By John Senior, Wake Forest University School of Divinity
In recent days, the Obama re-election campaign has seized on the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s demise to emphasize what the New York Times calls “Mr. Obama’s signature military accomplishment.” The Obama camp has also tried to snare Mitt Romney in his 2007 comments that “it’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person.” In good turn, Mitt Romney downplayed the Abbottabad operation, claiming that “even Jimmy Carter would have given that order [to kill Osama bin Laden].”
This campaign dust-up, one might say, serves to underscore the central claim of Stanley Hauerwas’s book War and the American Difference. In it, Hauerwas argues that war is at the heart of U.S.-American identity. Americans “share nothing in common” except a common fear of death. Hauerwas’s claim that Americans share nothing in common harkens back to arguments he has made over and again about the moral vacuum at the heart of modern liberal society. According to Hauerwas, liberal societies like the United States acknowledge no common moral resources, no shared “stories,” for making sense of life together. All that is acknowledged is that persons have no need of such resources and no need of common goods.
Thus, Hauerwas argues, all Americans have to bind them together is a collective fear of death. Americans “attempt to live as though they will not die,” Hauerwas writes in War and the American Difference. America itself is a symbol of that pretense, and war is waged to secure this false reality against perceived threats to it. Since all we share is a fear of death, war is the only resource we have for making shared meaning. “War is a moral necessity for America because it provides the experience of the ‘unum’ that makes the ‘pluribus’ possible,” Hauerwas writes. If Hauerwas is right, then there will never be a time when we’re not at war, or not about to be, because we Americans need war to be who we think we are.
Is he right? Consider a recent Obama campaign commercial about the President’s “signature military accomplishment.” In it, former President Bill Clinton remarks: “He [President Obama] took the harder and the more honorable path, and, the one that produced, in my opinion, the best result.” Notice the way President Clinton praises Obama’s military virtues – honor, and, presumably, the courage that induced the President to take the “harder path.” The ad assumes that we know what these virtues are and what they mean in the context of military victory. It also trades on the moral status of military service in American life. Americans don’t dare to suggest that voluntary military service is dishonorable per se. Anyone who disagrees with Clinton’s claim bears the onus of showing that the President’s decision was not dishonorable. Thus, Romney asserts, in effect, that Obama’s political judgment certainly wasn’t dishonorable, but it wasn’t especially courageous, either. After all, even Jimmy Carter – who, by Romney’s judgment, was a particularly uncourageous President – would have ordered the attack on Osama bin Laden. And today, we find Romney complicating his claim a bit.
In a way, Hauerwas is right that Americans accord to the discourse of war a certain moral consensus that other moral discourses in American life don’t enjoy. He’s also right that this is a problem. But Hauerwas’s “America,” like his “Church” (the moral community that is supposed to be an “alternative” to “America”), is much too thin. Americans talk in public contexts about war and other morally relevant issues that matter to them all the time, usually intelligibly, and sometimes even insightfully. This isn’t the 1980s, or some caricature of it, when Americans were supposed to have mastered the art of being alone. The problem isn’t that war is the only discourse that Americans engage together because we are all afraid of death. The problem, more often, is that we don’t practice listening for the many resonances in the things they say to one another – and there are many. That very well may be driven by fear – but not so much fear of death as fear of creating life together.