Tomdispatch Interview: James Carroll, American Fundamentalisms

[Note to Tomdispatch readers: After a long break, this is the thirteenth in a series of interviews at the site. The previous twelve were collected in the book Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters.]

American Exceptionalism Meets Team Jesus
A Tomdispatch Interview with James Carroll

He’s a man who knows something about the dangers of mixing religious fervor, war, and the crusading spirit, a subject he dealt with eloquently in his book Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. A former Catholic priest turned antiwar activist in the Vietnam era, James Carroll also wrote a moving memoir about his relationship to his father, the founding director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. Carroll essentially grew up in that five-sided monument to American imperial power. For him, as a boy, the Pentagon was “the largest playhouse in the world” and he can still remember sliding down its ramps in his stocking feet, as he’s written in the introduction to his recent, magisterial history of that building and the institution it holds, House of War.

As a weekly columnist for the Boston Globe, he was perhaps the first media figure to notice — and warn against — a presidential “slip of the tongue” just after the assaults of 9/11, when George W. Bush referred briefly to his new Global War on Terror as a “crusade.” He was possibly the first mainstream columnist in the country to warn against the consequences of launching a war against Afghanistan in response to those attacks — now just another of the President’s missions unaccomplished; and, in September 2003, he was possibly the first to pronounce the Iraq War “lost” in print. (“The war in Iraq is lost. What will it take to face that truth this time?”) His stirring columns on the early years of our President’s attempt to bring “freedom” to the world at the point of a cruise missile were collected in Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War. In those years, Carroll was a powerful, moral voice from — to use a very American phrase — the (media) wilderness until much of our American world finally caught up with him.

He has most recently completed, with director Oren Jacoby, a stirring documentary film, also entitled Constantine’s Sword, in which he explores the roots of religiously inspired violence in our present world. He submitted to a Tomdispatch interview back in August 2005 and when, this summer, I suggested that we meet again, he agreed to discuss “American fundamentalisms,” a subject that receives remarkably less coverage and consideration than other fundamentalisms of our world.

We met on a warm day, just after a rare downpour in a dry summer, in the study of his house in Massachusetts. His many books dot the bookshelves. Out the window is a piney landscape, not quite the one the Puritans first saw when they arrived early in the seventeenth century, but beautiful nonetheless. Carroll, his hair graying, has not so much a worn, as a well inhabited face. You can see him thinking as he speaks — not so common a trait as you might imagine. As he warms up to the subject of American fundamentalisms, his voice gains the quiet, yet powerful passion that any reader of his weekly columns has come to expect, a passion that nonetheless leaves room for reason and criticism, for further thought.

I put my two small tape recorders on a modest coffee table, turn them on, ask my first question, and discover that this is an interview in name only. It’s more like being back in the most riveting classroom of my life. A single lecture, an hour’s genuine education, stretching from our first Puritan moments to George Bush’s Iraq, with hardly an interpolation needed on my part. So join me, kick back, and learn something about what’s fundamental to us.

Click here to read more of this dispatch.

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