War in a time of ignorance
Two lessons learned. Part two of a two-part series.
By Bob Keeler / Stony Brook, New York
Monday, January 7, 2002
Go to Part One
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."
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.
PART ONE: Remembrances of another war to make the world safe for democracy. DECEMBER 17, 2001.
PART TWO: Two lessons learned. JANUARY 7, 2002.
A portion of each sale goes to InTheFray
Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
Chalmers Johnson | Owl Books | 2001
Who Speaks for America: Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy
Eric Alterman | Cornell University Press | 1998
Maryknoll Mission Family
Maryknoll, New York
U.S.-based Catholic mission movement that works around the world to help the poor
Pax Christi USA
The U.S. section of the international Catholic peace movement
Program on International Policy Attitudes
University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland
Polling organization that researches public attitudes on international issues
Claretian Publications | Chicago
National Catholic magazine
U.S. Marine Corps
People > Berrigan, Daniel >
New Hampshire Peace Action
A listing of links related to the Jesuit peace activist
People > Kennan, George F. >
People > Romero, Oscar >
"A remembrance of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador"
Salt of the Earth
Biography, writings, and other materials on the Salvadoran archbishop and activist
Topics > Gulf War Syndrome >
"Last Battle of the Gulf War"
Frontline | PBS | January 20, 1998
Account of the Gulf War Syndrome controversy
Topics > Peace movement >
"Who's working for peace now?"
By Robert F. Keeler | U.S. Catholic | August 2001
Story about the Catholic peace movement in the United States today
Topics > School of the Americas >
School of the Americas
Fort Benning, Georgia
"School of the Americas"
Center for International Policy
Review of the program and related links
School of the Americas Watch
A peace-and-justice organization that wants the U.S. government to close the school
Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation
Fort Benning, Georgia