“There’s a new spirit abroad,” says Sir Joseph Mainwaring in Evelyn Waugh’s Put out More Flags, “I see it on every side.” The spirit was a quickening of step, a recognition that war had come and it needed to be won.
Dedicated to Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, with whom Waugh enjoyed a curious love-hate relationship, the book encapsulates the mood of the Phoney War. The Bright Young Things were redeeming themselves, searching for the best employment for the Duration, a scene replicated in Waugh’s diaries and his Sword of Honour trilogy. Waugh himself was keen not to miss out. Old boy networks were ruthlessly exploited to find an appointment in a line Battalion, a name on a Reserve list or even an interview with a civil servant or senior officer.
Did 11 September 2001 provoke an equivalent new spirit? Certainly, Americans put out more flags. And there were signs of a robust offensive spirit; rubble from the World Trade Centre was buried in Afghanistan with US special operations personnel vowing to bring death and violence to the four corners of the globe against those who threatened the United States. Director of the CIA Counterterrorist Centre, J Cofer Black, told White House staff that when they’d finished with the Taliban and Al Qa’ida, they would have “flies on their eyeballs”.
But how does this spirit fare outside the United States - and how does it fare today, more than two years later? The answer must be “patchy”, at best. Around the rest of the world the new spirit has waxed and waned from Le Monde’s declaration “We are all Americans now” to the strident opposition to Second Gulf War. The postmodern and anti-American instincts of pre-September 11 have re-asserted themselves; the former being the notion that right and wrong is relative - smart bombs that inadvertently kill innocent civilians are the moral equivalent of terrorist bombs expressly design to kill civilians. From this position it is only a short step to calling the United States a “terrorist nation”.
Graham Maddox wrote an article in a recent edition of the Australian Journal of Politics and History, titled “The ‘Crusade’ Against Evil: Bush’s Fundamentalism”. The implication is clear, Osama Bin Laden is a fundamentalist, so too is Bush. Maddox warns us that: “there is a haunting similarity between the extent of Roman imperial power under Constantine and the imperial machine controlled by George W Bush.”
It is a curious parallel that needs some justification but Maddox provides none. He piously tells us that in Bush:
… the conjunction of a form of religious worship congenial to business success and a right-wing political orientation with genuine temporal power becomes highly problematical.
A democratically elected leader, with right-of-centre politics, a religious faith and a belief in enterprise is a problem? What of the fanatics who organise the death of 3000 civilians on a Tuesday morning in an office block?
The theme of Maddox’s article is clear, Bush has hijacked Christianity just as Osama Bin Laden has hijacked Islam. According to Maddox, the “attack on the World Trade Centre - the ‘wake up call’ - has given occasion for the fundamentalist side of the public theology to come to the fore”. The logical conclusion one draws from Maddox’s argument is that Bush’s War on Terror is a war between two fundamentalist camps, and right and wrong is relative.
Of course the truth is a little more complicated than Maddox would have us believe. For example, Bin Laden would have homosexuals put to death, the “fundamentalist” Bush, on the other hand, appoints openly gay men to important positions and signs an Act allowing the federal benefits of public-safety officers killed in the line of duty to go to designated beneficiaries, including same-sex partners. Maddox’s simplistic knee-jerk reaction is an academic version of broader suspicions towards Bush and the United States, particularly evident in the leadup to the Second Gulf War.
Just days before the second Gulf War started, actors Heath Ledger, Joel Edgerton and Naomi Watts took to the streets in Melbourne protesting the impending war. Ledger told journalists: “I’m here because they are dropping 3000 bombs on Baghdad, on women and children. It’s wrong for humanity, it’s not in the name of peace, it’s in the name of oil.” Australia’s Bright Young Things (well, young anyway) were clearly immune to the new spirit and they spoke for thousands of Australians.
In Sydney in mid-February, those opposed to the war took to the streets. Aside from the usual suspects, the marchers were an eclectic bunch; North Shore matrons, piously concerned about George Bush; fashionable 20-somethings from the eastern suburbs; and plain decent folk who loathed the idea of anyone being hurt. “No war!” said the signs. No war ever? None seemed to entertain the idea that there were worse things than war.
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