The American Empire Project

Speaking with James Carroll, author of Crusade

In your past books such as the bestselling Constantine's Sword and National Book Award-winning memoir An American Requiem, you have closely examined Catholicism and its affect on your own life. How has your previous work informed your columns in your new book CRUSADE?

I never imagined that my background in religion would become too politically relevant. To understand the new impulses of the U.S. government under George W. Bush, it helps to grasp the implicit (and sometime explicit) religious purpose. This is partly a matter of Bush's good-vs-evil absolutism, his assumptions about America's vocation as a special instrument of divine justice, and his belief in the saving power of violence. These are all themes one sees in a fundamentalist Christian worldview (like Mel Gibson's). I come at these questions out of a Catholic tradition, one that is suspicious of fundamentalism, conscious of the universality of "sin," and unlikely to attribute special virtue to any nation. That's not to say that Catholicism does not fall into triumphalism of its own, but the main thing I bring from my religious background to political reflection is a sense of the urgent importance of self-criticism. America has not been a particularly self-critical nation lately.

Your father was an Air Force general, while you were an antiwar chaplain. How do you think your background has affected your viewpoint on the war on terrorism?

Because I grew up in the military, coming of age at the height of the Cold War and during the Vietnam War, the question of war and peace is central to me. I saw at close hand how, once wars are launched, they always lead to unintended consequences. My father was obsessed, like many of his generation, with the dangers of nuclear war. I learned from him that if human beings don't change the way they resolve conflicts -- finding non-violent alternatives -- the world is doomed. That is why my life of war-objection is not a repudiation of my soldier-father, but a fulfillment of what he had concluded about his own experience.

Once President George W. Bush said, "this crusade, this war on terrorism" you began to devote your Boston Globe columns to chronicling this shift in American meaning and purpose. Why was that phrase so dangerous?

It was dangerous mainly for the way it had to fall on the ears of Muslims and Arabs. To them the Crusades were yesterday, and they were decidedly a religious war, waged by the Christian West against the whole house of Islam. Crusade is a match for Jihad. When a small number of Islamic extremists, like bin Laden, are seeking to ignite a religious war with the West, it plays right into their plans to respond in kind. President Bush, from the very start of the 9-11 crisis, has been playing according to a script written by Osama bin Laden. When Bush used the word "Crusade" to define his purpose, his handlers cringed, but our radical Islamic adversaries rejoiced. Events have shown, of course, that Bush meant exactly what he said. His war is a crusade.

In several of your columns you make the startling comparison between Bush's war in Iraq and the crusade launched by Pope Urban II in 1095. What role has religion played in the Bush administration?

When the mantra becomes "God bless America," the question has to be asked, What does God think of other nations? The tradition of American "exceptionalism" is an old one, but Bush has consciously brought it to the fore again, a claim to special favor for America in the eyes of God. The trouble is that this certainty of religious justification always leads to trouble -- with America wreaking havoc against those who are less "blessed" than we are. Tragically, it underwrites our most violent impulses. In Iraq, we began by aiming to rid the world of God's enemy, Saddam Hussein. But now we are at war with a group we call "insurgents." Who are they? Why are we killing them? Why are they killing us? This war makes no sense. Yet somehow, like the pope in 1095, we believe that "God wills it!"

What can we learn from reading your past columns, which span a defining three and a half years in American foreign policy?

This book is an inadvertent record of the changes that swept into American life after 9-11. We should not forget how we came to this moment -- how, for example, the Congressional impulse to enact the Patriot Act, with all that it threatens to do to the Constitutional tradition, was driven by panic tied to Anthrax attacks. The government encouraged the idea that the Anthrax attacker was tied to Al Qaeda. That connection (like Saddam's connection) was totally non-existent -- yet the fear of it changed America. There have been a dozen such turning points -- dramatic, but false -- over the last three years. By returning to what one American observed at the time, all Americans can remember what was lost. This is not a polemical exercise -- but simply a walk through the public record. The United States government has betrayed its people again and again over the last three years. By recalling these events and questions in detail -- the details that shape the columns I wrote, the questions they prompted at the time -- readers can see our period whole, grasping what is at stake in the debate going forward.

Do you think religion is playing a bigger and bigger role in American politics or has it always affected presidential decisions?

The last time religious impulses so defined American responses was during the early Cold War. The so-called Truman Doctrine effectively defined the conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union is religious terms, with "Reds" labeled as evil. Communism was always "godless." Because the U.S. saw itself in an ontological struggle against a transcendent force for wickedness -- instead of, say, a normal political contest with an imperialist adversary -- we found ourselves going everywhere in the world to oppose the enemy, which was only one thing -- "Communism." Thus, we failed to see the differences between China and Moscow, between Mao and Ho Chi Minh, between Stalin and Tito. The result was terrible wars, a dangerous arms race, a division of the globe that has impoverished the vast majority of human beings. Today, "Communism" is no threat, but we are doing something similar with "terrorism," defining it univocally and transcendentally -- religiously.

In your epilogue to the book, you argue that Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ serves as a "big-screen-icon version of George W. Bush's war." Can you explain this further?

Among the many things to object to in Mel Gibson's film (its anti-Semitism, its twisting of the Gospels, etc.) nothing is more to be feared than its celebration of the connection between God and violence. God is portrayed as willing the savage violence inflicted upon God's son -- as if the only way God's offended justice could be satisfied was by the most extreme shedding of blood in history. This is a strain in Christian theology that came powerfully into the Church in the Middle Ages (during the Crusades, in fact), but the Church has been working hard to leave it behind. Gibson's film is a throwback -- but so are the policies of the Bush administration. George W. Bush rushed into war because he implicitly believes in the purifying power of violence. The same trait underwrote his readiness to preside over the Texas death machine -- capital punishment as a kind of human sacrifice that puts the world aright again. The irony is, of course, that people who claim to revere the memory of Jesus put his execution at the service of the new executions of others. If Jesus were alive today, he would not be in Hollywood or in an executive office: he would be on death row some place.

What do you think the future holds if Bush is elected for another term?

President Bush has assaulted the tradition of civil liberty at home and trashed the international order abroad. He has violated solemn treaties (the ABM, the Geneva Accords, etc.) has tossed alliances aside, has corrupted American intelligence services, handed the reins of power over to right wing ideologues. He has treated facts as if they do not matter. He has promulgated a new doctrine of Preventive War that has turned the United States into an aggressor nation. He has abused his responsibility as commander-in-chief by sending young men and women into harm's way for no good reason. The sacred traditions that have made America great are at risk. If Bush is re-elected, then procedures should begin at once aiming toward his impeachment.

 

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