All This Useless Power

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One day, sometime during my junior or senior year in high school, I noticed a book on display at the checkout desk of my high school’s library, a collection of Paul Harvey radio commentaries. Despite growing up on Army bases and in Southern California suburbs (or perhaps because of that), I’d never heard of the man, and I wondered aloud who he was.

“Him? The sun rises and sets on that man in the Midwest,” replied the head librarian, the mother of an acquaintance and classmate of mine.

That was 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve traveled a little around the country — including the Midwest — on my own and listened to a few Paul Harvey commentaries. To me, he is an emissary from a strange and foreign land, a patriotic, God-fearing and hard-working America of simple, kind, tough, fair and generous people I have never really known and have never lived with, an America that is as beyond my experience as Saudi Arabia is probably beyond Paul Harvey’s.

His voice is compelling, melodious and assuring, the kind of man who could lull a lamb to sleep with beautiful words just before he draws the knife across its throat. Not that Harvey would ever do such a thing. It would stain his nice, clean shirt.

But he does think about these things. About the knife, that is, the shape and texture of its handle, how it would feel with his fingers curled around it, and where the veins and arteries are in the neck of the beast he is killing.

Most recently, in late June, Harvey mused about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The transcript of his comments, a small portion of a much longer commentary, are available here. But don’t just read them, listen to what he says, to how he says it, to the tone of his voice and the meter of his words:

Following New York, Sept. 11, Winston Churchill was not here to remind us that we didn’t come this far because we’re made of sugar candy.

So, following the New York disaster, we mustered our humanity.

We gave old pals a pass, even though men and money from Saudi Arabia were largely responsible for the devastation of New York and Pennsylvania and our Pentagon.

We called Saudi Arabians our partners against terrorism and we sent men with rifles into Afghanistan and Iraq, and we kept our best weapons in our silos.

Even now we’re standing there dying, daring to do nothing decisive, because we’ve declared ourselves to be better than our terrorist enemies — more moral, more civilized.

Our image is at stake, we insist.

But we didn’t come this far because we’re made of sugar candy.

He goes on to say how our ancestors seized this land through genocide and biological warfare and became wealthy, in part, because of slave labor. And then laments that we are growing soft, and will soon be “dominated by the lean, hungry and up and coming who are not made of sugar candy.”

The words themselves are a horrifying, if somewhat honest, assessment. I will not focus, as some have, on his willingness to justify mass murder and enslavement. That is history, and it is, to a degree, the history of all human societies. It is the stuff of human history and will be as long as men and women inhabit the Earth.

That’s why I asked you to listen to what he said, and not merely read it. His voice is angry, it is studded with sincere and honest disbelief, and behind his implication that the United States needs to unleash its nuclear arsenal against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a question, a question I believe a lot of Americans are asking:

“With all this power at our disposal, with all our missiles and planes, why are people still resisting us? Why aren’t we winning? Why haven’t we already won?”

Harvey’s words and tone are not the words of someone confident of victory. They are the words of someone who fears defeat.

The power of which Harvey speaks — the missiles secured snugly in America’s heartland and cradled in submarines that skulk the world’s oceans — is effectively useless now. That power’s only real strength is to deter attack from similarly armed governments. The power of the hydrogen bomb lies not in its kaboom, but in its evil and silent grin. That is, its job is to menace. Once codes are sent and keys are turned, sending those missiles skyward, they have failed.

They may work, technically. But their real job was to ensure they were never used.

However, the United States does not face a similarly armed government in al Qaeda or among the insurgents in Iraq. In the former, we face ideological and religious revolutionaries whose ardor will only be extinguished by failure, and since all ideological revolutions eventually fail, that will come soon enough. In the latter, we confront nationalists fighting for home, family and, (for some) the restoration of privilege. Simple things, things we would fight for if a Chinese or Arab army occupied our land.

In the end, in the world we live in now, a world where genocide has become an unacceptable “policy option,” anyone who fights hard enough and long enough for their home and family usually wins.

Even America’s Army, Navy and Air Force have become useless instruments. Our soldiers can occupy, our planes can bomb relentlessly and with precision, our ships can patrol the seas, but who fears us now? Five years ago, when the glow of the War to Liberate Kuwait and air offensive against Yugoslavia still made American arms appear invincible, perhaps the governments and peoples of the world trembled at the thought of the United States military. But today, when a few thousand insurgents can tie down, tire and incapacitate that Army, what is there to left to fear? Some governments may still quake at the thought of air strikes and the destruction of government “capital” and “investments” they would bring. But a people determined to resist us can look at Iraq and take heart — yes, we can be beaten. It’s not all that hard.

Harvey is right to fear defeat. In many ways, we have already lost.

When our whole approach to fighting “terror” is to inflict pain on people until they behave they way we want, what do we do when they can take all the pain we have to give? How much more pain are we willing — or able — to inflict until we realize the pointlessness of it all? Or until conscience confronts us?

And how many hydrogen bombs are we willing to use? One? Two? A dozen? A hundred? And if people still resist, or are driven to resist, what then? Shall we destroy the entire world?

We have unleashed our power upon the world only to discover that it is terribly finite, a great deal more limited than we hoped and imagined. Hundreds of billions of dollars spent on bombs, tanks, planes, soldiers, and every passing day we are less and less able to bend the world to our will.

A whole arsenal of useless power.

No, we are not made of “sugar candy.” That our ancestors triumphed over terrible adversity (and yes, they murdered and enslaved too) and that each of us, as individuals, live with hope in the face of the clear and often random cruelty of life are testament to that. But in his anger, Paul Harvey and those who agree with him should remember that neither are we made of air-hardened steel, and were we to resort to mass murder in our fight against “terror,” we would be faced with the very real power of conscience that Cardinal Ratzinger wrote so movingly about before he became Pope Benedict XVI:

Where conscience prevails there is a barrier against the domination of human orders and human whim, something sacred that must remain inviolable and that in an ultimate sovereignty evades control not only by oneself but by every external agency. Only the absoluteness of conscience is the complete antithesis to tyranny; only the recognition of its inviolability protects human beings from each other and from themselves; only its rule guarantees freedom.

Unlike armies, navies and treasuries, conscience is real power because it works from the inside to bend men and women to its will. It doesn’t succeed often, but that it succeeds at all is enough to inspire faith and hope. Even the Islamic Revolutionaries of al Qaeda, murderous and self-righteous in their rage, must face conscience; that is why there are so few of them. It is also important to remember that conscience is not just a child born of our “liberal” and “enlightened” age; it has confronted men of all faiths in all ages.

And will do so as long as men — whoever they are — struggle to dominate other men.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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