Wednesday, June 27, 2007

One new voice

I was at the Juneau Chapter of Veterans for Peace monthly breakfast meeting last Saturday. There were two new faces among the small group of regulars. Ed introduced the man sitting next to him as David, his brother-in-law from Southern California. I was more curious about the other newcomer sitting at the other the end of the table. He looked vaguely familiar. When I overhead him say he had been in Iraq, I realized from where I remembered him.

A year ago the Juneau People for Peace and Justice sponsored a town meeting about the Iraq war with Senator Lisa Murkowski. About 38 people got up and delivered a two minute statement to her, and all but one person had spoken with passionate opposition to it. His name was David Summers and he was the man across the table.

Summers spoke confidently that evening “No soldier, including myself, wants to be at war. I'm not here to be an advocate of war in any way, shape of form. However, I stand ready with my other fellow soldiers, I trust you to make good decisions, and I support the mission to continue the effort to free the peaceful people of Iraq.”

Summers left the Saturday morning meeting early, after having participated in the discussion. He spoke clearly without hesitation, carrying the same confidence I recalled from a year ago while referring to himself as a recent convert.

Of course, he is not alone as a soldier who has been to Iraq and opposes the war. Last August, Steve Lewis returned with a small contingent of the Alaska National Guard and told the crowd welcoming them that "I still believe that there's big questions that need to be answered about the war and what got us there." Beyond our small community over 2000 active duty soldiers have signed The Appeal for Redress urging their Congressional Representatives to end the U.S. military occupation. And membership in The Iraq Veterans Against the War is growing.

So is there much to get excited about because one new dissenting figure in Juneau just appeared? Will he be back and become an active voice of opposition to the war and occupation? If so, will more people pay attention and be encouraged to act?

It’s difficult to say why I was so moved by this rather small moment. Summers earned my respect last May even though I absolutely disagreed with his trust for our government and his view that the war was about freedom for the Iraqi people. He was alone within the Juneau antiwar crowd, the only one with courage to make a statement that supported the mission in Iraq. He certainly has my respect now.

Perhaps it’s nothing more than seeing proof that people’s view can change and that some have the courage to publicly acknowledge it. There is always more power to what we witness compared to the stories others tell us. What we see and hear firsthand becomes bonded to our truths. Maybe I'm feeling hope standing firmly behind its own conviction that truth is on our side.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

War and the pursuit of happiness

“It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism”. These words recall the mood of most Americans as we bombed Afghanistan in 2001 and during the shock and awe invasion of Iraq 16 months later. Patriotism at its highest also chastised those opposed to the wars as saboteurs of freedom who should quickly shrink out of sight “and offend no more”.

But the author wasn’t alive to witness America’s latest misadventure into the imperial aspirations of our government that purports to desire freedom and liberty for all nations. The quotes are from The War Prayer by Mark Twain, and were written a little more than a century ago.

Last week, President Bush suggested that the US occupation in Iraq may follow the model of US presence in South Korea. Maybe he should have been going further back into history to the Philippine-American War. Our original ambition there had imperial objectives. American troops fought an “insurgency” for 10 years after the President declared the war was over. And Americans then were as blindly patriotic as many remain today.

Mark Twain was an outspoken critic of that war. The War Prayer though is focused on the public sentiment about going to war, not on the American leadership. Writing after the war, he was looking back at the fever fed by simplistic ideals of patriotism, a naïvely perceived just cause and the expectation of quick and easy victory. The setting in church deliberately ordains the mission as serving God which excuses the public from looking deep enough for the entire truth. The ridicule pointedly reminds us how easily public opinion is swayed by those in power and a cooperative press.

One hundred years later America was sold a war by a popular President, aided by a news media eager to sell the story of a heroes returning home from their just conquest of the evil enemy. People who opposed it as a war for oil and imperial ambitions were demonized just as his story portrays. Even now public opposition to the war and occupation is derided as surrendering the divine destiny of an American victory.

War divides a population like no other issue, but why do the people of a nation built on individual freedom despise the freedom to dissent as we prepare to send our soldiers into war?

Much of our American heritage begins with the unalienable rights proffered in our Declaration of Independence: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Notice here that pursuit is a word without the emphasis of a proper name. It’s a word that implies something beyond the horizon, to be reached for rather than taken for granted. Happiness isn’t a right in and of itself.

Pursuit also implies work. Our individual freedoms are indeed a blessing, but nothing is free. Sacrifice is part of the equation. The stranger of Mark Twain’s War Prayer reminds us that what we seek always asks for more than we are aware of, that we must “pause and think” about the full meaning of what we want. “Ponder this -- keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time.”

Certainly we understand that freedom shouldn’t be gained at the expense of others. Yet his message really refers to another false freedom that may be the most important insight he offers. It is delivered not only by his words, but by his publisher’s rejection of the writing and his family’s concern about public reaction that delayed publication of The War Prayer until after his death. Even as we imagine our battle to end this war may be with Congress, the real work remains as it did 100 years ago, with the extrapolated right of Americans not to look hard into the inconvenient truths of our lifestyle and national actions. The dark shadow of our individual freedom lies in the desire not to have our conscience disturbed by anything that interferes with the pursuit of happiness.

by Rich in Juneau