When arrogance rules, reason loses

Why can’t we get out of Iraq?

I was considering this question as I drove home a few evenings ago, when I stopped at a light behind a big SUV, an Expedition or a Suburban, with a couple of bumper stickers on the back. One read “Bush/Cheney ’04.”

The other one read: “The next time you feel perfect, try walking on water.”

I don’t remember feeling perfect lately, and hardly anyone I know feels that way on a regular basis. Nevertheless, I cannot walk on water and am, therefore, properly put in my place.

But I wonder if Jesus, who said that the meek shall inherit the earth, would approve this message. Or would he think that it was too arrogantly self-righteous, too in-your-face, too lacking in the love and humility that is supposed to be central to the religion that takes his name?

Of course, religion didn’t get us into Iraq, and I’m reluctant to press the connection between the sentiments on these two bumper stickers. After all, our current war is based on more practical, mundane considerations of power, politics and, especially, oil. But factors like these aren’t always enough to galvanize a democracy to go to war. The Bush administration realized fully the usefulness of an affront like 9/11 or the fear that WMDs — even imaginary ones — can provoke.

But it’s not hard to imagine that religion plays a minor role in making this war go down a little easier. On one hand, it’s unlikely that more than a few neo-conservatives really thought of our invasion of Iraq as a latter-day crusade to make the Middle East — and its oil — safe for ourselves and Israel. On the other, we would have been unlikely to mount a similar pre-emptive campaign against a Christian nation, and an Abu Ghraib for Christians is much less likely than one for Muslims. So the sense of superiority that misguided faith can provide helps make going to war a little more likely.

Nevertheless, I’m less inclined to blame religion so much as the arrogance that religion or any other single-minded ideology can spawn, the smug sense of self-righteousness that can make nearly any cause seem right, no matter how misguided. In fact, I’m guessing that the meek, turn-the-other-cheek version of Jesus would have been unlikely to invade Iraq or sport any sort of bumper sticker or drive an SUV, for that matter.

Unfortunately, it’s possible to become so certain about faith and politics and war that we’re capable of anything. And President Bush and those who see the war his way are the epitome of certainty, even in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary.

When certainty morphs into arrogance, it becomes faith gone wrong, and we’re vulnerable to the most dangerous sort of uncritical self-deceit.

The conjunction of these two bumper stickers — on the back of a gas-guzzling SUV — isn’t coincidental, of course. They reflect the perspective of at least some of our citizens who are still willing to display support for Bush and Vice President Cheney some 6-1/2 years into an episode of governance that has been, at best, extremely inept, if not disastrous.

So this is the dilemma in which we find ourselves, with no easy way out: Even though Bush’s approval percentages are in the low 30s, in a democratic society like ours, you can do a lot with the support of only one-third of the citizens — you can sustain a presidential veto, for example, making decisive action against the war very difficult, if not impossible.

Now, after the reports by Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, it appears that even in the face of majority opposition at home and increasing disapproval abroad, the war will go on, seemingly indefinitely, at the cost of around 60-90 fine American soldiers per month, not counting the very badly wounded. The toll for too much arrogant certainty is a heavy one.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)