The general public, if they still care at all, watched President Bush’s State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, January 23. Almost everyone had an opinion, especially about the Iraq portion of the speech. Glenn Beck, the conservative talk show host on CNN, said 85% of the speech was “bull-crap,” the typical political stuff one expects. In some ways I agree. He also noted that the part of the speech that really mattered, about 10% of it, was the controversial part. This was the part about Iraq and America’s long term security in the world. Beck applauded the president and noted some amazing lines in the speech that were a clarion call to the leadership of this country to not run from the battle where the front is now engaged, namely in Iraq. I have wavered on this point but I am now convinced that this is true. I am not sure that we can win in Iraq. I am severely critical of how we pursued this battle for the last two years or so. I think military historian Thomas Ricks, in the best-seller Fiasco, got it about right. But walking away now strikes me as weak and, more importantly, truly wrong.
It seems Americans have given up on this effort, seeing it as a very bad mistake in the first place. In some way, which we do not all agree on, we want out of Iraq as soon as possible. Democrats believe they were elected to Congress last November to make sure that this happens but most of them do not want to cut off funding for troops already in harm’s way. The president seems to have the power to press on unless Congress tries measures it is not likely to employ. The debate will go on endlessly over the months ahead, creating more interpersonal conflict in our nation. (And this conflict will also impact our churches, where views are strong on both sides of this debate.) But I must remind anyone who knows history that this has almost always been the case with war. It has been said, “War is hell.” It is. But sometimes it is necessary hell, like it or not.
Modern Americans have bought into the lie that wars are easy, quick, and virtually painless. They should always turn out just fine. (The success of the Gulf War in 1991 tends to fuel this notion.) We were warned, following 9/11, that the years ahead, for our nation, would be very hard. I do not think we heard it. If we did we did not believe it. I still believe this is true and it will be so for my lifetime. President Bush may share some of the blame for not making his case more clearly in the past and for talking about a roaring economy during a major war effort. Furthermore, in this age of instant this and that 9/11 seems like ancient history to most people under forty.
Winston Churchill once said, during World War II, “that the whole-English speaking world [is] passing through a dark and deadly valley.” The same applies to our time but we seem to not have the moral insight to see it. In Churchill’s time we fought and won a war against a fascism that threatened to change the world as we knew it. Times have changed. The issues are not exactly the same, even though radical Islam has a lot in common with fascism. But we clearly live in dangerous times now and do not seem to realize it. Since the fall of Communism in Europe we acted in the 1990s, and up until 9/11, as if the world was a safe place and we could enjoy peace and prosperity unabated. Such has never been the case and never will. Wicked ideologies and tyrannical ideologues promote ideas that are rooted in death and destruction and we absolutely must take these ideologies and ideologues seriously if we would survive as a civilization.
Isolationism and pacifism are not the real problems in America. We have always had a minority of both. I respect genuine pacifism that is rooted in religious conviction and consistent practice. However, much of the pacifism that we see portrayed in the media does not meet these criteria. Real pacifists can and do love their country but feel strongly that they personally, or even we as a nation, should not fight. Many modern pacifists hate America and our civilization, seeing it as an inherently evil empire. I personally reject isolationism as dangerous and anti-globalization as unwise, and I support free trade agreements, but this again is a matter for honest political debate. The real problem, as I see it, is the will to survive. I am not sure that we have it. We might regain it but only if we are attacked again within the U.S. I fully expect that this will happen again, but this time in a way much bigger than 9/11. Our enemies are serious. On the whole, we are not.
Our problem, in one sense, is pretty simple. We are into “self and material things.” Our games, toys and cars matter more than our personal liberty and political freedom. These great ideas do not inspire us as a people. The result is apathy and moral breakdown.
In the two Word Wars of the last century the enemy was clearly linked to a nation and a particular dictator or two. Now we are dealing with ideas that we do not understand and names we cannot even pronounce. The world, in this sense, is more complicated. But in the most basic sense it is not that complicated at all. If we fight a war we must have the will and strength to win it. This seems lost on many in Congress.
A lot of comparisons have been made to Vietnam over recent months. Much has been made of how we finally left that country after losing the war there. The orthodox history about Vietnam says “we could never have won in the first place.” A recent book, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War 1954-1965, Mark Moyar (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), suggests a different take on that war and argues, very impressively I would add, that it was “a winnable war.” Reviewer Mackubin Thomas Owens, writing in The Weekly Standard (January 15, 2007), concludes a powerful long review with these words: “Victory or defeat depends on decisions actually made and strategies actually implemented.”
When we left Vietnam the dominoes did not fall, as we feared they might at the time. But if we leave Iraq the scenario will, more than likely, be an entirely different one. This is because the region is so vastly different and the religious ideology that drives this region is so totally different. Long term, unless God has mercy on our nation, I fear we are facing some very hard times, one way or the other. The godly had best be prepared to run to the God of heaven and earth in whom alone there is true safety. In the meantime I pray for President Bush, believing that he is an earnest Christian man. I will pray and speak, I hope, with a real measure of Christian humility. And if you oppose him, and his policies about Iraq, please do not inflame the people of God by making him into an evil monster. Conduct civil and respectful dialogue. Not one of us knows the whole story about Iraq and none of us grasps all that is at stake here. And most surely none of us knows the future. We sing in many of our church gatherings, “Our God reigns.” I am glad that he does. And I am glad that, “The judge of all the earth will do right.” My confidence is in God alone.