There is a historically fairly predictable pattern to the unfolding strategies and views of great wars. They often start with a morally ambiguous view of the enemy, a more limited conception of the war’s magnitude and a restrained application of violent tactics.
Eventually, moral clarity is obtained, war objectives expand — often to grandiosity — and tactics become ferocious. For example, at the start of our Civil War during the 1861 battle of First Manassas, spectators came out by carriage with picnic lunches to observe the event. By 1865, Gen. Sherman executed a campaign of civilian terror and material obliteration in his march to the sea. Likewise, the war started with the purpose of saving the union, but morally expanded to end slavery — North and South.
World War II started out in Europe first with the phony war and mutual thoughts of a negotiated peace, then with careful bombing (Adolf Hitler initially ordered that London not be bombed), and ended with the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo and the atomic obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Even Hitler, in his war on the Jews, as late as 1940 was thinking of deporting German Jews to Madagascar, and ended in rounding up Jews throughout Europe and perpetrating genocide in industrially designed death camps (although some historians believe the Madagascar plan may always have been a subterfuge for the Final Solution).
Today, the West’s struggle to resist radical Islamic aggression (both cultural and terroristic) is still in that early phase of moral confusion and limited tactics. Thus, we continue to debate the ethical merits of minor intrusions into American civil liberties (such as National Security Agency surveillance of some phone calls from foreign suspects), and even serious and patriotic men such as Sen. McCain and Gen. Powell challenge the need to permit psychologically rough — but nonviolent — interrogation of captured terrorists.
But there are some signs that the early stage of moral confusion is beginning to give way to greater clarity. Last week, two towering intellects — Pope Benedict XVI and Henry Kissinger — began to offer clarity. On Tuesday, the pope gave his now famous, but still misunderstood, lecture at the University of Regensburg. And on Wednesday, Kissinger published a half-page seminal article on the risk of civilizational war in The Washington Post.
Any fair and careful reading of the pope’s lecture must conclude that it was not an inadvertent insult to Islam. Rather, it was a firm assertion that the Judeo-Christian God acts in accordance with reason ("In the beginning was the logos" — word and reason), and thus Christians and Jews can undertake a rational debate about the morality of violence. He quotes, now famously, Emperor Manuel II’s assertion in 1391 that Islam spreads its faith through violence — which, he says, is unreasonable and incompatible with the nature of God. He then cites an 11th century Arab Muslim theologian, Ibn Hazn, who argued that Allah is transcendent of reason.
After criticizing secular Christians for not giving reason its proper place in understanding faith and God, he concludes his lecture by again quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II on his same criticism of Islam. Then, the pope finishes his lecture with the following words: "It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university."
In other words, he is inviting Islam to explain whether their God is like ours — inherently understandable by reason (and thus, is their God opposed to violence, as ours is?) .
He was also, I strongly suspect, speaking to his own flock, both to return to proper Christianity and to consider the nature of Islam. And, I suspect, the pope did not inadvertently quote the now inflammatory passage. If he had not included that quote, the world would not now be debating his lecture. While the pope surely did not want to see violence, he just as surely wanted to engage the world in this vital search for clarity.
While not the pope, Henry Kissinger is the world’s premier practitioner and scholar of realpolitik. So it is consequential that in his article last week, he warned the world that "we are witnessing a carefully conceived assault, not isolated terrorist attacks, on the international system of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. The creation of organizations such as Hezbollah and al-Qaida symbolizes the fact that transnational loyalties are replacing national ones. The driving force behind this challenge is the jihadist conviction that it is the existing order that is illegitimate."
He went on to warn: "The debate sparked by the Iraq war over American rashness vs. European escapism is dwarfed by what the world now faces … the common danger of a wider war merging into a war of civilizations against the backdrop of a nuclear-armed Middle East. … We now know that we face the imperative of building a new world order or potential global catastrophe."
These are shocking words coming from the verbally impeccably careful diplomatist.
So, within 24 hours the pope raises the question of whether Islam is inherently violent and unreasonable, while Kissinger warns of a possible emerging nuclear clash of civilizations.
Moral clarity, anyone?