Tomdispatch Interview: James Carroll on Our Post-9/11 World

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[Note to Tomdispatch readers: This is the second in an ongoing series of interviews at the site. The first was with Howard Zinn. More will appear later in the month or in October. Tom]

The Mosquito and the Hammer
A Tomdispatch Interview with James Carroll

We pull into the parking lot at the same moment in separate cars, both of us slightly vacation-disheveled. He wears a baseball-style cap and a half-length purple raincoat in anticipation of the downpour which begins soon after we huddle safely in a local coffee shop. As I fumble with my two tape recorders, he immediately demurs about the interview. He may have nothing new to say, he assures me, and then absolves me, now and forever, of the need to make any use whatsoever of anything we produce through our conversation.

The son of a lieutenant-general who was the founding director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, a former Catholic priest and antiwar activist in the Vietnam era (the subject of his book, An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us), Carroll has long pursued his interest in the ways in which faith and force can coalesce into historically fatal brews. From this came, for instance, his bestselling book Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews.

Within days of the attacks of September 11, 2001, he became perhaps our most passionate — and prophetic — columnist in the mainstream media. His columns continue to appear, now every Monday, in the Boston Globe. The Bush administration, with its fundamentalist religious base, its Manichaean worldview, its urge toward a civilizational conflict against Islam, and its deeply held fascination with and belief in the all-encompassing powers of military force, was, in a sense, made for him. And he grasped the consequences of its actions with uncanny accuracy from the first moments after our President announced his “war on terror,” just days after 9/11. A remarkable collection of his Globe columns that begins with the fall of the World Trade Center towers and the damaging of the Pentagon and ends on the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War, will certainly prove one of the best running records of that crucial period we have.

He speaks quietly and straightforwardly. You can almost see him thinking as he talks. As he reenters the world we’ve passed through these last years, his speech speeds up and gains a certain emphatic cadence. You can feel in his voice the same impressive combination of passion and intelligence, engagement and thoughtfulness that is a hallmark of his weekly column. I turn on the tape recorders and we begin to consider the world since September 11, 2001.

Tomdispatch: In September 2003, only five months after the invasion of Iraq, you wrote in a column, “The war in Iraq is lost. What will it take to face that truth this time?” Here we are two years later. What has it taken, what will it take, to face that truth?

James Carroll: It’s interesting to me that the tribunes of the truth right now are the people who have felt the loss of the war most intensely, the parents of the dead American soldiers. I find it astounding that facing the truth in the month of August has been the business almost solely of these parents, pro and con. Cindy Sheehan on the one side, clearly saying that, whatever its imagined values, this war’s not worth what it’s costing us and it’s got to end immediately; on the other side, parents, desperately trying to make some sense of the loss of their child, who want the war to continue so that he or she will not have died in vain. Both are facing a basic truth of parental grief and, I’d also say, responding to the same larger phenomenon: the war being lost. I’m not certain we’d hear from any parents if the war were being won. Given the great tragedy of losing your child to a war that’s being lost, nobody gets to the question of whether it’s just or not.

It’s heartbreaking to me that, in American political discourse, what discussion there is of the larger human and political questions has fallen to these heartbroken parents. Where are the Democrats? Where, for that matter, are the Republicans? On the floor of Congress, has there been a discussion of this war? I mean in the Vietnam years you did have the astounding Fulbright hearings. [Democratic Senator William] Fulbright was in defiance of [Democratic President] Lyndon Johnson when those hearings were initiated, that’s for sure. Where are the hearings today? We have a political system that is supposed to engage the great questions and they obviously aren’t being engaged. How long will it take us to face the truth? It’s just terrible that the truth has to be faced by these heartbroken parents, because even if they’re opposed to the war — as I am — they’re not the ones to whom we should look for political wisdom on how to resolve the terrible dilemma we’re in.

TD: In March 2004, on the first anniversary of the invasion — and this was the piece with which you ended your book , Crusade — you wrote again, “Whatever happens from this week forward in Iraq, the main outcome of the war for the United States is clear, we have defeated ourselves.”

Carroll: I was already instructed by the history of the twentieth century, summarized so well by Jonathan Schell in his book The Unconquerable World. He cites numerous instances in which broad-based, national resistance movements couldn’t be defeated even by massively superior military power. It was his insight that the last century was rife with examples — the most obvious for Americans being Vietnam — where a huge superiority in firepower was irrelevant against even a minority resistance movement based in an indigenous population; and it’s clear that this so-called insurgency in Iraq is a minority resistance movement, largely Sunni, and that it doesn’t matter if it’s a minority. There’s an indigenous population within which it resides and which fuels it. And all of that was quickly evident. In fact, I think it was evident to George H.W. Bush in 1991. It wasn’t Vietnam we needed to learn from first in this case; it really was the first Gulf War and Bush’s realpolitik decision to stop it based on the sure knowledge that there was no way of defeating an indigenous popular religious movement prepared to fight to the death.

Presiding Over the Destruction of the U.S. Army

TD: So where are we now as you see it?

Carroll: It’s already become clear to people that we can’t win this. Who knows what being defeated means? I said we had lost because there’s no imposing our will on the people of Iraq. That’s what this constitutional imbroglio demonstrates. A month ago, Donald Rumsfeld was insisting that there had to be a three-party agreement. In August, it became clear that there would be none. So now there’s a two-party agreement and the Sunnis are out of it. Basically, this political development has endorsed the Sunni resistance movement, because they’ve been cut out of the future of Iraq. They have no share of the oil. They have no access to real political power in Baghdad. They have nothing to lose and that’s a formula for endless fighting.

TD: I was struck by recent statements by top American generals in Iraq about draw-downs and withdrawals, all of them clearly unauthorized by Washington. At the bottom, you have angry military families, lowering morale, and the difficulties of signing people on to the all-volunteer army; at the top, generals who didn’t want to be in Iraq in the first place and don’t want to be there now.

Carroll: Well, they’ve been forced to preside over the destruction of the United States Army, including the civilian system of support for the Army — the National Guard and the active Reserves. This is the most important outcome of the war and, as with Vietnam, we’ll be paying the price for it for a generation.

TD: Knowing the Pentagon as you do, what kind of a price do you think that will be?

Carroll: I would say, alas, that one of the things we’re going to resume is an overweening dependence on air power and strikes from afar. It’s clear, for instance, that the United States under the present administration is not going to allow Iran to get anywhere near a nuclear weapon. The only way they could try to impede that is with air power. They have no army left to exert influence. If the destruction of the United States Army is frightening, so is the immunity from the present disaster of the Navy and the Air Force, which are both far-distance striking forces. That’s what they exist for and they’re intact. Their Tomahawk and Cruise missiles have basically been sidelined. We have this massive high-firepower force that’s sitting offshore and we’re surely going to resume our use of such power from afar.

One of the things the United States of America claims to have learned from the ’90s is that we’re not going to let genocidal movements like the one in Rwanda unfold. Well, we’ve basically destroyed the only military tool we have to respond to genocidal movements, which is a ground force. You can’t use air power against a machete-wielding movement. And if you think that kind of conflict won’t happen in places where poverty is overwhelming and ecological disaster is looming ever more terrifyingly, think again. What kind of response to such catastrophe will a United States without a functional army be capable of?

You know, in this way, we’re now like the Soviet Union once it collapsed into Russia. When it could no longer pay the salaries of its soldiers, Russia fell back on its nuclear arsenal as its only source of power. In a way the Soviet Union never was, Russia is now a radically nuclear-dependent military power. The Red Army doesn’t really count for much any more. And we’ve done that to ourselves in Iraq. This is what it means to have lost the war already. We didn’t need an enemy to do it for us. We’ve done it to ourselves.

TD: “We” being the Bush administration?

Carroll: Yes, the Bush administration, but “we” also being John Kerry and the Democrats who refused to make the war an issue in the presidential election campaign last year. I fault them every bit as much as I fault the Republicans. At least Bush is being consistent and driven ideologically by his unbelievably callow worldview. The Democrats were radical cynics about it. They didn’t buy the preventive war doctrine. They didn’t buy the weapons of mass destruction justification for this war. They didn’t buy any of it and yet they didn’t oppose it! The cynicism of the Democrats is one of the most stunning outcomes of this war. And even now, as the political conversation for next year’s congressional election begins, where’s the discussion from the Democrats about this, the second self-inflicted military catastrophe since World War II. At least the first time, the Democrats were there. In the election of 1972, when they lost badly, George McGovern and company really did engage this question.

We’re desperately in need of a Eugene McCarthy, someone who will speak the truth in a really clear and powerful way and in a political context so that we can respond to it as a people. Eugene McCarthy is putting it positively. I’d say negatively what we could use is a Newt Gingrich, someone who could marshal political resistance going into this next election period in a way that would make the war a lively issue in every senatorial and congressional election. We really need someone. In America, our system requires someone of the political culture to invoke this discussion.

A Civilizational War against Islam

TD: In the first column you wrote after September 11, 2001, you said, “How we respond to this catastrophe will define our patriotism, shape the century, and memorialize our beloved dead.” Four years later, how do you assess our response to each?

Carroll: Patriotism has become a hollow, partisan notion in our country. It’s been in the name of patriotism that we’ve turned our young soldiers into scapegoats and fodder. The betrayal of the young in the name of patriotism is a staggering fact of our post-9/11 response. The old men have carried the young men up the mountain and put them on the altar. It’s Abraham and Isaac all over again. It’s the oldest story, a kind of human sacrifice, and that’s what’s made those cries of parents so poignant this August. But those cries also have to include an element of self-accusation, because parents have done it to their children. We’ve done it to our children. That’s what it means to destroy the United States Army. Night after night, we see that the actual casualties of that destruction are young men, and occasionally women, between the ages of 18 and 30. And this in the name of patriotism.

On the second point, the shape of the world for the century to come, look what the United States of America has given us — civilizational war against Islam! Osama bin Laden hoped to ignite a war between radically fundamentalist Islam and the secular West. And he succeeded. We played right into his hands. Now, we see that war being played out not just in Iraq and the Arab world generally, but quite dramatically in Europe.

TD: You picked up on this in the first few days after 9/11 when you caught Bush in a little slip of the tongue. He spoke of us entering a “crusade”

Carroll: “This war on terrorism, this crusade.”

TD: Yes, which, you said, “came to him as naturally as a baseball reference.” Are we now, with the protesting military families, seeing a retreat from this kind of sacralizing of violence?

Carroll: No! I think the warnings signs are all around us for what has happened — the politicization of fundamentalist Christianity. I mean, we’ve had that since the early days of the Cold War when Billy Graham became a tribune of anticommunism. But what’s new is the way in which this marginal fundamentalist Christianity has entered the political mainstream and taken hold on Capitol Hill. Dozens and dozens of congressmen and senators are now overt Christian fundamentalists who apply their theology — including religious categories like Armageddon and end-of-the-world justifications for violence — to their political decisions. The kind of apocalyptic political thinking that Robert Jay Lifton has written about has now become so mainstream that we even see it in the United States military. For the first time, at least in my lifetime, overt religiosity has emerged as a military virtue and I’m not just talking about General [William] Boykin, the wacko who deliberately and explicitly insulted the Islamic religion

TD: and who was promoted.

Carroll: And is still in power. Not just him but this most alarming and insufficiently noted phenomenon of the rise of fundamentalist Christianity at the Air Force Academy, conveniently located in the neighborhood of the two most politicized fundamentalist religious congregations in the country, Focus on the Family and the New Life Ministries. A significant proportion of the cadet population is reliably understood to be overt, born-again Christians and the commandant has been explicit in his support of religious conformity in the cadet corps. These are the people we are empowering with custodianship over our most powerful weapons in a war increasingly defined in religious terms by the President of the United States. All of this is our side of a religious war against an increasingly mobilized jihadist Islam.

Meanwhile in Europe, Great Britain had, until recently, been a far more tolerant culture than the United States (as indicated by the British welcome to large populations of Muslim immigrants over the last generation). All of that is now being firmly and explicitly repudiated by British lawmakers. You see it in the great cities of Europe everywhere. When people in the Netherlands and France vote against the European Constitution in some measure because it represents to them an opening to Turkey and the world of Islam, something quite large is happening.

Lighting the Dry Tinder of History

TD: Doesn’t this take us back to a period you’ve studied deeply — the Middle Ages?

Carroll: It’s true. We don’t sufficiently appreciate how the paradigm of the crusades never ended for Europe. Europe came into being in response to the threat of Islam. The European structure of government, the royal families of Europe, they’re all descended from Charlemagne, grandson of the man who defeated the Islamic armies at Tours. More than a thousand years ago, a system of identity first took hold in Europe that defined itself against Islam. This is the ultimate political Manichaeism in the European mind.

We’re the children of this. Of course, Islam had been forgotten in our time. Never mind that there were more than a billion Muslims in the world. All through the Cold War, we thought that the other, the stranger, the enemy was the Communist. But the Muslim world never forgot about us. The crusades are yesterday to them. They’ve understood better than we have that the West has somehow defined itself against them.

It’s in this context that we have to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A thousand years ago, as now, the political fate of Jerusalem was the military spark for the marshaling of a holy war. The crusaders, after all, were going to Jerusalem to rescue the Holy Land from the infidel, and the infidel was defined as a twin-set, Muslims and Jews. The attack on Muslims happened simultaneously with the first real attacks against Jews inside Europe. The ease with which, in the Middle East, the conflict in Israel has come to be subsumed as the defining conflict with the West is part of this phenomenon.

In Cologne [Germany] last week, I met with the head of the Jewish congregation and also the imam who heads the Muslim community, and they both reported the same experience. They both feel they’re on the table — the table of sacrifice — in Europe. They’re both feeling vulnerable to attack and they’re right to feel that way. It’s a very curious turn.

Anyway, the United States of America didn’t understand the tinder it was playing with and George Bush, in his naïve reference to the crusades, demonstrated his profound ignorance of how deep in the history of our culture these conflicts go. Osama bin Laden understood this much better than Bush. It’s no accident that the two epithets of choice the jihadists use for the American enemy are “crusaders” and “Jews,” and they’re mobilizing epithets for vast numbers of Muslim Arabs.

TD: Do you think that, in dancing with Osama bin Laden, Bush has somehow turned him into something like a superpower? You know, a word you used early on caught my eye. You said, “Mr. Bush’s hubristic foreign policy has been officially exposed as based on nothing more than hallucination.” However clever bin Laden has been, isn’t there also something hallucinatory about all this?

Carroll: It’s true that if you begin to treat an imagined enemy as transcendent, at a certain point he becomes transcendent.

The Mosquito and the Hammer

TD: You said we “forgot” Islam. A theme of your writings and maybe your life — if you’ll excuse my saying so — is an American-style willed forgetfulness. Two key concerns of yours that seem “forgotten” in American life are the militarization of our society and nuclear weapons. Your father was a general. Your next book is about the Pentagon. What’s the place of the Pentagon in our life that we don’t see?

Carroll: When George W. Bush responded to the crisis of 9/11, two things came into play: his own temperament — his ideological impulses which were naïve, callow, dangerous, Manichaean, triumphalist — and the structure of the American government, which was sixty years in the making. What’s not sufficiently appreciated is that Bush had few options in the way he might have responded to 9/11.

What was called for was vigorous diplomatic activity centered around cooperative international law enforcement, but our government had invested little of its resources in such diplomatic internationalism in the previous two generations. What we had invested in since World War II was massive military power, so it was natural for Bush to turn first to a massive military response. The meshing of Bush’s temperament and a long-prepared American institutional response was unfortunate, but there it was. As somebody said, when he turned to his tool bag to respond to the mosquito of Osama bin Laden, the only tool he had in it was a hammer, so he brought it down on Afghanistan and destroyed it; then he brought it down on Iraq and destroyed it, missing the mosquito, of course.

Something has happened in our country since the time of Franklin Roosevelt that we haven’t directly reckoned with. The book I’ve just written has as its subtitle, “The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power.” That polemical phrase “disastrous rise” comes from Eisenhower’s famous military-industrial-complex speech where he explicitly warned against “the disastrous rise of misplaced power” in America — exactly the kind that has since come into being.

TD: And yet one of the hallucinatory aspects of this, don’t you think, is that when we responded after 9/11

Carroll: the power was empty. That’s the irony, of course. We’ve created for ourselves the disaster an enemy might have liked to create for us. That was the essence of the Eisenhower warning. We’ve sacrificed democratic values. What accounts for Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo? What accounts for the abandonment of basic American principles of how you treat accused people? We’ve abandoned this fundamental tenet of American democracy ourselves! We didn’t need an invading force to take away this one chief pillar of the Constitution. We took it down ourselves.

And we’ve barely begun to reckon with the war machine that we created to fight the Soviet Union and that continued intact when the Soviet Union disappeared. Of course, that was the revelation at the end of the Cold War when the threat went away and our response didn’t change. This isn’t a partisan argument, because the person who presided over the so-called peace dividend which never came was Bill Clinton; the person who presided over the time when we could have dismantled our nuclear arsenal, or at least shrunk it to reasonable levels (as even conservative military theorists wish we had done) was Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was the person who first undercut the ideas of the International Criminal Court, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. When George Bush became president, he stepped into space created for him by Bill Clinton. This isn’t to demonize Clinton. It’s just to show that our political system had already been corrupted by something we weren’t reckoning with — and the shorthand for that something was “the Pentagon.”

TD: The bomb also arrived at that moment 60 years ago and you often write about it as the most forgotten of things.

Carroll: Marc Trachtenberg, the political scientist, has this phrase “atomic amnesia.” Everything having to do with atomic weapons we seem to forget which is why the United States of America has had such trouble reckoning with the authentic facts of what happened in 1945, the negotiations around the Japanese surrender impulse, the invasion of Japan, and all of that. The first week of August every year we see this flurry of American insistence on the necessity of the bomb (almost all of which has been thoroughly debunked by professional historians across the ideological spectrum). At the other end of the spectrum, we have not begun to reckon at all with the nonsense of American policies toward nuclear weapons today — the fact that we’re resuming their production even now, that we continue to threaten their use even now. How can these questions be so unreckoned with? Well, the answer is that they’re part of this larger phenomenon, the elephant in the center of the American living room that we just walk around and nobody speaks about.

The Roman Empire — and Ours

TD: I was thinking of that relatively brief moment just after 9/11 and before Iraq when pundits were talking about us as the new Roman Empire; when there was this feeling, very much connected to the Pentagon, that we had the power to dominate the world, from land, from space, from wherever. Do you have anything to say about that now?

Carroll: We’re not sufficiently attuned to the fact that we of the West are descended from the Roman Empire. It still exists in us. The good things of the Roman Empire are what we remember about it — the roads, the language, the laws, the buildings, the classics. We’re children of the classical world. But we pay very little attention to what the Roman Empire was to the people at its bottom — the slaves who built those roads; the many, many slaves for each citizen; the oppressed and occupied peoples who were brought into the empire if they submitted, but radically and completely smashed if they resisted at all.

We Christians barely remember the Roman war against the Jewish people in which historians now suggest that hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed by the Romans between 70 and 135 CE. Why were the Jews killed? Not because the Romans were anti-Semites. They were killed because they resisted what for them was the blasphemous occupation of the Holy Land of Israel by a godless army. It would remain one of the most brutal exercises of military power in history until the twentieth century. That’s the Roman story.

We Americans are full of our sense of ourselves as having benign imperial impulses. That’s why the idea of the American Empire was celebrated as a benign phenomenon. We were going to bring order to the world. Well, yes as long as you didn’t resist us. And that’s where we really have something terrible in common with the Roman Empire. If you resist us, we will do our best to destroy you, and that’s what’s happening in Iraq right now, but not only in Iraq. That’s the saddest thing, because the way we destroy people is not only by overt military power, but by writing you out of the world economic and political system that we control. And if you’re one of those benighted people of Bangladesh, or Ghana, or Sudan, or possibly Detroit, then that’s the way we respond to you. We’d do better in other words if we had a more complicated notion of what the Roman Empire was. We must reckon with imperial power as it is felt by people at the bottom. Rome’s power. America’s.

Copyright 2005 Tomdispatch