Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.
The ancients were wise to make war a god. Violent, unpredictable, destructive, seductive, brutal, and capricious. And of course very, very powerful in its hold on the human mind.
I trained as a historian, where an understanding of facts, context, and other forms of evidence is all-important. War destroys history. War creates its own “facts.” Who needs context when you hear the cry: “We’re at war!”
Consider the Russia-Ukraine War. Americans are encouraged to believe the war began with Putin’s invasion in February 2022. All you need to know is that Putin is evil and that he wants to conquer and subjugate Ukraine. A bit of history is introduced by equating Putin with Hitler; sometimes you see claims that Putin is “worse than Hitler.” But that’s about all the “history” you’re encouraged to know.
To follow the war, you might go to the Guardian, which tells me this is Day 596 of Putin’s invasion. Again, it’s implied that what came before Putin’s decision to invade simply doesn’t matter. NATO expansion to Russia’s borders, for example, is dismissed as irrelevant. Russia shouldn’t have felt threatened by benevolent, peace-loving NATO. Nor do you need to know anything about U.S. meddling in Ukrainian politics. Focus on the war, cheer on the Ukrainians, and see all Russians as guilty, more or less, even Russian opera singers and tennis players.
Consider as well the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Again, Americans are encouraged to believe the war began with terrorist attacks by Hamas. All you need to know is that Hamas is engaged in “pure, unadulterated evil” (President Biden) and that Israel must defend itself however it deems fit. Hamas is evil, Israel is good, end of story.
Americans saw this with 9/11 and the Bush/Cheney response to it. President Bush encouraged us to believe that Al Qaeda attacked the U.S. because they hated us for our freedoms. They hate us because they ain’t us, simple as that. Meanwhile, Bush told the world you’re either for us or you’re for the terrorists.
War is the great and terrifying simplifier. We go to war shouting “Remember the Alamo!” or “Remember the Maine; to hell with Spain!” or “Remember Pearl Harbor!” with vengeance on our minds. There’s no need to think. There no need to seek any understanding. Who cares about history and context? It’s time to kill-kill-kill. That’s the only language *they* understand, because they’re pure evil even as we represent pure goodness. Our wrath is righteous and measured; their wrath is unbounded and insane, evil, the work of “human animals.”
Recall what Congresswoman Barbara Lee said when she cast the lone vote of dissent after 9/11. Instead of authorizing a blank check of support for Bush/Cheney and U.S. military action everywhere, Lee advised restraint and asked a nation in mourning to pause. Citing a clergy member, she memorably cautioned that “as we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.” Her speech was a profile in courage for which she was widely attacked and condemned.
What followed 9/11 was an orgy of violence by the U.S., a global war on terror akin to a jihad, producing the Afghan War, the Iraq War, Libya’s collapse into chaos, Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, the collateral murder video, torture, and so many other deplorable acts. Yet we as Americans are told by our leaders and the mainstream media to forget these “excesses,” these “mistakes,” because we meant well and we had no choice but to respond to evil terrorists with massive military might.
And so now Israel, aided by the U.S., faces the same choice: how best to respond to a terrorist attack. And it appears their response will be an exercise in massive military might. Because history doesn’t matter. The god of war has taken over. And that god demands vengeance. Violence. Blood sacrifice.
Yet there is wisdom in the Bible when it says (Romans 12:19-21):
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.
Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools. He writes at Bracing Views.