Posts Tagged ‘American’
US Soldier in WikiLeaks Video: I Relive this Every Day
By Bill Van Auken, wsws.org
28 April 2010
Iraq war veteran Ethan McCord, who is seen running with an Iraqi child in his arms in the video posted by WikiLeaks of a July 2007 massacre of civilians in Baghdad, talked to the World Socialist
Web Site about the impact of this and similar experiences in Iraq. The video, which records the shocking deaths of at least 12 individuals including two Iraqi journalists employed by Reuters, has
been viewed more than 6 million times on the Internet. [US soldiers Josh Stieber and McCord wrote a] “Letter of Reconciliation” to the Iraqi people taking responsibility for their role in this incident
and other acts of violence. Both soldiers deployed to Iraq in 2007 and left the Army last year. In the letter, McCord and Stieber said, “…we acknowledge our part in the deaths and injuries of your
loved ones.” They insisted that “the acts depicted in this video are everyday occurrences of this war: this is the nature of how US-led wars are carried out in this region.”
The night before giving speaking to the WSWS, Ethan McCord had learned that the widow of one of the dozen men killed — the father of the two children he tried to rescue — had forgiven him and
Stieber for their role in the incident. Ahlam Abdelhussein Tuman, 33, told the Times of London: “I can accept their apology, because they saved my children and if it were not for them, maybe my
two little children would be dead.” Her husband, Saleh Mutashar Tuman, had arrived on the scene of the carnage caused by a US Apache helicopter firing into a crowed and attempted to aid the
wounded. The helicopter opened fire again, killing him and at least one wounded man and wounding his two children, who were sitting in his van. The widow urged the two former soldiers to
continue to speak out. “I would like the American people and the whole world to understand what happened here in Iraq. We lost our country and our lives were destroyed.”
Can you explain why you and Josh Stieber wrote the “Letter of Reconciliation” to the Iraqi people?
We originally wanted it to go to the family members of those involved that day in the WikiLeaks video. Then in turn we wanted it to be more along the lines of to all Iraqi people as well. We wanted
the Iraqi people to know that not everybody sees them as being dehumanized and that there are plenty of Americans and other people who care for them as human beings and wish for them to live
long and happy lives and don’t agree with the war and the policies behind it. I just found out last night that the letter was shown to the family, the children and the mother as well. She has forgiven
myself and Josh and is very happy to see the work that Josh and I are doing. There was a London Times reporter who went there to see what they felt about the letter. And there is one comment from
the mother that she could forgive me because if it wasn’t for me her children might be dead.
That must make you feel pretty good.
Definitely, but it doesn’t stop there for me or for Josh. We are definitely going to continue speaking out on this and do everything we can to have our voices heard about the policies, the rules of
engagement and the war. As well, we are hoping to set up a trust fund for the children, as we know that they’ve had a pretty rough life afterward due to the injuries and whatnot. Hopefully, it will get
them some medical care.
Could you describe the events of that day and what your platoon was doing?
It was much like many of the days in Iraq. The neighborhood we were in was pretty volatile; at least it was on the rise, with IED emplacements and with our platoons being shot at with RPGs and
sniper fire. We didn’t know who was attacking us. It was never actually really clear, at least in my eyes, who the supposed “enemy” was. We were conducting what were called knock-and-searches,
where we would knock on the doors of the homes and search for documents pertaining to militias or any weapons they weren’t supposed to have or any bomb-making materials. We didn’t really
find anything at all. We were getting ready to wrap up at about one o’clock in the afternoon. We started to funnel into an alleyway and started to take small arms fire from rooftops from AK-47s. We
didn’t know what was happening with the Apache helicopters. They were attached to us from another unit to watch over us for this mission, which was called “Ranger Dominance.” We could hear
them open fire, but those of us who were on the ground, outside of the vehicles, had no idea what was taking place. We couldn’t hear the radio chatter and we were pretty caught up in our own
situation. When that situation was neutralized, we were told to walk up onto the scene. I was one of about six soldiers who were dismounted to first arrive on the scene.
What did you see when you got there?
It was pretty much absolute carnage. I had never seen anybody shot by a 30-millimeter round before, and frankly don’t ever want to see that again. It almost seemed unreal, like something out of a
bad B-horror movie. When these rounds hit you they kind of explode — people with their heads half-off, their insides hanging out of their bodies, limbs missing. I did see two RPGs on the scene as
well as a few AK-47s. But then I heard the cries of a child. They weren’t necessarily cries of agony, but more like the cries of a small child who was scared out of her mind. So I ran up to the van
where the cries were coming from. You can actually see in the scenes from the video where another soldier and I come up to the driver and the passenger sides of the van. The soldier I was with, as
soon as he saw the children, turned around, started vomiting and ran. He didn’t want any part of that scene with the children anymore. What I saw when I looked inside the van was a small girl,
about three or four years old. She had a belly wound and glass in her hair and eyes. Next to her was a boy about seven or eight years old who had a wound to the right side of the head. He was laying
half on the floorboard and half on the bench. I presumed he was dead; he wasn’t moving. Next to him was who I presumed was the father. He was hunched over sideways, almost in a protective
way, trying to protect his children. And you could tell that he had taken a 30-millimeter round to the chest. I pretty much knew that he was deceased. I grabbed the little girl and yelled for a medic.
Me and the medic ran into the houses behind where the van crashed to check whether there were any other wounds. I was trying to take as much glass out of her eyes as I could. We dressed the
wound and then the medic ran the girl to the Bradley. You can hear in the video where he says, “there’s nothing else I can do here; we need to evacuate the child.” I then went back outside and went
to the van. I don’t know why. I thought both of them were dead, but something told me to go back. That’s when I saw the boy move with what appeared to be a labored breath. So I stated screaming,
“The boy’s alive.” I grabbed him and cradled him in my arms and kept telling him, “Don’t die, don’t die.” He opened his eyes, looked up at me. I told him, “It’s OK, I have you.” His eyes rolled
back into his head, and I kept telling him, “It’s OK, I’ve got you.” I ran up to the Bradley and placed him inside. My platoon leader was standing there at the time, and he yelled at me for doing what
I did. He told me to “stop worrying about these motherfucking kids and start worrying about pulling security.” So after that I went up and pulled security on a rooftop.
Did you face further repercussions for what you did that day?
After coming back to the FOB [forward operating base], nobody really talked about what had happened that day. Everybody went to their rooms; they were tired. Some of them went to make phone
calls. And I was in my room because I had to clean the blood off of my IBA [body armor] and my uniform — the blood from these children. And I was having a flood of emotions and having a real
hard time dealing with having seen children this way, as I’m sure most caring human beings would. So I went to see a staff sergeant who was in my chain of command and told him I needed to see
mental health about what was going on in my head. He told me to “quit being a pussy” and to “suck it up and be a soldier.” He told me that if I wanted to go to mental health, there would
be repercussions, one of them being labeled a “malingerer,” which is actually a crime in the US Army. For fear of that happening to me, I in turn went back to my room and tried to bottle up as much
emotion as I could and pretty much just suck it up and drive on.
You had another nine months or more still to go in your tour then?
That’s right. It was a pretty long time with having to deal with the emotions, not only of that, but of many other days. What happened then was not an isolated incident. Stuff like that
happens on a daily basis in Iraq.
Are there other incidents that took place in the following months of your tour that bear this out?
Yes. Our rules of engagement were changing on an almost daily basis. But we had a pretty gung-ho commander, who decided that because we were getting hit by IEDs a lot, there would be a new
battalion SOP [standard operating procedure]. He goes, “If someone in your line gets hit with an IED, 360 rotational fire. You kill every motherfucker on the street.” Myself and Josh and a lot
of other soldiers were just sitting there looking at each other like, “Are you kidding me? You want us to kill women and children on the street?” And you couldn’t just disobey orders to shoot, because
they could just make your life hell in Iraq. So like with myself, I would shoot up into the roof of a building instead of down on the ground toward civilians. But I’ve seen it many times, where people
are just walking down the street and an IED goes off and the troops open fire and kill them.
During this period were you conscious that you were suffering from post-traumatic stress?
Yes I knew, because I would be angry at everyone and everything and at myself even more. I would watch movies and listen to music as much as possible just to escape reality. I didn’t really talk to
many people. The other problem I had is that before the incident shown in the WikiLeaks video, I was the gung-ho soldier. I thought I was going over there to do the greater good. I thought my job
over there was to protect the Iraqi people and that this was a job with honor and courage and duty. I was hit by an IED within two weeks of my being in Iraq. And I didn’t understand why people
were throwing rocks at us, why I was being shot at and why we’re being blown up, when I have it in my head that I was here to help these people. But the first real serious doubt, where I could no
longer justify to myself being in Iraq or serving in the Army, was on that day in July 2007.
How did you come to join the military?
I had always wanted to be in the military, even as a child. My grandfather and my uncles were military. Then September 11 happened, and I decided it was my duty as an American to join the
military, so that’s what I did in 2002. I joined the Navy. In 2005, when the Army had what they called “Operation Blue to Green,” pulling sailors and airmen into the Army with bigger bonuses, I
made a lateral transfer. I had pretty much had it in my head that I was going to make a career out of the military. But going to Iraq and dealing with the Army completely changed my outlook.
What was your reaction when you saw the WikiLeaks video?
Shock. I had dropped my children off at school one morning, came home and turned on MSNBC, and there I am running across the screen carrying a child. I knew immediately it was me. I know
the scene. It is burned into my head. I relive it almost every day. It was just a shock that that it was up there, and it angered me. I was angry because it was in my face again. I had actually started to
get a little bit better before the tape was released. I wasn’t thinking about it as often; it was getting a little bit easier to go to sleep. But then everything that I had buried and pushed away came
bubbling back to the surface. And the nightmares began again, the anger, the feeling of being used. It all came back. It wasn’t a good feeling; it was like a huge slap in the face.
Do you think that the way you were told to forget about the kids and suck it up is indicative of the general culture in the military?
Yes, there is such a stigma placed on soldiers seeking mental health. It’s like you’re showing a huge sign of weakness for needing to speak about things or for seeking help even for getting to sleep.
There’s fear of being chastised or being made fun of. So you end up self-medicating on alcohol. And as you probably know, alcohol is a depressant and just makes it worse. I was self-medicating
when I came home, and I was hospitalized in a mental institute by the Army because of my problems with PTSD and self-medication. There were many times when I felt that I could no longer take
what was going on in my head and the best thing for me to do would be to put a bullet in my head. But each time I thought about that, I would look at the pictures of my children and think back
on that day and how the father of those children was taken away and how horrible it must be for them. And if I were to do that, I would be putting my children in the same position.
Do you think that the pressure to bury these problems is driven by a fear that if you are allowed to question your own experiences, it can call into question the nature of the war itself?
I was not able to talk about it, not able to get answers to like how I was feeling about this, why were we doing this, what are we doing here? It was just straight up, “You’re going to do this, and
you’re going to shut up about it.” Soldiers aren’t mindless drones. They have feelings. They have emotions. You can’t just make them go out and do something without telling them, this is why we’re
doing it. And the pressure just builds up. You hear in the video the Apache helicopter crew saying some things that are pretty heart-wrenching and cold. I’m guilty of it too. We all are. It’s kind of a
coping mechanism. You feel bad at the time for what you did and you take those emotions and push them down. That’s what the Army teaches you to do, just push them down. And in a sense it
works. It helps you get through the hard times. But unfortunately, there’s no outlet for that anymore, once you get out of the Army. When you get back home, there’s no one to joke around with,
nobody you can talk to about these instances. What happens to that soldier? He’s going to blow up. And when he blows up, more than likely it’s going to be on his family, his close friends
or on himself. So I think that’s why soldiers end up killing themselves.
So a terrible price is being paid for this war in the US itself?
Yes, I feel that just as the Iraqis, the soldiers are victims of this war as well. Like we say in our letter to the Iraqis, the government is ignoring them and it is also ignoring us. Instead of people
being upset at a few soldiers in a video who were doing what they were trained to do, I think people need to be more upset at the system that trained these soldiers.
They are doing exactly what the Army wants them to do. Getting angry and calling these soldiers names and saying how callous and cold-hearted they are isn’t going to change the
What do you think drives this system? Why are they sent to do this?
As far as the hidden agenda behind the war, I couldn’t even begin to guess what that is. I do know that the system is being driven by some people with pretty low morals and values, and they attempt
to instill those values in the soldiers. But the people who are driving the system don’t have to deal with the repercussions. It’s the American people who have to deal with them. They’re the ones who
have to deal with all of these soldiers who come back from war, have no outlets and blow up. I still live with this every day. When I close my eyes I see what happened that day and many other
days like a slide show in my head. The smells come back to me. The cries of the children come back to me. The people driving this big war machine, they don’t have to deal with this.
They live in their $36 million mansions and sleep well at night.
Were you hopeful that with the 2008 election these kinds of things would be brought to a halt. Were you disappointed that they have continued and escalated?
I am not part of any party. Was I hopeful? Yes. Was I surprised that we are still there? No. I’m not surprised at all. There’s something else lying underneath there. It’s not Republican or
Democrat; it’s money. There’s something else lying underneath it where Republicans and Democrats together want to keep us in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I am hopeful that the video and our speaking out will help. There’s the old adage that war is hell, but I don’t think people really understand just what a hell war is. Until you see it first-hand, you
don’t really know what’s going on. Like I said, this video shows you an every-day occurrence in Iraq, and I can only assume, in Afghanistan. So I hope people wake up and see the actual hells of
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A CAN’T MISS FILM: DIDEROT, COCTEAU & BRESSON: Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945) is a French film directed by Robert Bresson. It is a modern adaptation of a section of Diderot‘s Jacques le fataliste (1796), telling the story of a man who is tricked into marrying a former prostitute. The title means “the ladies of the Bois de Boulogne“, a park in Paris.
On Jefferson, Diderot and the Political Use of God
By GARY LEUPP
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Thomas Jefferson, 1782
Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.
Thomas Jefferson, 1787
Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.
Thomas Jefferson, 1808
The whole history of [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man [Jesus]; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.
Thomas Jefferson (to John Adams, 1814)
The word itself has a foul sound: “atheist.” It did in ancient Rome, when it referred not to what we today understand as atheists, but to persons who declined to publicly worship the Roman deities. Odd though it may seem, Christians were condemned for their “atheism.” Many contemporary atheists will avoid the word, fearing hostility and misunderstanding, preferring the less provocative “agnostic.” Nevertheless atheists are all around us: people who are quite convinced that things in general don’t exist because some One, for some reason, as an act of will, made them—but because processes unknowable to our minds, preceding the existence of consciousness in general, caused them to happen.
The atheistic premise is simply, and maybe best, articulated by Friedrich Engels: “It is impossible to conceive of thought without matter that thinks.” Some people, having the option of thinking a primal Mind created everything, or else that minds, thoughts, neurological activity, “spirit” etc. postdatethe billions-old existence of much else, choose the latter option. Not necessarily because they want to, out of some willful anti-God inclination, but because they sincerely just can’t buy, not only a specific religious tradition, but the God-assumption generally. Their logic causes them to agree with Ludwig Feuerbach’s contention that humanity made God, not vice versa. Atheists are not bad people. They are just people who think, and their thought takes them to the sober conclusion that no Creator exists, and that conclusion tends to lead to the belief that when you die, and your brain activity ceases, you as a personality are gone forever.
Dr. Newdow’s Suit
One such thinking person, a physician as it happens, is suing the federal government for obliging his nine year old daughter to recite, in school, the statement that the U.S. republic is “under God.” He asks why, if he seeks to share his worldview with his child (as most parents want to share their beliefs with their kids), the state should intervene to promote a contrary view. He asks why, if the constitution mandates a separation of church and state, his daughter’s public school schedule every morning should include a verbal pledge indicating that she believes that she, and her country (indivisible, with liberty and justice for all), is “under God.”
This is a very reasonable question to ask, it seems to me, precisely comparable to the question a devout Christian, Jew or Muslim might ask if his or her child were asked to daily recite, “one nation, without gods, indivisible” Why should schoolchildren have to pledge any opinion on this issue? The pledge is by definition “a promise or agreement” (Webster’s), and when you have states requiring, by law, that kids stand hands-to-chest and publicly promise something—anything at all— “under God,” you’re asking them to either believe that thought preceded matter that thinks (thereby attempting to shape and skew their whole thought process) or to under duress pretend belief (to the advantage of those who really do believe this, and want their kids surrounded by other kids, in tax-payer funded institutions, who will dutifully intone the God-pledge and so shield their own innocents from the troubling existence of doubt and diversity). This is unreasonable.
But surely the Supreme Court will rule against Dr. Michael A. Newdow’s case, filed on behalf of his child. It will say that the inclusion of “under God” in a statement, the recitation of which many states require, does not conflict with the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. Justice Stephen G. Breyer has already suggested that “God” is so inclusive a concept that it should be inoffensive to atheists like Newdow. The doctor responded reasonably, “I don’t believe I can include ‘under God’ to mean no God, which is exactly what I think.” I’m not sure whether Breyer is being profound (drawing upon theUpanishads and the notion that God neither exists nor doesn’t exist, existence itself being a merely human concept); or absolutely stupid, (which Supreme Court justices can by law be); or just arrogantly dismissive of Dr. Newdrow’s argument.
Clearly the function of the God reference—not part of the original pledge but inserted during the 1950s (when schoolchildren were taught that the Free World faced Godless Communism)— is designed to inculcate belief that the cosmos has a Creator that the Republic acknowledges and reveres, and in so doing attaches itself to that which is ultimately powerful, rational, holy and good. Those who promote the pledge should honestly state this point in making their case. The neocons’ ideological mentor, atheist Leo Strauss, stressed that the masses should be imbued with religion, so that they might be better controlled. If they see in the actions of the state the unfolding of the will of the Creator, they will be far more inclined to support those actions than if they see them as the naked power-plays of mere humans—mere millionaires and billionaires— unimpeded by the simple commendable moral sense of the humbly devout, but eminently able to politically exploit it. (Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz know this very well, and have encouraged President Bush to depict their plans for a Middle East empire as a crusade to smite evildoers and do God’s will.)
So the Supreme Court will find no merit in the atheist’s case, will ridicule it as numerous politicians (from Bush to Tom Daschle) have, and will deny that anyone’s freedoms are diminished by the coerced public declaration, dutifully intoned by schoolchildren, of the thesis that in the sky over the U.S. there hovers God, who, even if their parents say nothing about capital-H Him at home, is someone who definitely is, and is important to their teacher (an object of respect) and to their schoolmates. Why, the justices will ask in legalese, should anyone at all, holding any belief system, have a problem with this or see it as a violation of their constitutional rights?
The Religious Views of the Founding Fathers
Religious fundamentalists incessantly repeat that the Founding Fathers of the American Republic were God-fearing Christians. This is simply untrue. They key figures were men of the Enlightenment, religious skeptics, generally persuaded that there was a logical Mind behind the marvelous machine which was the universe, but contemptuous of Biblical literalism. George Washington said little about religion (nothing about Jesus), rarely attended church (when he did, he indifferently visited Quaker, German Reformed and Catholic services) and was willing to hire on his estate “Mohometans, Jews or Christians of any Sect, or Atheists.” Thomas Paine specifically rejected Christianity as a religion abounding “in invented and torturing articles that shock our reason or offend our humanity” John Adams distanced himself from Christianity, asking “when or where has existed a Protestant or dissenting sect who would tolerate a free inquiry?” James Madison blamed the religion for “superstition, bigotry and persecution.” So did Benjamin Franklin. It would be highly inaccurate to term these men “Christians.”
The finest mind among the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, certainly did not believe that the God of the Old Testament—alternately loving, angry, punitive, regretful of his actions, reconciliatory—really existed out there in the cosmos, or that that God consisted of three parts, or that one part (the Son) had to be brutally crucified in Jerusalem seventeen centuries before his time in order to allow humans otherwise consigned, by that God’s decision, to fry forever, to instead live forever in Paradise if they embraced some suitable version of Christianity. Jefferson indeed dismissed this worldview as nonsensical. He was a keen student of the gospels, found much value in the words attributed to Jesus, and called himself a “Christian” only in that he held (as he wrote in a letter in 1820) “the precepts of Jesus to be the most pure, benevolent and sublime which have ever been preached to man.”
Diderot and the Christian Lady
Among the thinkers who influenced Jefferson (and others among the Founding Fathers) was the French philosophe Denis Diderot (1713-84). In 1814 Jefferson wrote that Diderot, whom he described as an “Atheist,” was “among the most virtuous of men,” whose virtue “must have had some other foundation than the love of God.” (So Jefferson expresses an opinion on that fundamental question: “Can people be good if they don’t believe in God?”) Diderot was among the French thinkers, during what’s called the “Enlightenment” prior to the Revolution of 1789, who pushed against the limits of the Old Regime’s censors in advancing human thought at the expense of irrational religious dogma. What thephilosophes achieved intellectually in the eighteenth century remains the bane of our twenty-first century Back-to-the-Bible neanderthals who wish the Enlightenment had never happened. Diderot authored much of the Encyclopédie, or Encyclopedia, which epitomized contemporary European rationalism and couldn’t help but antagonize the Church. While doing so, Diderot penned a little gem, published under a pseudonym in 1777, entitled “Entretien avec la Maréchale de —–” that has been translated by Lester G. Cocker into English as “Conversation with a Christian Lady.” It is a philosophical dialogue involving a fictitious Monsieur Thomas Crudeli and an aristocratic lady, who like many high-born Frenchwomen of the time was well-educated and enjoyed lively intellectualreparté in her salon.
The philosopher Crudeli happens by, intending to meet the lady’s husband, who is out. But she “at her toilette” courteously entertains his visit. She knows his reputation, and remarks that he’s a man who doesn’t believe in anything. When he confirms this, she asks curiously: “Yet your moral principles are the same as those of believer?” and he replies that they are. “You don’t steal? You don’t kill people? You don’t rob them?” she presses him. No, he replies, so she asks him: “Then what do you gain by not being a believer?”
Crudeli (Diderot) gently disabuses the noble lady of her expectation that nonbelief stems from a desire to engage in wanton crime. He does not aggressively promote atheism, but merely defends his intellectual position, noting in passing that much violence has occurred in the name of religion. But, the increasingly consternated maréchale asks him, “if you destroy religion, what will you put in its place?” He offers no alternative, just noting “there would at least be one terrible prejudice less in the world.” She points out the comfort people derive from the belief in an afterlife. He replies: “I myself do not entertain such a hope. But I do not wish to deny it to others.”
She asks, what if he’s wrong—and he dies and faces a Creator who will judge him? He responds with an allegory suggesting in essence that if, by chance, there is an ultimate intelligence that created the universe, it will not consign to eternal hellfire decent rational people unable, due to their own honest reasoning processes, to recognize itself. She asks him if, if called “before the magistrates” (atheism still a crime in France at this time) he would “tell them the truth?” He says no, he would aver religiosity so as to “spare those magistrates the responsibility for an appalling crime” (that is to say, his own execution). “You coward!” she chides. “And if you were at the point of death, would you submit to receiving the last rites of the church?” “Most conscientiously,” says the atheist. (It is one thing for the religious believer to endure martyrdom confident of a heavenly reward, another for a nonbeliever to nod to religious sentiment, to avoid conflict or make others happy or avoid a pointless death.) “You wicked hypocrite!” She replies.
Maybe she has a point. Maybe people should stand by their beliefs, whatever the consequences. Dr. Newdow (whose public profession of unbelief is fortunately legal in this country, although I imagine he gets a lot of hate-mail) is not a hypocrite. He is not simply averring his atheism, but, two and a half centuries after Diderot, in the country of the religious skeptic Thomas Jefferson, he’s demanding that his daughter not be forced, by the state, to be a hypocrite. Unfortunately, I fear, contra Jefferson, the Supreme Court will reinforce the bridges so far built between church and state, forcing through its theological view and undermining civil rights. The Founding Fathers would not be pleased. (But being dead, it’s likely they aren’t following this story.)
Under God, the “War on Terror”
A common criticism of Islamic societies, widely repeated lately, is that they never experienced an Enlightenment—a movement that could have weakened the hold of religious fundamentalism over the minds of Arabs and other Muslims. The charge is somewhat deceptive. The European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was largely a correction of the intellectual stagnation bred though centuries of institutionalized Christian dogmatism. The kind of dogmatism that obliged Galileo to back off, under threat of torture, from his heart-felt conviction that the earth (despite Biblical references to its immobility) revolves around the sun, and not vice versa, in 1633. The Muslim world in contrast allowed for free scientific inquiry, and it is largely due to contact with that world that science came to revive in Europe during the Renaissance. Thus so many of our words pertaining to mathematics and astronomy—zero, cipher, nadir, zenith, algebra—come from Arabic. The Muslim world didn’t have a Dark Age from which it needed to emerge.
The widespread illiteracy, backwardness and religious fundamentalism in the present Muslim world results not from specifically Islamic traits, or a benighted past, or the content of the Qur’an and hadith, but power relations in recent history. Poverty, corruption, alliances between local tyrants and foreign patrons who have cleverly used Islamic religious passion when it served their purposes. Once upon a time, U.S. administrations (Carter and Reagan) happily built an anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan drawing on Muslim fundamentalists from all over the world and specifically urged them to see their struggle as a jihad. Few issues were more crucial to these jihadis than the rejection of male-female equality and the maintenance of Muslim clerics’ leadership in society. If there was some prospect for “enlightened” policies in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the U.S. deliberately sabotaged them, delighting instead in the fact that some of the most backward forces on the planet shared its determination to topple secular Soviet-style rule and merge their religious agenda with America’s Cold War politics.
But one shouldn’t stereotype people from “Muslim countries” as religious fanatics. I’ve met lots of Muslims who believe in a Supreme Being but have little interest in or use for Islamic theology, and others who culturally identify with Islam but don’t really embrace religion at all. And in the history of Islam, one finds the occasional expression of deep religious doubt and dissent:
Alike for those who for TO-DAY prepare,
And those that after a TO-MORROW stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
“Fools! Your Reward is neither Here nor There!”
So wrote the Persian scientist Omar Khayyam around 1100, this translation provided by the nineteenth-century British Christian Edward Fitzgerald. Khayyam’sRubaiyat abounds with religious skepticism.
The Islamic world has had its skeptics, its Diderots, and has potential to generate more—as does the U.S.A., threatened as it is by Christian fundamentalists who want to blur distinctions between church and state, force worship into our schools, draw on public money to proselytize, bring religion into public health policy, institutionalize homophobia on religious grounds, and make kids publicly swear that they’re “under God”—whether or not God’s here or there, whether or not there’s ever a heavenly reward. We have lots of people, who like the third U.S. president, demand we “question with boldness even the existence of a god” and insist that the preaching of such existence falls outside “the legitimate powers of government.” But the forty-third U.S. president, like the fundamentalists of the Taliban, thinks government should promote religious belief.
“The American people, when we pledge our allegiance to the flag, feel renewed respect and love for all it represents,” said George W. Bush in July 2002, after Dr. Newdow won a decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the “God” reference in the Pledge. “And no authority of government can ever prevent an American from pledging allegiance to this one nation, under God.” (As though “government” was trying to “prevent” rather than promote religion.) This was not long after Bush had used that Pledge (Oct. 12, 2001) to try to get the nation’s schoolchildren behind his “War on Terrorism,” and behind his yet unannounced plans to use 9-11 to attack Iraq.
Stand there with me, kids, and pledge obedience to whatever I, your President, decide to do to smite all this scary evil out there threatening our Homeland. Doesn’t it feel good to all be together, all pledging, all under God?
Bush no doubt rests assured that the justices who upheld his election will uphold the “under God” language as well, and that the Pledge in which it occurs will remain serviceable as his war, rooted in and exploiting both mundane and religious delusions, spreads liberty and justice to all, everywhere under God that U.S. troops can occupy.
Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author ofServants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa, Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa, Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900.
He can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org