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.

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by Rich in Juneau