Sunday, May 13, 2007

Who should write the history of this war?

While Congress and the President feud over the responsibility for managing the war in Iraq, the debate about civilian casualties in Afghanistan reveals the immorality on both fronts. Denial begins with the misnomer “insurgents”, which wrongly grants the U.S. a lasting military purpose and presence. It becomes an easy route of escape from accountability for mistakes, which fosters carelessness and leads to cover-ups. It aids much of the populace to avoid questioning the mission.

It also greatly contributes to the unacceptable attitude of far too many U.S. soldiers toward the civilian population. In the recently released Army Mental Health Advisory Team survey, only 47 percent of them said non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect. John Pike of the think tank Global Security reminds us that “anybody who is surprised by [this] doesn't understand war.”

Why don’t we as a nation understand war? Certainly the vast majority of Americans aren’t affected on a personal level. But it’s also that the history of war that we learn later is also a misnomer. It’s not told by the people who lived through its tragedy but by the politicians who desire to immortalize our past actions for the sake of national pride without the balance of humility.

Two weeks ago in a collaborative essay titled Moving Beyond Anti-War Politics, Phyllis Bennis and Robert Jensen wrote “demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is only the first of our obligations to help create the conditions for real justice and peace in the Middle East and around the world.” Then they asked “what comes after a U.S. withdrawal?”

We need to rebuild Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s infrastructure we’ve destroyed. There is an immense cleanup of depleted uranium and probably unexploded cluster bombs on both landscapes. And we need to make honest and meaningful reparations to the survivors of the hundreds of thousands of innocent lives abruptly ended by a combination of mistakes and gross negligence that begins with the criminal justification called collateral damage.

The word criminal isn’t lightly placed here. Shouldn’t the word murder especially apply to the killing of civilians during a war that America entered without provocation? From its “shock and awe” beginnings, the lives of common Iraqis were deemed expendable so long as the goal to reduce the loss of US troops was in play.

The civilian causality count and tomorrow’s question merge to become more than the responsibility to atone for the stunningly unjustified unleashing of America’s military might. We need to do more than heal the present for the sake of our immediate future. There needs to be a movement that will carry the lessons learned from this debacle into future generations so that we can create a world that Bennis and Jensen envision:

“Imagine what would be possible if we — ordinary citizens of this latest empire — could build a movement that gave politicians no choice but to do the right thing.

Imagine what would be possible in the world if an anti-empire movement were strong enough to make it clear that ending military violence requires a just distribution of the resources of this world.

Imagine what is possible if we work to make inevitable one day what seems improbable today — the justice that makes possible real peace.”

How do we get there? Doesn’t at least part of this path include educating the generations that will follow us? Can we even consider doing that when we’re not educating today’s students about the true effects of war? Should discussing Iraq be on or off the classroom syllabus? At what age are our children ready to hear about the war’s horror?

The wars I learned about in school were taught in the fashion of politics. They were all about nations and their leaders, politicians with proud legacies, or demons who ruled with an iron fist. We read about brief accounts of intelligent generals with courage and compassion like Omar Bradley, or compassionless but brilliant strategists like George Patton.

While the war in Vietnam raged, my high school classes focused on the past, on the “good wars”, except for the occasional venture into current events which amounted to little more than reading a newspaper article of our choice. Was I alone? Or did the Vietnam experience that includes its unpopular tag mean that it was generally avoided? What were the lessons for those after me, after the war was precisely deemed a huge mistake?

Wars may originate among political needs or ambitions. Politicians do determine the primary goals. Generals and admirals, often the politicians within the military, strategize the individual battle plans aimed at accomplishing the nation’s objective. But wars are fought by soldiers. They may feel called to serve a nation, but on the front most report that war shrinks back to the most basic human instinct of individual survival and protection of one’s buddies.

War is political among the citizenry at home only when we’re not touched deeply by its horror, or personally by a relationship to a soldier or victim. This idea also registers with all of a nation’s history relative to personal experiences. People easily forget the details of the larger view, but our story or the ones told by those we’re close to dig roots into our soul that affect our thinking for years to come.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States begins the movement away from the history preferred by politicians with all the heroes they want us to look up to. He attempts to balance our heritage with obscure stories of people leading movements for justice closer to the common people in America. But here we are still learning from the second hand telling about distant events with impersonal names attached.

For me, Zinn’s own personal story holds the attention of my memory differently. He served during World War II on a crew that flew bombing missions over Germany. But it wasn’t until after it ended that Zinn’s worldview of war was profoundly changed. John Hersey’s book Hiroshima connected him to the horror that he inflicted but didn’t witness thousands of feet below where the bombs he dropped reached their targets. Why did those stories affect him to the extent he sought to reexamine his own history? Why does he still so vividly connect with the life changing moment 60 years later? Isn’t the answer in the question itself? Wouldn’t we all remember a moment of profound epiphany?

History changes when its data-like stage of who, what, where and when is disturbed by the question why. No longer do we think we know the story and commit it to the lesser place of our memory where we might interpret only the surface of its meaning. It lives differently each time we recall it as we wander behind the scenes to debate many possible meanings. The deeper the question tugs at our conscience, the more likely it will remain a figure in our future thinking.

History evolves further when the main characters aren’t celebrities. When the story leaves us wondering beyond tidbit answers to anecdotal people and events, the more the soul is touched and the deeper it will root in our memory. The closer to the individual we get, the more unique our view of human history becomes.

If war changes people, it obviously changes those closest to the battlefield, their families and friends, not the politicians we listen to and the pundits we read. This is the history we might do well to learn so as not to become a people with an amnesiac like memory of the tragedy of war.

We, the “ordinary citizens of this latest empire” are the people needed to write this history. The generations following us need to hear it. And in alliance with the need to end this war, Now is the time to begin. Now is when the stories might have their greatest impact, at the time history is being lived before re-imagined into the written record. Now is when there is energy in opposition to the war available which means a wider listening audience. Now there may be a greater compassion to listen which might hold itself among our future moral sensibilities.

This is especially true for a war that is lost, because politicians will want these stories to be lost once they finally admit it. And they will never want war to be the human demon that it is because it will affect the defense industry which drives not just the economy, but the false notion that military might is a rightful and safe supremacy.

A strong America isn’t about our weapons that the world won’t challenge. It’s about our character and the willingness to explore the painful truths about what war is, especially the wars that didn’t have to happen. It’s time to change who writes our history for the generations that follow.

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by Rich in Juneau