A Muted Call for Sacrifice

A Muted Call for Sacrifice: A Clear Call for Responsibility

By Jon Pahl, Ph.D.

Barack Obama's December 1 speech to the Cadets at West Point on Afghanistan was not what I expected. After years of listening to, and critiquing, George W. Bush's civil religious rhetoric, I worried that the current President would succumb to a cynical appeal to military "sacrifice." Instead, that theme was remarkably muted.

Far more prominent was the way the President invoked his inaugural theme of responsibility. He began with his own duties as Commander in Chief. He clarified the responsibilities of Afghanis, Pakistanis, and other international partners. And he held up the moral and civil values he expected his fellow Americans to demonstrate, including the military.

Obama did invoke a rhetoric of sacrifice near the end of his speech. He cited the "service and sacrifice" of "our grandparents" that launched the U.S. under Franklin Roosevelt into the current era of global interconnectedness. Then the President cited the "unbroken line of sacrifice" by men and women in uniform on behalf of Lincoln's "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." That was it for the favorite theme of the Civil War version of American civil religion.

Obama might have been tempted to use, and I fully expected to hear, the rhetoric of "sacrifice" in relation to the service of soldiers in Iraq. Instead, the President praised their "courage, grit, and perseverance." At the same time, Obama realistically acknowledged the "costs" of war, as he recalled signing letters of condolence, visiting "wounded warriors," and meeting the "flag-draped caskets" of those who died.

If he avoided pandering by cloaking military policy in religious rhetoric, the President did not avoid addressing moral questions. Obama first focused on the legitimacy of the war in Afghanistan. It was defensive. It was approved by Congress (overwhelmingly). It had international support. And it was undermined by the war in Iraq that "caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world."

The President then defended his deliberate approach to designing a strategy in Afghanistan. It did not delay necessary resources. It allowed him to "ask the hard questions." And it engaged key partners. It was, in a word, responsible. "I owed the American people--and our troops--no less," he concluded.

If his own responsibility was one theme of his speech, another clear theme was the responsibility of Afghanis and Pakistanis. He used the words "responsible" or "responsibility" nine times. Five of those times he related his favorite theme to the Afghani people. They had "responsibility for their own future." It was our goal to "transfer responsibility" to the Afghanis. And "success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan."

The President also identified responsibilities of the international community. He claimed "a broad coalition" of 43 nations in support of his policy. And he recalled his Nobel-inspiring vision of a world in which nations renounced weapons of mass destruction. "Every nation must understand," he claimed, "that true security will never come from an endless race for ever-more destructive weapons--true security will come for those who reject them."

But finally it was the responsibility of Americans that was, appropriately, Obama's chief theme. The American people are "not as young--and perhaps not as innocent--as we were when Roosevelt was President," the current President admitted. "We have made mistakes." For a standing President to humbly admit a lack of innocence on the part of Americans is as rare as it is, well, positively Lincoln-like in its responsibility.

To admit an absence of innocence does not signal weakness. It signals a deeper strength than pompous piety. "Our security and leadership does not come solely from the strength of our arms. It derives from our people." And those people "must draw on the strength of our values."

This means that a responsible way forward in a "time of great trial" is not to invoke people's "deepest of fears," but instead to call people toward "the highest of hopes." That means not only promoting values in rhetoric, but "living them at home." And that means "prohibiting torture" and "speaking out on behalf of human rights." It means, in my favorite phrase from the speech, that in a new era of responsibility, "right makes might." There is, in short, a "moral source of America's authority."

Spoken at West Point, before Cadets to whom he might have pandered, Barack Obama reaffirmed the reasons he united a nation to elect him as America's first African American President. He remembered that "our union was founded in resistance to oppression." And he grounded American authority not in some pious projection of innocent transcendent power, but in moral suasion that must show "restraint in the use of force."

It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama's hope can unite Americans again. Even if the war is just, and responsibly waged, one wonders if the President can do without heavy appeal to the pious rhetoric of "sacrifice" employed to justify war by so many of his predecessors in office. I, for one, am thankful for the effort.

Jon Pahl is Professor of the History of Christianity in North America at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, and the author of Empire of Sacrifice: The Religious Origins of American Violence, due out any day now from New York University Press.