Did I Serve? I’ve Never Been Under Fire

February 24, 2015

There’s a certain luster in having served in the military. Members of Congress like to claim it, journalists, too, even when these claims don’t turn out to be accurate. Having served in an elite branch of the military or been under fire only increases the luster.

There’s a heroic glow to combat, a stature that comes with participation in violence.

I take this to be a feature of the Chickenhawk Nation that James Fallows talks about in the Tragedy of the American Military. Most of us don’t serve—don’t care to serve—so we give ourselves a free pass by ‘honoring’ those who did serve, even if the honor accorded is cheaply given.

We’re seeing this play out in a series of mini-scandals over false claims. No, Brian Williams never came under fire during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. No, Bill O’Reilly never faced combat. No, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Chief Robert McDonald didn’t serve in the Special Forces. Each has claimed a status never earned.

The truthfulness of such claims by journalists or government officials are worth taking seriously.

But let’s also consider whether we want to pay this homage to war. Are these our principal heroes, those who participate in violence? I would rather we especially honor those who enrich life and seek peace. I like the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that begins “I shall die, but that is all I shall do for Death.”

For the record, I applied for recognition as a conscientious objector, was denied (reasons not given), and twice refused induction into the military. I was arrested but never tried. I’m reluctant to say I never served; I’d rather say I made a different, life-affirming choice.

Conscientious Objector by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

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Do I Love My Country?

February 23, 2015

“I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.” Albert Camus said that, and he added, “I don’t want any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.”

That observation of Albert Camus has been on my mind since the kerfuffle began about Rudy Giuliani saying “I know this is a terrible thing to say but I do not believe that the President [Obama ] loves America.”

Of course that is an offensive thing to say, both inaccurate and ugly. Giuliani made the statement worse by coupling it with this dog whistle: “He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.” That’s a clear appeal to the racists who reject Obama because he is an African American.

Let’s remember that Camus made his declaration while underground, fighting in the Resistance against the Nazis, in the first of his “Letters to a German Friend,” available in Resistance, Rebellion and Death (Knopf, 1960). Camus was fighting for the best of France while being hunted not just by the Nazis but also by the then-Vichy government of France. Camus was a patriot who dared speak the truth.

Do I love my country? I love its ideals, and I’m proud when it lives up to them. And I’m not proud when it doesn’t: when we torture, when we deny the right to vote, when we jail too many, when we spy and lie. When anyone criticizes this country for these and other failures, I don’t take it to be a failure of loving but rather a very act of love. I mind much more when this or any president fails to press for “liberty and justice for all.”

All this was on my mind when I read David Brooks’s Friday column in the New York Times, The Nationalist Solution. Brooks was writing about where ISIS and other variants of Islamic extremism come from. “Extremism is a spiritual phenomenon, a desire for loftiness of spirit gone perverse,” he wrote. “You can’t counter a heroic impulse with a mundane and bourgeois response. You can counter it only with a more compelling heroic vision.” He was arguing against views that tie extremism more mundanely to lack of economic opportunity. I agree with him on this.

But then he added a shout out to a certain kind of nationalism, posing democratic nationalism as the sort of “heroic vision” we need to challenge Islamic fundamentalism. “We sometimes think of nationalism as a destructive force, and it can be,” Brooks wrote. “But nationalism tied to universal democracy has always been uplifting and ennobling. It has organized heroic lives in America, France, Britain and beyond.”

Always? Hardly. Yes, democracy can soften the dangers of nationalism. Yes, I believe “nationalism tied to universal democracy” can be a progressive force that brings good things. In the United States it brought us broader public education, social security and medicare, for example. But it, too, can and has overreached. In the name of “nationalism tied to universal democracy,” minorities can find their rights trampled. That’s been true in “America, France, Britain and beyond.”

I love my country when it extends respect and decency to all human beings (“liberty and justice for all”) not just when it piles up benefits for “us,” whoever “us” may be. I don’t want loving my country to be a pursuit of benefits for us that come at the expense of others who are “not us,” whether those “others” are within our borders or beyond.

I’ve grown increasingly wary of “nationalism” as a progressive principle. I expect I’ll say more about why in the future.

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World’s Top Arms Exporters, 2013

February 22, 2015

Top Arms Exporters 2013This stunning graphic displays all transfers (sales or donations) of major conventional weapons in 2013 from one country to another.  Natalia Bronshtein, a professor and consultant who runs the blog Insightful Interaction, used data from the Siri Arms Transfer Database to construct this.  You can use the interactive version to see more clearly the volume of arms transfers from one country to another. Note that Russia is the largest player, exporting $8.23 billion in arms that year, while the U.S. follows behind with $5.99 billion, and China is a distant third, exporting $1.83 billion in 2013.

Lesson: the major powers flood the world with weapons, making the planet a more violent place.

h/t Knowmore


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Don’t You Just Love Friends? Outhouse Edition

February 13, 2015

From the Durham Friends Meeting (Maine) newsletter (item reprinted in its entirety):

Open Meeting of Trustees  –  Sunday February 22

Re: What to do with the old outhouse

After Worship

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Weltenburg Abbey, Danube Gorge

February 10, 2015

Weltenburg Abbey

Weltenburg Abbey, in Kelheim, Bavaria (north of Munich) on the Danube River. Weltenburg Abbey brewery (Weltenburger Klosterbrauerei) is by some reckonings the oldest monastery brewery in the world, having been in operation since 1050.

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Andrew Sullivan’s Case Against War — and For War

February 6, 2015

Today is the last day of Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, a blog I’ve been reading steadily for a decade. “Biased and balanced” has been its tagline: he’s offered strong opinions, but he’s also carried the opinions of his detractors and critics. He’s stopping because he’s just worn out from the daily grind of blogging. I’ll miss him and what he’s assembled.

In these last days he’s been more ruminative, and this morning he offers some thoughts on The War: “That’s what changed me – and this blog. That’s what changed America. And that’s why Obama is president.”  Sullivan was an early and vigorous proponent of the invasion of Iraq. And then he changed his mind: he became a strong opponent of the endless war against terrorism.

The attack on the twin towers “showed me the depth of human evil in the dark recesses of al Qaeda and Zarqawi and now ISIS,” he notes. An observant Roman Catholic, Sullivan does believe in evil and the possibility of redemption, he has made clear over the years. Then he adds that the Iraq war “showed me that merely dramatically opposing this evil is not enough to stop it – and may even unwittingly embolden and strengthen it.”

That’s the beginning of a general case against war: the beginning of a case for pacifism. We all need to recognize the temptation to meet force with force. It’s not that pacifists aren’t tempted to use violence against violence. It’s rather that we have the next thought: that violence in response only begets more violence: does yet more damage. But Sullivan doesn’t go there as a general proposition.

“I should hasten to add that the war has not left me a pacifist,” Sullivan quickly adds.  “I still believe in the necessity of military force in confronting evil in the world that threatens us.” Sullivan doesn’t say why he hasn’t gone the full distance, and I wish he had, especially given how much his beliefs are grounded in Christianity. I imagine he simply sees no other way to stop the most monstrous violence.

Sullivan continues, “I am merely far, far more convinced than I used to be about war’s capacity to make things worse, its propensity to upend the precious legacy of security and gradual change from which all true progress is made.”

What would it take to convince Sullivan to become a pacifist? What would it take to convince anyone who has looked hard at the reality of war to become a pacifist. That’s thr question on my mind as Sullivan takes his leave.

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Should Iran have Nuclear Weapons?

February 4, 2014

Should Iran have nuclear weapons? Of course not. That seems simple, doesn’t it?

israeli-nukesThe threat to human beings from nuclear weapons was more on our minds during the Cold War. Now we think of them only occasionally, though the world is still littered with them. The current negotiations between Iran and six world powers–the United States plus Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany (the P5+1)–bring such weapons of mass destruction back to our attention.

The aim of the six world powers in the current negotiations is to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. Iran’s stated aim is to develop its capabilities to use nuclear energy. Iran denies it is seeking to build a nuclear weapon.  Iran currently faces sanctions on its economy while the negotiations proceed, and now the issue has become more partisan with the call from most Republican congressmen (joined by a few Democrats) that the sanctions be stiffened to force the Iranians to come to an agreement. The Obama administration is calling for patience, arguing the current sanctions are sufficient and the negotiations need time.

Through all this the Israeli government has been relentless in declaring that it would be unacceptable for Iran to gain nuclear weapons capability. (Some even fear a pre-emptive Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.) John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the House, has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak before Congress on March 3, a move criticized by many. As James Fallows put it, “if there is any precedent for a foreign leader addressing a Joint Meeting of Congress with the obvious intention of criticizing the policy of the current U.S. administration, I haven’t come across it.”

There are important questions here being much discussed in the opinion pages of this country’s newspapers. But I find myself thinking about a question that is never asked in this controversy.

Should anyone have nuclear weapons?

Of the six countries currently negotiating with Iran, five have nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France. (Germany does not.) These five nuclear powers have all signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, first enacted in 1968. 189 countries have signed the agreement: all the members of the United Nations with five exceptions: India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Sudan, and Israel.  India and Pakistan did not sign, both sought to develop nuclear weapons, both have succeeded, and both have publicly declared themselves nuclear powers. North Korea has been seeking nuclear weapons capability and may have achieved that. It has publicly declared it has such capabilities.  South Sudan certainly has not.

Israel does not acknowledge possession of nuclear weapons, but nearly every world expert on the question agrees that Israel, too, has nuclear weapons as well as effective ground-, air-, and sea-based delivery systems for these weapons. The United States has never taken any steps to prevent Israel from having nuclear weapons, and has supplied Israel with many of its delivery systems.

Article VI of the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons obliges the signatories to disarm, or at least to negotiate in good faith toward that end. (“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.”)  At the present time, however, essentially no progress is being made toward such disarmament.

So today, we have five nuclear powers negotiating with Iran to prevent it from having nuclear weapons. The insistence is that Iran not even have the capability to build any weapons even though Iran has signed the non-proliferation agreement and declared it has no intention of building a bomb. At the same time, those five powers are not actively working toward disarmament. And we have Israel, which refused to sign the treaty and has developed nuclear weapons, facing no consequences and now making threats. From this perspective, it is easy to see why Iran feels it is not being accorded a measure of respect. From where they sit, some countries are being treated as trustworthy, and it is being treated as untrustworthy. It is difficult to negotiate under those premises.

I’d feel much better about the Iran negotiations if the five original nuclear powers were working actively on disarmament and insisting that all the other current nuclear powers (India, Pakistan, and Israel) join them in the effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Should anyone have nuclear weapons? No. We can’t forget how to make them, but we can destroy the ones we have.  Let’s all join together toward that end.

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