Review: Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?

bloody, brutal and barbaric

Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric?, William J. Webb and Gordon K. Oeste. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: Using an incremental, redemptive ethic approach, and careful textual study, the authors argue for assessing the Old Testament warfare and war rape narratives against the Ancient Near East cultural context, the constraints on warfare for Israel, and evidence in the arc of biblical narrative that God both grieves warfare and redemptively works for the end of it.

Since 9/11, there has been an increasing focus on religiously-motivated violence including renewed attention not only to the sometimes violent history of the church, but also to the violence in the Old Testament, commanded or allowed by God. The authors of this work recognize the very real difficulties in these texts, particularly in light of our Geneva Convention ethics.

They begin by arguing that the argument of divine commands rooted in divine holiness and the evil of the Canaanites is a round peg into the square hole of modern ethics. The authors advocate instead that war be understood in terms of the biblical storyline in the Ancient Near East (ANE) context. Key is understanding God’s intention to restore the sacred space where God relates with his people lost in Eden, foreshadowed in Israel, decisively inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Jesus, looking forward to the peaceable kingdom of the new heaven and new earth, where evil is vanquished not by violence but by the word of the lamb.

The authors also develop the idea and show evidence that much of the “total kill” rhetoric of scripture reflects hyperbole, and that actually, death was most focused on military, and the kings who led them, where the general population may have been driven out of their homes. Often passages talk about “total” victories, only for subsequent passages to report continuing Canaanite presence.

Additionally, they contend that God accommodates the existing ethical practices of Israel. Perhaps the most significant argument for this “weeping God” portrayal is that unlike other victorious kings who often built temples, God banned David the warrior king from doing so, deferring the temple construction to Solomon (“shalom), the peaceful son.

It’s also striking that by ANE standards, Israel’s warfare practices are constrained. One chapter describes graphically an extensive list of atrocities common among the nations that were prohibited, as was battlefield rape. While warriors were permitted to take virgins who were attractives, they could not rape them on the battlefield. They were to be allowed 30 days to grieve during which they shaved their hair, and exchanged their clothing before the men could take them as wives (not slaves), who, if not pleasing, were not to be kept but released. None of this would be wholly acceptable by modern ethics (though often actual warfare still is accompanied by these atrocities) but these represented incremental improvements on a redemptive trajectory.

Ultimately, in Christ, God’s kingdom comes, not by the exercise of violence, but by the incarnate Son taking violence upon himself, standing with the victims of violence through history. In the end, the Lion who is the Lamb who was slain comes to set things right, not through indiscriminate slaughter, no ethnic genocide, no real battle but conquest by the Lamb’s word.

The writers admit the warfare accounts in scripture will always be troubling. We should be troubled. What the authors propose is a God who was troubled with a fallen world, who rather than remaining aloof, accommodated to the human conditions of war, but also instituted a redemptive process that will ultimately end all war atrocities and injustices in his peaceable kingdom.

I suspect we want a God who would wave a magic wand and make it all go away, pacifying warriors into peace-loving automatons. That’s not what’s on offer here, but rather a God who mixes it up with our sorry mess, and works slowly through history and sacrificially through his Son to set things to rights.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Presidents of War

presidents of war

Presidents of WarMichael Beschloss. New York: Crown Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An account of eight American presidents who led the nation into war, how they coped with its stresses, and the consequences of their actions with regard to presidential power.

As recent tensions (I write in July 2019) with North Korea and Iran underscore, the potential and power of a U.S. president to lead the nation into war is great, and brings solemn consequences in terms of loss of life, ongoing entanglements, or the ultimate cataclysm of nuclear conflict. Michael Beschloss, in this work, studies eight American presidents who led the nation into war. The presidents are James Madison (War of 1812), James Polk (Mexican-American War), Abraham Lincoln (the Civil War), William McKinley (Spanish-American War), Woodrow Wilson (World War I), Franklin Roosevelt (World War II), Harry Truman (Korea) and Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam).

It is fascinating to see pretexts and concealed motives for conflicts. For example, Madison took a poorly equipped nation into conflict with Great Britain over impressments of American sailors and the high-handedness of George III, while entertaining ambitions to invade and seize Canadian territory. James Polk, similarly had territorial ambitions to annex territory in the southwest from Mexico and used clashes on the disputed Texas-Mexico border to seek a declaration of war. The fall of Fort Sumter was the flashpoint of the simmering conflict between North and South that both knew was about slavery. Yet until the summer of 1862, Lincoln spoke of the war as an effort to restore the Union. The sinking of the Maine, likely caused by a shipboard accident, served as the cause for the Spanish-American War, allowing the McKinley administration to seize the Philippines and achieve “regime change” in Cuba. Critical intelligence was not passed on to fleet commanders at Pearl Harbor, and the catastrophic Japanese attack gave Franklin Roosevelt the mandate he needed to lead a reluctant nation into war. Dubious attacks in the Tonkin Bay in response to covert US activity resulted in a congressional resolution that served as the basis for Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the Vietnam conflict.

Beschloss also chronicles a tension inherent in the U.S. Constitution. While Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution entrusts the sole power to declare war to Congress, Article II, Section 2 names the President the commander in chief of armed forces, entrusting to him the power to launch and direct military operations and deploy our forces, important in the event of attacks upon the country. In this work we see not only how presidents used various pretexts to argue for war declarations up through World War II, but also how Presidents avoided seeking such declarations in the case of Korea and Vietnam, actions that turned out to be unpopular with the American people. Beschloss notes that today’s all-volunteer armies and the lack of a draft make this easier.

Presidents used war to push the limits of presidential power, whether in the suspension of habeas corpus, in executive orders, in harnessing civilian industry to war aims (such as Harry Truman’s takeover of a strike-plagued steel industry), or even the Emancipation Proclamation, effecting an end of slavery without constitutional amendment. At the same time, failure in the exercise of these powers brought new curbs or temporarily weakened the presidency, such as the 1973 War Powers Act, after Vietnam, and the weakened administrations of Ford and Carter, post-Vietnam.

Beschloss also studies how different presidents coped with the pressures of war. Madison seemed not to cope well at all, offering indecisive leadership and being routed from Washington. Polk was the first president who paid a toll with his health for fighting a war, barely surviving his presidency in broken health. Lincoln admitted, “This war is eating my life out” and he had a strong impression that he would not live to see its end (he barely did before an assassin’s bullet struck him down). McKinley turned to his Bible and justified the seizure of the Philippines as a trust to bring Christianity to the archipelago. His life was also ended by assassination while in office. Wilson suffered a stroke after fighting for his Fourteen Principles, the League of Nations, and the Treaty of Versailles. Roosevelt also suffered a fatal stroke on the eve of the allied victory and Johnson’s health was seriously impaired with his death coming within five years of leaving office. Fate is not kind to most war presidents.

This work is an excellent survey of many of America’s wars, and of presidential leadership, both in taking the nation into war and leading the country through them. It is disturbing how many times the country is deceived or deprived of critical information in being led into war, and how often fervor substitutes for a sound basis for war, perhaps most notably in 1812 and in Vietnam. Given the high stakes of modern warfare, Beschloss’s work suggests that questions of character, demonstrated leadership, and the mental and physical fitness of the holders of the office of President should weigh heavily in our electoral processes. It also suggests the critical role of Congress in the exercise of its War Powers, and its role of requiring a President to make the case for war to the American people. The fate of a nation, or even the world, may rest on how our President, and our elected representatives act.

 

Review: The Father of Us All

Father of Us All

The Father of Us All, Victor Davis Hanson. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

Summary: A collection of essays arguing from history that war is a tragic but persistent feature of human existence that explores some of the particular challenges that democracies from Athens to the present day United States face as we are faced with the prospect or reality of war.

It seems that, along with the poor, we will always have war. Victor Davis Hanson would say that this is in fact one of the lessons of history. Hanson, in this collection of essays draws upon both ancient history going back to the wars between Athens and Sparta, and the wars of a post-9/11 age to make this point.

In his opening essay he sounds themes that recur throughout this collection. Military history is an oft-neglected but useful discipline of study. It shows us that war is indeed a persistent feature of human nature. Efforts of appeasement to avert war often only make the situation worse. The idea of war as a miscommunication is mistaken–the fact is there are adversaries who are only too clear concerning their malevolent intent. Asymmetrical methods, such as IED’s versus Humvees are hardly a new invention, but rather the inevitable resort of an inferior but determined foe. Those who make war must always be aware of political considerations. At the conclusion of this essay, Hanson introduces the unfamiliar reader to the riches of military history writing, from the ancients to contemporary.

The essays, originally articles or presentations, are grouped under four headings. The first part, as already alluded to, explores the “orphaned” discipline of military history. The second considers war writing from Thucydides through the battle of Lepanto in 1571, a critical example of conflict of east versus west. Part three then looks at the contemporary phenomenon of war–how we as a nation like to fight battles, and the result in a post 9/11 war of asymmetrical conflicts between the west and radical terror organizations. The last section explores the unique challenges of democracies in war-making, and that often we are our own worst enemies, and yet also, that a democracy aroused, mobilizing the full resources of free peoples is a fearsome foe.

As you may be able to tell, Hanson speaks against a prevailing progressive notion that if only we communicated better, understood our enemies better, and so forth, we would not fight wars. He would contend we engage in far too much self-criticism, and far to little moral assessment of the evil of the ideologies of radical elements in the world. Paradoxically, he observes that often, Democratic presidents such as Roosevelt have often done a better job of leading in war, explaining both their reluctance to make war, and its necessity rather than engaging in sabre-rattling. What this should reveal to us is the persistent character of war in the world, and like it as little as we do, that if we are confronted with war, the worst thing that can be done is to shrink from it, but rather meet it with resolve.

I do think that Hanson’s essays challenge progressive notions cogently. But I wonder if he insufficiently wrestles with what Barbara Tuchman once called “the march of folly.” Perhaps it is also part of human nature that we often pursue foolhardy courses of bellicosity that make war inevitable, but must we? Is not war often a failure of political leadership, as in our own Civil War, or the bellicosity and incredible build-up of arms that led to World War I? Likewise, the argument that war must be fought such that foes are utterly defeated and humiliated seems to be the argument at the end of World War I that gave us World War II out of the grievances of the German people, played upon skillfully by Hitler.

In the end, Hanson has history on his side in arguing war’s persistence, and that this is a reflection on human nature. What he doesn’t explore here, which I think perhaps is more curious is why we are this mixture of noble ideals as well as malevolent motives? If this is indeed the human condition, then what hope is there for us?

 

 

 

What If We Sent Old Men To War?

That’s the premise of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s Warold mans warwhich I’ve just started reading. Scalzi envisions a time in the future when people from earth have colonized distant world, and presumably have encroached on the space of others, precipitating wars in space. The colonists, whose technology is far in advance of those living here on earth have a unique recruiting strategy. You cannot enlist until you are 75, and if you do, you can never return to earth. You have died and gone to the heavens. Why then do people do it? It is because the colonists have figured out how to rejuvenate the old bodies who have nothing and maybe no one left on earth to live for and are tired of living in old bodies.

I’m really liking the book so far, and not just because of the author’s Ohio roots and references. It raises all kinds of questions for me. Will old people, who become more their own people as the years go by, be able to live under military discipline? Will the reprieve from aging make them more or less courageous in the face of death? Will they have more or less to lose? Can we have the potential for endless life without entering into some form of Faustian bargain?

Why would a government want old people in young bodies to fight it wars–all kinds of people, not just the intelligent ones? I could see that this might be a great alternative to Social Security and Medicare.

What is more interesting yet is that this explores the fear so many of us have in growing old. Sooner or later, we face the losing battle of failing bodies or minds. Better to risk a battle one might win than battles that we always in the end lose, and often in great pain, or in utter embarrassment to our sense of dignity.

The question this book raises above all is whether there might be good reasons to warrant the choice not to pursue a rejuvenated body–to accept the indignities of physical or mental decline with grace. Grace indeed, I wonder, the grace that in John Newton’s words “has brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.”

I’m looking forward to seeing how Scalzi works this out. At any rate it is a fascinating alternative to old men and women deciding to send young men and women to fight and to die. Should not the old die for the young?

I’ll keep you posted.

Learning in Peace-Time?

This morning I had a chance to re-read C. S. Lewis’s “Learning in War-Time?”, a sermon he gave at the outset of World War II.  He made the observation at one point that it is never the case actually in war that we focus only on war.  He writes, “Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae.” In other words, we will always be thinking of the significant (and commonplace!) matters of life.  He goes on to argue that if we suspend serious intellectual and cultural activity in such times, we will only replace it with worse–“if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones.”  All of this is part of his encouragement to those whose calling is student during the war.

I equally wonder about the question of learning in peace-time?  War in some ways raises really important spiritual and philosophical questions.  When we are at peace, we often are more inclined to think about where will we eat? What movie will we see this weekend? Will I buy this shirt or that? What I wonder about in these times is whether our comfort and relative affluence results if anything in our being more distracted by the commonplace and content with the banal? When it seems that “life is good” do we resist the demanding intellectual and aesthetic work required to break new intellectual and aesthetic ground?

Lewis as a Christian appeals to a basic Christian precept of “doing all to the glory of God.”  He contends that this does not mean forcing all intellectual life to be “spiritually edifying” in some way.  Rather, he writes:

I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God’s sake. An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.”

Lewis reminds me that we all have appetites for the good, the true, and the beautiful.  What the passion for God’s glory in our work does is encourage us to give these to the best and most worthy things–to read (and write) good books rather than bad. We often talk around the educational world of “lifelong learning.”  One of the questions that I often wonder about is what drives us to continue to learn, to grow, to change?