Have We Got What It Takes to Win?

It was during the great slugfest of 1968, which marked the beginning of a fierce and protracted battle for the soul of America, that I threw my first electoral punch. Doing my bit, you might say, to help Richard Nixon deliver the necessary knockout blow to the Democrats.  Here (I thought) was the Party of Appeasement and watching it go down in flames gave me no end of delight.

Nixon of course would soon requite the favor, sending me to South Vietnam to fight a war that neither he nor anyone else in Washington seemed disposed to win. For unlike poor Hubert Humphrey, whom he dispatched with gratifying ease and thoroughness, the Viet Cong proved a far tougher nut to crack. Indeed, it would be years and years before America threw off her malaise of defeat and dishonor.

And perhaps she never has.  Because if recent events have taught us anything at all, it is that we seem not to have the stomach for this War on Terror. How else does one account for the refusal, endlessly repeated at the highest levels of our government, either to acknowledge the nature of the threat we face, or to summon the will to defeat it?   When the President and all his advisors behave like shrinking violets and recoil even from identifying the problem—Militant Islam on the March!—what hope have we of putting an end to it? I mean, was there even a passing nod in the President’s recent State of the Union speech, to a problem that more and more pre-empts the world’s attention?   How poor our prospects must appear to people who find themselves increasingly in the grip of a terror that is both systemic and widespread; for whom, in the words of the novelist Joan Didion, “the unspeakable peril of the everyday,” means the growing likelihood of being blown up by some suddenly reactivated “sleeper cell.” Who wants to sign on with a nation whose leadership is so feckless, so utterly supine, that it won’t even admit to itself who its enemies are?

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When that perfect storm called Vietnam, which Richard Nixon was then fated to inherit, was raging full blast in Southeast Asia, Henry Kissinger, an advisor at the time to New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, urged his friend Bill Buckley to tell the President-elect: “If Vietnam falls, word will go out that while it may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, it is fatal to be her friend.”

Did Nixon heed his advice? The jury is still out on that one, although, truth to tell, Vietnam did finally fall. Still, he hired the guy who gave him the right advice, namely Dr. Kissinger, who later on became Nixon’s Secretary of State and chief architect of a foreign policy that orchestrated an end to the war.

Meanwhile, almost a half century later, the Islamic juggernaut looks to be unstoppable in its stated design to subjugate the world to the rule of Allah. And thus permanently sever, in the course of its global conquest, what had once been the ancient and abiding connection between reason and will, mind and heart. If Pope Saint John Paul II insisted upon the nexus in his great encyclical, Fides et Ratio, reminding us of the two wings on which the world may rise to God, it became the recurrent theme of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, to sound the tocsin of what happens when the bird no longer flies. When religion is wrenched free from reason, ethos uprooted from logos, you get an Islamist fanatic tossing bombs that incinerate the innocent.  And when reason is left to it own devices, uninformed by faith, you get secularists so indifferent to God that they cannot even bring themselves to identify the problem.  Much less move against it.

What I am saying is this—that until the United States, and the coalition we’ve forged to fight on behalf of the West, steps up to the plate and really starts swinging, we’re going to lose this war. More than ever, we need to evince a resolute and robust willingness to do whatever it takes to smash these guys and restore right reason to the world. Otherwise, the Kissinger caveat will simply have to be repealed, inasmuch as America will no longer exercise real or strategic credibility in the world, and thus will hardly be perceived as a danger to anyone, certainly not to the forces of organized terror that now threaten the peace. And if Barack Obama, as wretched a Commander in Chief as can be imagined, hasn’t got sufficient starch in his shirt to show that he’ll not only call out the bad guys, but actually go out and kill them, then he is simply not equal to the job. So why then would we have friends if we are no longer willing to protect them from organized Islamic terror?

That is a question that ought surely be on everyone’s mind these days. Where does America stand on the matter of terror sponsored and sustained by Islamic ideology? Is it possible that the country is as reluctant to take charge as our President has proven himself to be? Have we all succumbed to the same paralysis as afflicts Obama and his advisors? Does the marriage of reason and faith, head and heart, no longer apply? Between knowing the right and mobilizing the will to do it? I wish I knew. What I am convinced of, however, is that the country could still be persuaded to rally round the flag on this issue, if it were presented in an honest and straightforward way. As a matter of sheer civilizational survival.

Do we have the sense that the stakes are in fact this high? That, in point of fact, the danger we face is on the order, say, of what Great Britain faced in 1940 when the fury of the Third Reich so imperiled an island race that nothing short of a total showdown with Adolph Hitler could save the West? If Herr Hitler were to win, warned Churchill, and England and her allies were to lose, “then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and care for, will sink into the abyss of a New Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

That was Churchillian rhetoric at its most impassioned and persuasive. His “Finest Hour” speech did more to turn the tide of defeatism than any number of troops and tanks. And he stood entirely alone. “In sum,” writes historian John Lukacs, “he was the defender of civilization at the end of the Modern Age,” a word he uses to define all that stands athwart barbarism.  “At a dramatic moment in the twentieth century,” he concludes, “God allowed Churchill the task of being its principal defender.”

Has he no successors at all? Where are the statesmen today who can summon such eloquence in the defense of civilization?   Are there so few leaders around fired by that same Churchillian vision? Only if, united by the things for which we have a shared love, they know what those things are which constitute a civilizational deposit, and that they are prepared to preserve them even at the cost of their lives.

This is not rocket science. It is a perfectly simple proposition. That unless America sees the current struggle in terms that transcend all other issues save that of the survival of the things we hold most dear—and that we know precisely what those things are, and who is threatening to take them from us—it will not be possible to defeat this enemy.

But like our English cousins in that not so distant June of 1940, who fought and died to liberate a continent, we too had that sense, back in December of 1941, following the shameful attack on Pearl Harbor. We knew that unless we rose up and put an end to so barbarous an act of unprovoked aggression, taking the fight all the way to Japan, we not only would dishonor our dead, their bodies strewn about the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, but the ideals they died to defend.  And it was on the strength of such convictions that the sacrifice of many would sustain us throughout a long and brutal world war.

And while I do believe we had something of that same sense in the aftermath of 9/11, we somehow lost it along the way.  I can still recall a riveting headline I saw shortly after the two towers fell: “The first great war of the 21st century began September 11.” How will it turn out? Indeed, how many of us still think that it is a war worth winning? I pray that it may not yet be too late to try and revive that same sense.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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