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.”

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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 • Opinion • United States

soundoff (561 Responses)
  1. p43lfdqsujob3x5

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

    June 2, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
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  11. 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

    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 2, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
  12. kex

    Obama loves it. Just like a mafia don, he has his hit list for targeted assassination. He has now learned to love to kill.

    Isn't that nice for someone who had such harsh things to say about Guantanamo. Obama's victems get zero due process.

    June 2, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  13. Ivan

    would Eisenhower or Washington be elected today?

    June 2, 2012 at 4:40 pm |
  14. History Bear

    War is a nasty, dirty, painful event, but it cost money and therefore someone makes a profit and in the Western World profit has always been the true god, so we will continue to have meaningless wars and actions. Vietnam was not noble, the troops were, the war wasn't. Iraq and Afghanistan aren't noble, they are profitable for corporations . IN the 20th and now 21st Centuries only WWII was fought for the right reasons. The rest are about politics, power and profit. IN fact pretty much most wars in history are about the 3 P's. IT's who and what we are as a species.

    June 1, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  15. Susie

    America better wake up or the Lord is going to get it!! Our country has fallen into a Sodom situation. People who say they are Christian and say they are for Gay marriage are nuts, uneducated in Christianity and against God. The Gay couples who wish to get married need to realize marriage is making a covenant between them and God. How can that be when God hates the act of sodomy? What a big fat farce. Making a vow to sin! If they want a commitment why not make a commitment ceremony between themselves that is legally binding and leave God and Christianity out of it. The government needs to get out of religion. Next Gay people are going to want to get married in the church.

    May 31, 2012 at 1:08 pm |
    • mary magdaline

      It would be interesting to know what Bible you are actually reading! jesus died for all, he did not specify who, what, where or when each of us had/has sinned. Aren't we lucky that He said He loves us ALL! Also, "let he who is without sin cast the first stone". Also, "judge not, lest yee be judged". I'm not gay, nor lesbian, so I can only imagine what it would be like for those who are born with wrong genes, body, etc., to have to live in a world so full of hatred for something they have no control over. I hope you are forgiven for being so judgmental.

      May 31, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Susie

      There is a difference, Mary, between struggling against temptation and losing, and just rebelling against God's will, saying what God deemed wrong as right.

      Romans 6
      6 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
      5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with,[a] that we should no longer be slaves to sin — 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

      May 31, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • FoodForThought

      @ Susie – Let's keep religion out of it, please. In America, marriage does not have to be a religious event, and quoting from your religious text has no persuasive effect on those who don't follow your particular brand of religion. You say government needs to stay out of religion–I agree, but that should include eliminating unique benefits like tax breaks, etc. And religion certainly needs to stay out of government–our founders saw the unfortunate results of official religious bigotry in Europe and wisely saw the need to steer way clear of official religion in America.

      June 1, 2012 at 10:52 am |
    • sam stone

      susie: sodomy is any act other than "normal" intercourse. do you give or get oral? if so, you are commiting sodomy. so, basically, get off your knees before you condem others. secondly, you are stupid

      June 1, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  16. Ralph Moerschbacher

    To Mr. Jeff C. above, thank you for your post about General Lee's statement. People are serving 12 or more tours in Afghanistan and liking it. I do not ant to fight with someone who enjoys war. ralph Moerschbacher, Captain, USAF Retired 2 tour Vietnam Veteran

    May 31, 2012 at 2:03 am |
  17. Jim

    One must be careful of comparing military expenditures, as the author does in item #4. We may still dramatically outspend China, for example, but recall that they buy a lot more for the dollar for several reasons:
    1) They pay their people next to nothing - we could save a lot if we're willing to go back to a draft military and the lower effectiveness that generally goes with it.

    2) Their industries can produce materials cheaper - no unionized work force, no environmental controls, no legal concerns, etc

    3) They save tons on R&D because they steal designs from us and others - it'd be akin to Apple releasing the iPad 3 and then a couple months later another company completely copies their design with a new logo and a few minor tweaks

    May 30, 2012 at 6:32 pm |
  18. Salero21

    Some gave their lives, I believe that's true!

    However there is another equally important and maybe even bigger truth. The lives of MOST or of the MAJORITY, both Military and civilians were TAKEN AWAY FROM THEM. Without their consent, without reason, without motive and without due process. That to me is the MAIN TRUTH!

    But it may be because I'm not a fan of the Military, I'm NOT Fascinated or Enamored with it. Much less of Politicians who use, missuse and manipulate the Military, the lack of conscience and common sense of the masses and populaces.

    A lot of people are so Fascinated, Enamored with the Military that they don't even care to join them. And as long as the Military is made of SEOSEC's, there will be people and Politicians ready and willing to send them soldiers, to wars here, there, anywhere and everywhere.

    Sadly that's true among christians and preachers, who, if there was a draft like in the old days. Many of them would, like many did, claim Conscience Objectors status.

    May 30, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
  19. bdl1978

    funny how the most religious parts of the country get hit with the most natural disasters. the south and the midwest must not be praying hard enough.

    May 30, 2012 at 12:03 pm |
  20. Jeff C.

    "It is well that war is so terrible – otherwise we would grow too fond of it."

    -Robert E. Lee, Statement at the Battle of Fredericksburg (13th December 1862)

    May 30, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.