Our “Wars” and Why We Fight Them

Flag_Culture_Wars-600x398Ever wonder what’s up with the ubiquitous use of the word “war” to describe some political or cultural cause? A glance at the headlines reveals that we are a nation at war with ourselves. If aliens darting around the galaxy were to stop for a bathroom break on Earth and read our headlines, they would see that there is a war on women, a war on religion, a war on poverty, a war on drugs, a war on terror, a war on science, a war on reason, a war on Christmas, a war on kids, a war on fat, a war on whistleblowers, and on and on and on (these are all actual “wars” we are “fighting,” according to a 30 second Google search I did just now.)

It’s weird, at least to me, that we use the word “war” in this way. I’ve never been in actual combat, but I am aware enough to know that our nation has been sending men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan to serve in combat in a real shooting war since September 11, 2001. Using the term “war” to talk about a cultural or political cause has always seemed to cynically minimize the sacrifices that our servicemen and women have made over the past thirteen years.

I was reading about Elizabeth Warren’s recent speech in which she vowed, “We will overturn Hobby Lobby and we will fight for it, we will fight for it.” What did she mean? Is she advocating for violence?

The use of the word “war” and “fight” in political/cultural context obviously does not mean anything entailing violence (usually, at least). But it does conjure up images of grappling with an enemy, of strategy and tactics, of advance and retreat, of victory or defeat. Cultural and political wars are fixated on the hope of a victorious future or the dread of an irreversible defeat. Wars mean sacrifice, toil, commitment. Above all, wars call for unity in the face of a threat.

War has a peculiar civil religious element that is useful in bringing unity to otherwise disparate groups. In a war like World War II, Americans put aside many, if not most, of their religious, cultural, social, racial, and cultural differences for the purpose of defeating the Japanese and the Germans. They made sacrifices. They bought bonds. They weathered bad news and they determined never to be satisfied with anything less than unconditional surrender. And in the end, that’s what they got from their enemies. They were totally defeated.

Raymond Haberski’s God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 addresses how Americans have seen war over the past three generations. War, Haberski argues, has been an essential idea to American unity and purpose since World War II. It brings people together in ways that other ideas simply cannot. In the absence of a real shooting war, Americans will often make up a war, in order to rally to a cause.

The Global War on Terror was unique in that, from the beginning, our leaders never demanded much of the non-military population in the way of sacrifice. President Bush, in a September 27, 2001 speech at O’Hare International Airport, encouraged Americans to continue doing what they were doing: “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed,” he said. This, in stark contrast to FDR’s call for the American people to sacrifice for the war effort in a speech from April 28, 1942, in which he said, “All of us are used to spending money for things that we want, things, however, which are not absolutely essential. We will all have to forgo that kind of spending.”

Since the War on Terror is a war that is largely fought by the military, but not the citizenry, people in general have room in their minds for other “wars” that serve to rally them to causes that concern them as disparate groups. Race, religion, gender, environment, class, and political party serve as suitable “front lines” in the “wars” we fight. One problem, according to James Davison Hunter in his Before the Shooting Begins, is that “culture wars always precede shooting wars.”

I’m not in the business of predicting the future, but I can read the present. We live in a time when we are actually getting accustomed to mass shootings at malls, schools, theaters, and even places of worship. I found myself in the position recently to explain to my kids why the person in the car in front of us gave us the middle finger and just tried to run us off the road. I know I, along with people representing every political and social position, worry about the suspicious “war-fighting” culture we are handing down to our children.

And yet, Americans self-identify along the lines of race, gender, political persuasion, etc.. I guess there’s nothing new in that. What seems unique in our present situation is that the group mentality often entails “war” with other groups that are considered “the enemy.”

Considering this from a historical perspective, Americans, it seems have always seen themselves in such terms while the issues that divide them have changed. This is especially ironic, since our national motto (until 1956) was E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”). Perhaps we need to go back to the Federalist Papers, and read what Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote about the challenge of maintaining unity among so many disparate groups, or factions, as they called them. Madison wrote in Federalist 51,

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. 

The republican concept of the “public good” was a salient concept in Madison’s thinking. Public good is to be differentiated from “group good.” Selfishness destroys republics. Pursuit of the public good, the common wealth, is the aim of the republic. One means of attaining the public good is a scrupulous attention to respecting the natural rights of all men, women, and children. Natural rights, as understood through the lens of the natural law tradition in Western thought, are based on the existence of God and the divine image he has bestowed on his human creatures, giving them all worth and dignity. Respecting the natural rights of all means, at minimum, that individuals and groups do not seek to limit or deny the rights of other individuals or groups. Madison also said in Federalist 51,

Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens;

Culture and political war-fighting is anathema to a republican pursuit of the public good. Wars pit groups against each other, casting the other as “the enemy” to be totally defeated and destroyed. It’s hard to see how our system of democratic-republicanism can survive in its current state of constant wars and rumors of wars.

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