A Questionable Certainty

On one day recently, three people I respect used the same two words by way of discussing Iraq: “moral certainty.”

They reflected on the obvious: President Bush’s pursuit of Saddam Hussein as the next target in the war on terrorism.

Implicit in these conversations was a riddle. How can anyone be “morally certain” about war? Or, the reverse, how could a president possibly pursue war if he wasn’t?

I look back, and it’s sobering to realize that my country has been at war virtually all of my life. Hot war, Cold War, proxy war, covert war. And now terrorism. H.L. Mencken was right all along. “War will never cease,” he wrote, “until babies begin to come into the world with larger cerebrums and smaller adrenal glands.”


So, we make do with what we have. And when we’re honest about it, what we have doesn’t get us very far. For a peace-seeking nation, we’ve enjoyed too little peace.

“I think moral certainty is very important in waging war, whether or not there is any morality behind it. Because waging war involves the suspension of behavior we regard as moral,” Joyce Appleby told me. She is professor emerita of history at UCLA and past president of the American Historical Assn.

With the spread of democracy and unfettered communications, war has become increasingly “democratic.” Since World War I, “infusing people with moral certainty has been critically important in getting men and women to bear the burdens of war,” says Appleby, not by way of endorsement but explanation.

Little wonder that we hear rousing moral preaching about “evil” or “infidels.”

“War is fear cloaked in courage,” said Army Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. commander in Vietnam. And that’s exactly what alarms some people, including a good many religious moderates who object to moral/religious certainty from all quarters. They believe a nation must guard its principles as well as its people. Otherwise, a country may retreat into moral quicksand, forfeiting those things that distinguish it from its enemy. In the U.S., that means preserving tolerance, pluralism and wide-minded openness -- which, after all, are the very things that our narrow-minded foes condemn.

William Lesher, president emeritus of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, puts it this way: “Moral certainty is not a tenet that stems from mainline religious ethics in the contemporary world. Moral certainty, for the most part, is a luxury of a closed mind ... a fundamentalist religious attitude.”

For my part, I’ll side with those who say it is an ill-founded conceit to link the words, “moral” and “certainty,” in this fight against terrorism. That goes for those who march against war as well as those who march to war. Given our traditions and our history, the United States would be more believable and true to itself if we met the challenge of fundamentalism without resorting to it.

After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we were doing business with those in Iraq whom the president now calls evil. The president’s own father trounced Hussein in war and chose to let him remain in power. And let’s not forget that we gave a big boost to Islam’s fundamentalist freedom fighters. They were our proxies in the war against communism, only to turn the weapons we issued them against us.


Moral certainty about this war? No need to make the stretch. Self-defense is plenty enough reason to mobilize, and a far more difficult idea to oppose. Framing the challenge in those terms will serve us better at home by taking some of the arrogance and righteousness out of our disagreements. Abroad, we might expect a corresponding lift in U.S. credibility.

The tactics of self-defense are matters about which we can argue. Deliberations of this nature are signs of vitality in a self-governing people. Moral certainties, though, take us beyond debate. They push us toward the turf occupied by our foes -- to the terrain of fanaticism, where the eye beholds only good or evil, light or darkness.

“This is not political discourse. This is actually the language of religious zealots, whether they be Christian or Muslim. It’s the language of children’s stories,” says Elaine Pagels, professor of religion at Princeton University. “The trouble with this kind of language, as I see it, is that it’s very powerful. In a way, it bypasses the brain.”

War? I’m afraid we’re stuck with T.S. Eliot, who grumbled thus:


War is not a life: it is asituation,

One which may neither be ignored nor accepted.