Monday, March 26, 2007
Carroll: Americans Face a Moral Reckoning
Americans Face A Moral Reckoning
by James Carroll
You have been reading The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, the classic account of what in Vietnam is called the American war. The title of Bao Ninh’s novel captures the feeling of grief and loss that always comes in the wake of violent conflict. Allowing room for fear, grief, and loss must define the dominant experience in Iraq today, where the suffering caused by this American war mounts inexorably.
But sorrow has also emerged as a note of life in the Unites States lately. Many comparisons are drawn between this nation’s misadventures in Iraq and Vietnam, but what you are most aware of is the return of a clenched feeling in your chest, a knot of distressed sadness that is tied to your country’s reiteration of the tragic error. After the chaotic end of the Vietnam War in 1975, you were like many Americans in thinking with relief that the nation would never know — or cause — such sorrow again.
The sorrow is back. Everywhere you go, friends greet one another with a choked acknowledgment of a nearly unspeakable frustration at what unfolds in Iraq. This seems true whether people oppose the war absolutely, or only on pragmatic terms; whether they want US troops out at once, or over time. Even about those distinctions, little remains to be said. Bush’s contemptuous carelessness, his inner circle’s corrupt enabling, the Pentagon’s dependable launching of folly after folly, the Democrats’ ineffectual kibitzing, even your heartfelt concern for the troops — these subjects have exhausted themselves. The “surge” of the January escalation was preceded by the surge of public anguish that resulted in Republican losses in November. That election was a stirring rejection of the administration’s purposes in Iraq, a rejection promptly seconded by the Iraq Study Group. But so what? Bush’s purposes hold steady, and their poison tide now laps at Iran.
Why should you not be demoralized and depressed? But the sorrow of war goes deeper than the mistaken policies of a stubborn president. Next to Bao Ninh’s book on your shelf stands The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson. That title suggests how far into the bone of your nation the pins of this problem are sunk. In effect, the disastrous American war in Iraq is the text, while America’s militarized way of being in the world is the context. Armed power at the service of US economic sway has made a putative enemy of a vast population around the globe, and that enemy’s vanguard are the terrorists. Violent opposition to the American agenda increases with each surge from Washington, whatever its character. Both text and context reveal that every dream of empire brings sorrow, obviously so to the victims of imperial violence, but also to the imperial dreamers, whether or not they consciously associate with what is being done in their name.
But the word sorrow implies more than grief and loss. The palpable sadness of a people reluctantly at war can push toward a fuller moral reckoning with the condition of a nation that has made its own economic supremacy an absolute value. To take on the question of an economy advanced with little regard for its sustainability, much less for its justice, implies a move away from the focus on Bush’s venality to a broader responsibility. How do the sorrows of war and empire implicate you?
The simplest truth is that the economic system that so benefits you is steadily eroding democracy by transferring the power to shape the future, both within states and among them, to ever smaller elites. At the same time, wealth multiplies and concentrates itself, while impoverishing more and more human beings. Everything from US oil consumption, to global trade structures, to the iron law of cheap labor, to immigration policies, to the psychology of the gated community, to the gated idea of national sovereignty, to the distractions of celebrity culture — all of this supports what is called the American way of life. Yours. If finally seen to be the source of multiple sorrows at home and abroad, can this way of life prompt a deeper confrontation with its true costs and consequences? You need not reduce social ills to personal morality — or let Bush off the hook for his wholly owned war — to acknowledge the complicity attached to mere citizenship in a war-making, imperial nation. In that case, can you measure your sorrow against the word’s other meaning, which is contrition?
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe.
James Carroll was born in Chicago in 1943, and raised in Washington where his father, an Air Force general, served as the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Carroll attended Georgetown University before entering the seminary to train for the Catholic priesthood. He received BA and MA degrees from St. Paul’s College, the Paulist Fathers’ seminary in Washington, and was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1969. Carroll served as Catholic Chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974 and then left the priesthood to become a writer.
In 1974 Carroll was Playwright-in-Residence at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge, MA. In 1976 he published his first novel, Madonna Red, which was translated into seven languages. Since then he has published nine additional novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Mortal Friends (1978), Family Trade (1982), and Prince of Peace (1984). His novels The City Below (1994) and Secret Father (2003) were named Notable Books of the Year by the New York Times. Carroll’s essays and articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Daedalus, and other publications. His op-ed page column has run weekly in the Boston Globe since 1992.
Carroll’s memoir, An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us, received the 1996 National Book Award in nonfiction and other awards. His book Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History, published in 2001, was a New York Times bestseller and was honored as one of the Best Books of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and others. It was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times, and won the Melcher Book Award, the James Parks Morton Interfaith Award, and National Jewish Book Award in History. Responding to the Catholic sex abuse crisis in 2002, Carroll published Toward A New Catholic Church: The Promise of Reform. In 2004 he published Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War, adapted from his Boston Globe columns since 9/11. In May 2005, he published House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power, a history of the Pentagon, which the Chicago Tribune called “the first great non-fiction book of the new millennium.”
Carroll is a regular participant in on-going Jewish-Christian-Muslim encounters at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Carroll is a member of the Council of PEN-New England, which he chaired for four years. He has been a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at the Harvard Divinity School. He is a trustee of the Boston Public Library, a member of the Advisory Board of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life at Brandeis University, and a member of the Dean’s Council at the Harvard Divinity School. Carroll is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Suffolk University.
James Carroll lives in Boston with his wife, the novelist Alexandra Marshall. They have two grown children.