PEACE PROBE by Gene Stoltzfus

Sports, Unity, Hope: Bangor, WI to Beijing, China by peaceprobe
August 28, 2008, 2:39 pm
Filed under: Walk in Wisconsin 2008

On the walk, Witness Against War which I joined earlier this month in Wisconsin we passed through the town of Bangor, population 1400, 98 % white, estimated household income $46,000 per year.  We reached the village park for a brief rest where we were greeted by an aging army tank and a more recently retired Cobra helicopter, sometimes called the Snake.  The Cobra was once the  backbone of the US Army`s fleet of attack helicopters developed for use in Viet Nam to support its cousins, the transport helicopters, that moved troops in and out of combat areas often under fire.  

After catching our breath in Bangor`s park and listening to the mellow sound of a creek nearby we walked towards the back of the park and discovered an almost hidden artfully crafted monument to a 1950 era American soccer championship team.  Crafted as a metallic globe to awaken visions of unity and peace, the monument had been sponsored by a group calling itself Veterans Opposed to War.  Be sure to check it out when you go to Bangor.  It is near the bike path.  The hidden positioning of this blending of sport and a muted critique of war betrayed what must have been a protracted discussion and negotiation about its  appropriateness and cultural value.  In my imagination I saw that sport had been the route to approval for a group of veterans who did not think much of war. 

In Beijing, thousands of miles away from Bangor in the Games of the XXIX Olympiad was centre stage for the world.  As I walked through Wisconsin I admit to being a little curious about what was happening in Beijing.  I got home on the final day of the games to see a Kenyan, Samuel Kama Wanjiru win the marathon.  

It had been Paul Milling, the bus driver, walk participant and Iraq veteran who tipped me off to the discretely hidden veterans’ monument in the shadows of the park.  A Specialist First Class in the 25th Infantry Division, his battery had been assigned to an artillery unit where he helped direct 105 mm guns in the region near Kirkkuk, the city in the largely Kurd sector of Iraq that is now much in the news because of Kurd claims to the oil rich region.  He told me he was trained in Kuwait to refer to Iraqis as Haji, the respectful Muslim term reserved only for people who have travelled to Mecca.  When he reached Iraq his commanders and fellow soldiers introduced him to other even less honorific titles for Iraqi people, camel jockey, sand nigger, and towel head.  

Before my eyes glazed over into the closing ceremony of the Olympics, I heard Charles Collingwood NBC sports commentator lavish praise on the Beijing event.  His commentary did not mention Chinese life in the shadows, our generation`s victims of modernization.  Nor did we hear or see a single sign of hesitation from the athletes who had been herded into camps where good manners were expected.  

The veterans who were critical of war in Bangor got their message out by hitching it to a forgotten sports event that evoked a moment of unity.  In Beijing the crafts of security kept criticisms far away from the glory of the gold.  Even the dirt in the air got pushed back by a combination of engineering and luck from the heavens.  Sport takes our mind off dirtier things for a moment. It also may help us talk about real life where we try to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1).

But when sport fills the void where meaning and real hope wants to find a home I will have been snookered, maybe even drugged by false expectations and eventual tragedy.  The losers may actually have more to teach us than the winners who are always telling us that anything is possible.  Come to think of it the winners in sport are sort of like the winners in politics who tell us that anyone can be President in whatever great republic.  

Any of us who have done first grade math knows that just is not true.  So I say thank you for the fleeting vision of discipline and unity that sport nudges us towards.  I believe that if we applied the same quality discipline, vision and perseverance over time to our peacemaking we would see much deeper hints of unity and hope.  And, it would not cost 40 billion dollars.


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