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Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism

Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism

3.6 15
by William J. Bennett

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Praise for Why We Fight

“In this short but extremely valuable book, the distinguished former Secretary of Education . . . brings his customary lucidity and polemical firepower.” —Commentary

“Provocative . . . Bennett expresses a justified skepticism about claims that political violence is alien to the spirit of


Praise for Why We Fight

“In this short but extremely valuable book, the distinguished former Secretary of Education . . . brings his customary lucidity and polemical firepower.” —Commentary

“Provocative . . . Bennett expresses a justified skepticism about claims that political violence is alien to the spirit of Islam and draws attention to the vicious anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism disseminated by the state-sanctioned media in many ‘moderate’ Arab countries.”
New York Times

“An excellent defense of patriotism . . . Read it. Why We Fight is. . . dynamic, knowledgeable and charismatic. . . . [Bennett] is eloquent and persuasive.” —Houston Chronicle

“Mr. Bennett dissects with precision what the novelist Cheryl Benard has called ‘academic masochism in America’ . . . [and] is able to show how the professors and journalists who uttered [anti-American comments] could arrive at such judgments.” —Wall Street Journal

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
National morals arbiter Bennett takes America's reaction to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and uses it as a platform to discuss a half dozen of the major social and political issues including the role of pacifism, patriotism, "Islamophobia" and support for Israel. His goal is to bolster support for the Bush administration's War on Terror, and in particular, convince readers that the U.S. is, quite literally, a "country worth fighting for." Bennett's point of view is anchored in the "righteous anger" he feels Americans are justified in feeling against al-Qaeda. To rally the cause, he invokes all the righteous institutions of America the church, the state, the family except our well-regarded ability to tolerate different points of view. Unfortunately, his own anger is directed internally, at the members of the so-called cultural elite mostly journalists and educators who would call into question America's clear mandate to retaliate. This elite, he says, is trained on relativistic, postmodernist theory rather than on what he calls common sense. In so doing, he extrapolates unreasonably from the behavior of a small group of individuals, such as a few university studentss quoted in the press, and applies its thinking to larger class of college students. Further, Bennett excels at simplifying issues to the point where black and white appear out of gray. When he concludes that "why we fight" is to prevent al-Qaeda from acquiring chemical and biological weapons and using them for mass destruction, it is easy to agree with him. But when he condemns self-criticism as a national pathology, his words lose their value. For what is this book, if not a product of self-criticism? Bennett rarely ventures beyond his personal convictions. Stirring it may be, but edifying regarding the complexities of America's present situation it is not. (Apr. 9) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Chapter 1
The Morality of Anger

The ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoking, ash and soot lingered in the air, the odor of death lay everywhere. It was early October 2001, and one army--an army of police and firefighters and rescue workers and volunteers of every stripe--was hard at work clearing, searching, burying, shifting mortar, ministering to mortals. Another army, under the direction of the president and the secretary of defense, was readying itself to move against our attackers. The land was full of grief and full of anger, full of opinion.

What had happened to us? What could we do about it? What should we do about it?

We were not the only ones asking. In the days after September 11, the whole world caught its breath, waiting to see how we would respond. Ordinary people everywhere shared our shock and astonishment, sympathized with our grief, understood our anger, were moved by our unity and solidarity. But both at home and abroad there was also uncertainty, even apprehension, as to what we were going to do about this assault. Would our response be measured and appropriate, or would we strike out blindly, thereby confirming the lowest expectations of both foreign and domestic elite opinion? Long before we responded, the nature of our response had become, for many, a test of our national character.

From where I sat, the quality of both the grief and the anger--fierce, aroused, yet deeply thoughtful--was a sign of everything that is instinctually grand about the American national character. I had agonized for years about what was happening to this American character as our educational standards spiraled ever downward, our elites presided over anunprecedented coarsening of our culture, and our people seemed to be showing clear signs of self-doubt and moral confusion. The truth is that I would rather have gone on agonizing forever than have had my questions answered by a national calamity, but when the calamity occurred on September 11, the overwhelming and immediate reaction of our people--not the grief and anger in themselves but the quality of the grief and anger--certainly helped to answer them.

As for the quality of the post-September 11 opinion, on the whole it, too, bespoke the settled maturity of the American people, tending as it did to coalesce around a consensus view that retaliation had to be swift and uncompromising, adequate to the outrage, and in keeping with the dictates of our moral and political traditions. But there were other opinions as well, motivated, primarily, by the fear that we would overreact, that September 11 would trigger our supposed tendency to blind rage and rash action. Suddenly the name of Curtis LeMay, the American general who was alleged to have recommended that we "bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age," was in the air again, a code word for what was assumed to be the "default" mode of American military thinking.

In fact, those among us who espoused the LeMay position were scarcely to be heard from. By contrast, what might be called the Ghandi position--the position of nonviolence--was treated with exceptional seriousness by the media, and was amplified accordingly. It was also amazingly quick to materialize. Indeed, the operations of our domestic "peace party" gave fresh meaning to the Coast Guard motto Semper Paratus. Without benefit of a central command, without training manuals, without field exercises, it was able to deploy its forces with lightning speed, to seize the attention of the press, and to read from a single script. Its tactics--and its instincts--were models of rapid mobilization.

"I don't think the solution to violence is more violence," opined a Columbia University sophomore to a reporter as she held up a sign--"Amerika! Get a Clue!"--at an antiwar rally in Washington in late September. Said a mother in Kennebunk, Maine, around the same time: "Killing people won't prove anything. It's just more of the same." At a protest demonstration in early October in New York City, just blocks away from the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, Ronald Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights asserted with confidence that "war cannot be the only answer" and pleaded for an "alternative policy." In San Francisco, an advocate of women's rights blamed the media for "whipp[ing] up to a great extent the call for vengeance for war." In Wisconsin, a protestor lamented "all the flags out supporting the slaughter."

Most of these events were held long prior to anything we had done or even talked about doing in response to September 11. They reflected, rather, a deeply held prejudice about the proper way to deal with conflict and aggression, and an equally deep mistrust of the good faith of the American government.

Some in the peace party were already going farther, shifting the subject away from the attack itself and onto the behavior--past, present, or future--of the United States. At the New York City demonstration, a representative of Vietnam Veterans Against War told the crowd he did not "want to see more Americans die because of a militarist cowboy"--the militarist he had in mind was not Osama bin Laden but the president of the United States. A professor at Brown University instructed his audience that if "what happened on September 11 was terrorism,"what America had done "during the Gulf war was also terrorism." Such sentiments were echoed around the world, in places as diverse as Canada ("shut down the American war machine") and Athens, Greece, where four thousand people marched in opposition to an "imperialist war" started by "Americans, murderers of peoples."

As the weeks wore on, admittedly, pronouncements of this kind did tend to wane in intensity. How could they not? The military campaign in Afghanistan was planned so scrupulously and conducted with such care, achieved such a stunning success so quickly, with so little loss of innocent life, and moreover to such unmixed joy among the Afghan people, that the edge of protest was blunted. Even on university campuses, antiwar sentiment faded and pro-war and pro-American sentiment became tolerable if perhaps not yet fully respectable. Many students, though many fewer professors, actually discovered the morality of military action.

If, then, the nature of our response was a test of our national character, it was one we would seem to have passed with flying colors. Or so things stood at the turn of the year 2002. But even then, in the interlude of the fall of the Taliban, it was clear that all this could change once more. For the larger, global war against terrorism was far from over, and from here on in, things were only likely to get more complicated. India and Pakistan, two of our partners, were already at each other's throats. The great question of whether we were going to go after Saddam Hussein hung before us. No solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict seemed in sight, and to some it was beginning to seem that Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority should itself be placed on the list of terror suspects.

In short, military campaigns were almost certainly bound to become tougher and more protracted in the period ahead. This in turn suggested that coalition partners might break away, and world opinion might shift. American forces could begin to take significant casualities; there might be mounting concerns about civil liberties at home; the domestic consensus might weaken, thus endangering success in the war.

Weakening that consensus, sowing and reinforcing doubt about our purposes and our methods, was in fact the goal of the peace party. Its favored means: casting a shadow of moral doubt over our righteous and justified anger, promoting the idea that our tendency to jingoistic aggression could only be checked by a countercommitment to nonviolence. The celerity with which it proved able to mobilize and make itself felt, in the face of an unambiguous and monstrous aggression on our soil, suggests not only the deeprootedness of its own attitudes but the potentially wider effect those attitudes might yet have on national morale.

In later chapters we will deal with the workings of some of these same attitudes in relation to such issues as cultural confidence and love of country. Here I want to focus more narrowly on war and peace, force and pacifism. By looking at the national debate over these matters in the early days of phase one of our war, we can learn important lessons for phase two and all the phases to come. For the arguments are not going to go away.

I mentioned the word pacifism, and right away I need to make a distinction. There is such a thing as a genuine predisposition against violence in human affairs, and it has roots in very old traditions of thought. There is also a particular version of this orientation that has its origins in more recent doctrines, including certain psychological theories about the role of "aggression" in men and boys. And then there is a form of pacifism that is disposed not so much against the use of military force in general as against the use of miltary force by one particular actor, the United States of America. This last-named type of pacifism derives from a negative view of the ends for which American force has allegedly been exercised in the past, or from a more free-floating hostility to America as a society--or both.

The strands are also often conjoined, with a seemingly principled pacifism serving as a "cover" for anti-Americanism. Thus, the Columbia University student who declared that violence is no solution was holding a sign on which the sixties-style spelling "Amerika" was meant to suggest a parallel between this country and Nazi Germany. Or take the instruction imparted to its young charges by the Mount Rainier Elementary School just outside Washington, D.C., which sees its "most important responsibility," according to a report in the Washington Post, as ensuring that there will be "no fighting." here is the catechism as filtered through the sensibility of one eleven-year-old boy: "I believe in peace--in not fighting and treating people with respect...We learned in our class that if you believe in peace, you can stay alive. We learned that you should always find a peaceful way to solve your problems because you should never be violent."

Why do you suppose this boy's teachers sought to drive home their dreamy message after September 11? Certainly, in my view, not in order to chastise the violent men who sought to solve their "problems" by massacring our civilians. Rather, I suspect, they were seeking to deliver a preemptive judgment against the president, to prevent another generation of young people from learning to proper uses of righteous anger, and to throw dust in the eyes of the American people.

I will return to the lessons being taught by schools like this one, but first I want to take up the older and politically untainted traditions of pacifist thought to which I alluded, and try to give them their due. I have in mind the traditions connected with religious teachings, and specifically with Christianity. In the west, Judaism has produced its own rich writings on violence and war, but in contrast with Christianity or at least Catholicism, religious authority in Judaism has never resided in a central body, and there is nothing in it corresponding to Church dogma; besides, the two-thousand-year historical experiece of the Jewish people from the end of the biblical period to the founding of the state of Israel was the experience of a minority lacking sovereign power or the means to deploy military force. Islam, by contrast, was a religion connected with power and conquest from the beginning, as we shall see in Chapter 3, pacifism in the usual sense is quite alien to it.

Christianity, too, developed in relation to earthly power, but that relation, at least in the early centuries, was oppositional; Christians were but a small persecuted sect on the fringes of the Roman Empire. Yet even after this ceased to be the case and Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the influence of certain seminal passages about peace in the teachings of Jesus never waned. So it is no surprise that perhaps the most eloquent and passionate defenders of pacifism today are those Christians who, appealing to the New Testament, hold that violence is never justified or justifiable, and that the injuction to turn the other cheeck admits of no exceptions.

These people--they include such groups as Anabaptists, Mennonites, Quakers, the Amish, but also individuals and organizations from more mainstream denominations, both Protestant and Catholic--believe quite sincerely in the principles of nonviolence. The integrity with which they have striven to maintain those principles is admirable. Although they received relatively little attention in the post-September 11 period, they have hardly flinched from making known their convictions--and, in some cases, their honest struggles with those convictions.

Thus, to the Reverand Graylan Hagler of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Washington, D.C., it was a given that our response to violence must not be a military one--for, as Jesus taught, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew 5:9). If we were to choose the road of violence, warned the Reverand Hagler, "the reaction [would] only be [more] violence...In a world of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, the world ends up blind and toothless." Similarly, to Ed Crayton, a black man who grew up in the Baptist and Lutheran churces,
"There's nothing in the Bible that talks about...Jesus giving us a chance to wage war." A letter writer contributed this the the Washington Post: "The message of Jesus Christ is the ultimate solution to the conflagration....We must categorically renounce violences as an instrument of international activity." Remember, admonished a reader of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Christ was an absolute pacifist.

Others were troubled, clearly caught in an inner struggle between their religious conscience and their instinct for justice. Tom Robert in the National Catholic Reporter wrote of "trying like crazy to wriggle out from under...the difficult sayings about non-violence that keep creeping out of the story of Nazareth." To Julie Ryan of the Dallas Peace Center, the "ultimate challenge" at this moment was to hew the teachings of Jesus to "love our enemies." Father Matthew Ruhl, a Jesuit pastor in Kansas City, identified the injunction to turn the other cheek as "one of the most distressing teachings of Jesus for me." But in the end, these, too, accepted pacifism as a defining tenet of Christian faith.

Once again, sentiments like these tended to fade as the campaign in Afghanistan got under way, and especially as it became clear that we were taking extraordinary steps to avoid civilian casualties. Still, in mid-December, an adhoc coalition of sixty-eight Catholic organizations and individuals called on the Catholic Church to denounce the war in Afghanistan as immoral and in violation of religious doctrine. In so doing, they were defying the position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which shortly after September 11 had declared forthrightly in a letter to President Bush that "our nation...has a moral right and a grave obligation to defend the common good against such terrorist attacks." Whether or not this new dissent from the Church's position was a portent of things to come, it raised in stark form the question of whether the Christian tradition does in fct pose a principled objection to war, and in particular to this war, that we must take seriously.

Meet the Author

WILLIAM J. BENNETT is co-director of Empower America and founder and chairman of K12, an Internet-based elementary and secondary school. He is the editor of The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass and the author of several books, including the bestsellers The Death of Outrage and, most recently, The Educated Child: A Parent’s Guide. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with his wife, Elayne, and their two sons.

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Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent book that should be required reading for all high school students (and everyone else for that matter). Yes, there are still such concepts as right and wrong, good and evil! No, it is really not that hard to tell them apart; it's called common sense. I truly hope that we Americans come to our senses and start spending as much time and energy on preserving our cultures and way of life as we do on trying to understand every other culture in the world. One of the messages in this book that I wish Mr. Bennett had spent more time on is that just because America has not always been perfect in international relations in the past does not mean that we should give up the right to act in our best interests in the present and future.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Like a Heart Attack, is a Wake up Call to the individual whom does not take care of their health. William Bennett's book 'Why We Fight¿ is a wake up call for Americans who wave not paid attention to the nation¿s health, safety and security. I have searched out the quoted material from Bennett¿s book and found it to be factual. Many good reference's are cited which support Bennett's stated positions. One need not wonder about the loyalty to the USA, when students at the Muslim Community School of Potomac, Maryland are quoted as saying, 'Being an American means nothing to me'. This book is not recommended reading for people who hate America.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book is sheer neocon drivel. So- called 'moral clarity' would have dictated just redress for the Palestinians decades ago for all they lost in 1948. Benett does nothing more than add further spin to the disingenous myth that has suppressed the legimate rights of the Palestinian people for nearly five decades now.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After reading this book I questioned Mr. Bennetts major lack of open mindedness to the security problem with terror. Now i just think he is another GOP hypocrite. Its funny to watch them put themselves on pedistals then sabotage themselves. The book was a slow read, kind of boring. Maybe the 8 million Bill lost could have helped the victims families off the 911 attack. But hell Bill rather dump it down a video poker machine in Vegas.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bennet supplies examples of easy targets, exaggerated cases, fallacious reasoning and red herrings in a desperate attempt to support his political ideology. As a primer on contemporary politics the book is of little to no value, it doesn't examine any other sides to the issue, and the reasoning process is often muddled with non-sequiters. Instead, Bennet bullies his way through issues with some Platonic idea of "moral right" and "justice." He eventually comes to the same conclusion that the haters of America came to, "God is on our side, the non-believers should be beaten/killed/rounded up." However, the book has use as a fascinating look into the pathology of the modern American religious right. It's just as important to read this type of propagandist vitriol as any other side in the debate on these issues, and Bennet's book is one of the least offensive.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am inspired by this book! Finally, someone willing to tell it like it is. The fallacies that the intellectual elite in this country have shoved down our throats since the Vietnam War are taken on in very acute and concise style by Mr. Bennett in 'Why We Fight'. He makes the very important point that as Americans, the very freedoms we enjoy (to protest, to say what we think, to practice our religions, and yes, even to self-criticism) only exist because of the system of Democratic government that our founding fathers created, and those heroes who have gone before us to fight for this country. A very firm distinction needs to be made in the minds of Americans between disagreeing with specific actions the US government may have taken in the past, and villifying the very essence of American Democracy. We Fight because we MUST, to preserve the very freedoms that many others countries in this world do not enjoy. This is NOT rhetoric. The majority of Americans will read this book and say 'right on!'. Contrary to what you may have been told by your college professors, America is seen by most of the world as a shining star of freedom, rather than an imperialistic, war-mongering entity. Those totalitarian regimes that see it differently are worried that the power they have taken from the people they oppress will once again be taken from them by those (America, most western nations) who would give all people the ability to say 'I am free!' I recommend every American read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read the book on my recent flight to Israel. While short on scope it provides the essence and core reason for our fight against terror here in the US and in Israel. A must read for all who are concerned about democracy and the freedoms it offers and able to preserve.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I want to comment on one chapter of this brilliant book, the chapter on Israel.I do not think I have ever seen a more clear and sympathetic exposition of the modern historical struggle of Israel than is given in this book.Not only is it elegantly written , it sees through the lies and propaganda which the enemies of freedom and democracy use in their attacks on Israel.I too as a Jew was deeply moved at this work 's understanding of the connecting line between the evil of Nazism and the vicious anti - Semitic propaganda rampant in the Arab and to some degree European world today. I believe the most important part of the book relates not however to Israel, but to the United States itself.Here I think this work can provide to those confused about the world - terror campaign against America , precisely what the United States is fighting against ,and what it is fighting for . This is a great book , and I believe it should be at present assigned in introductory political sciences courses in colleges throughout America. I might also add this book makes me eager to read other works of William Bennett, who is one of those authors, who I now number among my ' mentors ' and ' friends'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Secretary Bennett responds to the critics who ask why we fight the war on terrorism. A powerful and timely statement of American values and resolve in a lost and dying world! A must read for all who care about the future of America and the preservation of Western Civilization!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and had a hard time putting it down. My only criticism being that too much focus was put on illuminating the anti-patriotic sentiment. It was quite infuriating finding out how much foolishness is given credence in 'intellectual circles'. More focus should have been put on 'Why we fight'. I was still hungry for reasoning and background in justifying combat in the national interest.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Bennett's book, 'Why We Fight' panders to the intellectually gullible and idiotically ultra-patriotic . Even the basic premise of the book is totally intellectually indefensible and false. To give an example of how shallow this book is----- This premise of this book (and conclusion too) is that so called 'Western' culture is superior to so-called 'Islamic ' culure. The reason for this, Mr Bennett claims, is that Islamic culture doesn't allow for self-criticism. According to Mr. Bennett, this 'fact' allows us the moral ground to criticize and act aggresively towards Muslim countries as we please. Nothing could be further from the truth. To begin with, there is no single thing as 'Islamic' culture. Muslim cultures are vibrant elements in many national cultures, such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Tunisia. Widely differing in scope, character and influence, these cultures owe a great degree to Islam. To state that Islam allows no self-criticism is to be completely ignorant of world history. In fact, political and ideological debate between different members of Muslim schools enjoys a long history, much longer than American democracy. In fact, to decide sociopolitical questions, the 'Ulema' (Muslm public intellectuals) turn to a variety of sources, from Muslim philosophers (Ibn Rushd, Muhammed Iqbal, to the Brethren of Purity, to Ibn Sina) to the legal schools of Shiite thought, to the Hadith of the Prophet, to the Quran itself. Just as in the USA itself, various approaches and competing ideas are weighed against their probable outcome and the public good. Just like any other responsible government.... while it is true that there are despotic regimes in power in Muslim countries, it should be remembered that most of these (including Saddam Hussein, The Saudi Family, and the Shiite Ayatollahs in Iran) were either put in place or rose to power because of either foreign policies of the US or corporate influence in their economic and labor market systems. Of course you won't see this issue examined in this book---that would require a willingness to confront actual history and factual data. Another thing you won't see is Bennett's own history, where he discreetly manages to avoid service in Vietnam. I wish I hadn't bought this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In attempting to make a case for 'moral clarity' (the author's euphemism for totalitarian authority by the government to quash dissent) after 9-11, William Bennett writes himself into another moral muddle. America IS a great nation, built on moral rights and Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms that Bennett would like to limit or destroy: freedom of speech & religion (which includes the right NOT to believe what the government or anyone else says you should believe), protection against unreasonable searches and seizures (Bennett himself helped wither that right as commandant of the 'War on Drugs'), habeas corpus (protection against indefinite imprisonment without charges or evidence), the right to a trial in which evidence must be presented in order to prove guilt.... Bennett writes: 'What I fear is the erosion of moral clarity, and the spread of indifference and confusion, as a thousand voices discourse with energy and zeal on the questionable nature, if not the outright illegitimacy, of our methods or our cause.' Well, the 'thousand voices discoursing with energy and zeal' is called national debate (a.k.a., freedom of speech), and it is an American principle worth fighting for. Americans (and others around the world) who noted that America's financial and military backing of corrupt regimes such as the Mujahideen (later known as The Taliban) in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviet Union in 1980s (or Saddaam Hussein in Iraq during the 1970s & 80s), eventually backfired (horribly and spectacularly on 9-11) are making a case for a wiser, more effective foreign policy in the future that actually will make America (and the world) safer. We have a chance to learn from this, and thereby to better protect ourselves and others. Bennett's idea of 'moral clarity' is to stubbornly refuse to learn from catastrophe, and to do as little as possible to live up to American ideals. Sure, it's a difficult and challenging concept to grasp that the constitution protects ideas you don't like as well as the ones you do, but the idea behind it is to encourage debate and the free exchange of information and opinion. So, Bennett may have written a(nother) morally & politically reprehensible treatise here, but he is fortunate that America is great enough to withstand his attacks on its principles and vitality. Remember: Terrorists can never take away your rights and freedoms; only Americans like Bennett (and John Ashcroft and George W. Bush) can do that.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Bennett sets the record straight. An excellent, insightful book concerning the U.S. and its stance on terrorism. The chapter on Israel is excellent. Bennett is not afraid to say what needs to be said in today's world. 'Why We Fight' is a must read!