Playing God

Book cover
Faith-Based Warby By T. Walter HerbertEquinox Publishing. 224p $26.95 (paperback)

Despite all the experts, technology and intelligence available to the Bush administration, the war in Iraq, now going into its eighth year, was undertaken with “ardent devotion to a misplaced faith,” maintains T. Walter Herbert, emeritus professor of American literature and culture at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Tex. and author of this insightful new book. This faith was derived from a faith-filled narrative with roots in our Puritan heritage.

The Puritans saw themselves as God’s chosen people, to whom was given the Promised Land in America. The only thing stopping them from settling it were the savages who sought to kill them. The frontier hero emerged to rescue them from their plight.


This hero re-emerged in the 19th-century Wild West as the Indian fighter who saved the lives of hapless pioneers. Later, white-hatted good guys like Wyatt Earp also took on mythic proportions by bringing black-hatted outlaws to justice.

During the 1970s, the frontier hero becomes Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, the blunt, cynical, unorthodox detective who overcomes his incompetent bosses to apprehend violent urban criminals.

President George Bush’s resolve to “get” the people responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, also harkened back to the frontier hero, a role he played with moral certitude despite the poorly planned invasion and occupation, says Herbert. The president knew we could win in Iraq because we were doing the right thing. Besides, as a chosen people, America does not lose wars.

Meanwhile, Bush’s “phobic anger” about being right checked any advisers who expressed doubt in the mission. General Tommy Franks found that out before the war began when he questioned the number of troops needed.

“[E]xpressing unshakable faith…was the mark of a team player” in the Bush leadership ethic, Herbert writes. Likewise, any administration officials bearing bad news were silenced into “drinking the Kool Aid” of “religious delusion.”

By emphasizing his role as the war president and looking tough in the face of pressure and opposition, Bush attempted to allay any doubt that America was doing the right thing. Besides, Herbert wryly suggests, expressing doubt might have led to moral awareness, something that couldn’t be risked, especially when boots were on the ground.

The decision to go to war also involved its chief advocate, the Christian Right, the author points out, with its militarist religious vision seeking to avenge nonbelieving evildoers by executing God’s righteous wrath. The Muslim terrorists proved to be a good target on all counts.

While Herbert lays most of the blame for the war on President Bush, he criticizes the American people as well. Americans, he says, have learned to perceive war as an irresistible good not only because it has become the “center of value for the society” but because military power in the second half of the 20th century is seen as “the truest measure of national greatness.”

The most intriguing part of Faith-Based War is Herbert’s explanation of the Hooded Man of Abu Ghraib prison. This haunting symbol of the Iraq war stirred most Americans’ shock and shame to learn that we, who usually think of ourselves as the “good guys,” had not only used torture but justified its use.

One of President Bush’s first comments after 9/11 was the question: “Why do they hate us?” It played well with the American people because it evoked our feelings of innocent victimhood. Going to war against Iraq, however, moved us, as it did the Puritans, to a peculiar level of culpability because we tried to defeat the forces of evil by violating human law in the name of establishing God’s law.

After reading this acerbic account of the decision to go to war with Iraq, readers might wonder what will become of the frontier myth in the dangerous world of the 21st century. And Herbert might answer: distinguishing between reality and religious faith would be a good start.

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C Walter Mattingly
10 years 2 months ago

A healthy antidote to the sort of loose, shot-from-the-hip argument summarized here, of which T. Walter Herbert Sr. would not have been guilty, is Thomas Friedman's oped piece in today's NYTimes. Friedman, no friend of Bush, states, "Former President George Bush's gut instinct that this region craved and needed democracy was always right. It should have and could have been pursued with much better planning and execution. But democracy was never going to have an origin in brutal Iraq, which has never known any such thing....I only care about one thing-that those who paid the price...see Iraq evolve into something that will enable them to say it has given freedom and democratic government to those who had none." 

A couple of points concerning the tenuous connections and conclusions cited in the above review, assuming such summary is accurate. Regarding Bush's "phobic anger," was it also Clinton's "phobic anger" that caused him to authorize Desert Fox and bomb what he thought to be one of Saddam's WMD plant? Was Hillary's condemnation of Saddam more of the same? Bush's opinions about Saddam were mainstream, not right-wing eccentricities as Herbert implies. He certainly did want to "get" Saddam and those responsible for 9/11, much as Roosevelt and Churchill wanted to "get" Hitler and the Third Reich before America was further harmed.

This is not to deny that Christian values and attitudes came into play in the invasion of Iraq any more nor less than Christian values and attitudes came into play in our attack on Serbia.  Many of America's best moments have come when it chose not to stand by as acts of genocide and mass murder were committed by a tyrant against his own or neighboring people, Herbert's cartoon portrait summarized in this Bush diatribe notwithstanding. And as Friedman notes in his oped piece, there is a real possibility that a fledging democracy in this oppressed part of the world, resulting from the costly US involvement under Bush, could have a salutary effect upon the surrounding oppressed peoples.

10 years 2 months ago

I wish to thank Doctor Herbert and Ms. Bonfiglio for both the work and the review.


Finally someone has put into the written word a view which I have had for a number of years now and for which I have frequently been excoriated. Even as youngsters in parochial school we were brainwashed into accepting this myth about the Pilgrims as the righteous people of God establishing the new Promised Land, the Shining City on the Hill, the New Jerusalem. These were people seeking flight because they were not able to establish “their” notion of religion as the only true notion of what authentic religion was all about. The only freedom of religious expression in their new colony was what they defined it to be. And certainly nothing that smacked of “popism” would be tolerated.


That myth has survived and permeated the American experience through the years and has hovered just beneath the surface of so many conflicts in our history, both domestically and internationally.


And we certainly have seen it rise to the forefront over the last decade when any note of dissension has been characterized and unpatriotic and anti-American. It has come to the fore once again especially in the “deification” of the military and the elevation of every military person to the status of “hero”. This has made me wonder further why, religious institutions of learning, especially Catholic institutions, have been so deficient in promoting the concept of service. Is there not more to the transcendent notion of “service” than learning to  operate weapons of destruction and kill “enemies”?


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