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.

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  1. Adam January 25, 2007 at 11:44 am

    I was strongly against the war at its start. I think the planning and execution have been horrible to the point of almost criminal. I think that the mere presence of American troops and the lack of any significant American leaders saying that we will get out eventually and we will have no bases there strongly contributes to the negative feelings against the US around the world. And I strongly lean Democratic.
    But I have serious reservations about just leaving. We will be facing consequences of this war for decades, not just in bad will or dollars, but in real enemies and in piles of bodies. If we leave it is strongly likely that there will be a blood bath. I am afraid that what is happening in Darfur will pale next to what would happen Iraq if we quickly leave. NPR said yesterday that there have been virtually no meetings of the Iraqi parliament since November because there is not a quorum (1/3 of members). So political change is not going to happen anytime soon.
    I think you are right when you talk about people in the US not engaging or being prepared for a long war. But when Bush was interviewed on PBS last week he was asked why he has not asked people to sacrifice during this war and he said people are sacrificing, they have to turn their TV on every night and see the violence, that is a sacrifice. Comments like that do not give me hope that there are serious people that really want to win a war. Which is why I tend to agree with McCain’s comments when he said it is immoral to continue to fight this war if we don’t plan on winning it and doing what it takes to win it.
    This is not simply about money and soldiers. We actually need to have people that we can trust in all areas of leadership. That is really my concern. I don’t really want a quick exit and a powerful defeat, but I also don’t want a long exit and an equally powerful defeat.

  2. P. Andrew Sandlin January 25, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    Bravo, John! This is a balanced, realistic but bold and justifiable assessment of the situation.
    In today’s global scenario, if we refuse to fight tyranny “over there,” the tyrants will fight us “over here.”
    P. Andrew Sandlin

  3. Dave Moorhead January 25, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    I have to agree with you on just about everything you wrote here. That means either you have moved left or I have moved right or some of both!
    Just a couple of thoughts, if I may. I opposed our entry into Iraq from the beginning. I don’t say that in order to appear prescient, it just applies to what is bothering me. I have been critical about how the war has been fought and my strong, right wing friends become angry with me and query, “So, if you don’t want the surge, what would you do?” I won’t go there. I consider that an unfair question because my strategy would never have put us into this situation. Don’t make a mess and expect me to have all the answers about how to clean it up. But I do agree with President Bush on this: It is time for the Iraqi government to really step it up and show what they will do!
    Second, did you hear Jim Webb’s Democratic response to the speech? One thing made me really angry and it is precisely the reason I cannot identify myself as a Democrat anymore. This is close to a quote, “The majority of our nation does not support the way the war is being run.” What does that mean? Does he mean the Democrats simply MUST respond to the majority of the nation? Since when, Mr. Webb? For the last 35 years the majority of our nation has not supported abortion and you have never listened to us! Why would you start now?

  4. Nathan Petty January 25, 2007 at 7:54 pm

    John wrote: “Our problem, in one sense, is pretty simple. We are into ‘self and material things’.”
    Adam wrote: “But when Bush was interviewed on PBS last week he was asked why he has not asked people to sacrifice during this war and he said people are sacrificing, they have to turn their TV on every night and see the violence, that is a sacrifice.”
    Both true enough. We are not challenged to a sacrificial commitment. Even right after 9/11 we were asked to shop more to sustain the economy. That was to be our measure of fidelity to the noble cause.
    Perhaps the President really believes that viewing the war is all we can handle, all the sacrifice we will accept. Or he believes this is a real sacrifice. The former represents a sad commentary on our capacity for the road ahead. The latter represents a sad commentary on the President’s judgment.
    I believe the President (along with most of the political leadership) does not believe we as a people will accept the privation that would be needed for a real “war” effort. So we are treated to the sugar coated version of the challenge facing the nation. That we can handle.

  5. R.A. Morton January 26, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    Dr. Armstrong:
    I received your post via a friend and fellow Christian.
    Up until several months ago I trusted Pres. Bush and defended our invasion of Iraq. I now am among the many hearing a small voice in the crowd, “The emperor has no clothes!” My former defenses of the Pres., the war, and most especially the goal ring hollow, and I concede I was wrong to my Dem colleagues. Why the change? Certainly what has happened in Iraq over four years causes concern. But there are reasons deeper than any failures or successes (real or supposed) in Iraq for changing one’s mind and our course of action. My change began with re-reading history–a bit of Iraq’s and a lot of U.S. colonial history. Have we forgotten so much history? Have we forsaken our truest heritage? Our own colonial years were desperate times shaped by repeated clashes of numerous tribal and imperial powers. They struggled over lands and trade–beaver skins for hats in Amsterdam might stand for Mideast oil today. They struggled over tribal life and survival and imperial ideologies involving spies, alliances, betrayals, violence, and war. Dozens of tribes and four major empires struggled often and bitterly because of their deep differences of religious belief and practice (recall not only Native Tribal, Catholic, and Jew, but Protestants of every stripe and varieties of Anglican, Puritan, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Baptist, Quaker, and anti-Christian skeptic). In God’s good providence, out of many diverse tribes and nations, a free, democratic republic was born, the United States of America. Why? How? Note well: only after more than 150 years of toil and tears, pain and prayer, debate and death did liberty grow from the consent of the governed, the will of the people. In this hallowed hour, should we not allow our history and that of our fathers (not to mention those of prior imperial powers, most noteably Britain) to inform our judgments, decisions, and character? What goal and precedents do we have for success in Iraq? Germany and Japan 1945? Then we must crush, occupy, and secure the land with all force and at all costs. This will require sacrifices considerably more than watching press and TV reports. Is it cowardice to count the cost before building any nation–much less a new democratic republican nation on a foundation of tryanny, hatred, and idolatry? Is it isolationism to demand that the use of our great powers of war be sober, prudent, true, just–and able to win peace and liberty? Christians, of all people, should prize such virtues and those leaders and policies nourished by these virtues. If we do so, we have good reason to hope that we will not hear our children whispering, “Why does the emperor have no clothes?”

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