[This review was published to this web site in 2003.]


Book Review


Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism

William J. Bennett

Regnery expanded edition, 2003 


One of the more profound dilemmas in human thought is that, on the one hand, we need moral judgment, but this is made less resolute by too many qualifications; and, on the other hand, we need objective inquiry and empathetic understanding, but these are made almost impossible unless a great many nuances (i.e., qualifications) are taken into account.

An intellectual in the truest sense will want to resolve this dilemma by basing his moral judgment precisely on a nuanced understanding of the world. Even then, it is an almost impossibly difficult matter. With regard to complex social phenomena, a really just understanding is a thing of virtually unattainable beauty.

There are two other ways to resolve this dilemma, neither of them sound. It is possible to grasp either horn and hold on for dear life. The result is a person who champions moral clarity without acknowledging complexities, or a person who bathes himself in complexity without arriving at moral clarity. In Why We Fight, William Bennett emerges as the former, and he rightly shows his contempt for the latter, whom he denounces as a relativist.

The book's title is the same as that of Frank Capra's propaganda films during World War II. The films were excellent motivators, but a serious student of that war and its causes will have a hard time taking them seriously. It seems certain that Bennett wants his book to issue a "call to arms" that, as with the films, makes a virtue of simplicity. The book is conceived more as an act than as a contemplation. The time for action has come, and pusillanimity should cast no shadow upon it.

The question is whether Bennett realizes his book is not a serious work of thought. This reviewer believes he does not. He attacks "relativism" at considerable length, and does so generically, as though relativism itself is an intellectual vice. Although on page 64 he shows his understanding that relativism has been used by the Left as a weapon to undermine the mainstream United States and European society's belief in itself, he doesn't distinguish the other uses of relativism from this ideological application of it. Bennett leads us to believe that it is relativism itself, and not just the misapplication of it, that is to be opposed.

It isn't surprising that this is his position; it is the view precisely of anyone who believes unreservedly in a given religious cosmology, which Bennett (as a convinced Christian) does. Thus, the complexities and grays of life that a relativism (even a non-ideological one) brings to bear on the understanding of social reality are discarded. They in effect become the "baby" that Bennett throws out with the "bathwater" of ideological attacks on Western civilization. Both the baby and the bathwater must go, Bennett believes, because he sees neither as sound, and in fact doesn't really see the difference between them, anyway.

If Why We Fight is a call to action and not truly a work of ratiocination, it is legitimate to ask whether the actions it calls for actually serve the ends that Bennett (or we ourselves) have in mind. It may very well be that the complexities his call ignores create a context in which the actions will be self-defeating. Bennett refers to himself as a "conservative." Is the course of action he favors one that will serve "conservative" values? To evaluate this, we will need to see what actions he favors and what complexities he ignores. 

The Actions He Favors

Bennett doesn't undertake a systematic statement of the role he wants the United States to play in the world. He has not attempted to reiterate everything said in the neo-conservatives' 1998 document presenting the action-plan for the "Project for the New American Century." Less expansively (but still with vast scope), Bennett bases Why We Fight on the outrage Americans feel over the atrocities of September 11, and calls for (a) "a global war against terrorism"; (b) active American opposition to oppression wherever it occurs in the world, as when he says "the responsibility is ours because oppressed people look to us for their deliverance"; and (c) an unwavering defense of Israel. Although cooperation with others is desirable, Bennett believes the United States should act without international approval if the approval isn't forthcoming. He strongly favors war to oust Saddam Hussein from Iraq.

What He Doesn't Consider

It is always worth noticing what is missing from a discussion. Bennett devotes considerable attention to the Left's cultural alienation, which leads to a "blame America first" attitude; to relativism as a weakener of moral resolve; and to the pros and cons about Christian pacifism. What he conspicuously does not do is to grapple with the merits of a conservative philosophy about America's role in the world that is the diametric opposite of his own. Nowhere does he mention Patrick Buchanan's A Republic, Not an Empire, which argues that the United States' policy of minding its own business prior to 1898 was much sounder than the interventionist meliorism that has actuated so much American policy since Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. This movement into vast worldwide intervention is fraught with danger in an age where biological, chemical and nuclear asymmetrical warfare is a distinct possibility. Can it possibly be that Bennett is unaware of Buchanan's very serious treatise?

Related to this is that Bennett disdains inquiring into "why we are hated." To do so would be to show a lack of moral clarity. Accordingly, his book lacks any discussion of the deep attachments that millions of people feel to a variety of diverse cultures around the world, and certainly no appreciation of why the devotees of those cultures insist ("fanatically," many would say) on preserving their ways of life. Buchanan sees these things; Bennett does not.

It is precisely because Bennett excludes discussion of the traditional (pre-1898) American position and the complexities of competing cultures that that position sought to keep the United States from becoming entangled in, that he is able to cast today's debate in terms that will resonate with many "conservatives" precisely because it is familiar to them i.e., in terms of the clash between Left and Right. It is a clash between American patriotism and those who denigrate the United States. If that is truly what it is, every conservative will want to be on the side of patriotism. Why We Fight doesn't tell conservative readers that Left vs. Right doesn't adequately frame the issues.

In the aftermath of September 11, it was very much to be hoped that Islamist militancy was a finite phenomenon that could be set off sharply from Islam in general, with its more than a billion people. The hope was that the "war against terror" could enlist the support of most Islamic regimes both in rooting out the militants and in isolating them in Islamic thinking. Bennett gives much attention to the extent to which the militancy pervades the Islamic world. What is noteworthy, however, is that he gives no consideration to a strategy that would recruit most of the Islamic world to the side of the United States. One is left with the ominous impression that what the United States faces is a decades-long "clash of civilizations" such as has been warned about by Samuel Huntington.

Isolating the militants would seem to be an essential part of the American response to September 11. What keeps Bennett from advocating that?

The answer, it seems, is to be found in Bennett's total identification of the United States' interests with those of Israel. If anti-Zionism (Bennett calls it "anti-Semitism") is "endemic" in the Islamic world, as Bennett contends it is, and if the United States is inextricably connected with Zionism, then there is no "isolating" to be done; it is precisely a clash, full of hate and reprisal, between the United States-Israel on the one side and the entire Islamic world on the other.

The identification with Israel is for Bennett a religious imperative. Nowhere do we find this better expressed than in his statement that "I myself am one of tens of millions of Americans who have seen in the founding and flourishing of the Jewish state the hand of the same beneficent God who attended our own founding."

He never considers the Arab side of the Arab-Israeli conflict, since he believes he knows that the Arabs' intransigent opposition to the very existence of Israel makes that moot. There is in his book no discussion of the Jewish settlements and their continuing expansion, or of the competing claims upon the city of Jerusalem by the major religions. Accordingly, the whole dimension of how the conflict may be settled never arises in his discussion. Nor does he examine uniquely American needs, which might call for a neutrality or true evenhandedness that Bennett would abhor.

There has been much concern about the effect of the much-enhanced police power, which has been fashioned to combat terrorism, upon American liberties. It is one thing if that surveillance and police work is purely temporary, another if it goes on for decades. Because Bennett is providing a rationale for a war of vast scope and duration, his concern about "conservative values" should cause him to discuss this very serious threat to personal freedom. But there's not a word about it.

A mere recounting of these many omissions is enough to suggest why Bennett's "call to arms" may not best serve the conservative values he cherishes. His prescriptions may well lead to disaster for those very values. 

Additional Conceptual Difficulties

Important conceptual difficulties exist in Bennett's analysis that don't fit into the enumeration we have been making of what he has omitted.

One of these is his assumption that a war with the Islamic world/Israel's enemies can be "won." "I wholeheartedly support pursuing this war," he says, "to final victory." And, "our only course is to... win our war against that evil." This, of course, has as its premise the notion that the enemies in that war are limited in number and knowable, and that defeating them in a series of battles (such as the second war against Iraq, which is hardly more than one battle among many in a drawn-out conflict) will be tantamount to victory in the "war." He implicitly counts on their surrender and ultimate acquiescence, not on a glowering hatred that renews itself for a thousand years. This seems to contradict what he tells us about the Islamic world and its "anti-Semitism."

We must blink at Bennett's idealistic, Wilsonian naivete when he makes such statements as "we must not kill or mistreat prisoners of war" and "a freedom fighter does not massacre innocent civilians." If these statements are to be taken seriously (and without any of the "relativism" he abhors to apply them selectively), they constitute, in effect, a criminal indictment against Allied behavior in World War II. There were plenty of "innocent civilians" massacred in the bombing of Dresden and the fire-bombing of Tokyo; and James Bacque has written about the starvation of German prisoners of war in American hands in 1945. Does Bennett intend such an indictment? Probably not. Inevitably, we must ask whether he is more than simply superficial.

None of this is to say that William J. Bennett has not distinguished himself in a long career of public service (he is, among many other things, a former Secretary of Education) and of writing on moral values and the culture war. John Stuart Mill wrote that most philosophies are sound in what they affirm, but that they affirm only part of the truth. The reader's task with Bennett is to read him critically, embracing the moral uplift his work provides and his many insights into the cultural attack on the American mainstream.


         Dwight D. Murphey