousands and the lives and souls of millions more -- even so, they now say we have to stay. At least until September. Or beyond. Or until a Jeffersonian paradise arises from the ashes of what we have burned.

They scream that they couldn't have known, though so many of us did.

But regret is just a word to be mouthed by the prayers of the war prayer; and so they pray for the deaths of others.

6) What are you, a pacifist? Wasn't it right to fight Hitler?

Yet another evasion: retreat to a broad principle to ignore the unbearable facts before them; resort to extreme analogies and inapplicable parallels to ignore the horror they have unleashed, and continue to unleash. Ignore that even in a good cause human beings do immoral and unjust and horrid things. How many of the U.S.'s invasions and wars and toppling of elected governments have been just -- a tiny handful, out of dozens and dozens? How many times will we delude ourselves that we are the noble defender as we ourselves start an invasion, carry it out, and occupy a foreign country?

But all wars are The Good War to the prayers of the war prayer; and so they pray for the deaths of others.

7) Civilian casualties are inevitable in war, but of course we regret them.

This too is a big one: we didn't mean it. Never mind that this depends on us having had some good reason to go to war -- for without it, the "collateral damage" is not even conceivably justified. Never mind that this fact -- that civilian casualties are inevitable in war -- is precisely why we must only go to war as a true last resort, when attacked, and not simply when politicians feel like enhancing their poll numbers or want to be elected or when pundits decide that someone deserves an ass-kicking, it doesn't matter who.

Inevitable collateral damage is only a defense in genuine and measured self-defense: if you defend yourself against a mad gunman by taking out an AK-47 and mowing down not only the gunman but also hundreds of his potential victims trying to hide, no one will care that you were acting in self-defense: you are simply a murderer.

But the piles of bodies of those we have killed "accidentally" in pursuit of no good ends at all are rationalized away by the prayers of the war prayer; and so they pray for the deaths of others.

8) They're all just barbarians anyway.

And this is what underlies so many of the rationalizations and evasions. The blood lust that seeps out from between the lines of so many of their writings. And sometimes comes out in the open: when they talk with regret about our adherence to "quaint" norms like the Geneva convention; when they talk about how we need to "take the gloves off"; when they openly regret our overly "gentle" initial approach, and say things like:
What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?
That is the basis for some if not all of them: that they don't care, because they long for the deaths of others. Not that they pray for victory ignoring the other half of the prayer: but that they positively revel on both. Bloodlust: the basic bloodlust that is either based on hatred of those who are not like us, or are simply based on a lack of concern for those not like us. Let others die: the poor who are in our army, the many who are brown-skinned and not of our religion in another country far away.

But the lives of people who are not like us mean little or nothing to the prayers of the war prayer; and so they pray for the deaths of others.

* * *

That is why they won't care. Indeed, safely ensconced in those eight reasons, many of them might even watch this film with enjoyment. They might tut-tut about how they -- those awful foreigners -- are indeed just like that, and why don't they see how awful their desire for war is; and never for a moment think that it might equally apply to them.

And now I, too, have spoken in vain. Like Twain, my words will convince no one who is not already convinced. They will say -- at best! -- that I am a lunatic: and there is no sense in what I have said.

But for those with ears to hear, eyes to see, minds to think and consciousnesses to feel, I repeat what you already know, adding my small voice to the chorus of screams in the futile hope that it might somehow reach the ears of the powerful.

Extricandae copiae!



Unknown said...

Beautiful essay, Stephen. Sometimes I despair of our country coming to sense, and then I read an eloquent argument like this and I feel some hope that someday we'll rediscover our morals.

Kevin H said...

No, it's not worthless to say such things. Minds can be changed by reasoned argument. You can't give up on it.