In the late Seventies, when I was still in seminary, William Sloane Coffin Jr. came to Enid to deliver the J. Clyde Wheeler Lecture. The former chaplain at YaleUniversity and minister of The Riverside Church in New York City said two things that I will never forget: one, that America might one day go fascist, and do so with the blessing of Christian fundamentalism; and two, that the only real blessing to come out of the Vietnam War was that we lost.
We all looked at him like he was crazy. Then, he continued, “If there is one redemptive thing about this tragic misadventure, it is that America will never again think that we can fight a war like this and get away with it.”
Coffin died just a year ago, but the last time I spoke with him, he said, “Robin, nobody seems to know the virtue of losing anymore. You’d think that Christians, who presume to know something about the cross, would understand it better than anyone.”
Indeed, for some time after the lessons of Vietnam, America was hesitant to try to impose its will through military force, fearing the dreaded “quagmire.” It was called the “Vietnam syndrome.” Then, Ronald Reagan gave us back our macho. He invaded the tiny island of Grenada (presumably to save students in med school there), and then George H.W. Bush invaded Panama (to remove another dictator we once loved but now hated, like Saddam). They were quick, easy victories, and patriotism surged. We were not losers after all. It was “morning in America.”
As the country moved to the right, the neoconservative movement was born. Neocons began dreaming of an American empire that no longer hesitated to use military force anywhere, anytime, if it was deemed to be in our “national (economic) interest.” This only requires that we forget the past, accept a binary view of good and evil, and take advantage of some traumatic national event ” a “Pearl Harbor moment.”
The neocons hated the idea of losing, even though they had never seen combat, and would not sacrifice their own children in the next quagmire. They hatched their dreams in air-conditioned think tanks, wearing silk suits and dreaming of a world in which it is better to be feared than loved. They also had Jesus on their side.
Like the Hummer I saw driving down the street recently with the fish symbol and a bumper sticker reading “kick ass Christian,” the neocons regarded our “loss” in Vietnam as the beginning of the end. Losing is always bad, and anyone who looks for a lesson in defeat is merely an intellectual defeatist wimp. Bush the father said, “I will never apologize for the United States ” I don’t care what the facts are.”
Likewise, the son ” who declared four years ago “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” ” now has the timidity to accuse the Democrats of admitting defeat, of “waving the white flag,” of uttering the ultimate obscenity: We have lost. Never mind that it’s true. We’d much prefer to be lied to.
So it has come to this. It is excusable to declare a false victory, but never to admit an actual defeat. What’s more, we would rather sacrifice other people’s children on the altar of that delusion than admit that this war, like Vietnam for my generation, is a gruesome lesson in humility. The world’s only superpower cannot prevail against people who are willing to blow themselves up, and cannot impose its idea of democracy at gunpoint.
Bringing the troops home won’t “embolden the terrorists” ” continuing to kill innocent civilians will. We should declare defeat, apologize to the world, and mean it when we say that winning isn’t everything. Sometimes the real lessons are in losing.
Meyers is minister of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City, and professor of rhetoric in the philosophy department at Oklahoma CityUniversity. His latest book is “Why the Christian Right Is Wrong: A Minister’s Manifesto for Taking Back Your Faith, Your Flag, Your Future.”