Thursday, November 11, 2010

Matters of Life and Death: A 2003 Reflection on the Invasion of Iraq

Today is Veteran's Day. Facebook is dominated by status updates reminding us to honor the soldiers who sacrificed and often died because their country called them to fight. The elementary school where my wife teaches and my children go to school is festooned with stars--each with the name of a student's family member who has or is serving in the military.

My personal relationship to this holiday has always been conflicted. It simply isn't possible for me to just repeat the common platitudes that dominate this day. Although I admire the courage and dedication of so many soldiers, and although I honor their willingness to sacrifice so much for the sake of what they take to be their duty, I'm not at all convinced that the wars this country has fought over the last half century should have been fought at all. And although I know that the history of the world would have been far more grim than it was had allied soldiers not ultimately waged war against the axis powers in World War II, I also see the descent into that war as the long culmination of an international war system in which national pride fueled needless conflict, inspired punitive treaties on the losers, and blocked the efforts to establish an international community governed by principles instead of power. 

It is one thing to say that the allies did what they had to do given the circumstances. It is something else to say that the circumstances themselves were unavoidable. In my judgment, they were not. But to avoid the conditions which give rise to the necessity of war, peoples must commit to a trasformation of the character and structure of international relationships--and this simply won't happen so long as we uncritically revere the existing system or armies poised to strike.  

All of this expresses matters in an abstract, intellectual way. But as I was thinking about Veteran's Day this morning, I recalled a more personal reflection that--although it wasn't written in response to Veteran's Day--really captures the essence of my conflicted relationship to the military and to the soldiers who are so often separated from their families for the sake of risking themselves on foreign soil. Shortly after the US launched its invasion of Iraq, I was invited to give a talk about my perspective on the war. At the time, my wife was only weeks away from giving birth to our first child, and so I couldn't help but reflect on the war in terms of this momentous event in my life. Here, then, in honor of Veteran's Day, is an essay from April 2003, "Matters of Life and Death":

 My wife and I are expecting our first child in about a month. While American soldiers march through the sands of Iraq, risking death and shattered innocence far from the comforts of home, while Iraqi civilians huddle in terror as American troops rumble into their cities and rain death from the sky, the promise of liberation a pale hope in the face of the grim realities of war—as the terrible tragedy of war shatters the lives of so many, Tanya and I are nesting: putting up a “moose” border in the nursery, shopping for baby clothes, imagining what little Evan Alexander will look like.

There is a guilty strangeness to this juxtaposition. A week ago I read the troubled words of an American soldier who had learned, after participating in a battle in which hundreds of Iraqi attackers died, that many of those attackers were fighting for only one reason: troops loyal to Saddam Hussein threatened the lives of their wives and children if they refused to take up arms. And now that young soldier must live his life haunted by the image of women and children waiting hopelessly for their husbands to come home. Perhaps he is reminded of his own family waiting for his return, and feels a terrible solidarity with the men he has killed.

At moments I am ashamed to be happy. And then I think: No, I must be happy, now more than ever. I must let the joy descend all the way to my bones.

Somehow I must find a way to be true to both realities: the terrible reality of war, and the joyous reality of new life. I must find a way to honestly express what each of these realities means for me. But such honesty is hard. For me, as a pacifist who does not believe in war, and especially not in this war, such honesty is particularly hard. It was easier before the war began. I could oppose the war in the slim hope of persuading the U.S. government not to send our soldiers into harm’s way. Now, once they are there, I am torn between the conviction that we should not be there, and the realization that nothing good could come from abruptly turning on our heels, heading home, and leaving Iraq in ruins. This war violates some of my most sacred principles. It violates my understanding of what it means to be a Christian in this world. And yet I am paradoxically thinking that it would be best for all if we won quickly so that we could begin the difficult task of healing and rebuilding a shattered nation.

What should I say and do at such a time as this? My opposition to this war is not just theoretic. I live in fear of what it will mean for my son. Despite the promises of this government I can’t bring myself to believe that this war will make things better for him. I have long opposed wars on principle, based on my philosophical and religious commitment to nonviolence. I have long believed that wars contribute to ongoing cycles of violence, and that the only hope of escape from the scourge of war lies in creating and nurturing effective institutions of international law.

But when this country fought the first Gulf War I slept comfortably at night. Now I lie awake. Now I pace the house raging at the television, the blood pulsing in my temples. At the same moment that I am full of joy and anticipation at the prospect of being a father, I find myself full of anxiety and dread, full of fear for the future prosperity of the nation in which my child will grow. My opposition to this war has become very personal; it has become almost indistinguishable from my love for the child who is kickboxing Tanya’s bladder every night. The war has come to symbolize every fear I have about my son’s future. As I imagine anti-American sentiment spiraling out of control in the wake of this war, as I envision an American future punctuated with terrible repeats of 9/11, I want to scream out No! No! Please don’t feed that hungry spiral of violence! Please keep my baby safe!

That is part of my reality, a part that I must express if I hope to live with integrity.

A few weeks ago, when our country began its invasion of Iraq, our neighbors across the street promptly put up an American flag on their lawn. Being so new in our home, my wife and I haven’t gotten to know our neighbors very well yet, but we had a nice visit a few months back with those neighbors across the street. They’ve called us a few times since then. I think they want to be friends. A few days after the flag appeared on their lawn, an acquaintance gave me a small poster to put in my window. The poster says, simply, “No War Against Iraq.” I didn’t put the poster up.

Why not? Was it because I think that now that war is underway the best thing to do is win quickly so that we can get to work cleaning up the mess? A part of me wishes I could say that. It would make the fact that the poster lies facedown in the back of my car more honest than it is.

I’ve tried to convince myself that there is something honest about my failure to put up the poster. I know how hard it must be to have a loved one facing injury and death in a distant place. I know it not by experience, but because I feel Evan’s little hands and feet moving underneath my palm when I lay it against my wife’s abdomen, and I know how much I want to keep him safe. One day he will be eighteen, a soldier’s age. I imagine what it would be like to think of him, not only in harms way, but in service to an unjust cause. To think that would make the anguish all the more unbearable. So much better to think that his sacrifice serves some grander purpose, and if he dies he will have done so defending values I hold dear.

Perhaps those neighbors across the street have a son in Iraq; perhaps they remember when their child was kicking in the womb, and now recall with poignant fondness that time when they could keep their child safe within their own flesh. What would it do to them to see that poster in our window, to know that their neighbors think their son is a pawn in an unfair and unnecessary war? Perhaps the reason I don’t put up that poster is because I don’t want to risk challenging what I imagine to be their comforting illusions.

But that’s not it. In the long run, I think that such comforting illusions only reinforce the war footing that makes harmful cycles of violence more likely. So why don’t I put up the poster?

Here in Oklahoma, support for the war is strong, and the response to opponents of the war is often hostile. When I first moved to Oklahoma a couple of years ago I felt very out of place. Among other things, I don’t think that I had ever deliberately listened to a country song from beginning to end. A few months ago I finally began to feel my first glimmer of real connection to Oklahoma culture, or so I thought. I found a country music act that I really liked, that I actually looked forward to hearing on the radio: the Dixie Chicks. And then, just a few weeks ago, I witnessed footage of Oklahomans furiously crushing Dixie Chicks CD’s under their heels.

Whatever connection I thought I had with Oklahoma culture cracked beneath those angry feet. Their rage was inspired by Natalie Maines, the lead singer of the group, expressing open opposition to President Bush’s war policies. The feeling she expressed was a familiar one to me. “I am ashamed,” she said, “that the President of the United States is from Texas.” I am not from Texas, but I know the shame she was talking about. At a time when this nation is rallying behind the flag and expressing patriotism at a fever pitch, it is very alienating to feel ashamed of my country—to stand apart as the masses rally together crying “Yes! Yes!” when all I want to do is weep, cry out at what my beloved country is doing in the world.

I pass a kindly older man in WalMart, and he smiles. Beneath the smile I sense an expression of solidarity: at this time of war, we must stand together as Americans. I like the man instantly, but I wonder what he would think of me if he knew my opposition to the war. I wonder if his smile would transform into an expression of dismissal and contempt. I witness the growing patriotism around me, and I look in on it from the outside—and think of Hans Christian Andersen’s fable of the Little Match Girl, shivering in an alley as she magically sees into the warmth and comfort of a nearby home with its radiant Christmas tree. As long as she keeps her matchsticks burning, she is almost there, almost inside. As long as I keep silent, as long as I keep that poster facedown in my car, I can almost join in the star-spangled solidarity.

At a time when young men and women from all over this country are risking their very lives in a foreign land, I fail to honestly express my convictions because I am afraid—afraid I might alienate my neighbors; afraid that kids might see it and egg my home, or worse: leave the gleaming shards of Dixie Chicks music scattered on my lawn; afraid of what this poster would do to the safe little nest my wife and I are creating for our child. I am in awe of the kind of courage and sacrifice our soldiers are showing in Iraq. I grieve that this sacrifice is for a cause I cannot believe in.

As I live my life, anticipating with joy and hope and some fear the birth of my first child, as I put together the crib carried in by a deliveryman bubbling with enthusiasm over his own experience with new fatherhood (and showing us pictures of his baby), as I rub Tanya’s pregnant abdomen and sing to Evan through her belly button—as I live my life of comfort and joy, American soldiers are far from their families, far from the comforts of climate-controlled homes and spaghetti dinners and walks at the lake with the dog. They are off in a distant desert with sand chafing in their boots and at their necks, acting not out of their own self-interest, but because their nation has called them to serve. Some of those soldiers will not return home alive. Some will sustain physical injuries they will never fully recover from. Others will be haunted for the rest of their lives by things they have seen and done in the name of service to their nation. I can hardly imagine what that kind of sacrifice is like.

There are those who say that opponents of this war should keep quiet, out of respect for these soldiers. It would be easy for me to say that the reason I failed to put up that poster in my window is because I agree with this sentiment. But how can I honor these brave young men and women if I remain silent when I sincerely believe that their lives are being put at risk to no good end? Worse, how could I claim to honor their courage if I refuse to show even a fraction of that courage in my own life by openly expressing my convictions?

I have a son on the way. My friends tell me I will be a good father. I hope that when the time comes for me to share with him, in love, my honest understanding of the truth, I will do so without fear, rather than hide it facedown in the back seat of my car. If there is one thing that each of us can do, one thing to make this world a better place, it would be to speak the truth in love, and give others the space to do the same. Ultimately, I think that’s what fatherhood is supposed to be about.

1 comment:

  1. A fellow closeted Dixie Chicks supporter. Absurd, huh?

    I saw them at Soldier Field last summer. *I* felt ashamed that they took the fall for all of us who knew Georgie made us the laughingstock of the international community. Ahhh, the ways we silence ourselves so that someone doesn’t make OUR lives a living hell. I don’t even tell people I’m agnostic, or vegetarian, if I can at all avoid it. I don’t want to deal with the judgment, the backlash…so I share in your struggle of standing up for what you believe vs. feeling like a hypocrite.

    Gives one extraordinary empathy for people who live in fear of actually coming out, being out … the amount of hatred people spew just for being who you are and saying what you feel, which theoretically us Americans are supposed to be able to do without being bashed. The bullies always win.

    Sarah Palin supporters are unabashedly out of the closet, for crying out loud. Now, if there’s anybody who should be embarrassed!!! Something is backwards.

    It seems nothing short of a disgrace that, long after Americans seem to have adopted the near-universal conclusion that G-dubya was an ignoramus who ignited mass hysteria and made a mockery of our national office ... no one has acknowledged the wrong that has been done, the senseless sacrifices our soldiers continue to make in this war. And something tells me the Dixie Chicks haven’t gotten any apologies for the indefensible acts committed against them. I'm willing to assert that they harbor more honor and respect for the American soldier than the unquestioning sheep who send them to die without stopping to examine the implications. Who REALLY places a supreme value on the life of a soldier…someone who lets them die in vain?

    There is a price to pay for speaking out, and a price to pay for keeping silent. I have kept my mouth shut most of my life, and I have been severely punished those times I’ve dared open it to challenge the status quo. And “I’m not ready to make nice,” either, Natalie.