Friday, November 06, 2009

Friends and Foes

The day after a huge event is always a bad time to ask big questions, like "What does this mean?" You're too close, you haven't had time to think on it yet, the emotions are still too raw. But it's always the first one that comes to mind. And if past crises are any guide, someone will leap immediately to their favorite answer straight away, and learn the wrong lesson. We don't know why Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire on soldiers at Fort Hood yesterday, and indeed we may never know; he's in a coma and might well never regain consciousness. I will neither ask nor attempt to answer that question. There are a few other thoughts rattling around in my head that I want to chase.

First: I think we should contrast the oath of service that an enlisted person takes versus the oath that an officer takes. Upon induction, enlisted personnel take this oath:

"I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

Officers, upon commissioning, take this oath:

"I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."

They're the same, up through the bit about "true faith and allegiance." That's where they diverge. The enlisted person swears to obey orders, while the officer swears honest intent to do a good job. Interestingly, the officer does not swear to follow orders. He's expected to, and can get in a whole lot of trouble if he doesn't, but it's not in the oath of commissioning. But the important part is that the officer swears that he accepts his responsibilities freely, and without reservations.

Here's the thing: an officer cannot -- CANNOT -- have any higher calling than his commission. Nothing in this life can come before bearing true faith and allegiance to the United States. Nothing. It's a hard road, and one not everyone can follow. After much soul-searching, I found that to be true for me, and I left the AFROTC program after my second year.

The honorable thing for an officer to do when he finds that he cannot carry out his assigned task in good conscience is to resign his commission. Simply that. It may carry unpleasant consequences. Those consequences may be quite severe, depending on circumstances. But that's what an honest man with honest intent would do in that situation. It is no one's fault but Hasan's that he did not choose this path.

Second: The usual suspects have swarmed out of the woodwork, alternately bellowing that it's all about religion, or that religion had nothing to do with it. Horsefeathers, the lot of 'em. You'd have to be outright delusional to think religion had nothing to do with it, given that he shouted an Islamic slogan prior to opening fire. There is a religious dimension to what's happening, but it's not as simple as Islam versus the West. At the end of the day we have to remind ourselves: what are we fighting for? It's the same old fight, just a new phase. Andrew Sullivan puts it quite well: "We are fighting to retain an open democracy, where all religions can coexist, where religion is separate from politics, where toleration is a civic virtue." There are world-views, both within radical Islam and within some of the more backward strains of Christianity, to which this is anathema.

This is the shape of the enemy: men for whom Church and State must march side-by-side, in perfect lockstep. One of the great geniuses of the American experiment is the way by which we prevent the bloody murder that often happens when different faiths rub together. It wasn't too terribly long ago that members of different Christian denominations in Europe were slaughtering one another wholesale. Even today, the wrong answer to the question "Protestant or Catholic?" can earn you a beating in Belfast. The doctrine of separation of Church and State is the wall that keeps that insanity out. The Church cannot use the State to enforce its will, and the State in turn cannot interfere in matters of conscience.

The fight we have joined is to preserve this idea. It is anathema to bin Laden, who believes in an Islam that is both Church and State. But we have allies, even within the Muslim world. Take Turkey, for example: a majority Muslim nation, yet with a strong, secular government. And we have allies at home: good, hard-working, honest men and women of all faiths who simply want to live their lives and raise their families. In this crisis, we must resist with all our strength the temptation to over-react. The enemy is not the man down the street who prays differently than you do. The enemy is the man down the street who insists that everyone pray exactly the same way he does.

The task before us? Discerning the difference between the two. And that won't be easy.

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