A voice of dissent in a time of war

Parsing the president's language

James Carroll, author, ex-priest, and peace activist, takes President Bush at his word. And that's the starting point for this thought-provoking, if uneven, collection of columns from the Boston Globe.

Take "crusade." Bush used it offhandedly in the days following Sept. 11, referring to "this crusade, this war on terrorism." He probably meant it as a synonym for "struggle." But Carroll, with his Catholic training, emphasizes how inflammatory "crusade" can be. The Crusades were "a set of world-historic crimes," he writes, in which Christian armies fought to reclaim the Holy Land from Islamic control. They legitimized violence for religion's sake - something Muslims remember all too well. In his periodic pronouncements, Osama bin Laden continues to use the word "crusade" as a flame-thrower, Carroll notes.

Then there's "evil," as in "axis of." To define geopolitical conflict as a cosmic battle between the forces of light and dark is to place it in a "mythic realm," says Carroll. Petty foes are conflated into a threatening conspiracy - a promotion in status of which they probably approve. Such a moral struggle is almost by definition unlimited. The stakes justify radical action. "What the president may not know is that the worst manifestations of evil have been the blowback, precisely, of efforts to be rid of it," writes Carroll.

Readers who don't live in the Boston area may know Carroll best as the writer of popular religion-tinged potboilers. But he produces more serious stuff, too, as shown by the National Book Award he won in 1996 for his memoir "An American Requiem." He comes from what today might be called the traditional left of the political spectrum.

No one was "truly liberated" by the toppling of the Afghan Taliban regime, he argues. The Iraq war was so unnecessary that deaths of Iraqi civilians, however inadvertent, constitute war crimes to Carroll, a veteran. "The traditional ethic declares that a war of aggression is inherently unjust, and that every civilian death caused by such a war is murder." His favored response to 9/11 would have been a worldwide law-enforcement crackdown: an activity which is far from pacifist, he emphasizes, but is subject to more limits than all-out war.

At its best this book challenges us to examine our own morals and carefully parse the language of war. But clearly it's for those who already believe. At its worst, the book evinces a sort of geopolitical narcissism that Republicans sometimes characterize as "blaming America first."

Still, it's far more serious than such election-year critiques as "Bush's Brain," "BushWorld," "BushBabies," or "Bush Bashing for Dummies." And as an ex-priest, he can claim to speak with some authority. "We can start by acknowledging," he writes, "that when humans go to war, God in no way wills it."

Peter Grier is a Monitor reporter in Washington.

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