Thursday, April 03, 2008

When God is gone...

I have just finished reading Rick Atkinson's An Army at Dawn, a superb account of the Allied campaign in North Africa in 1942-43. One is left with an unbearable sadness for the grunts -- the towheaded, fuzz-cheeked boys from Iowa and Maine -- who carried the burden of battle, who got their legs blown off and their guts spilled while their commanders squabbled and fussed among themselves to preserve their preeminence and pride -- Patton and Montgomery, Rommel and Arnim, and others. What an awful grinding up of the innocent while Yanks, Brits and Frenchies on one side, and Germans and Italians on the other, eyed each other with mutual distrust and let concerted action seep ineffectually into bloody sand.

How often, too, in Atkinson's account, the commanders evoke the name of God, as if any God worth worshiping would have anything to do with such an ego-driven cataclysm of fire and steel. Patton inscribes in his diary before he falls asleep: "God was very good to me today." German commanders also invoke the divine name.

This is not to suggest a moral equivalence. The Allies fought against a regime as evil as any in the history of humankind, and if a supernatural being watched from on high one would like to think he was cheering for the Allied side. But spare us, please, the presumption of those who think they know the divine mind. Gott Mit Uns it said on the belt buckles of the Wehrmacht, God Is With Us. Even the Romans, two thousand years earlier, went into battle with the self-assured cry, Nobiscum Deus.

"I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least," wrote Walt Whitman, who was himself witness to the slaughter of another war. That war too was fought at least partly to alleviate a great evil, human slavery, not that it mattered much in the heat of battle to the cannon fodder on both sides. "Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself," Whitman continued. He did not mean his personal self, but the preciousness of the human person. He worked as a volunteer in a military hospital in Washington, tending the human wreckage of the battlefields.

There is something to be said for Whitman's agnostic pantheism. A personal God who is outside of the creation can pass out belt buckles and be kind to commanders on the battlefield. If the creation itself were universally recognized as holy -- every jot and tittle of it, every human self -- perhaps we would have fewer reasons to go to war.