Saturday, January 12, 2008

Feeling war

When I was in my late teens and early twenties I began reading everything I could find by Thomas Merton whose explorations of Catholic and Asian mysticism spoke to my own spiritual yearnings. It wasn't such a long leap from there to the radical and pacifistic writings of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement founded in 1933. My dalliance with pacifism and radical poverty was borne perhaps ironically, out of an idealism that I had inherited from my father, himself a career military man and Vietnam veteran who became a Catholic during his service in Southeast Asia. My father never ever relished the bellicose rhetoric of war; rather, he spoke of duty, of defending freedom, of helping those in need. He meant the words he said, and when he volunteered to go to Vietnam in 1968 it was for him the natural extension of turning belief into action. The priests he met there helping orphaned children, inspired him, and when he came home to us, he was a practicing Catholic. We said rosaries at home for world peace and world hunger and for the sick and dying. My father's military calling was informed by an intention pure and simple to serve always on the side of the angels, at least insofar as he could discern what that side was.
It is that simple equation, that ideas and convictions must translate into action that my father imprinted on me. In yet another irony, the very pacifistic ideas which I first discovered in Merton and which informed in part my own opposition to the Vietnam War can be traced to my father putting Merton's spiritual autobiography The Seven Story Mountain in my hands as a young teen.
In the years since then, I've turned away from religion and from pacifism. The catholic definition of a just war remains a coherent notion to me as does, perhaps paradoxically, the notion that war is inherently evil. To quote Whitman, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself."
It's hard therefore for me to talk about the war in Iraq without feeling profoundly conflicted. For one thing, I can't shake the idea that for most Americans, myself included, the war has been more of a media event than anything else. The word "war" has been bandied about so often and in so many guises and contexts that I fear we have become inured to the word and even the thing itself.
To be sure, there are American soldiers in Iraq serving, dying (over 3,000 last time I checked), and getting wounded over there. For those veterans, their families and friends the Iraq war is something all too real.
Yet a nation really at war doesn't need to be reminded that it is at war, does it? Doesn't it feel war viscerally; feel it upon waking in the morning; carry it about as it carries on with life, and try to escape it as it closes its eyes to sleep at night? War, it would seem, is a thing that invades your space and your sense of well being and occupies your universe leaving you yearning for peace, perhap trying to remember what peace even feels like.
I do not feel this war, not in the way that I imagine others have felt war, other Americans in different wars. I ask myself, why? Why don't I feel it?
It's not that I crave the experience of war so much as I grieve the absent sense of purpose. Living begets a desire for purpose. The thought that soldiers go to die, that civilians are killed, and that this happens for no morally compelling reason is hard, very hard to swallow.
Perhaps this is what it feels like not to know what our own language signifies any more, to be told we're at war, to be cajoled into believing it without feeling war today. Perhaps war today is less purposeful than it formerly was (though I doubt it). Perhaps a powerful sense of purpose feeds great wars, engulfs entire populations, levels cities, kills their inhabitants wholesale while a weak and vacillating purpose leads to showy, inept little wars which justify themselves to the common man in part by pointedly not resorting to wholesale slaughter all the while prudently regretting the inevitable collateral damage of its more pliant and political designs. Perhaps between a great and not so great war there isn't really much to chose from. Or is there?
It's not that I pine for a great war over the one that's been handed to us; rather, my sense of justice and democratic idealism is incompatible with the notion that we are a people who would allow proxies to fight our wars for us, that we are willing to subcontract out our dirty work and to fight our battles on the cheap by the most politically expedient means possible. Worst of all, I am offended by the dissonance in our own national discourse that speaks of threats to freedom and security by invoking the victims of 9-11 yet is strangely mute on the terrible price inflicted on the Iraqi people by the war there.
We in America tend to think of the Iraq war as our war, but the numbers say otherwise. In a country with a population roughly the same as Texas, Iraq has by the most recent and conservative count lost 151,000 people to this conflict. Texas, by contrast, has lost 330 soldiers. I doubt there is anyone in Iraq who has a hard time "feeling" this war. How many of us have reflected on the notion that our commander in chief has not so much led Americans to war as he has taken it upon himself to embroil the Iraqi people in a war?
There is a side of me that is ashamed by the asymmetry of suffering. Have we stood shoulder to shoulder with the Iraqi people in their fight against a common enemy (Saddam?...Al Quaida?) and have we mingled our blood with theirs in a way that is truly mutual, OR have we risked the least possible cost, dispensed favors here and there, and attempted to pull the proper levers in the hopes of harvesting a windfall benefit if not to the Iraqis then at least to ourselves? The former description befits a just and defensible war of self defense while the latter describes the cynical machinations of empire. Who are we and who do we want to be?
The fact that so many Iraqis continue to say that they are glad that the US invasion deposed Saddam only underscores how stark and horrible have been the circumstances under which these people have been forced to live for so long. But for a president to cynically trade on this horror as if it were a blank check for tinkering almost absent-mindedly with their lives is, I think, unworthy of any government that stakes a claim to moral leadership in the world.
I don't just point the finger at Bush either. I do fault him and his administration for incompetence, moral neglect and subversion of the Constitution, but I fault the Congress and ultimately us for believing that because we were America we were exempt from paying the real price of taking up arms. I fault us for surrendering almost without a whimper our constitutional duty to decide when and where to declare war. We let Bush have the war he wanted preferring to delude ourselves that it would be the equivalent of a walk-off home run, all shock and awe, a cinematic moment...and then, mission accomplished.
A leader earns no thanks or honor from his people for simply leading them into war; he earns scorn, however, for failing to rally them all to a common purpose that will inspire them to bear and feel and, later perhaps, celebrate enormous sacrifice.
The sacrifices of this war have been borne disproportionately by people, American and Iraqi, who have died on the margins of our awareness. And for what? Anyway you slice that, it is a travesty.


Anonymous erin said...

Reading your thoughts on war has made me conscious (in a new way) of how I react to seeing the word "war" in the news. I agree that we don't feel war the same way that other wars have been felt. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

6:28 AM  

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