“Our troops are warriors and liberators.”
US President George W. Bush, 11 November 2003
Warriors and liberators are not one. Forcing and freeing are different acts. The problem is time-you can’t do war and freedom simultaneously. In Vietnam we burned villages to pacify them and it requires abstract thinking and wrenched words to recast that destruction as liberation. The soldier in Baghdad who yelled from his tank to hostile cries “we’re here for your fucking freedom” voices the paradox. First I beat you, then I kiss you. It’s not so much a perverse erotic routine as belief in a mysterious transforming power of violence.
The President’s plan was to force in order to free. This is always the military rationale. We don’t publically pursue force for the sake of flexing mighty muscle, dominating, profiteering, or seizing resources. As Anchises tells his son Aeneas in the underworld the destiny of great warriors is to rule for the sake of justice and order:
“To pacify, to impose the rule of law
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.”
It transforms war into a noble act, selfless and society-building. Blake translated that argument from the Aeneid VI, 848 this way: “Let others study Art: Rome has somewhat better to do–namely War and Dominion.”
When we say war is noble, well-meaning, self-sacrificing, does the power of words rule? Like transubstantiation, do the words change blood into bread? ‘Hocus-pocus’ is a deliberate corruption of “Hic est corpus meum” (“This is my body”)-the words of Christian consecration making bread into the body of Christ. For the faithful the words are sacred and transformative, for the faithless they are ‘hocus-pocus,’ a deception. The President, highpriest of the nation, intones a consecration when he says ‘warriors and liberators.’ He builds on our Battle Hymn of the Republic which goes “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” The model is skewed, however. Christ doesn’t kill, he dies rather than kill. He is a liberator not a warrior. Hocus-pocus.
DIANE CHRISTIAN is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at University at Buffalo. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org