Presidents and the moral accounting of war

30 May

In the wake of Memorial Day and also a recent speech about winding down U.S. involvement in what Andrew Bacevich prefers to call the War for the Greater Middle East by President Obama, historian Raymond Haberski, Jr. points out how difficult it is for nations to acknowledge the sin of pride.

Haberski recalls how a former president–Carter–tried to call Americans to repent of national pride in the wake of the Vietnam War, but found that that was not good politics:

Obama might consider Jimmy Carter’s attempt at a moral reckoning in the wake of the Vietnam War. Carter took the occasion of his first National Prayer Breakfast to address the kind of sentiments Medea Benjamin expressed to President Obama.

President Carter revealed in the first few minutes of his remarks that he had wanted to include 2 Chronicles 7:14 in his first inaugural address:

If my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from Heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land.

He admitted that he had dropped this idea after his staff “rose up in opposition” because it sounded like Carter was condemning Americans as “wicked.” Carter observed that this episode taught him that there wasn’t much chance that the nation would actually understand the significance of being contrite:

We as individuals—and we as a nation—insist that we are the strongest and the bravest and the wisest and the best. And in that attitude, we unconsciously, but in an all-pervasive way, cover up and fail to acknowledge our mistakes and in the process forgo an opportunity constantly to search for a better life or a better country.

He admitted that it was easier for individuals to admit their sin of pride than it was for a nation to do so. And so, he concluded, “in effect, many of us worship our nation.” Carter’s antidote to this problem was to rededicate the United States as a nation “under God”—to remind Americans that they “are not superior . . . and ought constantly to search out national and human individual consciousness and strive to be better.”


Read Haberski’s entire “Then and Now” op-ed here:

Presidents and the moral accounting of war | The Christian Century.


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