Just when we thought the Cold War was over, it turns out that it is not.
The stories of strife from the around the world are beamed across our screens at a dizzying pace, so it is difficult to keep up with it all and form a clear picture of what it all means, but, I do think it is obvious at this point that the East and West are once again doing battle.
The term “proxy wars” has re-emerged, and the list of potential players in the grand global chess game has grown lengthy. There is Russia and Assad’s Syria and Iran (and Iraq) and Hezbollah likely all linked together in some fashion. On the other side is America, and Israel, Europe (and Turkey) and maybe some more moderate Arab states.
Somewhere in the middle is ISIS who do not seem to have any side and are just enjoying taking everyone on at once. If all that wasn’t enough, let’s not forget China whose ambitions at global military might are cleverly being financed by pretty much every American shopper.
With the calls for American military intervention against ISIS (and pretty much everyone else on the “bad” list) rising to a fever pitch right now, it is easy to get carried away by memories of what America, and her allies, did once upon a time in prior wars. Just turn on the History Channel for an easy demonstration of 20th Century Western know-how, power, and determination in the face of evil. Back then we successfully fought a two front war, mobilizing massive amounts of men, machines, and resources in order to win on both fronts.
To my generation living today, who grew up on Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and the artistic medium of television, all of that looks like it was a piece of cake. Bloody, and a best-selling piece of cake to be sure, but, nonetheless it was a piece of cake because every war looks easy from the comfort of one’s living room sofa.
All of it makes me wonder how we would fare today if we stepped into the new, multi-front war that does seem to be nearly upon us, and which so many of our lawmakers are hurriedly calling for.
Most of us alive today have no concept of the kind of personal, and national, resolve and grit that it takes to see such a battle to its necessary conclusion. World Wars I and II were fought by a generation of people who lived when there was barely electricity and who survived the Great Depression. Today we get annoyed when we can’t find an app to get our work done for us.
Winning the Second World War was a truly national effort. On the front, members of families engaged in live combat, and many died. Back home, people bought War Bonds, lived with national rations on needed materials for the war effort, and planted victory gardens to ease the burden on the food supply. And, they listened to daily casualty reports over the radio, with numbers in the thousands. Everyone, from little kids to grandparents, knew this was a fight to the death.
Could we handle such an endeavor like that again today? No way. And every lawmaker and media pundit who thumps their chest calling for the annihilation of ISIS, President Assad, and the whole crew, needs to stop watching the History Channel, and instead take in the contemporary American scene of the Kardashians, Taco Bell, and wall-to-wall pain reliever and Viagra commercials.
Sadly enough, it is the war within that we are losing, and it is leaving us largely incapable of defeating any sort of external evil we are facing.
By the war within I do not mean the thuggery that is rising over what some would call racial tensions in our cities. It all has very little to do with race, by the way, and everything to do with everyone’s inability to control anger. I also do not mean the war over so-called gender identity and traditional vs. non-traditional families, etc, etc. I do not mean the battle over immigration reform, and all the standards of national identity that once defined the American cultural experience. I do not mean the battle between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
True, all of the above internal battles, waged since World War II ended with new ferocity, have pretty well gutted the American Giant that defeated the Axis Powers, and they represent what will be our inevitable collapse as a country to be sure.
No, I am actually talking about the war within the heart. And it is the same war that has been fought since the Fall out of Eden once upon a time. It is the battle for self-mastery in the face of the ingrained human tendency towards the soft and the easy. It is the battle over sin.
Sin has always been with us in America to be sure, but, at no time in our history has the only force that is capable of reigning it in, namely public morality and religion, been systematically attacked and dismantled as it is now.
We are not capable of producing, anymore, the kind of generation that won two major world wars, because we have stripped the general population of the necessary public language, personal tools, and fabric of virtue that is at the heart of religious identity.
Instead we have replaced it with the unbridled pursuit of comfort, pleasure, and individualism. And any voice, like the Church, that dares to offer any sort of corrective is swiftly brushed aside like the obstacle to fulfillment we are painted to be.
How do we defeat ISIS? Or any other foe? By winning the war within.
ISIS, and all the others that will soon begin to follow their example- there will just be more of them- will continue to demonstrate how ineffective the modern State is at keeping citizens safe. ISIS has brought a warfare without boarders, to groups of people who have no sense of common identity anymore. In that way, they are much like the Vandals, Huns, and Goths that picked apart the Roman Empire that collapsed and disintegrated under its own decadence (read: modern America and Europe).
What followed was Feudal Europe which was something like organized anarchy. What rescued it was Christianity, especially the monasteries, by bringing a message and mechanism that gave people the means to fight, and win, the war within the heart.
The war within is a war against fear, especially the fear of death, that is overcome by belief in the Resurrection. The war within is the battle of reason over the appetites in order to live a balanced life of goodness, virtue, and sacrifice. The war within is the battle of restraint in the face of attackers, and the battle against the thirst for vengeance. It is a war fought on the cross, with Christ, living inside of us.
I cannot rely on my government to defeat ISIS or any other homegrown terrorist. Even if a nation state could defeat them, Western states have no stomach for that kind of war anymore. I cannot rely on the guarantee of public moral order that protects a common understanding of personhood, or the family, or of decency anymore. I cannot rely on the safety of major cities, especially when police are now afraid to arrest anyone for fear of starting a riot.
All that I can really do, in the grace of Christ, is work on bringing my own heart into line and trying to live a life of virtue and the commandments, so that I can live, without fear, and with a clean conscience.
And that is something ISIS cannot take from me, even if they blow me up on a bus.
I can resolve everyday to do battle with the greatest foe I will ever face: myself. And, maybe, if I do it well enough and speak to others about the source of my strength who is Christ, I can build a community of people around me who are all fighting the battle within, too. A little island of civilization (like a monastery) in a very distorted, and I dare say increasingly Feudal society.
The words of the martyrs are instructive. From today’s feast of the Vietnamese Martyrs, in the Office of Readings of the Roman Breviary, we read this:
“the prison here is a true image of everlasting hell: to cruel tortures of every kind- shackles, iron chains, manacles- are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet for his mercy is for ever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone- Christ is with me.”
Who cares what the government of France, or Belgium, or America does; who cares what the Mayor of Chicago says? Christ is with me; He will help me win the war within. I have all that I need for security.