Monday, May 18, 2009

Isaiah 5: Rumsfeld and the Infidels


So, as many of you may have noticed--especially those of you who are sad at not having W. to kick around any more--the most recent issue of GQ features a worthy rehashing of some of the previous administration's late crimes and misdemeanors. Among the juiciest tidbits, however, is information on former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's plastering of Bible passages on the front pages of intelligence briefings shown to President Bush.

At one level, this is just more evidence for a scary Christianizing of the military, recently reported in an excellent Harper's piece by Jeff Sharlet. However, what's more interesting to me is that Rumsfeld isn't just quoting the Bible--he's quoting it poorly. Let me explain ...

The front cover of one of these briefings features a passage from the prophet Isaiah: "Their arrows are sharp, all their bows are strung; their horses' hoofs seem like flint, their chariot wheels are like a whirlwind" (5:28). This is cut between photos of tanks lined up under a desert sun, devout soldiers kneeling to pray (presumably not to Allah), and military men heaving packs in the sandy dusk.

Biblically speaking, this passage comes in the midst of the Isaiah author's description of a preternaturally strong military force whose power comes straight from the Lord. Listen to some other snippets from the same chapter: "None of them is weary, none stumbles, / none slumbers or sleeps ... Their roaring is like a lion, / like young lions they roar; / they growl and seize their prey, / they carry it off, and no one can rescue" (27; 29). The implication is clear--the U.S. Army is powered by God-juice, and their enemies do not stand a chance against the inspired killing machine. (Personally, I would have liked it had Rumsfeld included an adjacent verse--"not a loincloth is loose" (27)--if only because it's funny to think about American soldiers wandering the Iraq desert in tight Speedos.)

However, if such use of the Isaiah text is meant to imply--as some media observers believe--that God is on the side of the American military as they wage a holy war on the (Islamic?) infidels, Rumsfeld and his cronies couldn't have gotten it more hilariously wrong. Because the text's big dark joke is that Isaiah is describing the bad guys!

You see, one of God's favorite tricks--especially in the Hebrew Bible--is to punish the Israelites by sending pagan foreign warlords to sack the land. Hence here, Isaiah isn't talking about some holy-rolling Hebrew/proto-Christian militia--he's talking about the Assyrians, sent by God to destroy the Israelites for their latest sins! If Rummy had only started reading a few verses earlier: "Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, / and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them, ... He will raise a signal for a nation far away, / and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth" (5:25-26). So, instead of favorably comparing the U.S. military to God's chosen, Rumsfeld's unwittingly saying that they're marauding infidels.

And do you want to know what's even funnier? This Assyrian empire God calls down to do his dirty work gets its start--wait for it--in what is now Northern Iraq. The irony is too delicious.

Which gets me around to one of the main purposes for continuing this Bible blog. We all need to know the Bible better, whether we're cabinet-level secretaries or bottom-feeding semi-corporate functionaries or unemployed Ph.D.'s. And not just so we don't look stupid when GQ publishes our old military logs and proves that we know nothing about the scripture we self-righteously and wrong-headedly quote.

Obviously, I don't condone Rumsfeld's slapping scripture on the front of his war manuals--it's wrong on too many levels. But if he was going to do it, at least he could have done it well.

2 comments:

  1. The nature in which the ex-SOD probably used scripture to convince or encourage W in his decision-making smacks of teacher-student dynamics, as well. I'm sure Rumsfeld knew that W would be more likely to put his name on something he could sell to the base.

    And I'm trying to decipher his expression in the picture. Kind of "what you talkin' about Willis?!" purse of the lips, perhaps?

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  2. Love it! Thanks for reminding us that there are still idiots to kick around, even with W. out of office...

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