Bob Keeler standing in front of an Army jeep

The Forgotten Warrior. During his thirteen-month tour in Korea, from 1968 to 1969, Bob Keeler worked in military intelligence (“a major oxymoron”). It was mostly a desk job, but here, he’s refereeing a field exercise. At the time, he really thought he looked cool.

My letter from Lyndon Johnson came with a subway token.

The correspondence started formally: “From the President of the United States, greeting.” Just one greeting, not even two. Times were tough.

The token was taped to the top of a separate page, a sheet of directions from my local draft board in the New York City borough of Queens. Those instructions helpfully advised me what trains to take from Queens to the Armed Forces Induction Station at 39 Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan.

Decades later, I still have that page of instructions. The token is still at the top, under yellowed tape.

For many years, this piece of paper has sat in my files, primarily because I hate to throw away anything that might later “come in handy.” During most of that time, buried deep in a file drawer, it had no particular significance to me. I was 21 years old when it arrived in the mail, and I had never given any serious thought at all to issues of war and peace. I had no sense of its human cost over the centuries, no concept of the rivers of blood that it spilled, no understanding of what my Christian faith had to say on the issue, no insight into the essential nonviolence of the Gospel. I lived in a thick fog of unknowing.

Now, with the nation launched into a new war, I am glad that I still have the paper and the token. They “come in handy” to remind me of the thinking that I failed to do then, and they goad me to examine this war far more critically, in light of my uncritical acceptance of what the nation was doing in Southeast Asia.

In important ways, of course, the situation now is starkly different from the one in 1965. The most crucial difference is the emotional temperature. In 1965, before the coverage of the war expanded, Vietnam felt terribly distant. But the current conflict began with more than 3,000 people dying in one day on American soil, in a horribly visible way. So most Americans feel a close emotional connection to what is happening in Afghanistan. The 24-hour-a-day presence of CNN and Fox News serve to keep those emotions high.

But high emotion does not protect against deep ignorance. This conflict, which began in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, then moved to Afghanistan, seems likely to spread to Iraq and beyond. Its roots and its consequences are immensely complicated, and we should all be examining it intelligently, rather than simply accepting slogans. Yet, with so much at stake, millions of Americans are almost as clueless about foreign affairs as I was in the Vietnam years. For them, as for me, there can be no excuse.

As the country sinks deeper into this new war, I am actually grateful for my earlier inattention to foreign policy, because it gives me some insight into the persistent ignorance that characterizes the popular response to the events of September 11. I offer this story—my own story—as a cautionary tale, an admonition that it is time to pay attention now or regret it bitterly later. And if it should come to pass that Congress reinstates the draft, I hope my experiences will serve as a how-not-to guide for today’s draft-age men and women.

I Fail to Dodge the Draft

To get back to that token: as glad as I am that I still have it, I have to ask myself why I saved it, instead of spending it on my subway ride to induction. The reason was probably nothing more mysterious than the nasty strain of obsessive-compulsive behavior that has plagued me from childhood, compelling me always to organize, to save, to file.

It was that obsessiveness that had allowed me to be drafted in the first place. Through my first year at Fordham University, I had received no grade lower than an A—not because any great career goal was driving me, but simply because imperfection always seemed like such a hideous option. In my sophomore year, crazed by the possibility that I might have to settle for a B+ in one course, I made a brilliant decision: Rather than blemish my perfect grades, I would drop out.

It was a breathtakingly neurotic choice, one that would alter the course of my life. After leaving school, I took a job as a copy boy and later a desk assistant at the New York Herald Tribune. It was my first chance to witness the craft of journalism at a high professional level. Every day, I worked in the presence of such great writers as Jimmy Breslin, Red Smith, Tom Wolfe, Richard Reeves, Dick Schaap, and Walter Kerr.

Though I loved that job, it had a serious drawback. Unlike the academic world that I had left behind, it offered me no protection from the draft. Worse, at a time when young men of my age were spending much of their time thinking of ways not to get drafted, I was not really thinking about the draft at all.

It was 1965, and the U.S. government was frantically shipping more troops to Vietnam. The newspapers were full of these stories, and I worked every day at one of the greatest newspapers in America. The wires hummed with news of Vietnam, and the Tribune’s staff was on the case. On at least one occasion, my job put me in direct contact with the war.

The legendary Jimmy Breslin had cabled a column from Vietnam. It arrived in one long, unbroken string of words, and my job was to break it into paragraphs. Characteristically, I was far more worried about the horrible possibility of paragraphing the story in a way that would displease the great Breslin than I was about the events that he was reporting.

At about that time, a mail carrier delivered the letter from Lyndon. I don’t recall the precise circumstances, but I have a vague memory of being surprised. Nearly four decades later, I am still astonished at the murky process inside my head that was masquerading as thought. The president’s frugal salutation and the tiny token should have put me on high alert, like the first notes of scary music in a horror movie. I should have concluded by then, as so many others had, that the war was a totally immoral enterprise, a conflict that our nation had no business entering. If I had been thinking at all, the arrival of that letter should have driven me into a frenzy of belated planning to avoid the draft.

Instead, I meekly rode the subway to 39 Whitehall Street. This ugly, fortress-like building near the southern tip of Manhattan eventually became a concrete symbol for the whole war. It stood just blocks away from the site where excavation would begin, a few months later, for the World Trade Center.

Soon after I arrived, I went through the famously humiliating physical exam, brilliantly satirized by folk singer Arlo Guthrie in his song “Alice’s Restaurant.” As the mass inspection of body parts unfolded, the command I remember best was: “Bend down, grab the cheeks of your ass, and spread ’em.”

The result of my physical would have elated many young Americans. The military classified me 1-Y. That meant I was temporarily unable to serve because of some physical defect. Instead of leaping for joy, I was offended. Why would my country reject me?

It might have been my acne, or the collarbone I had fractured a decade earlier in elementary school. Or maybe it was just a mistake by the doctors. Whatever it was, I didn’t have long to wonder: The government soon decided that my bodily imperfection was not really a threat to national security, and I was good enough for military service after all. (As I later learned, “good enough for military service” is not exactly high praise.) They ordered me to report for induction on November 15, 1965. I raised my right hand, took one step forward, and solemnly promised to defend the nation.

To this day, I look back at the high seriousness of that moment and marvel at the cosmic emptiness of my head. I was not thinking antiwar thoughts. Nor was I swelling with patriotic fervor, eager to kill Communists for America. I was just there, inert and not alert.

The Army, as I quickly learned, did not encourage its young troops to think. Whenever a recruit dared to say, “I thought,” some sergeant would bark: “If you were authorized to think, the government would have issued you a brain.”

Nonetheless, in that first week of military service, I was still trying to think. I even had a “plan” for my Army career. At the Herald Tribune, one of my colleagues had attended a military journalism school and then served the nation in his chosen craft. That sounded good to me. So I memorized his MOS—my first army acronym. It stood for Military Occupational Specialty, the little code that described your job. His MOS was 71Q20, information specialist.

Smugly, I cradled this magic code in my mind as I carried my DA Form 20 through a processing line at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, the first stop in my military career. The DA Form 20 is an enlisted soldier’s personal military record, printed on stiff yellow paper. Mine was mostly blank as I approached the low-level clerk who was about to assign me to my first job in the Army. This was my plan: I would tell him I wanted to be a 71Q20. In his astonishment that I even knew what an MOS was, he would meekly write down the code, and I’d be on my way to training as an army journalist.

As the clerk looked up at me briefly, I spoke confidently. “I’d like to be a 71Q20, information specialist.”

He casually penciled in 11A10. Armor crewman.

It was then that I had my first great epiphany concerning military absurdity. My destiny was not to write, but to drive tanks. Hell, I was a city boy. I didn’t even know how to drive a car.

I Learn to Be a Killer

Before I knew it, I was climbing onto a rickety Saturn Airlines propeller plane, with all my goods in one olive drab duffel bag. The plane landed hours later in Fort Hood, Texas, the home of the 2nd Armored Division. There, in a tank company recently converted to a basic training unit to help turn out the long lines of men needed to prosecute the war in Vietnam, I learned to be a soldier.

It never occurred to me to question the central premises of our training. The sergeant would demand loudly, “What is the spirit of the bayonet?” We would reply in unison: “To kill!” Instead of seeing in that ritual the cruel reality at the core of all armies, I worried about polishing my boots and shining my brass.

At my first permanent assignment, as a personnel clerk in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I spent my time and energy learning to type officer efficiency reports perfectly, with no typos and no erasures. I could have seen the presence of the United States Army Special Forces, a particularly savage and remorseless collection of professional killers, as an occasion for reflection on the brutality of warfare. Instead, I just loved the jaunty way they wore their green berets. In fact, I bought one and sent it home as a present to Judy, the woman I had met at a going-away party right before I left for the Army. Now, after being married to Judy for thirty-two years, I cringe at the memory that my first gift to her was a symbol of war.

It was at Bragg that my brother Richie and I crossed paths for the only time during our military service. He was on his way to Vietnam. By then, I had grown tired of being a clerk and soured on life in a barracks with dozens of other men, many of whom played country and Western music loudly on their radios. So I had decided to apply for Officer Candidate School, even though that would extend my military obligation from a draftee’s two years to something more than three. Richie and I said our goodbyes, and he reminded me that, even after I had my lieutenant’s gold bars, he would never salute me.

At the Artillery and Missile Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, my one obsession was learning how to get an artillery round to its target. One day, I led the fire direction center, the part of an artillery unit that calculates map coordinates, wind, temperature, and other variables to produce an accurate trajectory. We launched a barrage of timed-fuse rounds into the air, exploding them right over a heap of scrap cars on the practice range. Not bothering to ponder what it might have been like to be a person standing below that lethal rain of shrapnel, I rejoiced at the abstract perfection of our mathematical achievement.

On Sundays, I found solace from the demanding routine of my training by attending Mass. Not once did I even think about the utter incompatibility between the nonviolent Gospel of Jesus and my studies. After church, I’d go back to mastering the murderous math of war. Once again, my obsessive focus on grades was obscuring the obvious. Instead of thinking seriously about the morality of what American artillery was doing to Vietnamese bodies, I contented myself with conquering trigonometry and finishing first in my class.

That little distinction had one value: It gave my preference of assignments some weight. So I ended up as an information officer at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. There, I returned to the craft of journalism, as a supervisor of the post’s newspaper. I also wrote a patriotic speech or two for the post commander. What I did not do was give much thought to the ultimate meaning of the National Security Agency, the super-secret spy organization that eavesdropped electronically on the whole world from its headquarters at Fort Meade.

After less than a full year at Meade, I received a letter from the Pentagon. When I opened it, I found a set of orders reassigning me to the 4th United States Army Missile Command, APO San Francisco 96208. APO meant Army Post Office. I knew that the APO in San Francisco served troops throughout Asia. Was I being sent to Vietnam? The orders did not tell me the exact location of my assignment. With a growing sense of dread, I walked to the post office at Fort Meade, went up to the window, and meekly asked the clerk where APO SF 96208 might be.

He matter-of-factly informed me: “Korea.”

I was relieved, of course, but also curious about the factors that had spared me a trip to the rice paddies. I called the Pentagon and spoke to the officer who had made the assignment. His reasoning was sound: For a year after graduating from artillery officer candidate school, I had not even come close to an artillery piece. If he had sent me to Vietnam as an artillery officer, I would have been instant dead meat.

He had a point. Of course, I might have ended up in the comparative safety of a fire direction center. But I might also have become a forward observer. The role of the artillery forward observer is to travel with the frontline infantry troops and guide artillery barrages down on the heads of the nearby enemy—without dropping them by mistake on American troops. I shudder to think of the damage I might have done, to both sides, had the U.S. Army sent me to Vietnam in that capacity. By then, I had also learned that the life expectancy of forward observers was rather brief. It was odd, but typical of my mindset, that this reality had not occurred to me when I chose to leave my clerk’s job at Fort Bragg to become an artillery officer.

There, too, I lucked out. My artillery battalion at Fort Bragg later went to Vietnam as a unit.

I Live to Regret the War

In Korea, the Army put me in a contradictory, even schizophrenic, assignment. My primary duty was military intelligence (another great oxymoron, like “army journalism”). Working in the S2, the intelligence section of command headquarters, I found myself the custodian of hundreds of secret and top secret documents. As an additional duty, I supervised the production of the command’s modest little newspaper and handled public relations. In other words, my job was simultaneously to keep secrets and to deliver the news.

By then, Judy and I were engaged, and we corresponded almost every day, exchanging letters and taped conversations, because phone calls home from Korea were too expensive. Our relationship had unfolded almost entirely by mail, but even at that great distance, we had a deep disagreement. More immersed in the real world than I was, she had already sensed that the war in Vietnam was deeply wrong. But I had swallowed the propaganda of a film that the Army showed often during my training, called Why Vietnam? I should have listened to her, but I stubbornly refused and moped angrily. Still, I missed her and counted the days until we could develop our relationship in person, instead of on paper and on tape.

To maintain my sanity during the thirteen months of my tour, I taught English at the radio station in Chunchon, bought a good camera, and learned to develop my own film in a crafts shop at Camp Page. On a military exercise, I took endless photos of the Honest John tactical missiles, rejoicing when one photo skillfully captured the exact moment when it roared off the launcher toward a distant target. It did not even occur to me to wonder what one of those thunderous missiles might do to a group of human beings at the other end.

Nor did I give much thought to the targeting documents that we maintained in our files. I worried about what would happen to me if failed to protect the security of the documents, but I didn’t worry about the lives that they might someday enable my unit to snuff out, many miles away from the launchers. Nor did I have moral qualms about being part of a unit that could put tactical nuclear weapons on the tips of its rockets.

But in its own manner, the Army did teach me something in Korea about the way the United States makes enemies, on a retail level. The Army understood from experience that the average seventeen-year-old American male can cause an astonishing amount of mischief when he leaves an American post and sets foot in “the economy” of the host nation. As a “Cold War officer,” my job was to brief these teenagers about the hard-working people and the ancient culture of Korea before they were allowed off post for the first time, and to warn them about previous occasions when young Americans in foreign lands had created nasty incidents in other nations.

By the end of my thirteen months at Camp Page, I had grown disillusioned with the Army. Even so, my disillusionment was pale and feeble, a reaction to the everyday stupidities of “the Army way,” rather than an intelligent, principled response to the deeper questions of the U.S. presence in Korea. In a mild protest against the imperative to get soldiers to “re-up,” or sign on for more years in the Army, I counseled friends on the benefits of leaving. Eventually, I even earned a minor reputation as “the command un-up officer.”

Far from seeing this attitude as a threat, my commanding officer was amused. He considered me a good officer.

During my year in Korea—all of 1968 and the first month of 1969—I missed an immense amount of turmoil in the United States: the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York, the turbulent Democratic national convention in Chicago. Somehow, I persuaded myself that Richard Nixon’s experience as a vice president would make him a better president than Hubert Humphrey, and I voted for Nixon by absentee ballot.

If I had remained on a college campus for those years between 1965 and 1968, I now like to think, the salutary virus of dissent might have infected me, jolting me from my lethargy and moving me to protest an immoral war. But it didn’t happen. I got home from Korea, threw my expensive dress blue uniform in the garbage, and got on with my life. I resumed my interrupted career in journalism, and Judy and I got married a few months after my discharge.

Through the 1970s and ’80s, I paid little attention to what was going on overseas. I woke up about the Vietnam War in time to vote for George McGovern, the antiwar candidate, in 1972. But I devoted no real study to what had led to the war, nor to the broad sweep of American foreign policy that had made it almost inevitable. Instead, I kept my nose buried in my work (I was now a reporter at Newsday) and in my family. That, of course, is no excuse. There is no reason why I could not have raised my two daughters and my consciousness at the same time.

Then in 1983, my brother Richie died, at age thirty-six. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was to identify his body, horribly decomposed after he had lain, dead, for a day or more in his overheated apartment, where a friend eventually found him. He had been suffering from severe headaches for months, and he had odd symptoms, such as a total intolerance for alcohol. But the doctors couldn’t give us a definitive cause of death.

In the months after, as a way of coping with Richie’s death, I decided to write a magazine piece about it for Newsday’s Sunday magazine. In doing the reporting for that piece, I contacted some of the men who had served in his combat engineer battalion in Vietnam and discovered that some had displayed the same symptoms that had plagued Richie. We had no positive proof of it, but we suspected—and still suspect—that his combat exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange contributed to his death.

Even before I did the reporting that led me to that conclusion, I had a visceral sense that the government was responsible for his death. It overtook me as I walked into a funeral parlor in Queens for his wake. His coffin was closed, and on top of it sat an American flag, folded crisply into a triangle. Without even thinking about it, I removed the flag and threw it on the floor of a closet.

From that day to this, I do not take off my hat for the flag, pledge allegiance to it, or find comfort in its colors.

Bob Keeler leads peace activists in prayer

Reformed Soldier. Almost every year on Good Friday, on the streets where he once looked askance at peace activists and soldiers with insufficiently shined boots, Bob Keeler now participates in the Good Friday peace walk along Manhattan’s 42nd Street. In this photo from the 2000 peace walk, he and other members of Pax Christi Long Island lead people in prayer from the back of a flatbed truck.

Two Lessons Learned

The death of my brother Richie in 1983, which we attributed to his earlier exposure to the contaminated herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam, should have awakened me completely from my ignorance about our nation’s foreign policy. Sadly, it did not.

For the remainder of the 1980s, I should have been studying the way our nation was supporting the murder and the disappearances of the poor in Latin America, and cozying up to regimes that popularized slogans such as Be a patriot. Kill a priest.” But I kept my nose buried in work and family and paid little attention to what was happening in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The cosmic alarm clock that finally aroused me from my decades-long slumber was Operation Desert Storm. At the time the first President George Bush began to utter his bumbling and inarticulate justifications for what became known as the Gulf War, I was working on a long-term project for Newsday about the State University of New York. In the all-hands-on-deck situation of Desert Storm, my editors asked me to help with the war coverage, by writing about the peace movement.

The irony was acute. When I was a soldier myself, home on leave and walking the streets of Manhattan on a date with Judy, I would sneer at soldiers I passed on the street who had not sufficiently spit-shined their boots. Worse, Judy reminds me that I didn’t hesitate to make snide remarks about war protesters.

Now, I found myself flying to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with radical attorney Ron Kuby, counsel to a group of Marine Corps reservists who were seeking conscientious objector status. They had joined the Marine Corps for a variety of reasons, including the extra money that they could earn as reservists while pursuing other goals in civilian life. Some of them thought it could make them real men. That, after all, is why so many teenagers join the Marine Corps. Our society lionizes this proudly homicidal institution as the paradigm of elite competence and muscular patriotism. The term “ex-Marine” has become a stock description in journalism, a brief phrase that is intended to communicate toughness and virtue, no matter how far back in his past a person served in the Marines.

A quarter-century after my own near miss with the Marines at the induction station in Manhattan, I was interviewing these young men at Camp Lejeune, who had joined the Marine Corps and then had begun to read, think and have second thoughts about its primary enterprise: killing. Not surprisingly, other Marines viewed their position as suspect, even cowardly. But these objectors impressed me as serious people with legitimate concerns.

In those early weeks of 1991, before the short and brutal war that destroyed much of Iraq in a matter of days, I spoke with a wide variety of peace groups. For a story about Bush’s assertion that this conflict fit the criteria for a just war, I interviewed the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, the great Jesuit peacemaker. “I think the whole debate is useless, and that it’s a distraction from the main issue and an abandonment of Christ’s teaching,” Berrigan said. “It’s really quite simple: Love your enemies and do good to those who do evil to you, and do not kill.”

One of the people I interviewed was Sister Mary Lou Kownacki, the national coordinator of Pax Christi USA, the American section of the international Catholic peace movement. Shamefully, I had by then spent nearly fifty years as a Catholic, without ever managing to learn about Pax Christi. “We do not feel that peaceful negotiations were given all the effort that they deserve,” Sister Mary Lou said. “We do not feel that the good achieved by this war will outweigh the possible evils.”

At that moment, despite the insistent beating of the war drums, Sister Mary Lou sounded totally sensible and well-informed. From the vantage point of today, she looks positively prophetic. That war, essentially fought to preserve cheap oil for American consumers and to rescue the despotic regimes in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia who supply much of that oil, has brought about endless evil. As many as a million Iraqis, many of them children, are dead as a result of the war and the embargo that followed. About 260,000 American veterans of the war have filed medical claims, many of them suffering from the poorly understood Gulf War Syndrome. And the sanctions against Iraq—along with the continued presence of thousands of American troops in Saudi Arabia—have stirred up hatred of the United States in Muslim countries.

Something happened to me in my conversation with Sister Mary Lou and my talks with other salt-of-the-earth Christians who were objecting to the war. The scales fell from my eyes, and I began to see how much my lifelong ignorance had concealed from my view. So I found a local Pax Christi group and joined, sitting at the feet of a marvelous peacemaker named Joop van der Grinten.

During World War II, Joop had fought the Nazis in Holland, but he later overcame his hatred for them. During the Vietnam War, he became a draft counselor. Joop has served the peace movement in every conceivable way, including his conscious decision to live below the poverty level, to avoid having to pay taxes to a government that uses the money for bombs. With his snow-white hair and his endless stream of stories, told in a thick Dutch accent, Joop is a memorable character.

As I struggled toward a deeper understanding of my faith and its ideas about peace and war, Joop was my first mentor. Soon, I was asked to join the council of Pax Christi Long Island, the regional presence of Pax Christi USA. Beyond what I learned in our discussions at the monthly council meetings and at the gatherings with Joop’s group, I began to study on my own. As a young man, I had studied for one reason: to get good marks. Now, motivated by deep regret over my ignorance, I studied to learn and understand, to take a truly Christian posture toward war.

I Learn to Ask Questions

Of all the things I learned over the next several years through my involvement with the peace movement, two lessons stick out in my mind: the sad history of Christianity’s fall from nonviolence, and the ugly story of American foreign policy in the last half of the twentieth century.

Though I was a “cradle Catholic,” I had never really understood how central the principle of nonviolence was in the teachings of Jesus. He lived at a time when the Jewish people were seething about the occupation by the Romans, and many were seeking violent ways to expel them. Jesus rejected that option. He preached about peace, about loving the enemy, about creative nonviolent responses to oppression.

The earliest Christians took that nonviolence seriously and declined to serve in the Roman legions. One Christian leader in Rome, Hippolytus, taught that that no one who has embraced professional killing could become a Christian, and no Christian should volunteer for military service. If drafted, he argued, Christians should refuse to kill.

That attitude lasted for nearly 300 years. Then, in the year 312, a Roman leader named Flavius Valerius Constantinus, preparing for the pivotal battle at the Milvian Bridge, thought he saw a vision of a cross in the sky. In the vision, he saw the words “In hoc signo vinces,” meaning “Under this sign, you will win.” Unfortunately, he did win, and soon became the emperor Constantine the Great. The year after that battle, he made Christianity the state religion. From that day to this, Christians have clung to the poisonous embrace of the state. Instead of rejecting military service entirely, Christians now join enthusiastically, providing not only the soldiers to kill in the name of the state, but also the chaplains to bless the bloodshed.

Here’s a hideous example: Just before Thanksgiving 2001, President George W. Bush appeared at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, before troops of the 101st Airborne Division, whipping them into a frenzied anticipation of battles yet to come. A Christian chaplain closed with a prayer for the commander in chief, and the troops answered the prayer with a resounding: “Air assault! Amen!” That blasphemous blending of prayer and battle lust now makes me ill. In years gone by, I wouldn’t even have noticed.

The other pivotal lesson for me was my stunning and much-belated discovery that an idea internalized by all Americans is false: We are the good nation, the only indispensable country, the one that helps people all around the world, the one that stands always for freedom and democracy.

To disabuse myself of that simplistic and dangerous view, I only needed to read one 1948 document, written by George F. Kennan, then director of the policy planning staff in the State Department. Though a few have construed Kennan’s meaning benignly, his actual words accurately describe an American attitude that has not really changed since those early Cold War days:

“We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only about 6.3 percent of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford the luxury of altruism and world benefaction. We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

Ever since Kennan wrote this description of American policy, the government of the United States has constantly trumpeted those “idealistic slogans” in public, citing “freedom” and “democracy” and the “threat of communism” to justify a variety of military actions. But the real reason is essentially the maintenance of the “position of disparity” that Kennan described.

That basic approach to the world guides our profligate military spending. It inspires a hair-trigger willingness to use American power in bloody interventions, such as Grenada and Panama. It constantly puts America on the side of the rich and corrupt and against the poor, in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

For fifty years, American administrations, Democratic and Republican, have done whatever was necessary to keep strong regimes in power in Latin America’s developing nations. That’s in keeping with another Kennan dictum. Just a few years after writing the earlier document, he told a group of U.S. diplomatic officials in Latin America that “we should not hesitate before police repression by the local government. It is better to have a strong regime in power than a liberal government if it is indulgent and relaxed and penetrated by Communists.”

Bob Keeler on stage in front of a microphone

Fighting for Peace. Bob Keeler speaks at the 1993 Good Friday peace walk in Manhattan, an annual event sponsored by Pax Christi Metro New York. At each “station of the cross,” a local Pax Christi group proclaims the Scripture reading and adds its own statement on peace and justice issues.

I Fail to Be a Good Patriot

Of course, our definition of “communist” has been amazingly broad. It includes any government that seems concerned with economic reform. It also includes bishops. The late Dom Helder Camara, a widely known and respected bishop in Brazil, liked to say: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

My father was a staunch anti-communist. Calling someone a communist was about the worst insult he could utter. As a result, one of his great heroes was Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, the now-disgraced communist-hunter. When I was a teenager, some sense of McCarthy’s dangerousness managed to penetrate through the murk of my thinking, and I argued with my father about the senator.

What I have come to see now, but didn’t understood during my Army days, is that anti-communism was nearly as destructive a force in the twentieth century as communism was. In the name of beating back the red menace, the government of the United States put its money and military might behind some hideously repressive governments. Supported by our taxpayer dollars, these regimes made enemies of priests and nuns who were simply trying to obey the command of Jesus to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless. Instead of seeing these priests and nuns as faithful to the Gospel, these regimes saw them as dangerous subversives. That attitude gave rise to the slogan I mentioned earlier: “Be a patriot. Kill a priest.”

In El Salvador, during the bloody 1980s, the poor endured the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the rape and murder of three nuns and a lay missionary, and the slaughter of six Jesuits, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. Many of the perpetrators were trained in Georgia, at the United States Army School of the Americas. After tens of thousands of demonstrators protested the school over the years, the government attempted to deflect criticism by changing the name of the school to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Different name, same shame.

In these days of concern about terrorism and state-sponsored terrorism, we need to remember that the United States has helped to develop state-sponsored terrorism in Latin America by training its armies. Since most of those states don’t have exterior enemies, the bulk of what their armies do is called FID (foreign interior defense) in Pentagon-speak. That means defending against their own people—torturing them and disappearing them. Our tax dollars at work.

Not surprisingly, once people have been victimized by repressive regimes supported by the United States, those people tend to view this nation as hypocritical. They think America has a nasty double-standard: preaching democracy, but supporting dictatorship, so long as the dictator does what America wants.

In the aftermath of September 11, one of the central questions has been, “Why do they hate us?” The most popular answer is that they hate us because we are good, because we are free, because we have a high standard of living. If that were the case, any intelligent person has to ask: Why aren’t they bombing Canada or Italy or Norway? All those nations have democratic governments, a good measure of freedom, and a high standard of living.

The difference is that they do not have a military that projects itself around the world, and they do not have a global reputation for supporting repressive regimes. Some people doubtless hate the United States because of its culture and its wealth, but many hate this nation because of specific acts of foreign policy. For more on this theme, I strongly recommend a book by Chalmers Johnson, called Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.

Now that I have finally awakened and seen our nation’s many pathologies, I have come to detest the we’re-number-one, love-it-or-leave-it brand of patriotism that is so visible right now. My favorite definition of patriotism is the one that the Rev. Jesse Jackson offered years ago: loyalty to the highest ideals of the nation, not to the person who happens to occupy the White House at the moment.

Asking sharp questions about the nation’s foreign policy does not make anyone unpatriotic. Exercising the freedom to criticize does not endanger the nation, but strengthens the great and fragile muscle of freedom itself. True patriotism surely includes a willingness to criticize the government to make sure it remains worthy of the nation’s highest ideals.

I Live to Regret Another War

My late awakening to these realities has brought a healthy share of irony into my life. In another century, thirty-six years ago, I thoughtlessly rode the subway to Whitehall Street and became an unquestioning servant of the nation’s foreign policy. Now, I am seen as unpatriotic, a card-carrying member of the blame-America-first crowd, even a Communist. (If my father were alive, I think he’d smile about that.)

All I really want is for America to start spending more of its wealth on eliminating the global gap between rich and poor. Kennan wrote about preserving America’s position of disparity. I want to narrow it. That gap is one of the most dangerous forces in the world. While the World Trade Center attackers appear not to have been poor themselves, it is this grinding poverty that provides terrorists with a fertile breeding ground for hate, and hate is far more essential to terrorism than weapons.

America could make this a much safer world by cutting our $300 billion defense budget (which vastly exceeds the expenditures of any potential adversary) and by spending a lot of that money on eliminating world hunger. Some organizations have estimated that the prudent investment of about $60 billion a year could nearly eradicate hunger on the planet. For the Pentagon, $60 billion is chump change.

The greatest obstacle to that fundamental change is ignorance. For example, Americans vastly overestimate our country’s generosity to other nations. In a survey by the Program on International Policy Attitudes, the average poll respondent estimated that America spends 20 percent of its budget on foreign aid. Actually, it’s well below 1 percent. Using Gross Domestic Product as a benchmark, the United States is the stingiest developed nation. In contrast, it is far and away the largest seller in the global arms trade. And the money that other nations spend on buying American arms is money they can’t spend on lifting their people from poverty.

The ignorance of the American people on foreign policy is the subject of an excellent book, Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, by Eric Alterman. One of his central points is this: Polls show that Americans would back goals very different from those adopted by the foreign-policy establishment. Among other things, the public would like a foreign policy “that eschewed far-flung adventures to concentrate on strengthening the American economy and society,” Alterman writes. In other words, the American people believe in a far less interventionist stance than the American government does. But the average citizen does not know much about how to alter the course of foreign policy, and most foreign-policy professionals feel that the general public is too ignorant to be part of the debate.

So it all comes back to my starting point: ignorance. Now that I have recognized, regretted, and tried to remedy my own ignorance, I am struggling with another shortcoming: impatience. As someone who remained so ignorant for so long, I should be more tolerant of that attitude now. But I’m not. It just makes me very angry.

To brighten that gloomy prospect, I should admit that I have seen a few encouraging signs in the past two or three years. Perhaps the most heartening is the sharp increase in the number of young people involved in at least one aspect of the peace movement: the campaign to close the School of the Americas.

Every year in November, thousands of demonstrators gather outside the gates of Fort Benning to protest the school’s existence. At first the crowds were small, but every year, they have grown, under the leadership of the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, the Maryknoll priest and Vietnam veteran who leads the movement. And every year, the percentage of young people in those crowds has also increased. I wrote about that hopeful development for the magazine U.S. Catholic last August.

In my own family, I have the example of my daughter Rachel, who led Pax Christi Metro New York for three years, exhibiting a profound understanding of world issues. At her age, I was still cloaked in ignorance.

Still, I’m naturally pessimistic, and I know from my lived experience how persistent ignorance can be. But these times are so perilous that we can no longer afford the option of failing to study what our nation is doing in our name. We can’t settle for slogans, for mindless flag-waving, for barroom rooting for swift victory, without thoughtful analysis of what happened to make September 11 possible and how we must change our policies to minimize the possibility of future terrorism.

One hint for action: I think we should support a plan by Senators Joe Lieberman (D., Connecticut) and John McCain (R., Arizona) for a nonpartisan, independent commission to examine the September 11 events. With an independent commission, we have a far better chance of getting truthful answers than if we leave it to the administration or to the Congress.

The commission’s work may also help focus the public’s attention on foreign policy issues and dispel some of the ignorance. I certainly hope so. Something has to get us beyond the slogans and the flags. If we can’t take that step, if the nation as a whole takes as long as I did to emerge from the fog of unknowing, we’re in very big trouble.

This article was originally published in two parts, on December 17, 2001, and January 7, 2002.

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