Wednesday, August 23, 2017

This is to follow up briefly on the essay I wrote eight years ago (posted here), which was critical of Obama's policy in Afghanistan. Sadly the times have hardly changed, nor have I altered my opinion on the matter.
Let's get this straight. There is no path to victory in Afghanistan. There is just a path to more bloodshed and money pouring through the Pentagon and into the hands of defense contractors and the arms industry. This is not really a war for the sake of the Afghan people or defeating the Taliban; it's just a lucrative business that will go on forever at the expense of U.S. taxpayers and more people dying over there. Trillions of dollars spent. Trump seems to get that now, and he's capitalizing on the perverse, twisted ride; but I also believe he thinks mistakenly that we can win. As we all know, he's all about winning and never admitting defeat. The country couldn't be in worst hands at the moment.
Afghanistan is known as the "Graveyard of Empires" for good reasons. Alexander the Great, the British, the Soviet Union, and now the United States. Each power has grossly overestimated the odds of victory and overextend themselves in an attempt to subdue it. So far they have all failed. How long is it going to take for the inevitability of defeat in Afghanistan to sink in as a basic fact of life? As Soviet General Ruslan Aushev said to NATO in 2006, "You will flee from there...The astonishing thing today is that NATO and the coalition seem to have learnt nothing, neither from their own experience nor from our experience." Several thousand American troops killed in action so far, plus 26,270 documented civilian deaths since 2001, and yet hardly anyone seems to care -- mainly because, unlike the Vietnam era, the power brokers don't have any skin in the game, no children being drafted and blown to bits. Mind you, I'm not asking for that again -- just an honest and complete end to this absurd war.
The U.S. will probably not collapse as a result of its involvement in Afghanistan, but something worse will happen -- we'll never leave, and like a slow drip we'll continue to throw lives and resources at this hopeless, destructive endeavor of trying to prop up a puppet government in Kabul. Like the British in WWII, the Taliban will never surrender, they will never be defeated -- they and fighters of their ilk prevailed in ancient times, in the 19th century, in the 1980's, and since we invaded after 9/11. As an army chaplain wrote after returning from the First Anglo-Afghan War, "It was a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, has been acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.” The only difference between that experience and today's is that there is great benefit accruing all the time to our military industrial complex -- what's rightly called a Perpetual War, which has its very big economic winners riding on top of monumental suffering. No one wants to talk about that huge elephant in the room.
The Afghans have laughed at us for centuries for being so foolish and for not learning the lessons of history that they have written with their blood and tears, and now they're laughing heartily again at us and Trump.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

McCarthy's The Road and Parental Love

Cormac McCarthy's tour de force The Road depicts a father and his young son crossing a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. Ostensibly the novel is a harrowing epic struggle for survival against virtually impossible odds. But not far from its surface is an intense mortal conflict between the forces of good and evil.
"Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again." 
So the man comforts his son about another boy they encountered on the road. And as a result of his herculean efforts, the boy survives.

But ultimately the book presents a profound moral lesson about the supreme power of love, specifically the kind that a parent has for his/her child. Again the father:
"No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you."
What makes The Road such a great book is its gut-wrenching rendition of the extent to which a parent will sacrifice him/herself unquestionably in the service of love and caring for their children. (It is important to note that McCarthy has a son who was the same age as the boy when he wrote the book.)

There are at least a handful of essential forms of love, but as a parent I want to argue partisanly that this is the strongest one. If some harm of the sort that the hero in this novel prevents from being inflicted on his son should come to one of mine, then my heart will surely be torn asunder for the rest of my days. 

I'll begin to defend this by simply pointing to the fact that my children are in part my flesh and blood. But that is actually the least of it, because I am certain that I would feel the same way about my children even if they were not. Indeed, the more important thing is that maternal/paternal love has several layers of complexity that involves other kinds of human bonds. 

For one thing, if you have a spouse/partner/relative/friend who has shared in the rearing of your child, part of your love is likely bound up in respect if not love for that other adult, as well as in an emotional attachment that has grown out of that unique personal history. And that shared history, beginning (again not necessarily) with the process of pregnancy/giving birth and ending in the current age/stage of development of your child, is certain to be an essential component of what you see when you look at your child and will compound your love. In The Road, the man has lost his wife, and that figures prominently in his will to save his son.

Another important aspect of parental love is all the time and love and commitment personally given to one's child over the course of his/her existence, from changing diapers to doing homework to attending soccer games.... This is the true meaning of the phrase, "a labor of love". Of course it is not always easy, and sometimes downright challenging, but the rewards multiply daily as you watch your child growing up and increasingly interacting with you and the world.

Having a child and being a parent is arguably one of the most fulfilling things one can do in life. Think of it like creating a work of art that is in progress for a lifetime. The caring and mentoring that goes into it is an invaluable investment of time and energy, and the returns are plentiful and perpetual. It is almost cliche to say that our children represent the future, but that is very true. They are the embodiment of our vision of what the world should look like someday, and we hope that they will perpetuate our history and knowledge and values. So it is perfectly reasonable that we make every effort to protect our children, to usher them safely into the world, to provide an environment for them in which they will thrive and prosper and find happiness.

To this picture I further add that my children have become over time very good friends, albeit in basically an intransitive way. That is, partly because I've been with them every day since infancy, partly because we enjoy each other's company with an appropriate sort of limited equality, and partly owing to the fact that we continue to share so much together, there has developed a bond of companionship between us that I never expected and now cherish. Indeed, it is impossible for me to imagine something coming between those very friendly relationships (but sadly I know that can happen).    

Finally, if you combine all the aspects of parental love that I've considered, you have a form of love that can be powerful and profound enough to to move mountains. Thus what affected me so much by McCarthy's The Road is that I completely identified with the absolute love of the father for his son and understood perfectly his purpose to the very end.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Reorchestration Assignment

The Assignment:  reproduce to scale a photograph of a master painting
The Tools:  scissors, glue
The Materials:  magazines, paper
The Instructions:  recreate the image of the assigned painting (8 ½" x 11") using only solid colored cut-out pieces of magazine print and glue

Orchestrate tr.v.
1.      To compose or arrange (music) for performance by an orchestra.
2.      To arrange or control the elements of, as to achieve a desired overall effect: orchestrated a successful political campaign.

John Almquist was a fine artist and a gifted teacher, as a consequence of being both genuinely artistic and dedicated to teaching. But that was hardly transparent to his students, because John was neither flamboyant nor noticeably pedagogical in style. He “blended in”, worked hard, and was admired in a quiet but nevertheless profound way by many a teenager, including me.

John was also quite innovative in the classroom; and a truly creative legacy of his was the “Reorchestration” assignment.  Those who had the good fortune to study under “Almy”, as he was affectionately known, and complete this monumental artistic task know what I mean; however, I’d like to take a brief excursion into the reorchestration concept and execution in some detail.  I hope that my memory and analysis are capable of shedding some light on what was a significant rite of passage for many of us at the North Shore Country Day School.

Definition and Background

As a means to define reorchestration, explain how we approached it, and the effect that meeting this challenge had on our intellectual, creative, and moral development at the time, it is important to present some aspects of the context.

First, it’s safe to wager that very few of John’s pupils were adequately prepared for such a complex, profound, and utterly daunting task. That was certainly an intentional part of the problem as well as the solution, i.e. we brought to the effort a naiveté or innocence that in the end bolstered to varying degrees our creative powers.  John set us off with nothing but a classic image and a set of rather sparse “rules of the game”.  Of course, as is well known, there were rather Spartan limits placed on the materials that we could bring to the table; that and a highschoolesque Sisyphusian tenacity was all we had at our disposal – no artistic map or compass was provided to help navigate our way, and to the best of my recollection the majority of us keep the project strictly to ourselves during its execution.

Second, John seemed to have acquired a priori in his mind a clear and distinct image of each and every one of us before making these very personal assignments. To that effect, it came well into the year when he had had sufficient time to get acquainted with our work. This guided him in choosing an art reproduction appropriate to each personality (artistic inclination). Note:  in using the term ‘appropriate’, I speak for myself and my recollection of the images that were chosen for my classmates. John may not have been consistent in this over the years. ‘Appropriate’ may also have meant different things to different folks:  John was comfortable enough with us to be at once playful and serious as an instructor; and, although always respectful, he was certainly capable and likely inclined towards a challenging curve ball or ironic twist.  

More personally, John had a slightly mocking yet perfectly appropriate nickname for me:  “Formal Frank”. ‘Formal’, because -- undeniably -- I invariably crafted artwork that was both highly conceptual and restrained by mathematical forms. Looking back, to say the least, I also displayed at the time and arguably to this day a certain formality in my overall social gestalt. In any event, no one was uncomfortable with the appellation, and moreover it fit perfectly well with my reorchestration painting, namely one created by the German-American master Lyonel Feininger (1871-1956). For anyone who has read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that’s the painting called “The Church of the Minorites”, which according to the author Robert M. Pirsig is “a kind of Gothic cathedral, created from semiabstract lines and planes and colors and shades. [that] seemed to reflect his mind's vision of the Church of Reason…”.  The enormously influential Zen was first published in 1974, around the time we were in class with John. No idea but it's possible that Almy chose the Feininger work out of familiarity with the book.

In both definition and execution, the reorchestration was as much our project as it was John’s; the loose guidelines allowed us considerable leeway. As such, individually we all helped define the idea over time. In fact, John’s reorchestration assignment is a genuinely artistic concept, in that it exists mainly in the works that exemplify it, namely through each and every one of our laboriously contrived mosaics composed of small to minute pieces of colored magazine paper fashioned with Elmer’s Glue.

The phenomenology of execution

To fully appreciate the depth and complexity of the problem we confronted, it’s necessary to explore the nitty-gritty of the situation.

For those of you who have never “reorchestrated”, imagine if you will initially regarding an 8 ½" x 11" photographic reproduction of a famous painting with the intent to reproduce it on a same size piece of paper.  The knee-jerk reaction is blithely to assume that it would be a “piece of cake”.  Hold on and consider the specific details of the assignment:  all you have in your toolkit is scissors, glue and all the image-laden trade magazines you can lay your hands on, either hanging around the house, pilfered from friends and relatives, or garnered in desperation at the 11th hour from a local newsstand. Then try to conceive the raw difficulty of reengineering a Picasso or Rembrandt or Van Gogh by mapping it with little bits of magazine copy.  Each piece of paper would become for us a single stroke of the painter’s brush. In this way we became one with the mind of the artist as he was creating the original.

Next, take into consideration that the original medium was oil and canvas.  As an experiment, the next time you’re in the Art Institute or the Metropolitan or any other well-established art museum, take a look at a great oil painting from the usual browsing distance; then move as close to the it as you can (without arousing suspicion) and examine the work one square inch or less at a time.  Immediately, you should discover a whole new microcosm of colors and textures and shapes, the multitude of places where the artist labored from moment to moment, bringing section after section into being. This view will look nothing like the full grand picture, it will not inspire or fill you with aesthetic awe; but it will offer you genuine insight into the manner in which the artist actually created the painting, the quality and quantity of the brush strokes, the use and transition of colors, the movements among parts great and small, as well as broad transitions between the various sections of the work. In short, you may achieve an understanding of the artist’s style, i.e. his or her way of doing little things in a repetitive way, which at the end of the day situates the painting in a phase of the artist’s career and perhaps even in a period of art history.  And at this point, you may also be in a position to adequately appreciate the painstaking thought and ultra-delicate handiwork required to imitate with any alternative medium that entire organic composition.  Ours was no careless jaunt through the wing of a museum.

The logistics

Finding the bulk of colored paper was not very hard; however, there were invariably a few sections that were next to impossible to locate, and so we became overnight a class of fanatical magazine pilferers. Some parts of the Feininger painting over which I slaved were highly intricate and convoluted. Add to that the many shades and hues of a small number of core colors involved, in my case primarily brown.  No small number of magazines were going to yield that kind of chromatic diversity.  In that sense, this was also an extreme exercise in patience and resourcefulness, ingenuity and imagination.  We would not be daunted.

If you take a cursory look through the average trade magazine with an eye to this sort of endeavor, you will likely find a great number of images to work with; however, a more discriminating examination will uncover that on average there is merely a one-to-one ratio between a very small piece of your putative collage and what can be extracted from a given page. Compound that problem by the fact that you’re dealing with, give or take, several hundred to a thousand pieces per reorchestration. 

I discovered many of the rare and exotic colors that I needed in a selection of fashion monthlies on sale at a Wilmette drug store and other assorted purveyors of periodicals. Still other printed bands in the rainbow I was able to bag at a busy newsstand in south Evanston, to which I cycled a considerable distance and in which I spent hours perusing rack after rack of various and sundry printed matter. In the end, there was one bloody minuscule section of the painting I could not reproduce (or so it seemed), and it held me up a long time because I wanted to get the thing just right.  It was probably not a very unique color, and if we were using paints it would have been a trivial thing to recreate. But that was the problem – we didn’t have an easy way to put things together, to exactly imitate parts of the original.  Instead, to the best of our ability, we had to forge from a clumsy and disparate source something that merely approximated the original.  As a result, the reorchestrations were not only fairly decent reflections of masterpieces; they were also pretty good artworks of our own design and in which we could take some pride.

My guess is that we all cursed John at some point during this struggle, and if I did it was at that low point. But when I finally chanced upon that enigmatic pigmentation buried in the far reaches of my mom’s subscription to Harper’s Bazaar, I was saved and truly ecstatic.

The Outcome

What did we learn from all of this hunting and gathering followed by tedious cutting and pasting?  On the surface, it might seem that all we gained was the art of conspicuous appropriation coupled with egregious forgery. Well, that’s arguable.  But we also achieved some pretty profound knowledge, in varying doses.  What I learned can be categorized on a number of levels.

1)     A humble appreciation for the brilliance and technique of an artist. No way on earth I’ll ever be able to create something as subtle and beautiful as that cubist rendition of a cathedral.  Through emulation (not thievery or plagiarism), one inevitably earns an appreciation for that which is emulated.  And, with that much concentration and labor spent reorchestrating a single painting, the resulting sympathy was profound.

2)     A special and long-lasting familiarity with a particular masterpiece and the ability to instantly recognize and acknowledge another work by the artist Feininger.  (So much so that I briefly and vainly imaged that I could create another painting in the same style.) This included, among other things, intimacy with his use of colors and textures; the flow and transitions within the subject matter; admiration for the work as a coherent whole, being the synthesis of the various microcosmic parts; and finally several late-night epiphanies from seeing subtleties of meaning that I would otherwise have overlooked.

3)     A sharp view to a school of artistic practice (Cubism) under which the work fell.  I have been a loyal fan of that period ever since.

4)     The simple satisfaction of having completed such a complex, gargantuan task requiring so much time, thought, and resilience.

5)     Marvel at the fact that one could create something so worthy from such humble materials.

6)     The pure relief and then joy of putting the final pieces of the reorchestration in place, and then being able to regard the two images side by side -- the staid original next to my just out of the oven, not so shabby imitation with all its unique imperfections.

In short, few would dispute that this was a transcendent assignment, one inspired by the gods. John Almquist instructed us to study a painting, one that was somehow appropriate to our personality, in a way that under ordinary circumstances we would likely never have. In effect, we obtained an extraordinary glimpse into the essence of a masterpiece, the artist and a genre, however momentary and varied and fleeting that may have been for each of us.  And in the end, despite the trials and tribulations, we were all improved and broadened by the experience.

For that fine gift we are forever grateful to you, Almy.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Stop the war in Afghanistan

A critique of President Obama's acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

America should not be fighting a war in Afghanistan. In partial defense of this view, the following are my comments on U.S. President Obama's acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. In brief:

  • The U.S. cannot win the war in Afghanistan. Indeed it is very hard to imagine a military strategy that would prevail. The nature of the terrain, the heroic pertinacity of its people, and the absence of a legitimate central government in Kabul all contribute to the futility of fighting another day there. In addition the U.S. has undermined its reputation in the region to such an extent during the past eight years by bombing, imprisoning, and torturing civilians, as well as propping up dubious governments, that it has no firm hold on the hearts and minds of the average Afghan as to the purpose, sincerity and integrity of its mission. Furthermore, I don't see how it is going to garner that prize by surging its troops. Even if the U.S. could 'win' even a narrowly defined conflict there, I question its motives and what long-term good would come of it, particularly if it involves paying off the opposition -- however that entity is defined -- in the manner that it did in the much more developed country of Iraq. Money can't buy America love, or the demise of the Taliban, or stability in the Middle East/Indian Subcontinent.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
  • The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is not justified as President Obama contends, because the U.S. was attacked on 9/11 and is now acting in self-defense to stave off another plot that may be hatched in that country. I believe that this is an aggressive not a defensive military campaign, and if the U.S. is truly interested in defending itself, it should start by further fortifying the home front and by exporting more aid, good will, and an unequivocal message of peace to places in the world that are enveloped in poverty and turmoil.                                                                                                                                                                
  • There are commonly employed moral and religious overtones to Obama's arguments that I believe are at best contradictory and at worst dishonestly cloaking a hidden political and economic agenda. America should get off its high horse until it has proven that it will no longer ride the low one. 

To begin, I wholeheartedly agree with a number of Obama's statements. For instance, "We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend." I wrote something very similar not long ago:  In Surveillance, Risks and Gains. And he says, "No matter how callously defined, neither America's interests -- nor the world's -- are served by the denial of human aspirations." Here, here! But in the context of an overall apology for warfare, this and similar lines in the speech reads like rhetorical flourishes intended for immediate applause and next day headlines, the desired effect being to sway skeptics who think Obama should not have received the award. In other words, "take two of these and you'll feel better in the morning" about the deployment of an additional 30k combat troops.

Mid-way through the speech Obama says, "I have spoken at some length to the question that must weigh on our minds and our hearts as we choose to wage war. But let me now turn to our effort to avoid such tragic choices,...". First, since when has Washington's choice to wage war become everyone's choice? Second, take note that the choice has been categorized as "tragic". Let us hope that Obama has not unintentionally uttered a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

Overall, Obama's speech reads less like the contemplation of a man genuinely seeking world peace than a politician beholden to various interests: national, corporate, and personal. As a result it does not dish up a coherent philosophical explanation of if and why one should choose war over peace -- a decision Obama has made and so propelled America along with him into an increasingly costly conflict measured in both human and economic terms. On the contrary, the message is muddled by what seems like a half-hearted attempt to unite irreconcilable ends. Before the President opened his mouth to speak, we all knew the outcome -- war as usual has prevailed. For that reason, I do not believe he deserves the prize, but that is a trivial thing compared with life and death issues bound up in his choice to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

The speech was also less than forthright about the reasons America is at war. Namely, we have yet to hear an honest and thorough account from Washington of the reasons it is fighting on two fronts in the region. There are reasons, but reasons that are not going to be admitted in public, namely economic and geopolitical ones versus the stock ideological ones we hear ad nauseam. 

Obama claims that "Evil (note: with a capital 'E') does exist in the world." I agree it does, but the President nowhere defines the nature of evil. Inquiring minds need to know. In the meantime, here is a good rule of thumb: whenever a national leader poses a conflict in terms of Good v. Evil, read instead material resources and political power that we want v. material resources they want. In the over half-century since the end of the Second World War, the United States has, contrary to what Obama asserts, sought to impose its will on the world -- for whatever revolving set of economic, political, and moral justifications it has seen fit to promote, for instance support of 'democracy', 'freedom', or in the current situation 'enlightened self-interest'. But this has been primarily the will, not of the American people, but rather the business leaders of U.S. multinational corporations seeking unfettered access cheap material and human resources globally, as well as the will of leaders in DC beholden to corporate money flowing in to finance the U.S. election system.

"America has never fought a war against a democracy", contends Obama. How about Chile in 1972 when Nixon, Kissinger and the CIA orchestrated a coup that toppled the Allende government after the latter nationalized Chile's copper industry, four-fifths of which were in hands of American multinationals? Or how about in 1953 when the U.S. installed the Shah of Iran after the CIA deposed Mohammad Mossadegh the democratically elected prime minister after an attempt was made to nationalize the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which held a monopoly on the production and sale of Iranian oil? In short, the U.S. and its allies have a long track record for turning a blind eye to various dictatorships, if not openly supporting them, when it has been economically expedient to do so. 

President Obama claims he wants to replace war and peace, but the actions of U.S. military suggest otherwise. The war in Iraq may indeed be "winding down" with respect to combat operations, but -- don't let them fool you -- the U.S. plans to maintain bases there for an indefinite time (think West Germany, South Korea, Japan), confirming that America invaded that country not mainly to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein and round up fictitious WMD, but more importantly to gain a permanent foothold in the oil rich region. See, e.g. If the U.S. is ultimately leaving Iraq, why is the military expanding its bases there? We have established a vast military and economic presence in Iraq, and will not let go unless forced to do so. Moreover, U.S. troops in Iraq are not coming home, but instead are being redeployed to a nearby country for similar purposes. 

Obama says that "we did not seek the war in Afghanistan". This is one of numerous lies propagated by the U.S. disinformation machine (with the bulk of the 4th estate following more or less in toe), and those accepting it suffer from a loss of recent historical memory compounded with a national case of self-deception. In brief, we were covertly at war in that country for many years prior to 9/11. On this point I refer to Pulitzer Prize winning author Steve Coll's 2004 Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. To say that the U.S. did not seek this war is similar to saying a drunk driver who caused an accident was not at the scene. 

Obama condemns the use of religion, specifically Islam, "to justify the murder of innocents", namely the victims of the 9/11 attacks. I do not accept that religious dogma was the primary motive on that day (although it was undoubtedly a powerful tonic). The animosity of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda has its roots primarily in politics and economics, whereas the religious aspects of the movement are secondarily motivational. In other words, it has more to do with opposition to the Saudi monarchy, the U.S. and Israel, than Islamic fundamentalism. In November of 2001, bin Laden said, "America and its allies are massacring us in Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir, and Iraq. The Muslims have the right to attack America in reprisal." In short, America cannot explain way the conflict by saying it was the victim of some irrational and fanatical movement. One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. And because America and it proxies employ military tactics that -- accept it or not -- are perceived by its adversaries as intentionally brutal. Giving the enemy a set of derogatory labels -- whatever they may be -- is simply part of maintaining public support for a conflict. One can debate forever what those terms mean and whether they are applicable, but at the end of the day the facts on the ground should be the true basis of any propositions regarding the situation.  

Let's face it: there was no way the U.S. was not going to respond militarily to the attacks of 9/11. The logic of that is embedded in numerous narratives, chief among them the primitive and seemingly inexorable one of an "arm for an arm". But connecting the dots we see that the U.S. has been engaged in the game of warfare in this region for decades, and being attacked, and attacking in response, was just another chapter of the ongoing history being written as you read this. The only big difference about 9/11 is that the U.S. sustained casualties on its native soil, something that had not occurred since Pearl Harbor. Ok, America was lucky for decades given its international track record. But compare what Americas lost at home that day to say, the number of civilian lives lost in Vietnam, and then it remains relatively well off. Still, I believe it is essentially misguided -- even perverse -- to make quantitative comparisons involving life and death: when one single soul is lost to violence, that person is not coming back, friends and family are irrevocably harmed, and nothing is righted in the world. (As an aside, I believe that capital punishment is perfect instance of the primitive urge for retribution of a wrong that does not resolve a conflict but instead perpetuates it. Ironically, it gives capital to the idea that murder is justified.)    

Proviso and clarification: I am not taking sides here, am not a patriot of any sort, but rather want to draw attention to the real conflicting reasons that are driving this conflict. As far as violence is concerned, being a pacifist, I do not support any person, group or nation. Any participant is culpable, and there are very few truly justifiable excuses to employ military might to resolve disputes (and to be honest, I am having trouble coming up with one). The phrase "just war" is an oxymoron. Fight, fight in a war and ultimately be damned along with the ever-growing historical catalogue of individuals and organizations who have chosen violent means to settle disputes. Choose the path of peace, and garner praise from those who have faith that humanity can and should at all times live together in harmony and equality.

Where do Christians stand with respect to the death of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are we exonerated by virtue of filing those deaths in the "collateral damage" folder? Are we in the right because we are the ones who are doing 'Good'? By slinging around the term 'Evil' without properly appreciating its meaning, how far are we really from believing that the use of force is justified because we are ourselves carrying out a divine will? People should recognize that if they choose to fight fire with fire, they become part of the conflagration. The pathological and seemingly eternal man-made cycle of an eye for an eye will only cease when we understand the true meaning of the imperative, "do unto others as we would have them do unto us" -- that is, stop the violence now or it will never end. (And by the way, the "do unto others" motto is not as Obama says a "law of love". It has nothing to do with love, but rather the instinct for self-preservation and how empathy with other creatures impacts on the success of our co-existence.)  

So what are the material resources America covets in Afghanistan and the region? Well, the answer is in part geopolitical -- and that of course has a long and sorted history -- and part immediately and strategically economic. For one, have a look at Making the TransAfghanistan Pipeline Safe for Democracy and Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline. Also consider that the U.S. does not want either Pakistan or India -- nuclear powers at odds with one another -- to fall to an Islamic regime on the Iranian model or something more sinister. Not to mention there is a heck of a lot at stake in keeping the Indian subcontinent friendly for the "free market". When was the last time an American consumer called for technical support and talked with a person physically located in Indiana or Maine? So again, the U.S. has its reasons, but not the ostensible ones being presented by Washington and the mainly sympathetic U.S. press.

More generally, the U.S. military, its corporate defense contractors, and outsourced mercenaries clearly stand to gain from a permanent state of war on one or more fronts. My view is that Obama has essentially caved in to the military branch of the U.S. government (yes, it is de facto one), or at least to pressure from warmongering conservatives from both parties. Worst case scenario: Obama does not really have the authority to cancel the Afghan war and the months of debate was merely perfunctory. In any event, as Lloyd Bentsen famously said of Dan Quayle, Barack Obama is no Jimmy Carter.

I have written elsewhere about man's tendencies toward violence, in particular An Interpretation of a Dream. Obama's cursory interpretation of the origins of violence is essentially correct, except that his misses the essential distinction that separates animals from humans, namely animals are not weapons creating creatures and so are never alienated from the immediate violence that they can themselves produce. My point is that weapons make a big difference in any equation that relates to war and peace. In America, violence begins at home with the freedom of the average citizen to own a handgun. Take away those guns and America will begin to address head on a worldwide problem.   

Obama argues that "modern technology allows a few small men with outsized rage to murder innocents on a horrific scale", but let us not forget that that the power wrought by a superpower employing the most sophisticated weapon systems in the world is in actuality just as terrible. In addition to regularly exercising its own might, the U.S. arms industry exports hundreds of billions of dollars worth of weapons annually, fueling the vast majority of armed conflicts worldwide, increasing instability, and leading to further violence of all sorts everywhere. See Arms Industry for details. So, I call into question the so-called "plain fact" that the U.S. "has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades" or any period of its existence for that matter. I suppose it depends on what one means by, "global security". Security for Nike to manufacture sneakers in Asia? Freedom for McDonald's to serve up billions of burgers from Seattle to Shanghai?  

Harking back to John F. Kennedy, Obama advises us not to bank on "sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions." But human institutions, being nothing more than the sum total of individuals who run them, are just as susceptible to the sort of folly that afflict individuals. Human spiritual evolution must progress in concert with the evolution of its institutions; otherwise the latter will be as ineffective as those who constitute them. Institutions cannot solve issues of war and peace unless they are run by individuals who are not merely giving lip service to non-violent resolutions.

"Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms", claims Obama. What proof do we have of this? Has anyone ever tried? Does this in effect say we will not negotiate? And is this not contrary to the idea that we are now willing to negotiate with some rouge states, considering it is small difference talking with a state versus a small group of individuals? In the President's own words, "Sanctions without outreach -- condemnation without discussion -- can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door." America should lead the way by opening more doors. If our enemies refuse to negotiate, then let it be well known that we at least genuinely tried to talk and brought serious proposals to the table.

"America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war, says Obama, for "that is what makes us different from those whom we fight." Even if this were true (and it is not), is there really any standard in warfare possibly worth bearing? How easily we forget, for instance that the U.S. assault on Iraq during the first Gulf War was one of the most prodigious slaughters in modern history. A brutal six-week bombardment in 1991 killed an estimated 150,000 people and left millions homeless and destitute. In particular, the U.S. Air Force assault on a retreating Iraqi column at Rumaila, Iraq, two days after a declared cease-fire, has been routinely described as a massacre. And more recently there is Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay to consider. So I say in contrast: America must begin to be the standard bearer in the conduct of war. In short, America can and should be a better global partner, but only if it first fully and transparently owns up to its past and present transgressions. Like an alcoholic that finally admits the truth, America is a nation that stands to begin redeeming itself by taking the first step beyond denial. In the warfare business America is not different. If anything, as the only remaining world superpower, it is the leader of a pack.

Obama calls to attention the capacity of human beings "to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God". But indeed, isn't that what Americans have done over and over, e.g. slaughtering its indigenous natives, enslaving imported black Africans, persecuting "communist sympathizers", decimating over a million people in Indochina (recall General Westmoreland's remark, "life is cheap in Asia"), torturing Iraqi prisoners, and indiscriminately bombing Afghani villages? My point: historically Americans are well up there in the roster of nations that have done egregious wrong to their own as well as people of other nations.

Obama declares, "we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes". I call this profoundly glib and defeatist. How does he know? Coming from one of the world's most influential leaders, doesn't this concession aid the possibility that he will be right? On the contrary, wars do end. People do live in harmony with one another. Why is it not possible to achieve this on a grander and more complete scale? It is only when we first imagine things that they may come to be. 

Obama says, "I face the world as it is". I say, we define the world. And since it is a world of our making, we can and must define and make it differently.

America, with Obama's direction, must forgo war and give peace a chance.

Frank X. White
24 December 2009