Will information technology trump military strength? What if a hand-held computer could hijack airplanes by interfering with air traffic signals? We need to use technology to heal the rift in our collective soul or risk using it to destroy ourselves.
Barack Obama’s eloquence in the defense of idealism hasn’t changed since Iowa, but reaction to it has. He is accused of favoring uplifting rhetoric over hard policy choices. Some commentators complain that for them, the thrilling speeches of the primary season now produce little or no reaction. Obama speaks of a renewed world, but most old-timers, cynical or not, expect the world — especially the one inside the Beltway — to roll on without much change. Inertia will prevail over hope. We are fortunate, however, that Obama himself doesn’t believe any of this.
“Rhetoric” is what George Bush offered when he promised compassionate conservatism and insisted that he was a uniter, not a divider. The words were a cover up and a pretense, empty of sincere meaning. All along, one supposes, Bush’s right-wing agenda was firmly in place. Canny advisers knew the agenda wouldn’t sell, so they mounted a distraction that quite handily fooled enough of the voting public to achieve the desired results.
Obama’s words ring of sincerity, but that’s not the key thing: they grow from a much wider basis than one politician’s desire to be elected. It may be true that he resorts to cliches when speaking of a new world and dignity for every person, but the impulse behind them is shared by millions, not just in this country but around the globe. Spontaneous upwelling like this occurs rarely, and it often signifies radical change. The mechanics of mass movements baffle historians. Many kinds of simmering emotions never coalesce into a movement. Eastern Europe changed under Communism for forty-five years to no great effect except mass grumbling and depression, and those uprisings that did occur in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were quelled in a matter of days by brute force.
We aren’t talking about might against might now but something subtler. Obama was right to mention the Berlin Wall multiple times in his visit to that city, because the Wall was not pushed over by force, unless you mean the force of consciousness. Right timing and mass will came together perfectly; resistance and opposition were rendered powerless. Can the same magic strike again? We have immovable walls in the U.S., and no one knows if Obama will be like Woodrow Wilson, whose ideals about peace and international unity were crushed, or like Kennedy, who caught a wave of change stronger than he ever expected (his 1960 campaign, viewed objectively, was full of standard Cold War rhetoric).
Clearly millions of people, the majority of the electorate, want a new start on many fronts. Taken piecemeal, Obama’s chances of reforming Washington, reversing the enormous national debt, updating the tax code, offering universal health care, and establishing a new image abroad seem slim. Idealism, we are told, will come a cropper when it hits its head against solid reality. But that so-called solid reality was built on intangible ideas, hopes, wishes, and needs. Obama grasps this. He understands that tough policy decisions, which of course must be made, aren’t the stuff of inspiration. His campaign is a litmus test for whether a critical mass has formed or wether we are witnessing winds of change that will soon die down. The fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, but the future of America’s self-image does. National awareness has been stuck for eight years, and breaking it free needs the inspiration Obama is trying to apply.
As I was waiting at the train station in Barcelona, I noticed that the person next to me kept looking at his watch even though he knew what time the train was coming. It made me contemplate how we’ve become human doings instead of human beings.
An article in the Washington Post On Faith section in response to their question:
The ACLU has asked the U.S. Naval Academy to end prayers at mandatory meals, and yet all branches of the service employ chaplains. What is the proper role of religion in the military?
Speaking realistically, patriotism can’t be divorced from religion. Every war is fought with God on our side — on both sides. And the prevailing notion is always that the enemy is godless. The ACLU may prevail legally, on the basis of separating church and state, but psychology works massively against them. Soldiers know that they may die in battle, and the armed forces must create an ethos that protects their psyches from the impending danger of the conflict. Team spirit and protecting your buddy is one aspect of feeling safe. Trusting your weaponry is another. But so is the idea that God approves of your cause and implicitly will take you to Heaven if the worst befalls.
The entanglement of personal duty, troop morale, patriotism, and religion isn’t simple. The ACLU’s lawsuit will antagonize anyone on the inside — besides the “us versus them” mentality about the enemy; there is an “us versus them” attitude toward the civilian public. And rightly so. No one on the home front can understand the searing experience of frontline fighting. Since Vietnam, an additional element has entered the situation: the resentment by soldiers that nobody appreciates their sacrifice. “Vietnam vet” has become synonymous with a new kind of forgotten man — unsung, alienated, often psychologically scarred for life — and society seems to feel the same way about Iraqi vets. One sympathizes with their plight; it would be inhuman not to.
That said, it is disturbing to know how deeply fundamentalist Christianity has sunk into the ethos of the armed forces. First noticed with alarm at the Air Force Academy, hard-core proselytizing is apparently rampant. Soldiers pray as they go into training exercises as well as into battle. Atheist and Jewish soldiers are ostracized or hit hard with pressure to convert. The simple notion that fighting for your country is the same as fighting for Jesus is endemic. Yet here, too, the solution isn’t clear. Weeding out chaplains who encourage right-wing fundamentalism may do some good, but if cadets and enlistees come from the same Christian background, they have rights, too. Even though one may suppose that young men and women barely in their twenties, if that, are too susceptible to peer pressure and religious indoctrination, we consider them mature enough to go to war. Splitting the difference won’t work.
In the end, this feels like a minor point of discord. The Army and Navy are adult institutions, not grade schools, and the admission or exclusion of prayer can be handled by each soldier as he or she sees fit. The armed forces should be left to develop their own ethos. Until we have a draft that puts war on a democratic footing and enlists a broad swath of the population, all of us are outsiders who contribute almost nothing to the Iraq war other than a flurry of words. American militarism is a serious problem that needs radical solutions. Pulling God out of the mess hall is beside the point.