The semester has started well and is settling down, so I can at last get back to the blog, as it has been far too long since my last post. I do have a number of things I am working on: one on justification, and more specifically justification by faith alone, what it is and what it isn’t; one on the Mississippi bubble of the early eighteenth century (when the word millionaire was coined), and its coincidences with too many other bubbles, including our current dollar bubble; and one on St. Benedict and the Benedictine tradition of reading the Scriptures as seen not only among the Benedictines of the middle ages, but even in the man most responsible for popularizing Benedictine monasticism, Pope St. Gregory the Dialogist, the Great.
And so this evening I sit here enjoying a wonderful mead that my colleague Tyler bottled (the man is a genius), and I am having no illusions as to how that wild and barbaric race the Vikings came to dominate Europe in the ninth century: if this is what they were drinking they could face anything!! But the privileges of having a brewing colleague aside, my life this semester is already greatly aided by two very competent and enthusiastic Teaching Assistants. I actually have three (and technically they are working for the Department), but the one is fulfilling his duties largely with my colleague who is devoted to Colonial America. Now I have had TAs before, but this term I am actually being rather proactive in what I hope to get out of them with regard to promoting the department not only on campus, but also via our website, which they are now in charge of (good thing I trust both of them implicitly). I see bright things for the department’s future. Nonetheless, this is an anxious time for a lot of people in higher ed. I heard a report a few weeks ago that a lot of universities, including some of the Ivies, have invested in the wrong sorts of things which they cannot now dump without taking a horrible bath. There is wide and serious talk about a Higher-Ed bubble. My own institution is facing the real problem that while it claims to be evangelical it has cultivated far too many ties with issues and ideas that are decidedly not. It has hurt both its enrollment and its ability to raise funds. We are now in the midst of hiring another president: more anxiety.
That this mirrors our current political situation gives me no encouragement, but I have far greater hope for my college than I do for my country. I was reared in a hawkish environment, and I still have a fairly strong streak of that in my constitution, but it has been fading of late. This is due largely not to the liberals who haunt the halls of my college (I find almost every one of them as hawkish for their creed as the neocons are for theirs), nor even from now having some more sympathy with the attitudes of people outside of my country (I think Putin a brute, but having now known many Russians, if I cannot sympathize with him, I can empathize), but largely because I see how both war and the military have been used to create an ever-expanding state with its accompanying throttling of liberty (I just read the other day that northern Virginia is now putting up cameras to watch their cameras). I write this not because I want to start arguing a Paulian foreign policy or the need for a purely libertarian economic model, though I have some strong inclinations in both those directions, but rather to address a simple matter of fact. Up to 1792 and the battle of Valmy, wars were considered, at least in theory if not in deed, as gentlemen’s affairs. Armies were not to engage in looting even in the enemy’s territory, for this led not only to creating deeper hostilities among the enemy, but also, and more importantly, to a breakdown in discipline and virtue among the soldiers. One of the interesting things about the Crusaders was how dependent they were on the Byzantines for supplies, and how the leaders of the armies had to keep their knights in line to keep them from breaking the most basic codes of chivalry. But after Valmy, when the French revolutionary army defeated the Prussians outside of Paris, an incident which led Goethe to announce the beginning of a new age in the world, war has increasingly not been between soldiers of a professional class, but between countries whose soldiers were harbingers and executioners (as in executives, not hangmen, though that may be true as well) of their countries’ ideologies. Because ideologies are more absolute than any putative chivalric code, quite often civilians have little status in the whole affair. Indeed, Napoleon made it a point of strategy, so that his armies could move more quickly, that they largely live off the lands they were invading.
Ostensibly, this is not the case with the US Military, for whose soldiers I have the deepest regard. I take it as a truism the pictures we see of soldiers playing with Iraqi children. But I wonder about a country who bombs a nation’s water treatment facilities in 1992, and then embargoes chlorine, one in which Madeline Albright can say without batting an eye that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children is an OK price to pay to get Saddam Hussein, and one in which the most scurrilous lies are given to justify military action (I am not talking hear about WMDs, but about the lie that Iraqi troops stopped by Kuwait’s hospitals to kill Kuwaiti babies in 1990). That our soldiers commit atrocities I don’t doubt, though I don’t think it as endemic, nor do I think it part of their culture, but actually the reverse: a culture imposed on them from having to be away from real culture. I see that as part of the nature of war that must be curtailed, meaning, our soldiers should be abroad for as short a time as possible. The longer soldiers are away from the civilizing influences of hearth and home, the worse it will be. Further, the amount of blood and treasure we have wasted in Afghanistan, and what will be wasted in Iraq (I have little hope that Iraq will remain a stable democracy once we are gone) can never be considered worth it. The whole question of why Osama bin Ladin attacked us on 9/11 aside, we should have simply gone into Afghanistan with soldiers and ordinance, blown them back a few more centuries, burned their poppy fields and sown them with salt, and then informed the Taliban that should we ever hear from them again we would be back. While I don’t approve of how he handled it, I largely see what Jefferson did with the Barbary pirates as a model for this.
Further, and also after Valmy, as wars were no longer about dynastic or territorial questions, but about ideological ones, new ends for war are imagined. In truth, ideological wars had occurred before the Revolution, and a good read on this is Donald Kelley’s The Beginning of Ideology about the French Wars of Religion. Yet the peace that was finally brokered between Charles V and the Lutherans at Augsburg (before the French wars), and then imposed by Henri IV Bourbon, that is, that of religious toleration, was dashed with the revolutionaries, who saw in the revolution of 1789 a new creed, and an absolutizing one at that. Granted, with the Thermadorian reaction came again toleration, but only until another absolutizing creed emerges. Such a creed has not reemerged in France, at least as government policy, though it did in both Germany and Russia, and each of these used the mythos of the party/state to demand an allegiance far more strict and severe than anything imagined even by a caricature of Torquemada. The myth of both race (the Nazis) and history (Marxism) drove men to murderous ends, for no longer was man made in the image of God, and from God all virtues and rights arose, and that this was the starting point upon which all political discourse turned. Now status (I would hardly call them rights) arose from race, or from being true to history (a charge against defendants in communist show trials was that “they had betrayed history”), and not from the Creator. This is the main reason why I have no real hope that republics will arise out of Islamic cultures, for their view of man as definitely not God’s image can never result in a virtuous citizen. At least Voltaire, while certainly no friend of Christianity, could still employ the language, using capital borrowed from Christianity and the ancient republics, of the virtuous and responsible citizen. This will not happen in Islam. Thus, implementing democracy by bombs to those who have no inclination to it can hardly be thought a good use of bombs.
I have been going over the Pirenne thesis with my Early Medieval History class, which teaches that not the barbarians by Islam destroyed Roman classical culture. Two new books have come out defending it (here and here). One of the consequences of Pirenne’s thesis, if true, is the lie of the Islamic golden age, from which the West was to benefit, and that “Holy War” is an Islamic construct, and has nothing to do with the Crusades. Crusader historians of late (look here and here and very concisely here), while not affirming Pirenne, have essentially affirmed that the Crusades were not “holy war” in any sense. While I am ambivalent about the Pirenne thesis (it has some points for it, while also a good many against it), the idea that there was ever an Islamic golden age is vacuous. The closest there has ever been was what can be called the Ottoman synthesis for lack of a better term. The Ottomans actually took a great deal of their culture from the Byzantines, so any thought that there was an Islamic golden age civilizing the West is actually the reverse of what happened, and not what is usually blathered in the popular culture.
All of this post on war, ideology, Islam, is all to say that I can see no good end for our presence in the Middle East. It takes decades, if not generations, to equip a people for a republican form of government, and that is even with the basic conceptual axioms: freedom under the law, virtue as originating with the individual and then inculcated in the first republic (the family) I am no big fan of Israel, but am more than happy to aid them if they are willing to defend Christians in the region. The Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt were living peaceable lives until this so-called Arab Spring which we have abetted. Now churches are being torched and demolished, and Christians, persecuted, killed, and forced to flee. Our press is turning a blind eye to it all, and somehow seem enthralled to the administrations notion that we can reason with Jihadistan. The only time “reason” was ever accepted among Islam was during the Ottoman hegemony, and that is because the Sultan could accept the reason of unacceptable losses.
As we see our administration adrift (largely because it is looking at Islam through a very distorted lense – – one not materially different than the previous admin), seemingly completely clueless of what is driving the riots and protests (that idiot film has been out for months, and here let me site – – can I be doing this? – – Mother Jones), the whole hope, going back from this administration to the last one, and of course even before that, back to all manner of progressivism, that somehow people will naturally take to democracy, is but a quod gratis asseritur . . . As we look out over the end of what was a short-lived “American empire,” I am reminded that the spread of Rome’s influence was accomplished more when it was a republic than under the Caesars. But now we cannot afford the bread and circuses to keep the citizens in line (or should I say free contraceptives and health care), and promises being made with hot checks are no promises at all. The promise of a Pax Americana will never be realized, because the brokest nation in the history of the planet doesn’t have the republican virtue of moderation needed to even keep up its promises to its own citizens, let alone govern the world. I have no love for the strongman regimes left over from the cold war, but they kept certain human vices in check, which have now been unleashed to the detriment of millions. Our optimistic assessment of human nature has proven Burke’s dictum true yet again: better the devil you know than the one you don’t.
Finally, and this after having enjoyed the last draught of that wonderful mead, if the Vikings, who had mead, couldn’t impose their world view on Europe anywhere from Constantinople to Ireland, what makes us think we can impose ours peddling such nonsense and piffle as contemporary music and blue jeans?