Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

November 21, 2001. As of this date, the American war against terrorism is going better than almost anyone expected. It’s far too early to claim victory, of course. Indeed, given the breathtaking ambition of the Bush Administration’s aims”to eliminate the threat of all terrorist groups with “global reach””it will necessarily be a very long time, if ever, before such victory can definitively be proclaimed.

But early signs are good, and the instant doomsayers have already been made to look bad. The analogies with Vietnam, the invocations of “quagmire,” appear, at best, premature. And those who claimed to find no distinction between the terrorists’ destruction of the World Trade Center and the American bombing of Afghanistan have been widely dismissed as the moral idiots they are.

What is striking, in fact, is the near unanimity to date of popular support for the war effort. The neo-pacifist left has been effectively marginalized: the American people are ready, it seems, to give war a chance. (The mainstream church groups have predictably stood outside the consensus. For example, the response to September 11 of the Lutheran , the organ of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America”the denomination with which I am in nominal and increasingly embarrassed communion”waffled feebly, regretting the terrible cruelty of the terrorist attacks but suggesting nonetheless that the use of force on America’s part must be abjured. That reaction runs contrary to traditional Lutheran teaching, which has never insisted on nonviolence and has always supported the doctrine of just war.)

I do not mean to be glib. There is a long and honorable”if, in my view, misguided”tradition of pacifist thought among Christians and non-Christians alike. And not all arguments against a strong American response depend on pacifist principles. Those who insist that concerted action against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups will produce a new generation of Islamic “martyrs” cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. Tertullian’s observation that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church may well be relevant also to Islam. Indeed, in the short run at least, it is more likely so than not”especially in light of the seventy-two black-eyed virgins presumably awaiting the martyred Islamic faithful in paradise. (Though one detects a sexist note here. According to an account from an Islamic source reported by the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), female martyrs get only to choose the best from among the husbands they may have had prior to martyrdom.) In this perspective, the injunction that America must “break the cycle of violence” seems not as feckless as it appears at first glance.

But the argument for restraint, while plausible, is not finally persuasive. Radical Islam will produce new generations of martyrs regardless of the nature of the American response to September 11. Those who hate the West in general and America in particular need no fresh incentives to keep their hatred alive. It is implacable and ineradicable”nothing we do or do not do can “capture their hearts and minds,” to revive a phrase from the Vietnam War era. Those hearts and minds are forever closed to us, despite the exhortations to the contrary of those who speak blithely of eliminating the “root causes” of terrorism. (One enters here the obligatory disclaimer: we are speaking of radical Islam, or Islamism, not of the Muslim world in general.)

Then, too, the empirical question as to what in fact deters terrorists has not been definitively answered. It may be the case, in the pungent if inelegant motto of the Vietnam War hawks, that “if you’ve got them by the short hairs, their minds and hearts will follow.” A stringent discipline unblinkingly administered to the Taliban and its supporters can go a long way toward diminishing the allure of anticipated paradisial joys for would-be martyrs. Much of radical Islam’s contempt for the West stems from our presumed softness and decadence. Incontrovertible military evidence to the contrary may induce a greater respect, if not affection, for the Great Satan.

In any case, it is simple justice that requires American retaliation. It requires an extraordinary lapse from reality to say, yes, the guilty must be punished, but no, we must not employ violence. Those who speak of bringing the perpetrators of September 11 before a court of law (preferably international) tend to go vague in specifying how that “bringing” will be accomplished (the United Nations?). The United States has been viciously attacked, and it owes it to the victims to make, within the limits imposed by the rules of just war, an appropriately harsh response. There is nothing in the Judeo-Christian tradition, properly understood, that need inhibit such a response.

This will demand a severity of will that does not come easily to Americans. As in so much else, we would do well to follow the example of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln felt, with an extraordinary intensity of compassion, the suffering of the victims, military and civilian, on both sides of the Civil War. But he never for a moment let his sympathy get in the way of his duty”which is to say that he knew the difference between sympathy and a sentimental retreat from the exigencies of war that, however understandable, would be finally self-indulgent. If war must be prosecuted, he under stood, it must be prosecuted with the singleness of purpose necessary to its successful conclusion. He directed his generals to do what victory required, and it required terrible things. In a once celebrated but now largely forgotten novel of World War II, Nicholas Montserrat’s The Cruel Sea , the naval captain protagonist, faced with an intolerable moral situation too complicated to recount here, finally concludes, “One does what one must, and says one’s prayers.”

That “does what one must” is morally problematic, of course. Leaders in wartime often resort to notions of necessity to cover decisions whose morality may well be open to challenge. One thinks, for example, of Harry Truman ordering the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The reference above to “the limits imposed by the rules of just war” must always be kept in mind by our leaders. One hopes that George Bush will never face anything like the awful choice that confronted President Truman. But war really is hell, and rules, however necessary, do not entirely suffice. It is difficult to imagine that any leader or any nation ever came out of any war with entirely clean hands.

War is a limit situation in a world burdened with the effects of original sin. It pushes us to and sometimes beyond our moral capacities. We can only do what we must, and say our prayers.