The Editors

George Santayana (1863-1952) lived in Boston for 40 years and taught philosophy at Harvard for 23 of those years. He had, however, been born in Spain, never gave up his Spanish citizenship and spent the last four decades of his life in Oxford and Rome. No surprise, therefore, that his comments on the United States had the tone of an ironic outsider. In 1911, for example, he wrote in The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy: “If you told the modern American that he is totally depraved, he would think you were joking, as he himself usually is. He is convinced that he always has been, and always will be, victorious and blameless.”

 

That judgment has long been out of date. As the year 2004 begins, few Americans who have been paying attention are inclined, no matter how well they may think of themselves, to think of the United States as either victorious or blameless.

Not victorious—the Iraqi war has made that clear. On May 1 last year, President Bush flew to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast to announce “victory” in the war against Iraq. On Oct. 29, in a Rose Garden press conference, he sharply revised that estimate: “I cannot put it any more plainly,” he said. “Iraq is a dangerous place.”

So it is. As of mid-December, 455 U.S. service personnel had been killed in Iraq—many since May—and approximately 2,600 had been seriously wounded. Iraqi insurgents also killed Red Cross relief workers, U.N. civilian staff members and Iraqis cooperating with Americans.

Victory is equally elusive in other campaigns, social as well as military—in the war against terrorism, in the international effort to control AIDS, in domestic strategies for replacing the millions of jobs that have migrated to Asia and Latin America and for rescuing the millions of families stuck below the poverty line.

Nor is the United States blameless—at least not in the judgment of others, even of its allies. After 9/11, Americans had the sympathy of most people everywhere, but that good feeling was dissipated by the pre-emptive strike against Iraq. Americans living abroad report that the United States is now thought of rather as the Roman Empire was thought of by its uneasy neighbors.

Surely many Americans are finding fulfillment in their work and in their family lives, but even the most self-absorbed may be briefly troubled when they look beyond their horizon. For a moment they might understand the mood of James Peck, a civil rights activist who in 1962 said he was contemptuous of “happy” people: “It’s like a blindness to be happy.”

Christians may respect that view but it is not theirs. They are people who do not think it fatuous to wish others a happy New Year. Writing to the Philippians, St. Paul said: “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord.”

Of course, the happiness Paul had in mind is not the carefree joy that children have when the summer vacation begins. Nor is it the negative happiness for which most adults settle—freedom from pain and poverty. Happiness in the Lord is a spiritual joy that can coexist with hardship because it is based on the belief that sorrow and death are not the whole story and will not have the last word.

The renewal of the world has already begun in Christ, said the Second Vatican Council in its “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (1964), and it cannot be revoked. All the same, how can the multitude of Christians whose names will never be known to history contribute to this renovation? The Lord’s Prayer teaches them the basic practical principle: Seek to know God’s will for you and then fulfill it.

The divine will, however, is not handed down in news bulletins. It has to be discovered in the events and circumstances of daily life, in what the spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J., (d. 1751) called “the sacrament of the present moment.” Fix your attention successively, Caussade said, on the duty of the present moment and fulfill that faithfully.

This principle was put more succinctly by the British-born Geoffrey Clayton, who became the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and a pioneering opponent of apartheid. In an essay in 1947, the archbishop asked himself how one should live in a race-caste society at variance with the Gospel and resistant to change. “Do the next right thing,” he said, adding, “We generally know what that is.”

St. Augustine advised Christians to be cheerful as well as faithful. Part of one of his sermons is the second reading in the Liturgy of the Hours on the last day of the liturgical year—set there like a guidepost for the new year. To lighten your labors, he told his hearers, sing God’s praises in hope: “You should sing as wayfarers do—sing, but continue your journey.”

Comments

Deacon Marshall Gibbs | 1/3/2004 - 12:29pm
As with most editorials, I find myself in agreement and disagreement. Victorious and blameless are absolutes that beg for an expression of moderation. I have no doubt that we are never totally victorious or blameless in international relations or diplomacy as we are never victorious and blameless in internal relations. We are a nation of human beings with all the weaknesses and limitations that are a part of our creation, both collectively and individually.

As Americans, we are a well-meaning collection of humanity who are always inclined to send aid and relief to the downtrodden and underdog. We have demonstrated that propensity throughout the last century as we came to the aid of disaster after disaster throughout the world, such as the earthquake in Iran last week, and, sacrificed our sons and daughters to the altar of freedom through wars on a global scale. We can only leave it to history to determine the righteousness of our actions.

One thing is for certain, if the scale of human atrocity and carnage is to be the criteria by which we measure our motives, then the Holocausts in Germany, Japan, Africa, China, the Middle East, and Indochina over the 20th century speak for themselves. Never in the history of humankind have such mind-numbing mass murders taken place. The world would be a very different place had not the United States stepped into all these conflicts. Whether you measure the outcome as victorious or less than victorious probably depends more on your political agenda than on the reality of the outcome. I, for one, accept the blame for these outcomes as an American who accepts the reality that with all the good intentions in the world, things can go wrong and have gone wrong and that we as a nation have made some grievous errors.

The world of the 21st century is certainly a dangerous place and Iraq has certainly proved to be a part of the danger. Regardless of one’s political bent, the criteria for measuring our success or failure in that campaign has to be more than a compilation of body counts. The millions of Iraqi men, women and children found in the mass graves are sufficient reason for our being there. If they represent the only evidence of a “weapon of mass destruction,” we must see our intervention as just.

As for our allies seeing us as the Roman Empire was seen by its uneasy neighbors, I find that a bit extreme. Certainly, in the last century, America has no history of invading with the intentions of conquering foreign nations. Those same allies have always been the first to ask for our aid in times of distress and the first to make amends when we have a falling out.

Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to know that a nation possessing the power and will of the United States is capable of intervening in the affairs of another nation when that nation is guilty of threatening the survival of its own people and the rest of the world as well.

I minister to an AIDS community. They have a hard time with your comparing victory in Iraq to victory over AIDS, as though they were somehow related. They see your comment, quite frankly, as a cheap shot.

I am in complete agreement with your spin on St. Paul to the Philippians. “Happiness in the Lord is a spiritual joy that can coexist with hardship because it is based on the belief that sorrow and death are not the whole story and will not have the last word.” As Americans, our motto is “In God We Trust.” God’s will for us is and has been discovered in the experiences of daily life. We have grown immeasurably in the last 225+ years and hopefully, on balance we are better for it. Victorious and blameless are adjectives that are difficult for us to define with certainty, but, hopefully, the journey will bring greater clarity of vision and with it, a surer understanding of the impact and importance of our choices.

Paul A. Vermylen, Jr. | 1/6/2004 - 8:51am
Your editorial, “Fare Forward Voyagers…” (January 5-12) quotes Santayana’s 1911 characterization of the modern American as “convinced that he always has been, and always will be victorious and blameless.” As you suggest, we Americans have matured somewhat since; wars, depression, disease and time have left their mark. However, I found the discussion of victory and blame that followed the quote disturbing on several counts.

President Bush did not announce “victory” in the war in Iraq in May. He announced the successful completion of “major combat operations” in Iraq. No fair listener at the time took his statement to mean that our job in Iraq was finished. I am sure that the editors at America did not either.

Citing our loss of brave soldiers and others in Iraq, and citing reports that the United States is “now thought of rather as the Roman Empire was thought of by its uneasy neighbors” seems to lay too much of the Iraq blame theme on the U.S. When it comes to the Hussein regime there is plenty of blame to be shared. In the 1980’s the United Nations left Iraq’s aggression against Iran unchallenged and the United States even rendered covert support to the Hussein regime. In the 1991 we honored our pledge to our allies and thus failed to take the war to liberate Kuwait all the way to Baghdad. Then we spent the next twelve years working through the United Nations to contain Hussein through force and sanctions, passing resolution after resolution long after it had become obvious that this monster, unattended, was not about to leave his neighbors at peace; and all the while he tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. Yes, we share blame for all of this, but finally in 2003, perhaps because of lessons learned on 9/11, we formed a coalition and acted. The Hussein regime is gone and if we succeed in stabilizing Iraq and leave Iraqi’s with a degree of freedom and hope that exceeds that of its neighbors, the word “credit” will come to mind, not blame.

I suspect that some of the uneasiness abroad, particularly on continental Europe, may have less to do with fear of U.S. power than with Europe’s repeated failure to confront tyranny in a timely fashion. First there was Hitler’s Germany in the 1930’s, and then more recently the Balkans, where Europe failed to act in its own back yard until we finally led, without, incidentally, U.N. authorization. In Iraq, most failed to act at all. Too much of this could cause a European to feel uneasy, perhaps from a sense of guilt, or even envy.

President Bush has accepted blame. In his November 6 speech he said, “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe”. He has not declared victory, but God willing, he will.

As for our failure to achieve victory over AIDS, terrorism, poverty and job creation, well, you sure ask a lot. For now, let’s celebrate progress: record U.S. financial commitment to fight AIDS, no foreign terrorist act on our shore since 9/11, and evidence of a strong economic rebound which is creating jobs and thereby reducing poverty.

Happy New Year. Really. It’s OK to be happy!

Deacon Marshall Gibbs | 1/3/2004 - 12:29pm
As with most editorials, I find myself in agreement and disagreement. Victorious and blameless are absolutes that beg for an expression of moderation. I have no doubt that we are never totally victorious or blameless in international relations or diplomacy as we are never victorious and blameless in internal relations. We are a nation of human beings with all the weaknesses and limitations that are a part of our creation, both collectively and individually.

As Americans, we are a well-meaning collection of humanity who are always inclined to send aid and relief to the downtrodden and underdog. We have demonstrated that propensity throughout the last century as we came to the aid of disaster after disaster throughout the world, such as the earthquake in Iran last week, and, sacrificed our sons and daughters to the altar of freedom through wars on a global scale. We can only leave it to history to determine the righteousness of our actions.

One thing is for certain, if the scale of human atrocity and carnage is to be the criteria by which we measure our motives, then the Holocausts in Germany, Japan, Africa, China, the Middle East, and Indochina over the 20th century speak for themselves. Never in the history of humankind have such mind-numbing mass murders taken place. The world would be a very different place had not the United States stepped into all these conflicts. Whether you measure the outcome as victorious or less than victorious probably depends more on your political agenda than on the reality of the outcome. I, for one, accept the blame for these outcomes as an American who accepts the reality that with all the good intentions in the world, things can go wrong and have gone wrong and that we as a nation have made some grievous errors.

The world of the 21st century is certainly a dangerous place and Iraq has certainly proved to be a part of the danger. Regardless of one’s political bent, the criteria for measuring our success or failure in that campaign has to be more than a compilation of body counts. The millions of Iraqi men, women and children found in the mass graves are sufficient reason for our being there. If they represent the only evidence of a “weapon of mass destruction,” we must see our intervention as just.

As for our allies seeing us as the Roman Empire was seen by its uneasy neighbors, I find that a bit extreme. Certainly, in the last century, America has no history of invading with the intentions of conquering foreign nations. Those same allies have always been the first to ask for our aid in times of distress and the first to make amends when we have a falling out.

Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to know that a nation possessing the power and will of the United States is capable of intervening in the affairs of another nation when that nation is guilty of threatening the survival of its own people and the rest of the world as well.

I minister to an AIDS community. They have a hard time with your comparing victory in Iraq to victory over AIDS, as though they were somehow related. They see your comment, quite frankly, as a cheap shot.

I am in complete agreement with your spin on St. Paul to the Philippians. “Happiness in the Lord is a spiritual joy that can coexist with hardship because it is based on the belief that sorrow and death are not the whole story and will not have the last word.” As Americans, our motto is “In God We Trust.” God’s will for us is and has been discovered in the experiences of daily life. We have grown immeasurably in the last 225+ years and hopefully, on balance we are better for it. Victorious and blameless are adjectives that are difficult for us to define with certainty, but, hopefully, the journey will bring greater clarity of vision and with it, a surer understanding of the impact and importance of our choices.

Paul A. Vermylen, Jr. | 1/6/2004 - 8:51am
Your editorial, “Fare Forward Voyagers…” (January 5-12) quotes Santayana’s 1911 characterization of the modern American as “convinced that he always has been, and always will be victorious and blameless.” As you suggest, we Americans have matured somewhat since; wars, depression, disease and time have left their mark. However, I found the discussion of victory and blame that followed the quote disturbing on several counts.

President Bush did not announce “victory” in the war in Iraq in May. He announced the successful completion of “major combat operations” in Iraq. No fair listener at the time took his statement to mean that our job in Iraq was finished. I am sure that the editors at America did not either.

Citing our loss of brave soldiers and others in Iraq, and citing reports that the United States is “now thought of rather as the Roman Empire was thought of by its uneasy neighbors” seems to lay too much of the Iraq blame theme on the U.S. When it comes to the Hussein regime there is plenty of blame to be shared. In the 1980’s the United Nations left Iraq’s aggression against Iran unchallenged and the United States even rendered covert support to the Hussein regime. In the 1991 we honored our pledge to our allies and thus failed to take the war to liberate Kuwait all the way to Baghdad. Then we spent the next twelve years working through the United Nations to contain Hussein through force and sanctions, passing resolution after resolution long after it had become obvious that this monster, unattended, was not about to leave his neighbors at peace; and all the while he tortured and killed hundreds of thousands of his own people. Yes, we share blame for all of this, but finally in 2003, perhaps because of lessons learned on 9/11, we formed a coalition and acted. The Hussein regime is gone and if we succeed in stabilizing Iraq and leave Iraqi’s with a degree of freedom and hope that exceeds that of its neighbors, the word “credit” will come to mind, not blame.

I suspect that some of the uneasiness abroad, particularly on continental Europe, may have less to do with fear of U.S. power than with Europe’s repeated failure to confront tyranny in a timely fashion. First there was Hitler’s Germany in the 1930’s, and then more recently the Balkans, where Europe failed to act in its own back yard until we finally led, without, incidentally, U.N. authorization. In Iraq, most failed to act at all. Too much of this could cause a European to feel uneasy, perhaps from a sense of guilt, or even envy.

President Bush has accepted blame. In his November 6 speech he said, “Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe”. He has not declared victory, but God willing, he will.

As for our failure to achieve victory over AIDS, terrorism, poverty and job creation, well, you sure ask a lot. For now, let’s celebrate progress: record U.S. financial commitment to fight AIDS, no foreign terrorist act on our shore since 9/11, and evidence of a strong economic rebound which is creating jobs and thereby reducing poverty.

Happy New Year. Really. It’s OK to be happy!

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