A CENTURY AGO, William James first delivered ''The Moral Equivalent of War" at Stanford. The speech, since chosen by Joyce Carol Oates for inclusion in ''The Best American Essays of the Century," argued that while humanity's martial spirit could not be denied, we might be able to find ways to harness it into national unity and good work.
Jimmy Carter tried the ''moral equivalent" to ease his oil woes, and ''The war on . . . ," be it drugs or poverty or terror, is a holdover of the same basic idea. But the Bush administration has finally perfected the tactic. Its moral equivalent of war is -- war.
Indeed, with Republican claims of promoting religious pluralism in Iraq and of being generally more pragmatic than Democrats, it's surprising they don't invoke William James, religious thinker, founder of Pragmatism, and advocate of religious pluralism, by name.
Problem is James wasn't even close to a Republican.
''The great thing is to get the Republicans infernally stopped; and stopped quick!" James said of the 1900 election.
More eerie is the way he wrote in correspondence to friends of the American occupation of the Philippines in the Spanish-American war, the conflict of his time. Don't panic if this starts to sound a little familiar.
By the mid-1890s, America had been at peace for 30 years. Grover Cleveland's philosophy on Venezuela kicked off debate as to whether foreign policy should become a little more preemptive. Ring a bell? And in 1898, the sinking of the Maine settled the issue (a la 9/11), and a nationalistic spirit kicked into high gear.
For James, the incident illustrated how ''a nation's ideals can be changed in the twinkling of an eye."
The war went well until victories over the Spanish fleet (read the Taliban) transmuted into imperial ambition, and America set about an occupation of the Philippines (Iraq), before it decided what to do with a captured Cuba.
James predicted we would never hold Cuba permanently, and joined the Anti-Imperialist League. He served as its vice president. Watching the Philippine occupation from afar, he worried over atrocities and torture committed by the American side (Abu Ghraib), and noted that our ''elevation" of the natives amounted to opening 300 saloons there (Afghan opium). The conflict in the Philippines eventually cost far more American lives than the ''splendid" war in Cuba.
In 1899, Theodore Roosevelt, who fought in Cuba, delivered ''The Strenuous Life," a speech that defended Cleveland's original ambition and suggested that everyone who did not support it was a weakling (Cheney or Schwarzenegger). Roosevelt had been James's student in a class at Harvard. They had sparred even then, and after ''The Strenuous Life" appeared James lashed back in a public letter and claimed he was ''done with the man who can utter such brazen and impudent lies"(Cheney or Bush).
As the nation prepared for the election that would land Roosevelt on the McKinley ticket, James worried that ''militarism would replace democratic, rational attempts at negotiations" (pre-invasion Iraq). The ongoing Philippine Question revealed ''a mission of impregnating the Philippines with American ideals and educating them for freedom. You may depend on it that it is sheer illusion, and can only mean rottenness and ruin for them. . . . it is hopeless, and we shall soon be engaged with all our troops, against the 'insurgents.' "
For James, this all amounted to the ''death of the old American soul." He wasn't so concerned with the money of it all. ''There are worse things than financial trouble in a nation's career. [Running close to a quarter trillion dollars now.] To puke up its ancient soul . . . in five minutes without a wink of squeamishness, is worse; and that is what the Republicans commit us to in the Philippines."
By then the government's ''snide ideals" (Bush smirking) disgusted James, and he believed that in ''the Philippine Islands we are simply pirates" (all that buried oil).
One might conclude from all this that James would have been upset when McKinley was assassinated and the strenuous Roosevelt sneaked into the presidency. But he wasn't. James consoled himself with what he could probably anticipate from having had the young Theo in vertebrate class: Roosevelt's reverence for wilderness and his establishment of national parks.
William wrote to Henry James, ''Roosevelt has some splendid qualities and may do well." Too bad we cannot console ourselves with some morally equivalent thought today.