Thursday, January 04, 2007


Chris Hedges speaks about the particular dangers of Fundamentalism in his article “America’s Holy Warriors” on both Truthout and Truthdig. The article itself is a distillation of his oh-so-topical book “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War”, that's coming out in a few days. Let me riff.

He notes that the Fundamentalists, while bewailing just about every development in modern society, have without fail cozied up to law enforcement and the military. And if the Fundamentalist ‘vision’ of life and ‘the world’ is frightening (and it is), the psychology underlying it is even more so. That much has been discussed already on this site.

It has been a commonplace to compare the Incumbency to the Nazis, and even to Hitler. This started early in the post-9/11 era, usually by Left-leaning folks who had imbibed the bad “Holocaust habit” of declaring anything they opposed to be a new/hidden form of the Hitlerite/Nazi experience.

Then the neocons purposely began trying to spackle up their programme and their Leader by making pointed inferences to the World War Two era. Thus ‘appeasement’ was trotted out whenever anybody tried to propose that there might be a wiser approach to the problem of Saddam (such as it was) than to resort to pre-emptive, invasive war. In this script Saddam, naturally, was a lesser (but only slightly so) Hitler. Bush himself seemed to try to channel both FDR and Churchill, and a photograph taken of him seated in front of a life-size blowup of a newsphoto of the two wartime leaders sitting together, was a queasy reminder that he was not only trying to spin himself in their mold, but seemed in our own present to have no Shape of his own.

But it is histrionic and misleading to compare Bush to Hitler or his Gang to the Nazis. The key Nazis were – with the exception of Speer and a few others – gutter types who came to power on Hitler’s coat-tails. While serious doubt might be entertained as to the level of moral character in the assorted individual Gang members, none of them can be said to come from the actual ‘gutter’. Some of them enjoy the exalted social rank of former CEO.

Bush might seem a bit more similar to Mussolini: the calculating actor whose shrewdness was not wisdom and whose ruthlessness was not strength. Imagining Bush in that big iron helmet, jaw thrust out, maybe on a horse … there’s some possibilities there. Certainly, imagining Rove, his pudgy mass only partially hidden by a well-decorated boffo uniform, in one of those tasseled Fascist Guard fur hats, laughing so hard at his Duce’s jokes that the tassel keeps bobbing up and down … now that is believable. But there’s been that boffo element to the whole Incumbency, at least until – like it was for Mussolini – their war of glorious glory began to go very badly bad.

One might also think of the Nazi focus on echt Aryans, on the blond-haired, blue-eyed genetic paragons, the cream of the national stock, who would whole-heartedly support their racially pure nation by siring large families of similarly flawless offspring, their racially pure wives dedicated only to children, church, and kitchen (again, it works better in the original German). The photographs and newreels of those handsome, dentally perfect families, cavorting properly in good Teutonic fun, could be mistaken as promotional clips for Mormonism, if it weren’t for the leather short-pants.

But I think the most apt historical model for the current Fundamentalist Ascendancy (however long it has left to run) is Japan of the ‘20s and ‘30s: State Shinto, the barely disguised enlistment of the gods in the service of an ascendant, expansionist, militaristic Japan. Shinto was a religion of the State, which for all practical purposes, was an idolatry of the State. Yes, there were ‘gods’, but all of those gods were believed to support the ascendancy and expansion and militarization of the Japanese Imperial State (of which its people were a part so conceptually insignificant as not to merit prayerful attention).

In no way would those gods ever stand above, let alone against that imperial State or its programmes. Their clergy were simply masters of ceremonies for those rituals short of live-ammo demonstrations, where the awesomeness of the military was to be acknowledged by the gods as well as by the children and the people. Their clergy did not pray, they most certainly did not prophesy, and they most absolutely did not thunder like Old Testament prophets in the name of that God Who existed above and beyond ‘the nation’ and sat daily in Judgment upon it. If the Shinto religion had a core dogma, it would be that verbalized by the pithy Mussolini: Nothing outside the State, nothing above the State, nothing against the State.

And so we have the Fundamentalist clergy, or more accurately, the fundamentalistic clergy of whatever religious denomination, although almost all are some variation of Protestant. Fundamentalism itself is a spiritually violent mutation of the Protestant vision, but it also involves a certain set of mind and heart that makes its adherents at once more perfervid in their belief and more clinically interesting. And to a democracy, more acutely dangerous.

The fundamentalistic Ascendancy in the military chaplaincies has been discussed elsewhere on this site (see “Bishops Bomb”). Enough to note here that if a nation were planning to ‘go imperial’ and needed a pliable, enthusiastic populace supported by the assurance that the nation was itself merely God’s Will made material, then the Fundoozies (if I may) would fill the bill most very nicely indeed.

It is a true symbiosis. The government gets benefit of clergy; the clergy get to wield the police power of the government in the service of their vision of Heaven and Hell. If that sounds like pretty much the game plan that pulled the Catholic church off-balance for so many centuries, well … that’s quite possibly because it is. America will be the bigger-and-better Rome that will, this time around, assist the Christian ‘Cross’ with its ‘Sword”, making God so fabulously happy and excited that He will initiate the End-Times and start the festivities and the fireworks which, they are quite certain, His faithful roadies so richly deserve. There’s part of that I can agree with.

Naturally, any religion that in any way stands ‘outside of’ or ‘above’ the things of this world (among which a nation must – with whatever good grace – allow itself to be classified) is not going to be as useful an idiot to a budding empire. The Kathliks brought to the chaplaincy not only an education and a socialization that not infrequently had led to some (at least) maturity; they also brought a sense of proportion and perspective – after all, seen ‘sub specie aeternitatis’, from the point of view of eternity, the toils and moils of this world were real but not ultimate. Telling an aspiring State that it is not ‘ultimate’ is like shpritzing a vampire with holy water.

Un-ballasted and un-formed by extended training, wide education, a demanding theological system, or an even more demanding sacramental praxis that required sustained presence to the faithful whether convenient or not, the old-time Fundamentalists could only sit on the sidelines and try not to trip over the lemonade jugs as the day-to-day work of military ministry was carried on by Kathliks out on the field. If they would have been able to look within themselves to see it, the Fundamentalists would have recognized ‘ressentiment’ festering there.

But they couldn’t and they didn’t. They could notice that maybe the Kathliks were a little less macho than might be desired, or spent too much time with their flocks, and when they did get together among themselves said Kathliks always knew where the good restaurants were, drank liberally, and did not sit there after the meal and calculate each diner’s share to the penny. And that the troops – far too many of them – appreciated the attention paid to them. All of which was gall and wormwood to those whose claim to authority and respect was based on grapejuice and brimstone.

It cannot be a complete coincidence that as the Fundamentalists broke into the political bigtime, their biggest rivals were suddenly beset by a re-ignition of the sex-offender Script, this time against priests. As elsewhere noted on this site, that Script in its evolved and most virulent form was (and perhaps still is) capable of destroying through allegation, clouding the thinness of facts with the miasm of outrage, and promising so absolutely certain a negative court experience that few males will be advised to even risk a defense. Nor, however can it be overlooked that if Kathliks had any Achilles Heel at all, it was somewhere in their large involvement with their flock. Tax evasion, swindling, and adultery (naturally) were not largely Kathlik foibles. Nor was the idolatry of the State.

But Hedges’explorations into the specifics of the Fundamentalist strategies prompts a fresh surge of concern, then, on so many levels. The Fundamentalist Ascendancy is a grab for social status and social role as well as for religious influence in the service of their ‘vision’. With fully 50% of its chaplains now Fundamentalist, the military is provided with what amounts to a ‘divine’ cheerleading section. And in light of the maturity that is not required for full-fledged Fundoozerie (again if I may), then it cannot be good news that the military is increasingly Fundamentalist in the officer ranks especially.

If it is even modestly correct that Kathliks and sex-offenses were a path to the Fundamentalist Ascendancy, then one can only imagine what weird, phantasmic shapes could be generated in the intense, steam-fogged vortex where the hot Santa Ana gales of the sex-offense mania collided with the cold iron dynamics of military justice. It is a matter of historical record that in the mid-1990s over 65% of those confined to the Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth were there for ‘sex offenses’; and at some point right around that time the Navy’s Chief of Operations, a 4-star admiral, felt compelled to make a statement in the naval newspaper to the effect that Navy justice could be relied upon; he insisted, apparently, on having his Chief Chaplain, a 2-star admiral, appear next to him in an accompanying photo; probably to provide benefit of clergy and the Good Heaven-keeping Seal to what may very well have been a mutually beneficial deployment of the military justice system to help the Fundamentalists stifle their envied rivals.

It is tempting to seek out more about what prompted him to think that he needed to make such an extraordinary statement, but that 4-star admiral shot himself a year or so later, apparently on the verge of being exposed in the media himself – although exactly for what remains a question (the official explanation raises more disturbing questions than the one it purports to answer). You can’t make this stuff up.

Meanwhile, Philip Greenspan has written a piece called “What Happens to the Decent Kids Who Enlist”. He’s amazed not simply by the fact that soldiers kill but also that in the years since WW2 our troops have been successfully trained to kill more.

In WW2, only 15-20 percent of the combat infantry were actually shooting to kill. This sounds about right, although I think it applies more to the European theatre than the Pacific, where the Marines were not only more radically ‘trained’ but were also much more often fighting for their very lives on islands on the beaches of which they were pinned down. And certainly, having had a few good times in an Italian village, one was a little less inclined to shoot Italian troops. And while the Germans were strong peer-opponents almost to the end, once the Rhine was crossed American troops, some of them barely out of their teens but many of them well into their 20s, found themselves shooting German ‘troops’ who were just barely into their double-digits.

In fact, if memory serves, it was the reluctance of American troops to kill such ‘children’ and civilians that was presented to Truman as a reason for dropping the atom bombs instead of invading the Home Islands: since the Japanese government had trained the entire population to resist, there was a Pentagon fear that American troops would show themselves as hesitant to kill as they did in Europe in the Spring of ’45, and our casualty rates would thus skyrocket as our combat troops were taken down by civilians whom they were too ‘nice’ to kill first.

That American citizen-army was too nice, certainly, for the needs of an imperial-ish State. If the average American citizen-soldier, the average American ‘kid’, couldn’t kill when his enemies were Hitler and the perpetrators of Pearl Harbor and Bataan, then how usefully could he serve in the hugely more abstract Cause of ‘the national interest’ and of ‘national security’? There are many imponderables to ponder in war, but to have a gun-shy or at least kill-shy ground-force is to ask to get your national butt kicked back to Brooklyn.

I appreciate Greenspan’s desire to show a decent and well-earned respect to that vast citizen-army. They did do their bit to win World War Two. But the Germans and the Japanese were a soldier-people, and the Russians were possessed of a fatalism so profound and a love of the Motherland so unshakable that even the Germans and the Japanese feared them in their fierce, implacable millions. The American citizen-soldier was not a fearful opponent to troops like these. But given the massive mechanical and technological armament that supported the Americans, lavishly deployed, and the over-extension and exhaustion induced by the war’s ongoing developments, the Germans and the Japanese, ultimately, were unable to stop the American victory.

Vietnam was a long war, and for much of its duration it became clear to increasing numbers of troops that they were not going to win and they just needed to get home. Unit cohesion, built on troops who would stay in their units until death or victory, could not take hold in a war of one-year tours and the untold numbers of fresh-faced second-lieutenants who often didn’t live long enough to outgrow their inexperience. Nor were we fighting a uniformed enemy pure and simple [as if any war is ‘pure’ or ‘simple’]; anybody could be a bearer of death: civilian, woman, child, old person, baby.

The young male psyche, much like a foal on its spindly legs, isn’t ready to stand alone, let alone when under the pressure of ceaseless, ever-possible, lethal threat. And it will respond in less-than-mature ways: simplifying the whole situation to us-or-them is one such non-mature way. Nor do I seek here to demean them, those legions of the invisibly wounded, upon whom be peace.

And the teen is capable of remarkable lethality, given a group ethos that permits it and a situation that invites it. If – and Greenspan correctly limns how this came to be military policy – a teen is offered the Berserker option, overlaid as it must be in American society with a buttercream layer of Saving-Democracy ‘idealism’, then certain things are going to become more probable when those troops engage. The fact that on some deep level the psyche – perhaps we might say the soul – realizes that there is a fundamental dishonesty as well as a fundamental violence now seated deep within, can only create huge and intolerable stresses. To ease them the soldier might experience a ‘breakdown’ and be unable to fight, or the solider might rush headlong into the physical rush of violence – real or imagined, or the solider might take drugs to dull the pain and the psyche and the soul and the mind and … as kids say, everything.

Only a very few will become true Praetorians, members of that elite and highly disciplined unit so eerily a predecessor to the SS. Mature, no longer a hot magma within but rather a cool, adamantine basalt: no feeling, no thoughts, just a willful and purposeful loyalty to the unit, and ‘home’ found in the comradeship of executing any order well. Any order. Including the order to turn their weapons against Roman citizens themselves. Indeed, the Praetorians rarely engaged in campaigns against foreign invaders. Nor, given their unit loyalty, were they faithful to the Emperor, primarily. They were faithful to their own unit leader, such as Sejanus. After a while, the Emperors themselves feared them, and placated them at every opportunity. James Bond the character was something of a Praetorian, although with so much charm and wit and good taste and clawss that only a well-formed conscience – as the Kathliks would say – could penetrate through the aura to the killing machine at its core.

Nor will Berserkers succeed in nation-building. Nor in any of the ‘humanitarian’ missions. And will they succeed in urban warfare where patient calculation and shrewd tactics are required? It would seem that their only move might be akin to something last seen in the Banzai charges of an earlier age.

Will we then deploy Berserkers? Support them with lavishly lethal weaponry? Turn our teens into Berserkers and then support them with tactical nuclear weapons? It would be militarily bootless. Just as the Union generals feared most a Confederate strategic dissolution whereby the gray armies would dissolve into thousands of guerilla cells, just as the fear of the Werewolf bands of a dissolved German military haunted the Allies as they made their way to the German borders, so too we must consider that an enemy who refuses to ‘mass’, avoids concentration, presents us with a military problem that we have not yet begun to solve.

Meanwhile our young troops will be turned into the type of machine that will suffer a monstrous loss of soul. And when they age – presumably mellowing – there will be little to mellow, and when they are no longer able to serve – then what? Come out into civilian life? To do what? Go into law enforcement?

If there is any prospect more frightening than an army of Fundamentalist Beserkers, it is a citizenry seeded with an army of Fundamentalist ex-Berserkers. Will they be able to muster the skills of citizenship? Of parenting? Of adulthood in any mature sense? If both their religion and their military identity are built on an almost necessary immaturity - and an immaturity entwined with violence ... what consequences will flow from that?

And what of their souls? There is no sustained contemplative reflection in Fundamentalist religiosity. There is an immature idolatry of the powers of this world luridly backlit with the expectation of apocalypse and the infantile, cocky assurance that one and one’s loved ones are ‘on the right side’ because God is on our side – Gott mit uns.

As I write this, I have just heard that retired General Shalakashvili has just reversed his thinking in regard to gays and has announced that they should be allowed to serve openly in the military. That is a subject for another time. But in our present discussion, how can we contemplate with equanimity a military chaplained by the Fundamentalist Ascendancy, yet composed of numerous gay or gay-tolerant service-members? How can a Fundamentalist mindset and heartset manage the tectonic stresses of providing decent ministry to such a flock?

Now the Kathliks, them Kathliks were good with gays. Too good. But they’re mostly gone now. And the troops stagger on.

Labels: , , , , ,


Blogger Davidco said...

Excellent point on the Shinto analogy with American civic religion and its evolution from rhetorical froth for Fourth of July picnics to berserker apocalypticism

You can push the Werewolf unit analogy a little bit further as well. The US Army has been so hollowed-out by the Iraq experience that it brings to mind the German Western Front in 1945.

Age limits, intelligence and criminal background check requirements have all fallen away. Small wonder that 'Don't ask. Don't tell' is crumbling as well.

Likewise, as vocations dwindle, 'principled' opposition in the pews to celebate gay clergy will eventually end. Practical acceptance of a de facto policy shift made decades ago will be the order of the day.

10:32 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home