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.
War in a time of ignorance
PART TWO OF TWO. Two lessons learned
Go to part one

published January 7, 2002
written by Bob Keeler / Stony Brook, New York

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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.

War in a time of ignorance

I learn to ask questions

I fail to be a good patriot

I live to regret another war

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