Wednesday, October 19, 2005


United and Incandescent

George F. Will appeared at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar in Dallas, Texas, May 23, 2005. At the conference, he delivered a very fine speech on the necessity of a doctrine of preemption. Imprimis, the national speech digest of Hillsdale College, adapted Will’s speech for their September 2005 issue, which warrants wider attention.

Will’s posed the following thesis as his central theme:
…Only ideas have large and lasting consequences. We are in a war of terror being waged by people who take ideas with lethal seriousness, and we had better take our own ideas seriously as well. (Emphasis mine.)
This war uses bombs and bullets and rockets and mines, and even commercial transport fashioned as weapons, but make no mistake. This is millennial battle of ideas.

Will quotes Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you,” and declares:
And this is a war with a new kind of enemy – suicidal, and hence impossible to deter, melding modern science with a kind of religious primitivism. Furthermore, our enemy today has no return address in the way that previous adversaries, be it Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia, had return addresses.
Where we could effectively deliver the 500 pounders, the 1000 pounders, the Bunker Busters that could put an end to them. If that were all that was required, if we were facing that kind of enemy, we would have dispatched with them quite some time ago. As a people, we have exhausted our patience with whatever perceived grievances are supposed to justify their inhumanity to man. That kind of patience was incinerated and ground to dust as fine as the remains of the victims of 9/11.

Will uses a highly relevant anecdote from World War II to acknowledge that our enemies of 9/11 greatly underestimated our will and resolve. Will describes the recollections of Admiral Yamamoto, who could help his country launch their temporarily successful Pearl Harbor attack, but foresaw that in doing so, they would awake a sleeping giant:
He knew that after Pearl Harbor, Japan would have an enraged, united, incandescent, continental superpower on its hands, and that Japan’s ultimate defeat would be implicit in its initial victory. Our current enemies will learn the same thing.
Having heard it, I am now very attached to that image.

Any one of us may be a light unto others, a light for a darkened world, a light of hope, encouragement, or enlightenment. Many of our faith traditions, mine included, even urge faithful followers to be light, to spread knowledge or revelation or good news. That is a kind of light, and certainly the wattage will increase as people join together in shared purpose to shine that light.

But united and incandescent? That reveals a glimpse of something more powerful, something terrible to behold, and righteousness and vengeance. One candle can only dispel just so much darkness, or emit the smallest amount of heat. Two or three, somewhat more. I remember one of my buddies in Germany owned a Volkswagen like I had with no heat, and in the winter he swore 4 candles for 20 minutes was enough to defrost the car.

Will’s image emits so much more. A Nation full of candles, all burning in common purpose. What light we generate. What heat we create. We burned those incandescent fires in World War II, and we burned as bright, blinding light, in the days after 9/11.

In my faith community, our God reserves unto Himself that kind of vengeance. Yet, He chooses as He will to use His instruments to exact retribution. And that may well be our National resolve.

The flames of our common fire may abate. Discord grows, purposes diverge, and politics, as always, blurs lines that once were clear. Yet we persevere, and our military vanquishes foe after foe, and keeps the forces of chaos on the run. But dangers persist, and continue to disperse, if they do not grow. Our enemies, having no real hope and no vision outside of mayhem, proceed relentlessly.

And the well-intentioned on all political sides do well to seek some common ground, and find ways to prevent another tragedy like 9/11, or the apocalyptic visions that rightly many fear.

Will calls to mind J. Robert Oppenheimer’s famous warning that we would have to search every incoming package or container, as the only certain means to prevent the smuggling of a nuclear device into the US. This is even more evident today, with nuclear suitcases and the great dispersion of nuclear material. Which leads Will to conclude the following, advocating a Doctrine of Pre-emption:
You have to go get it. You have to disrupt terrorism at its sources.
Will correctly observes that the meaningful policy debate today is taking place between conservatives and conservatives, with liberals and progressives carelessly abandoning any serious discussion in favor of social bromides and revisionist histories ala Moore:
The old isolationism of the 1920s and 1930s was a conservative isolationism, and it held that America should not go abroad into the world because America is too good for the world. The contemporary liberal brand of isolationism – the Michael Moore view of the world – is that America should not be deeply involved in the world because the world is too good for America. This is not a serious argument, even though seriously held.
Thus we have conservatives arguing amongst themselves, with all others adjourned to the bar for refreshments during the break. Will identifies these as Realists and the Wilsonian Idealists, those with a “crusading zeal for the export of democracy.”

Clearly, Will ascribes the Idealist pedigree to Neoconservatives (“Neocons”). In his argument (as a Realist), Will diminishes the Idealists by extending certain of their general ideas beyond reason. Because Idealists (full discloser, count me as one) believe that the values and principles of liberty and democracy are universal, that we therefore believe that “every person is at heart a Jeffersonian Democrat, that all the masses of the world are ready for democracy,”

This is an exaggeration, and one, of course that sets a straw man up for Will to demolish. And yet, many of these same Idealists would agree with his conclusion, “Iraq may not be close to constitutional democracy just yet.” Yes, much work remains to be done, the greatest burden of which falls upon the Iraqi people themselves. But another election turnout that exceeded expectations, amid much greater safety for election workers and voters, has gone a long way towards convincing the Iraqi people themselves that they can responsibly take up the reigns of power and representation, regardless of the outcome.

Will goes on to remark that from the earliest days of our Republic, through the Modern era and the dark days of Vietnam, America has fretted over whether discouragements or discord will break our national will.

“This has been a constant recurring anxiety in America,” Will remarks, and quotes Winston Churchill’s bracing comments to America in the days immediately following Pearl Harbor:
“We have not journeyed all this way across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because we are made of sugar candy.”
Will goes on to describe this people, these Americans, who surely are not sugar candy:
The kind of people we are is a people who rise to the challenge of the new kind of enemy we have today. Our enemy has ideas. They are vicious, bad, retrograde, medieval, intolerant, and suicidal ideas, but ideas nevertheless. And we oppose them with the great ideas of freedom and democracy, which America has defined better than anyone in the world.
The American people are greatly enamored of the ideas of their foundation. And so they should be. The American Experiment has served as a beacon of freedom and hope for the entire world for over 200 years. We are a source of inspiration for many, and a place of dreams for more. When words fail, our example serves. We breathe free.

We may at times be forgetful, or complacent, like lazy inheritors of the great treasures of civilization. We may not always hold ourselves to the standards of our own ideals. We have problems and failings. But we always wake from our moral slumbers, and as we rise, with more often than not find new definitions for both the price and value of freedom. We need to know that our ideas are right, according to Will:

We must struggle today with the fact that the doctrine of preemption is necessary, and with the serious problems it entails. But what we must have overall is the confidence that our ideas are right.

We are not perfect. We will make mistakes, but like no other nation in the history of the world, we will do our best to right wrongs, to make amends, to satisfy old grievances, and harken to forgotten peoples the world over.

And when we are all in it together, we create quite a light. United and incandescent.

As Jesus said, as recorded by Matthew:
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

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