[Note to TomDispatch readers: After a long break, this is the 13th
in a series of interviews at the site. The previous 12 were collected in the
book Mission Unaccomplished:
TomDispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters.]
He's a man who knows something about the dangers
of mixing religious fervor, war, and the crusading spirit, a subject he dealt
with eloquently in his book Constantine's
Sword: The Church and the Jews. A former Catholic priest turned antiwar
activist in the Vietnam era, James Carroll also wrote a moving memoir
about his relationship to his father, the founding director of the Pentagon's
Defense Intelligence Agency. Carroll essentially grew up in that five-sided
monument to American imperial power. For him, as a boy, the Pentagon was "the
largest playhouse in the world," and he can still remember sliding down its
ramps in his stocking feet, as he's written in the introduction to his recent,
magisterial history of that building and the institution it holds, House
As a weekly columnist for the Boston Globe, he was perhaps the first
media figure to notice – and warn against – a presidential "slip of the tongue"
just after the assaults of 9/11, when George W. Bush referred
briefly to his new Global War on Terror as a "crusade." He was possibly the
first mainstream columnist in the country to warn against the consequences of
launching a war against Afghanistan in response to those attacks – now just
another of the president's missions unaccomplished; and, in September 2003,
he was possibly the first to pronounce the Iraq War "lost"
in print. ("The war in Iraq is lost. What will it take to face that truth this
time?") His stirring columns on the early years of our president's attempt to
bring "freedom" to the world at the point of a cruise missile were collected
Chronicles of an Unjust War. In those years, Carroll was a powerful,
moral voice from – to use a very American phrase – the (media) wilderness until
much of our American world finally caught up with him.
He has most recently completed, with director Oren Jacoby, a stirring documentary
film, also entitled Constantine's
Sword, in which he explores the roots of religiously inspired violence
in our present world. He submitted to a TomDispatch interview back in August
2005 and when, this summer, I suggested that we meet again, he agreed to
discuss "American fundamentalisms," a subject that receives remarkably less
coverage and consideration than other fundamentalisms of our world.
We met on a warm day, just after a rare downpour in a dry summer, in the study
of his house in Massachusetts. His many books dot the bookshelves. Out the window
is a piney landscape, not quite the one the Puritans first saw when they arrived
early in the 17th century, but beautiful nonetheless. Carroll, his hair graying,
has not so much a worn as a well-inhabited face. You can see him thinking as
he speaks – not so common a trait as you might imagine. As he warms up to the
subject of American fundamentalisms, his voice gains the quiet, yet powerful
passion that any reader of his weekly columns has come to expect, a passion
that nonetheless leaves room for reason and criticism, for further thought.
I put my two small tape recorders on a modest coffee table, turn them on, ask
my first question, and discover that this is an interview in name only. It's
more like being back in the most riveting classroom of my life. A single lecture,
an hour's genuine education, stretching from our first Puritan moments to George
Bush's Iraq, with hardly an interpolation needed on my part. So join me, kick
back, and learn something about what's fundamental to us.
TomDispatch: I recently heard this joke: How many neocons does it take
to screw in a light bulb? The answer: Neocons don't believe in light bulbs,
they declare war on evil and set the house on fire.
TD: That's my introduction to a discussion of American fundamentalism.
James Carroll: Well, embedded in that joke is a central idea: that what
matters is not outcome, but purity of intent. A mark of a fundamentalist mindset
is that one's own personal virtue is the ultimate value. The American fundamentalist
ethos of the Cold War prepared us to destroy the world. In other words, a world
absolutely devastated through nuclear war was acceptable as an outcome because
it reflected the virtue of our opposition to the evil of communism. Better dead
TD: A phrase I hadn't thought about in a long time...
Carroll: Better the world destroyed than taken over by communism. It's
profoundly nihilistic, which is also one of the marks of the fundamentalist
mindset. An irony, of course, is that so much, then and now, is done in the
name of realism, but this is such a profoundly unrealistic way of thinking.
TD: It's in this sense, I suppose, that our president has been unable
to learn. So, give me the basics on American fundamentalisms, as you see them.
Carroll: First of all, what is fundamentalism? The word itself was coined
in the early 20th century and applied to a particular brand of Protestantism.
It comes from a determination to protect what were called, in foundational manifestos,
the five fundamentals of Christian belief, particularly the inerrancy of scripture.
Scripture can't make a mistake, right? It has to be read literally.
This was a counterattack against so-called liberal religion's embrace of the
insights of the Enlightenment and the scientific age. Can you apply normal standards
of historical criticism to religious belief? The fundamentalists said no, because
normal standards might lead you to understand texts as having been composed
in normal human circumstances, instead of inspired by God. So when you read
the Gospel accounts of the birth of Jesus through the lens of historical critical
method you may conclude that the three kings never actually traveled to Bethlehem,
that it's a mythical story created to make a point – a genre that the people
who wrote it were comfortable with.
Fundamentalists reacted against any mitigating of the literal fact of the three
kings. To read texts for their theological meaning rather than for their historical
literalness would undercut the whole affirmation of the religion. The next thing,
you'd be saying that Jesus didn't rise from the dead on the third day. And if
that didn't happen, where are you?
That was then. Today, fundamentalism remains a useful point of reference in
understanding the human panic that can be engendered by the uncertainties attached
to Enlightenment thinking – when the worldview of science tells you that nothing
is dependable, that everything has to be submitted to the test of experimentation,
My argument is that religious belief can mature, can be moved to a new level
of sophistication by historical, critical, enlightened thinking, but a lot of
people are completely threatened by it. Not to denigrate them. Human beings
all over the world are dislocated – all of us are – by so many things we don't
control, the various revolutions sweeping the globe, the degradation of the
environment, the challenge to the very integrity of communities.
The City on a Hill
Carroll: For our conversation, fundamentalist Christianity is a perfect
paradigm within which to understand what's been happening in America, a profoundly
Christian super-culture. America is also a secular nation, of course. The separation
of church and state was a critical innovation, giving us this special standing
as a people. The separation's purpose was to protect the conscientious freedom
of every individual by making the state neutral on questions of religious conscience.
An absolutely ingenious insight.
It's important, however, to understand the profoundly American origins of this
insight. The argument began in the first generation. John Cotton, a Puritan
preacher, embodied the first idea America had of itself, captured in the image
his colleague John Winthrop used in defining the new settlement as "the city
on a hill," a phrase that's fodder for political speeches every four years.
Americans don't generally like to think this way, but the United States of
America is more descended from Massachusetts than Virginia – an important distinction
because the people who settled Virginia were adventurers and entrepreneurs.
The people who settled Massachusetts were religious zealots who had left England
as an act of dissent against the Church of England, which they considered too
Popish. Their dissent was against a certain kind of religion, but not in favor
of religious freedom. They came to America assuming the power of the state over
the religious convictions of the civic body.
TD: They just wanted a different religion to do the coercing?
Carroll: Exactly. Of course, these folks thought of themselves as reenacting
the journey of Exodus. What was the city on a hill? Jerusalem, of course – a
biblical reference. They had been brought out of the slave condition of a Popish
church. They were now across the water – think of "the Jordan River" as the
Atlantic Ocean – in the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey.
Hello, there are Canaanites here.
Finally, after 1,600 years, the true vision of Jesus Christ was going to be
realized – and there was no room for another way of looking at it, no room for
what we would call dissent, and certainly no room for any tolerance of the "paganism"
of the Native Americans. One of the first manifestations of the settlers' zealotry
was the religious coercion that began to mark their relationships with the Native
Americans they met right here in this very place where we're now talking. They
felt empowered to offer the ancient choice of conversion or death to the people
they called the Indians.
One of the members of this early party objected. His name was Roger Williams
and he rejected the coercive violence he saw wielded against native peoples.
He rejected the whole idea that the magistrate should be in charge of the religious
impulse of the citizen. As a result, he was banished from Boston, exiled to
Salem, then banished from Salem. Finally, he started his own foundation in what
we call Rhode Island and organized a new kind of state in which the magistrate
would have no power over the religious practice of the citizens. This is all
within the first generation.
Roger Williams lost the argument in his own day, but he planted the seed of
something. He was the first person to use the phrase, "wall of separation" between
the magistrate and the religion. One hundred eighty years later, Thomas Jefferson
picks up that phrase to describe the distinction between the church and the
The point here is that the initial city-on-a-hill impulse has never stopped
being part of our self-understanding – the idea of America as having a mission
to the world or, in biblical terms, a mission to the gentiles. "Go forth and
teach all nations," Jesus commands. This commission is implicit in George Bush's
war to establish democracy – or "freedom" – everywhere. When Americans talk
about freedom, it's our secular code word for salvation. There's no salvation
outside the church; there's no freedom outside the American way of life. Notice
how, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet system,
there is still something called the "Free World." As opposed to what?
A Special Mission to Iraq – and the World
Carroll: This missionizing in the name of freedom is a basic American
impulse. Lincoln was the high priest of this rhetoric, "the last best hope of
mankind." The United States of America is justified by the virtue of its mission.
The entire movement of American power across the continent of North America
was a movement to fulfill the "manifest destiny" of a free people extending
freedom. Because this is understood as a profoundly virtuous impulse, we've
seldom criticized it. As a nation, we have begun to reckon with the crime of
slavery, but we haven't begun to reckon with the crime of genocide against the
Native-American peoples. That's because we haven't really acknowledged what
was wrong with it.
Think of that phrase – "manifest destiny." A key doctrine in what I am calling
American fundamentalism. It remains an inch below the surface of the American
belief system. What's interesting is that this sense of special mission cuts
across the spectrum – right wing/left wing, liberals/conservatives – because
generally the liberal argument against government policies since World War II
is that our wars – Vietnam then, Iraq now – represent an egregious failure to
live up to America's true calling. We're better than this. Even antiwar critics,
who begin to bang the drum, do it by appealing to an exceptional American missionizing
impulse. You don't get the sense, even from most liberals, that – no, America
is a nation like other nations and we're going to screw things up the way other
TD: That kind of realism is in short supply here.
Carroll: It hardly exists even now.
Let me make one final point about that missionizing impulse, and the way it
transcends right and left. One reason we're in Iraq today is because, in the
1990s, the left was split on the question of American violence, the proper use
of American power. It was split over the issue of what was called "humanitarian
intervention." There are times, it was argued, when the forceful exercise of
American power is necessary for the sake of humanitarian causes. Human rights,
beginning in Jimmy Carter's day, became a new form of American religion. If
conservatives go abroad speaking the language of freedom; liberals go abroad
speaking the language of human rights. And if we have to destroy a nation so
that it can exercise human rights, so be it. That's why, in the early days of
the Iraq war, so many surprising people supported it.
The liberal embrace of humanitarian intervention is part of what set loose
this new phenomenon of the Bush moment – an explicit appeal to religious motivation
in the exercise of American power. Since George W. Bush came to power, the religious
right has been set free to use overt religious language, missionizing language
that actually moves from "freedom" to "salvation," as a justification for American
power. We cast ourselves against Saddam Hussein entirely in terms of a binary
evil-versus-good contest. Bush's appeals to evil were a staple of his speechmaking
from the earliest days of this war. The purpose of his war was, he told us,
not just to spread democracy, but to end evil. You see what's happening. We've
moved into specifically religious categories and that was all right in America.
Tom, here's the thing that's important to acknowledge: If Americans are upset
with the war in Iraq today, it's mainly because it failed. If we could have
"ended evil" with this war, it would have been a good thing. It goes back to
the joke you began with: If we have to destroy the world in order to purify
it of evil, that's all right. It's the key to the apocalyptic mindset that Robert
J. Lifton has written about so eloquently, in which the destruction of the
Earth can be an act of purification. The destruction of Iraq was an act
of purification. Even today, look at the rhetoric that's unfolding as we begin
to talk about ending the war in Iraq. It's the Iraqis who have failed. They
wouldn't yield on their "sectarian" agendas. These people won't get together
and form a cohesive government. Now, we're going to let them stew in their own
mess. We're going to withdraw from this war because they're not worthy of us.
That's the mainstream Democratic antiwar position! America is a city on a hill,
exceptional; so, if we do it, by definition it must be virtuous. If we've gone
to Iraq and all hell's broken loose, it may be a fiasco, but in origin it can't
be our fault because we were motivated by good intentions.
Now, put all of that in the context of this astounding religious resurgence…
TD: It's the surge…
Carroll: (laughs): Yes, the surge of overt religious claims within the
United States government, people who understand themselves as fulfilling their
sworn oaths to uphold the United States Constitution in the name of religion.
I interviewed the chief chaplain of the U.S. Air Force who said to me: "I have
two commissions. One commission is to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the other
is to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and they go hand in hand with each
I grew up in the Air Force. I gotta tell ya, there was no chaplain in the Air
Force in my day who would have said that. In fact, the chaplains I knew didn't
see themselves as having a commission to preach the Gospel at all. You bent
over backward not to do that when you were dealing with soldiers outside
of the chapel.
A Christian Defense of the Nation
TD: You have a new film, based on your book, Constantine's
Sword, in which you explore this change at, among other places, the
Air Force Academy, right?
Carroll: Yes, what happened there was striking. Take just this example:
A couple of years ago, Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ,
rendered in profoundly fundamentalist ways, most terribly, the death of Jesus
as caused by "the Jews," not the Romans. In that movie, Pilate is a good guy;
the Jewish high priest the villain. Gibson justified this by saying it was how
the Gospels tell the story, which is literally true. A fundamentalist
reading of the Gospel story ignores what we know from history and from scientific
inquiry and analysis of the Gospels. It wasn't "the Jews" who murdered Jesus,
it was the Romans, pure and simple. There were complicated reasons why the Gospels
were written that way, but a fundamentalist reading of those texts is dangerous.
Gibson demonized the Jews, while celebrating grotesque violence as a mode of
salvation, as willed by God.
And then that film was featured at the United States Air Force Academy.
Its commanders made it clear that every one of the cadets, over 4,000 of them,
was supposed to see that movie. Repeatedly over a week, every time cadets went
into H. H. Arnold mess hall, they found fliers on their dinner plates announcing
that this movie was being shown. I saw posters that said: "See the Passion
of the Christ" and "This is an official Air Force Academy event, do not
remove this poster."
As a result of that film, there was an outbreak of pressure, practically coercion,
by born-again evangelical Christians aimed at non-Christian cadets and, in a
special way, at Jews. This went on for months, and when the whistle was blown
by a Jewish cadet and his father, the Air Force denied it, tried to cover it
up. Yale University sent a team from the Yale Divinity School to investigate.
They issued a devastating report. The commander at the academy was finally removed;
the Air Force was forced to acknowledge that there was a problem.
In fact, the Academy had allowed itself to become a proselytizing outpost for
evangelical Christian mega-churches in the Colorado Springs area. Chief among
them were Ted Haggard's and James Dobson's, both men then in the inner circle
of the Bush White House, involved in the sort of faith-based initiatives that
marked the Bush administration.
In the Pentagon today, there is active proselytizing by Christian groups that
is allowed by the chain of command. When your superior expects you to show up
at his prayer breakfast, you may not feel free to say no. It's not at all clear
what will happen to your career. He writes your efficiency report. And the next
thing you know, you have, in the culture of the Pentagon, more and more active
Imagine, then, a military motivated by an explicit Christian, missionizing
impulse at the worst possible moment in our history, because we're confronting
an enemy – and yes, we do have an enemy: fringe, fascist, nihilist extremists
coming out of the Islamic world – who define the conflict entirely in religious
terms. They, too, want to see this as a new "crusade." That's the language that
Osama bin Laden uses. For the United States of America at this moment to allow
its military to begin to wear the badges of a religious movement is a disaster!
TD: What does this point to, when it comes to the future?
Carroll: Well, the best thing that's happened, when it comes to all
of this, has been the near complete political and moral collapse of the Bush
administration, but that doesn't mean this movement is going away. Bush was
a sponsor of it. But look how it took off! Bush sponsored it, to take another
example, in the Justice Department under Attorney General Gonzales – all those
born-again Christian lawyers coming from fundamentalist Christian law schools
that have no history of excellence.
We must be aware that there's something much deeper than the Bush administration
and a particular wing of the Republican Party at work here, however. This isn't
just Karl Rove, though he was ingenious at exploiting it.
Let's go back to what kind of a nation the United States is. Here is something
I read recently: Though we are officially a secular people, there are more self-identified
Christians in this country than self-identified Jews in Israel in percentage
terms. We commonly think of Israel as a Jewish state. Something like seventy-five
percent of Israelis would identify themselves as Jewish. Eighty percent of Americans
identify themselves as Christian! And we're not a Christian nation? We have
to be wary of our Christian roots and of the city-on-a-hill impulse that still
lives just an inch below the surface.
Our war against the Soviet Union was a religious war. [Secretary of State]
John Foster Dulles [under President Eisenhower] was practically explicit about
this in his speeches, which were like sermons. Not just "communism," but "atheistic
communism." Dwight D. Eisenhower was baptized while he was president – part
of a Cold War feeling that we were involved in a Christian defense of the nation
against an atheistic enemy.
Huddling Up for Team Jesus
TD: And, of course, he entitled his memoir Crusade in Europe.
Carroll: Christian points of reference came very easily in those years,
but what's made the Bush era especially dangerous is that a political party
has explicitly, overtly embraced a religious movement for the political power
it generates. Fundamentalists have their rights, their place, in America, but
there's no place for a political movement that aims to take control of the levers
of state power in the name of religion. That's a violation of the "wall of separation."
You can't have military commanders giving orders down the chain of command that
have religious content to them. You can't, on the eve of battle, require your
soldiers to gather in a huddle the way a coach might, and say the Lord's Prayer.
TD: And yet it's happening…
Carroll: It's happening all the time! At the Air Force Academy, "Team
Jesus" was one of the nicknames for the football team and one of the most vociferous
evangelical Christian proselytizers was the football coach. Look at it from
his point of view. What happens when he can get his huddle together and they're
all saying the Lord's Prayer? A chief military virtue is "unit cohesion." It
can be created in any number of ways, but one shortcut is if you can get everybody
into a kind of Pentecostal religious fervor. If you can get your young men and
women feeling the presence of the Lord, they're going to fight better, possibly
more selflessly. That's what's in it for the military. Let's think cynically.
There may be some military commanders who don't give much of a damn about God,
but who see what God can do for fighting spirit. It works.
Let's all gather around the Humvee before we head into this village. Let us
pray. You can bet that's going on in Iraq right now. Here's the question: What
happens to the kid who doesn't want to get around that Humvee or, more to the
point, to the Muslim bystanders who see American soldiers invoking God on their
way into battle?
TD: Or when you loose well-armed, even nuclear-armed people eager to
purify the world...
Carroll: If I have a point to make, it's this: The religious tradition
of Christian fundamentalism is one thing; the tradition of American exceptionalism
another. They both have their roots in the same experience. They were separated.
Under George Bush they've been brought together.
TD: When it comes to the Bush administration, complete collapse or not,
we know that this man, without the possibility of changing his mind, and his
vice president, without the possibility of changing his mind, with whomever
they can still control in their own government and military, are there until
January 2009. What does it mean to have people in a fundamentalist mindset,
but thoroughly embattled and on the downward slide? I wouldn't like to write
off the next year and a half. It's a potential nightmare.
Carroll: It could indeed be. But this issue involves more than the temperament
of George Bush. It involves the structure of the fundamentalist mind. One pillar
is bipolarity – the understanding of reality as divided between good and evil;
you're on the side of good and they're on the side of evil. However, they
can begin by being Osama bin Laden's band, which then becomes the Taliban, which
becomes Afghanistan, which becomes all the Muslims who ever talked about the
Great Satan, which becomes Iraq, and now maybe Iran, and even critics in the
U.S. "They," "they," "they." We see that progression in Bush. A second pillar
is an absolute allergy to doubt. The fundamentalist mindset doesn't survive
once you admit doubt or self-criticism. When asked for an example of a mistake
he had made, Bush surprised people two years ago by claiming he couldn't think
of one. The tragedy of Bush is, if you ask that question of him today, I'm sure
he would answer the same way.
A World Religiously Aflame
Carroll: Let's just step back a minute, though. How different are the
Democratic presidential candidates really? What I hear from them, too, is a
world divided between the good and the bad. I also hear – this is the meaning
of the new rhetoric about the failure of Iraq being the failure of Iraqis –
that we Americans are not to criticize what we've done in any basic way. "I
wouldn't renounce my vote." "The president lied to me, that's why I voted the
way I did." No capacity for self-criticism, for doubt.
You know, the genius of the American system – why the Constitution is worth
defending – is that our Constitution comes from Roger Williams, not John Winthrop
and John Cotton. It assumes a world not divided between good and evil, but one
where everybody participates in the whole mess.
What are checks and balances? The Constitution's authors understood that even
people motivated by good intentions are going to screw up. So everybody, every
institution, needs to be checked. This system assumes not bipolarity but unipolarity,
in the sense that we're all capable of mistakes, that we all have to be constantly
criticized. The Constitution is an ingenious structure for living in the real
TD: And yet, in recent years, the presidency and the Pentagon, in particular,
as you've written in your history of the Pentagon, House
of War, have seemingly grown beyond institutional checks and balances.
Carroll: The question today is whether the Constitution continues to
exist as anything beyond a kind of totem, a vestige? Recent history certainly
suggests that the Pentagon is now "unchecked." And if we can end our present
war by blaming the Iraqis, then the Pentagon will be immune from criticism and
prepared for the next foray of American power. That's why we must challenge
this laying the blame on the Iraqi people, as if their "sectarianism" weighs
more than our hubris. As of now, I fear, we'll be getting out of this war with
what brought us into it intact.
TD: People sometimes ask me about Iraq: "Well, what would you do?" It's
a question that drives me crazy. I always think: Well, why didn't you ask me
back when it mattered? Why didn't you ask me when I could have said, "Don't
go in." So I'm hesitant to ask you, but if you had the power to begin to organize
people in some fashion, what first steps would you take to mend this world?
Carroll: Let me just say that we've been talking only America here,
in part because I think people are attuned to the threat from what's called
"Islamic fundamentalism." My own conviction is that a crucial 21st-century problem
is going to be Christian fundamentalism. Its global growth is an unnoticed
story in the United States. Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia are now
absolutely on fire with zealous belief in the saving power of Jesus, in the
most intolerant of ways. A religious ideology that affirms the salvific power
of violence is taking hold. It denigrates people who are not part of the saved
community, permitting discrimination, and ultimately violence. Hundreds of millions
of people are embracing this kind of Christianity.
So what am I doing? I'm a Christian. I'm raising this alarm from within the
community. That's why I believe, as a Roman Catholic, that my own tradition
must be rescued from its current temptation to fundamentalism. There are a billion
Catholics in the world. For all its problems, Roman Catholicism has reckoned
with the Enlightenment, has accepted the scientific worldview, has no argument
with evolution, has learned to read the Bible in metaphoric ways, as opposed
to literal ones. Today we have a fundamentalist Pope, but he rules from the
margin. It's hugely important that the Catholic tradition not go fundamentalist.
You ask me what I would do. I think, for one thing, that believing people,
whether Jews, Muslims, or Christians, need to affirm the importance of pluralism,
respect for the other, and modesty about religious claims. I could be a Jew
sitting in Jerusalem and offer exactly the same argument about the Jewish zealots
making claims on land in the name of God. So Jewish zealotry, Muslim zealotry,
Christian zealotry, all three empowered lately, all three armed to the teeth.
That's what's really terrifying – and, in the world of weapons of mass destruction,
it's not that hard to get armed to the teeth.
So here's a message addressed to the participants in the TomDispatch community
who may have a religious interest: Embrace it. Fight for it. Fight for a post-Enlightenment,
postmodern, intelligent approach to religion. Don't surrender religion to the
If the wackos take over religion, they're going to take over state power and
the world won't survive the 21st century. And the United States of America has
been at the center of this. When George W. Bush launched his war in the name
of God… even more, when this nation took the 9/11 assaults as a religious war,
Muslims attacking us good, virtuous – we didn't call ourselves Christians, but
we were an inch away from it – that's when we began to make our part of this
TD: And we should have taken it as…?
Carroll: A savage crime. Think of al-Qaeda as the Mafia. When the Mafia
blows up a distillery and kills 18 people in the neighborhood as part of a turf
war, or goes after a hardware dealer who doesn't pay protection money and paralyzes
the neighborhood with fear, or when the Mafia takes over a whole region of a
nation, as it did in Italy for most of the 20th century, fight back; but fight
back against the criminal network with a massive act of law enforcement the
way the Italian government did.
It took the Italian government 50 years to break the Mafia's hold over Sicily
and they still have to keep fighting. But they never declared war on Sicily.
They never went in and bombed Sicily. They gave their judges and police inspectors
and detectives body armor and they went after the Mafia hit men with highly
armed SWAT teams. I'm not talking about pacifism here. But keep religious ideology
out of this. And keep the language of war out, too.
You know, only in going to war do humans feel the need to appeal to God. There's
no "God with us" on the belt buckles of cops. God gets invoked in war, because
it's a much more extreme state of the human condition. War always brings you
very quickly to the point of "us or them."
When somebody comes at you with a savage act of violence, go back at them with
your best, most heavily armed cops. Don't go to war against them. It's a very
basic idea. It can't be emphasized enough. We're going to have another terrorist
attack in this country. It's crucially important that, however horrendous, it
be treated as a crime – not an act of war.
Unbuilding the Pentagon
TD: You've written a whole book recently about the Pentagon. In this
period, it's grown fantastically. We've even ended up with two Pentagons, the
second being the Department of Homeland Security. Now, we have a North American
Command, Northcom, for the first time…
Carroll: …and there's another deeply troubling phenomenon, these so-called
"contractors" outside the purview of the Pentagon, of the U.S. government, people
paid to serve, who are not sworn officers of the government…
TD: And isn't the all-volunteer Army itself becoming a part-mercenary
army, because they're having to pay and pay and pay to lure in reluctant recruits?
My question is: Do you see a way to begin to unbuild the Pentagon? Are we stuck
with the Department of Homeland Security forever?
Carroll: If any nation was ever stuck with an all-powerful, untouchable
military establishment, it was the Soviet Union. By 1987, 1988, the only institution
in Soviet society that was working, the only one that was funded, was the military;
and it was the most reactionary wing of society.
If the Russians could get out from under that, there's no reason in the world
why we can't get out from under our version of the same. But it takes a Gorbachev.
Who knows when such a figure will come here?
Two things happened that enabled [General Secretary of the Communist Party
Mikhail] Gorbachev to defeat his own military and dismantle the Soviet system.
One was the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, a massive, horrendous public
mistake – and the mistake wasn't just the nuclear meltdown, but the way in which
the militarized establishment dealt with it. They sent hundreds of people in
to shut down a poisoned reactor, saying there was no threat to their health.
They were mostly all poisoned. Dead very quickly. And then the militarized establishment
told the people of Ukraine and the eastern Soviet territories that there was
no radioactive threat to them, and hundreds of people later came down with serious
illnesses and cancers. That happened in 1986, within months of Gorbachev's coming
to power. It prepared the people for a different kind of power.
And then there was that second, wonderful incident, forgotten today. An absolute
fluke, pure serendipity. These things happen in life. A young German kid named
Mathias Rust flew a piper cub plane from Germany to Moscow and landed in Red
Square, untouched. He had demonstrated in the most graphic way possible that
the best-funded, most vaunted system in the Soviet Empire, the anti-aircraft
defense system, a supposedly unbreachable set of defenses, could be totally
fooled by a prankster. It was madness.
Anybody else would have executed that kid! But Gorbachev had him sent right
home to Germany. Then he fired his entire military establishment – army and
air ministers, a hundred generals – his reactionary nemesis. Rust's flight was
such an embarrassment that he could do it.
I'm saying: Don't ever claim the system is unreformable. Clinton had a golden
opportunity after the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991-1992. Les Aspin, a dove,
an expert at arms reduction and arms control, was put in as Secretary of Defense.
And you remember who Clinton's national security advisor was? Anthony Lake,
who had resigned in an act of conscience against the invasion of Cambodia. Clinton's
motive upon coming to office was to disempower the Pentagon. I'm certain of
it. He failed. Aspin was destroyed by the president's failure to support him.
The gays in the military episode was part of the story. The real "don't-ask/don't-tell"
story of that moment, though, was the Pentagon's: Don't ask us about our nuclear
weapons and we won't tell you what we're doing to maintain them.
Could we get out of this trap? Yes, but Democrats would have to be far more
direct in challenging the assumptions and structures of the American military
TD: Last words?
Carroll: (Pauses.) Well, the last word in this conversation is: Religion
and politics, religion and military power, are a deadly mix in an age of weapons
of mass destruction; and, if the United States of America gets this wrong, there's
no reason to think anybody else is going to get it right. Casting an eye across
the century to come, this is the issue.
[Note: To explore James Carroll's world further, you might start
by clicking here and checking
out his Web site.]
Copyright 2007 TomDispatch