War's Holy Rhetoric

Robert Blair Kaiser

I found it fascinating – and instructive – to examine the rhetoric used by the principal actors on the world's media stage as the debate raged over a U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq. The White House expressed its rationale for a preventive war by using the absolutes of religion while the most weighty authority on the other side, the Vatican, expressed its opposition in mostly pragmatic terms.

Listen to the Vatican's most vociferous dove, Archbishop Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. On Feb. 4, he told a reporter “War is bloodshed, destruction, disaster, and death. There will be fire, tumult, all over the Middle East. The oil supplies could suffer. The environment could be endangered, as happened in the Gulf War, and in an even worse manner this time." This was not a theological argument.

Earlier, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state (in effect, the number two man in the Vatican), told Italian journalists at a lunch on Jan. 29, "The Holy See is against the war. It's certainly not a defensive war." He wondered about the practical effect of a war against a Muslim country. He asked, "Is it really a good idea to irritate a billion Muslims?" This was not a theological argument.

The pope has suggested that all those who believe in God can help stop the war by fasting on March 5. But when he met with the diplomats accredited to the Holy See on Jan. 13 he was not using theological arguments either. He said he was worried about the consequences of war for the civilian population both during and after the military operations. He lamented preparations for a war against the people of Iraq, "who are already sorely tried by more than 12 years of embargo" imposed by the U.S.

The pope had read the sad U.N. reports that blamed the embargo and postwar sanctions levied by the U.S. for the excess deaths of approximately 500,000 children under the age of five, and nearly a million Iraqis of all ages. They have died of dehydration from diarrhea -- caused by water-borne illnesses which are amplified by the intentional destruction of water treatment and sanitation facilities by the United States. Then there was the fallout from U.S. bombs coated with depleted uranium that the U.S. started dropping on Iraq in 1991. Since then, on a weekly basis, the U.S. had dropped well in excess of 300 tons of this radioactive material on Iraq. These particles are now beginning to show up in ground water samples, bringing on cholera, hepatitis, and typhoid. Cancer rates have increased nearly six fold in the south, where U.S. bombing and consequent levels of DU are most severe. The most pronounced increases are in leukemia and lung, kidney, and thyroid cancers associated with poisoning by heavy metals (such as DU).

By contrast, Pres. Bush's rhetoric is mainly theological. He keeps talking about a battle between the forces of absolute Good and absolute Evil. President Bush gave us a clue to his thinking soon after 9/11 when he said in an unscripted moment that he was going to lead "a crusade." His advisers (who knew more history than he did) told him to shut up already about a crusade. But that was precisely the right word to use as whole nations were being called upon to support Bush's war. A crusade. A holy war. Bush can hardly help himself. In an interview last summer with the Watergate journalist Bob Woodward, Bush fairly leaped out of his chair when Woodward asked him about Kim Jong Il, the leader of North Korea. "I loathe Kim Jong Il," he shouted. "It is visceral. Maybe it's my religion… but I feel passionate about this."

What is President Bush's religion? It is an unconscious religion, a pseudo-religion actually, which he calls patriotism. Like all the religions of history, America's unconscious religion embraces a whole complex of attitudes, convictions, emotions, gestures, rituals, beliefs, and institutions that has helped the American people come to terms with, and express, their most fundamental relationship with reality. In the company of many self-righteous Americans, Bush's patriotism becomes a superpatriotism, a worship of America (which is really a self-worship), grounded in the unassailable belief that "We are the good guys, the god-guys, who have a special mission: to bring the blessings of freedom to all the peoples of the world – even if we have to nuke 'em." Killing an ungodly enemy: this is what makes a war holy.

Not so incredibly, Osama bin Laden's rhetoric runs along the same lines. "Fight the agents of the devil," he says, calling on Muslims throughout the world in a videotape distributed in early February to unite behind Iraq. "God will give us victory." One of the worst things about war: we become very much like the enemy.

With the end of the Cold War, America's holy warriors were forced to stop talking about nuking their adversaries. They needed something new to stoke their civil religion, the religion described by Max Weber that "legitimates power" for both the ruled and their rulers (because most men not only want power but also the feeling that they have a right to it). The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was an answer to their prayers, a welcome call to get ready for a new holy war. Victory in a holy war makes men holy.

And if Pres. Bush couldn't quite find Osama bin Laden, the undoubted mastermind behind the 9/11 attack, any other evil figure would do. Enter Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein, sitting astride Bush's "axis of evil." Neither of them have a fraction of the U.S. power to destroy the world. Or any wish to do so. But, to Bush, Saddam was the more vulnerable substitute villain. Which is why the U.S. sent troops into Iraq and not into Korea. Iraq became America's current crusade. Since that crusade ended up so favorably for Bush's war party, we might well expect more such crusades.

The pope's people know all about crusades. Starting with Urban II preaching the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095 against "the evil empire of Islam," Christian knights plunged into holy war, convinced by the pope that if they died in battle they'd go straight to heaven. But there was nothing holy about the crusades. In execution and outcome, the Crusades were a series of personal and historical and geo-political and ecclesiastical disasters, and their baneful repercussions reverberate through the corridors of history. If Jesus had been an observer in the front lines of the Crusades, I could hear him ask, incredulously, "You did all this for me?"

In the 1950s, the U.S. and Europe was facing off against the Soviet Union in something called the Cold War. Catholics were egged into fighting for Christ (or at least for Christian civilization) by no less a figure than Pope Pius XII. Then another pope, Pope John XXIII, decided to put a stop to that kind of nonsense. In an August 1962 interview at Castelgondolfo, he told me that the Church didn't need any more crusades. La crociata, non si fa piu.

Two months later, he was welcoming emissaries from the Soviet Union to the Council. A few weeks after that, he intervened with Pres. John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev to deflect the Cuban missile crisis, which could have plunged the two powers into a world-destroying nuclear exchange.

John Navone, a veteran Jesuit theologian at Rome's Gregorian University, could barely restrain his anger at a rekindling of all the God talk in favor of war. "All these crusades," he says, "are based on the false premise that the Bible is a divine real estate book. The kingdom of God, as Jesus insisted, is not geopolitical. God is king wherever God governs hearts and minds. "The kingdom of God is in the midst of you." God's kingdom is in the hearts and minds God governs."

Navone said that as a professor of Biblical spirituality, he had "done his homework." He said, "Too much blood has been shed over the last millennium because of the thoroughly unreligious views among Jews, Christians and Muslims, about God's kingdom. It is the God-given reality of the human heart and mind under the sovereignty of God's love. It is not a geopolitical, nationalist, racist, tribal creation of human self-worship."

But, over history, haven't all religions fought legitimate holy wars? Navone barked, "No! There is nothing holy about war. Religious traditions, like everything else that is human, are always open to perversion and inauthenticity."

What about America's fight against the axis of evil? Now Navone was whispering, for emphasis. "It is truly an exercise in futility for one nation or a number of nations to launch a war against international and cosmic evil. That is a task that even the Almighty is still working at."

Robert Blair Kaiser is the editor of Just Good Company. An American, he also covers the Vatican for Newsweek and The Tablet. You can write him at rbkaiser@JustGoodCompany.com.