home
RSS
My Take: The 5 key American statements on war
Members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment place American flags at Arlington National Cemetery.
May 28th, 2012
12:01 PM ET

My Take: The 5 key American statements on war

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) – Today is a day to remember those who have given their lives in the service of their country. It is also a day to reflect on war.

In my new book, "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," I explore 27 texts that have served as “scripture” of sorts in American public life. Each of these texts addresses the meaning of “America” and “Americans,” and each has provoked much commentary and controversy.

Here are the five best, in my view, on the meaning and ends of war.

1. George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)

This justly famous farewell address is celebrated today among social conservatives for commending religion as a “pillar” of good government. Those seeking an antidote to our current epidemic of petty partisanship quote its condemnation of "the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party."

But Washington was a military man, so he also warns us against the evils of loving or hating any nation. To do either, he writes, “is in some degree to become a slave ... to its animosity or to its affection.”

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

How many of our troubles today arise from "passionate attachment" toward some nations or "inveterate antipathies" against others?

How many wars in U.S. history might have been avoided if we had heeded the wisdom of Washington's "foreign policy of independence"?

2. Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” (1849)

In July 1846, while living in his Walden Pond cabin, Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau was arrested and jailed for refusing to pay a poll tax. This classic essay explains and justifies his refusal, arguing that each citizen has a duty to resist a government whose actions — in this case, supporting slavery, mistreating Indians and prosecuting the Mexican-American War — offend the higher law of conscience.

“Civil Disobedience” has been criticized as naïve, but this "bible of protesting minorities" profoundly influenced both Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and, through them, both Indian independence and the U.S. civil rights movement.

3. Chief Joseph’s Surrender Speech (1877)

What do you say after you and your people (the Nez Perce) have been fleeing American soldiers for three months and 1,500 miles, when your people are hungry and freezing and mass death seems the only alternative to surrender? In a word, this.

As legend has it, Chief Joseph handed over his gun. He took an inventory of the dead. He said he was tired of fighting. Then he said, “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Or did he? Most scholars now believe that this speech was actually written after the fact by an aide to an American general. Nonetheless, it has been quoted in song lyrics, memorialized in a Ken Burns documentary and immortalized in a book-length poem by Robert Penn Warren.

Chief Joseph's words were celebrated in his time because they called attention to the human costs of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. They live today because they symbolize the tragedies of Native American history.

4. President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address (1961)

Echoing Washington, who spoke against “overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty,” President Eisenhower issued a similar warning in his farewell address: in this case against the “unwarranted influence” of the “military-industrial complex.”

Although lost in the moment, which belonged to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Camelot myth, these words rang like prophecy in the late 1960s, when allegations that “merchants of death” were holding the country hostage became a staple at Vietnam War protests.

Today, hope for anything like the “balance” Eisenhower sought between the demands of the military and the demands of liberty seems hopelessly nostalgic. The United States now spends more on its military than next 10 biggest spenders combined.

5. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial (1982)

This reflective black granite memorial cut into the Earth on the National Mall in Washington is not a text in any conventional sense, so I blanched when a friend suggested that I include it in “The American Bible.” But architect Maya Lin herself saw it as “analogous to a book,” and so it is: more than 58,000 names carved into reflective black granite, waiting for visitors to read them and weep.

Long before it was opened, critics derided this memorial as a “black gash of shame” and “a tribute to Jane Fonda.” Where was the reassurance that the Vietnam War was a noble cause? Where were the heroic images of our fallen fighters? When it opened, however, its undeniable emotional power silenced most naysayers.

Lin wanted her creation to serve as a place where Americans could go to think about the war without being told what to think and to speak to the dead without being told what to say. It did just that. Today, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is an American Lourdes: a pilgrimage site where the living come to commune with the dead and to reckon with war and their own mortality in the medium of the mirror that is the Wall.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Books • Holidays • Military • My Take • Opinion • United States

soundoff (561 Responses)
  1. Sujiwa

    Melissa,This sounds like an einxticg venture. I'd like to see the Dublin Core Metadata Initiative in this course. The DCMI has died down quite a bit over the past few years. When it first started, it had such promise. It was groomed to be the answer for the SemWeb. But alas, it doesn't seem like it's going to work out. Or will it? The course should explore what it is, what challenges it had faced in implementation, and why it ultimately didn't work. Since it was a child of librarians, there are implications to the role (and what we've learned from the DCMI) that librarians will play in the upcoming stages of the Web. Allan

    August 1, 2012 at 12:19 am |
  2. Jesus is the most powerful figure known to mankind (Fact)

    Would you debate with someone who argues that the sky is yellow, up is down, left is right, a tree is a lamp, or black is white? You debating with this person would leave both parties looking like fools. Christians please stop wasting your time on people who argue that our world and galaxy was made from nothing/has no Creator. I honestly believe that many years ago no one predicted that the world would get bad to the point that people are debating that this perfect system of life is a coincidence. Christians dont indulge in foolishness.
    Romans 1:20-"For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."
    John 3:16-"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
    “I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.” Albert Camus

    July 9, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  3. RICHARD

    Review of the 5 points of Mr. Protheo's article;

    #1 Washington's farewell – America should not get involved in European wars;isolationism.
    #2 Civil Disobediance is an effective method for changing governmental policy.
    #3 Racial genocide is a part of American history. Nothing to be proud of.
    #4 Eisenhowers fascist warning; too little, too late.
    #5 Memorial and reminder of the fruits of pointless aggressive foreign wars.

    Unfortunately these points are lost on a generation of Americans who are addicted to war and are proud of our new fascist police state. Such people forget that no fascist nation ever came to a good end.

    but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

    June 18, 2012 at 1:19 pm |
  4. Infidel83

    I love how no matter what the topic a jesus freak manages to pop in a mini conversion speech lmao!

    June 17, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  5. winstonsmith

    The Industrial Military Complex is one of the worst aspects of modern America... we need to cut our military budget in HALF, easily. Probably should be cut more than that, but some of the saved money on instruments of war and "special contracts" could maybe actually go to veterans.

    June 10, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
    • RobM

      @winstonsmith You wont be saying that when China starts flexing its military muscle.

      June 10, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      @"ROBM it could be easily argued that China and other countries military spending has increased only to keep America in check. The defense budget has become a huge jobs program for the insurance of death and destruction of our fellow man. America needs to ween itself from this huge government jobs bailout and invest in positive investments like infastructure, Space exploration, subsidizing more clean energy programs and manufactures, changing our energy grid to be more flexible to different kinds of input, and education. War is wrong, investment in wars mechanizims is wrong, America needs to step back from this industry. I am saying that and I work for the DOD.

      June 11, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  6. Kindness

    Something For you.
    A thought to consider without a typical ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Let go and let god".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    You're all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.
    I'ts a personal free experience you can do it free anytime . Don't wait till you are about to die.. START PUTTING YOUR TREASURES WHERE THEY REALLY MATTER >
    Its awsome .

    June 5, 2012 at 7:43 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "A thought to consider without a typical ego response"

      Your posts reek of ego so the rest of it is moot, especially since you keep posting this garbage over and over again. LOL!

      June 6, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • old golfer

      God gave man reason. Man gave man religion, all religion. I am sure that flew over your head. But, you really shouldn't preach to others. Why don't you read, THE AGE OF REASON, written by Thomas Paine. Might open your eyes to the truth of life and living.

      June 8, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Robairdo

      I have accepted Jesus Christ and if you had as well you would be telling people to read the Gospel of Jesus Christ NOT corinthians. Is it because no where in the Gospel (Good News) Christ denounces hom ose xua1ity or is because he actually gives his blessing to a gay marriage?

      June 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
    • Tom

      What makes you think that a monk who wrote the bible 1000 years ago (when most people were illiterate) knows anything more about a man named Jesus who lived 2000 years than we do today, when we all can't even agree on where President Obama came from today?

      June 9, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • RICHARD

      Dear Kindness:
      Your intent is admirable, but you ARE NOT addressing the issue as presented in Mr. Prothero's column; US entanglement in foreign wars. Christ said that peacemakers, not war mongers, were to be blessed. Indeed, they are the children of God. Your denial of the Christian duty to work for peace is evidence of an ego devoid of courage and integrity. I call upon you to repent of your lack of responsibility to the community, to the gospel and to the body of Christ.

      "If there is a decay of conscience, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the public press lacks moral discernment, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the church is degenerate and worldly, the pulpit is responsible for it. If the world loses its interest in Christianity, the pulpit is responsible for it. If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it. If our politics become so corrupt that their very foundations of our government are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it."
      - Charles Finney

      but that's just me, hollering from the choir loft...

      June 11, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  7. Larry

    Washington's address was very eloquent; it's truly sad to think that a great percentage of Americans would not understand the majority of his address, and/or that they would have no patience to read it. Soundbytes have done a very good job of destroying complex, elegant thought.

    June 4, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  8. Jake

    How about this KEY AMERICAN STATEMENT ON WAR

    "War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."
    John Stuart Mill

    Did this cross you're mind? I mean it pretty much covers your five examples.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:50 pm |
    • SurelyUjest

      Nothing of the above, statements say that we should not defend ourselves, nor does it say that we shouldnt believe in and protect our ways. The quote you are usingis so out of ltouch with the reality that everyone is talking about here (well except for the crazy rantings of some religious nut). If we cut our defense budget by half over the next 5-10 yrs we would still be the BIGGEST/BADDEST military in the world. We could then build our infastructure to insure that we were also the BIGGEST/BADDEST most educated and superior data controllers in the world.

      June 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
  9. ...a laurel and hardy handshake....

    It seems that the teanut-gop really misses 1952 – golfing, no CIVIL RIGHTS issues on the front pages, they could tell jokes about the races and women, and then EISENHOWER is elected.
    .
    But the teanut-gop disavows EISENHOWER'S WARNINGS OF the MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX (HALIBURTON, BECHTEL, CHENEY, ROVE, DUBYA, etc.) –
    .
    THANKS IKE, YOU TRIED !!

    June 3, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  10. Kindness

    Kindness
    For you.
    A thought to consider without a typical ego response

    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Transcend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ (for me) resulted in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Also... much the world arranges "surrounding dark matter into something to be debated" in such a way that protects/inflates the ego.

    The key is be present and transcend our own desire to physically see evidence. We don't know anyways by defending our own perception of dark matter.

    Currently.... most of us are constructing our own path that suits our sin lifestyle. Were all sinners. Knowing that we are is often an issue. But both christians and non are sinners.

    We don't like to Let go and let god. We want control to some degree. This is what Jesus asks us to do. "Let go and let god".
    It's the hardest thing to do... but is done by letting the truth of scripture lead you (redemptive revelation)... as I said .

    Try reading corinthians and see if it makes sense to you. Try it without a pre conceived notion of it being a fairy tale.
    See the truth...
    do we do what it says in todays society... is it relevant... so many have not recently read and only hinge their philosophy on what they have heard from som other person...which may have been full of arogance pride or vanity..

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancsend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find any truth you can take with you ....in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life..... You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf.... the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed..... your good deeds will be forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated..... your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over . This is truth .

    Trancsend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Understand you are a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent.... Repent means knowing

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Faith comes by Reading or Hearing the word of god from the bible . Ask Jesus in faith for dicernment and start reading the new testament... You will be shocked when you lay down your preconceived notions and ....see and hear truth ... see how christ sets an example ... feel the truth....

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth in Christ.

    Sell all your cleverness and purchase true bewilderment. You don't get what you want ....you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.
    You will also see how the world suppresses this information and distorts it

    June 3, 2012 at 3:19 am |
    • George

      Please stop spamming the board with your nonsense

      June 3, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • Edwardo

      Have some more kool-aid sucker.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • BRUCE

      DOES BIEBER KNOW ABOUT THIS?

      June 3, 2012 at 12:18 pm |
  11. b

    join the GNAA today! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNAA
    29964

    June 2, 2012 at 9:02 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Advertisement
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.