Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking | Tags: mountain top mining, Nonviolence
My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
My Lord, what a mourning,
When the stars begin to fall.
You’ll hear the trumpet sound
To wake the nations underground,
Looking to my God’s right hand,
When the stars begin to fall.
– The Books of American Negro Spirituals, published in 1925-26 by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson
I slowed down for the curves and watched for signs to Hawk’s Nest Park as I approached Ansted. The State Park was established near Gauley Mountain on the New River where local people told me between 470 and 700 mostly African American miners died while working for Union Carbide from 1927 to 1933. The workers contracted silicosis in the mines while tunnelling through a mountain to build a hydro electric plant, one of the worst industrial disasters in the history of the Americas.
As I approached the mountain top on Highway 60 in my Ford Ranger I found myself humming the old Negro spiritual that I sang as a child, “My Lord, What a Mourning when the stars begin to fall” except in my version mourning had become morning. It was dark as I approached Ansted. The mountains were only remote shadows as snow began to fall. In the version of the song of long forgotten slaves I hum the lines that had been morphed as they travelled voice to ear over the decades..
“We’ll cry for rocks and rocks and mountains when the stars begin to fall,
Rocks and mountains they’ll not save you when the stars begin to fall.”
I searched for an hour along unlit one lane roads for Allen Johnson who would host me at a Christians for the Mountains facility. Modest homes that once housed mine workers were plentiful. As I searched for the guest house I listened to public radio for reports on the Copenhagen meeting. Finally, I gave up searching turned off the radio and called Allen. He met me at the Ansted Pharmacy and led me to the rented guest house beside a century old Baptist church. The old spiritual was still echoing from my unconscious.
As I approached my lodging I could see the outline of Gauley Mountain in the distance and Allen told me that just over the edge I would see mountain top coal removal but that would have to await the daylight. Allen had warned me that 500 mountain tops have been dynamited layer by layer in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee – Appalachia – to reach the seams of coal. The coal is carried by train, barge and truck to power plants to generate electricity and to factories where steel is fashioned.
Rocks from the blasting have buried a thousand miles of streams and destroyed 12 percent of West Virginia forests forever. The Appalachian mountains that once reached heights equalling the great Himalayas of South Asia rose 300 million years ago when coal was formed from trees, swamps and other vegetation. Part of the energy for the light that illuminates my screen as I write may come from this coal.
The price for coal is rising. Surface mining permits the only efficient access to thin seams of coal formed 50 million years before dinosaurs, that traditional underground mining can not reach. With the use of large machinery and explosives two and a half times as much coal per worker can be extracted as in underground mines.
My own life has a connection to Appalachia coal. Sixty years ago when my Northeast Ohio family used coal for heating, 125,000 people worked in the mines. Today that number has fallen to 15,000 because of mechanization. Already then, Appalachian miners with their children fled homes due to joblessness, health problems and poverty. Their special accent was a matter of curiosity in my second and third grade class. Later when I lived in Chicago the north side Uptown neighbourhood was populated by people seeking refuge from the coal fields, many suffering from black lung disease. Today Ansted is more than 60% retired people. Few residents now work in the coal mines. However, coal dust, sounds of dynamite, coal trucks, and plans for more mountain levelling threaten the town’s new vision, to transform itself into a tourist center.
On the day after I arrived people were loath to travel the mountain roads due to snow so I stopped by the Redeemer Episcopal Church. I cautiously entered the annex of the 120 year old church where ladies were holding a fund raiser. My caution was formed by a belief that an Episcopal Church like this one would have been founded to serve the owners of the mines. No sooner did I park myself in front of one of the woman’s cookie tables than I was asked, “Are you here to work to stop Mountain Top Removal?” in a tone that definitely suggested that I would be much more welcome if I would answer, “Yes”.
I asked the women selling cookies for more information about the mountains. Over hot cider and cookies a woman from the kitchen informed me that their church goes out to the mountains regularly where their priest leads participants from surrounding churches in BLESSINGS for the mountains. She inferred that these events were not popular with the coal companies. “I hope you are here the next time we do a Blessing.” said another woman.
Allen took me to visit his friend Larry Gibson at Keyford mountain twenty miles west of Ansted as the crow flies. “Thanks for finally coming to see me” said Larry who met Allen and me with a big hug and a hot cup of coffee. The use of the word “finally” in his jovial greeting was unmistakably firm. I knew it was meant for me. “We need your support.”
Larry’s family line traces its roots in Keyford mountain back 200 years and the evidence lies silently in the nearby cemeteries at least the graves that have not yet been dynamited away. Along the winding road to his mountain top memorial hide way I see the remains of another mountain that has been blasted away, a valley blocked with land fill, huge coal trucks and shards of chimneys from long burned out homes that once housed 10,000 people who lived off mining. Larry cares for the pristine property of his ancestors as a sign of resistance to dynamite, and power shovels. Five times a year on key holidays he invites hundreds of people to festivals like of celebration and remembrance of Keyford mountain.
But not all of Larry’s guests are friendly. Drunken thugs show up to frighten visitors away much like company hired goons once tried to break union organizing in the coal fields. He describes 15 years of struggle, the offers of millions to buy him out, intimidation, arrests and speaking tours before leading us out over his 59 acre mountain top spread, a living trophy to persistence and survival. We pass several cabins where distant relatives come for retreat. He points to bullet holes, a long closed store and finally we pass Hell’s Gate, the property boundary beyond which we begin to view the empty disappeared mountain top beyond.
Below I can see layers of coal and massive power shovels loading coal trucks for delivery to a processing site and later shipment for power generation. In another direction bulldozers slice off rock that has been loosened with blasts of dynamite for disposal in the valley below. A hardy but bland grass has been planted on the mountainside next to his property where mining was terminated. There are no trees, shrubs, mice or deer, just grass. I see the town of Dorothy in a hazy valley beyond, named a century ago in honour of the wife of a mining company owner.
Visiting with Larry Gibson was good preparation for the rally at West Virginia’s state capital, Charleston, called to stop mountain top removal at still another site, Coal River Mountain. The Monday, December 7 protest brought together hundreds from West Virginia and neighbouring states. Everyone gathered in front of the West Virginia state Environmental Protection Agency which has rubber stamped so many company mining initiatives. Cordoned off about 100 feet behind the rally and adjacent to the agency building were 150 counter protesters, some hired by mining companies from the village of Dorothy. Greeting many of the speakers as they rose to challenge the crowd were blood curdling blasts from the horns of coal trucks programmed by the coal industry to cruise just a block away but loud enough to be heard maybe as far away as Copenhagen,. Rally speakers creatively co-opted the horns with long chants that transformed their irritating noise barrage into future friends, “Hoooooonk if you love the mountains.”
As I departed a voice inside told me to go to wake the nations. The descendants of coal miners who live in the hollows and valleys believe that Appalachia can be saved. The industry claims that rallies like the one in Charleston are the result of outsider manipulation by tree huggers. In spite of the charges I found an expanding conviction in West Virginia that the dust of coal pollution and lakes of slime, artificial polluted reservoirs created from crushing and cleaning coal, will be stopped. When people work together to change things they create a culture for transformation.
Several days later as I pulled out of Ansted I flipped on the radio to check developments in Copenhagen. The sombre reports of disunity among the nations reminded me to be realistic but thankful for the people, some diplomats, demonstrators and lobbyists who by their actions remembered the coal fields and disappearing mountain tops. The snow had ended and the fog had lifted. I could see the mountains and knew there was hard work ahead beyond the mourning or was it morning. It’s a new year. It’s a new decade.
Filed under: Politics of Empire | Tags: Bible, community, drones, empire, Israel, Jesus, massacre, politics, terrorism
In this final week of the year, Christians who follow the church calendar remember that children were massacred at Bethlehem. Life stopped. We are always shocked whenever life stops because of events like this, 9/11 or US drone bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The surviving victims and the onlookers stammer as they ask, how this could happen? How can people do this?
From what I know about Herod who ruled when Jesus was born the story of the murder of children is entirely plausible. As a politician and Roman vassal Herod was caught between the demands of an empire and his unpopular regime at home. His dynasty ruled because of Roman blessing not because of the grace of God. The local Jewish population distrusted his intentions and had grown restive over his taxation policies and cruelty. In foreign affairs he cleverly used a combination of diplomacy and good guess-work to convince Roman rulers, sometimes in the midst of their own power struggles, that he was reliable and could deliver strong political rule that would not cause the empire headaches. That is what empires want from their vassals.
Herod’s rule included territory roughly equivalent to ancient Israel. It brought him power but little favour with the people who disliked his decadent life style. Herod claimed to be a Jew but his mother was Arab. Herod’s tenuous claim to Jewish faith was further eroded by his compliance with Rome’s public religion, emperor worship in shrines created at his monumental construction sites. These facts fed unrest.
The gossip that a new King of the Jews had been born was a mortal threat to Herod’s rule. Thirty some years before Herod had been elected to that office by the Roman Senate after angling for the position in the midst of Caesar Augustus’ rise to total power. He may have known of this new threat through his police, palace guards or intelligence service before the arrival of the wise men. However, a diplomatic call by foreign dignitaries called Magi with access to mystery knowledge from the stars alerted him that there may be serious trouble ahead and still manageable ways to crush another impending rebellion. Always on the look out for a coup or usurper of royal office Herod, like his contemporaries today had an insatiable appetite for intelligence information and its first cousin, popular gossip sometimes called news. Information meant that suspects disappeared often for good.
To be safe the dignitaries slipped away by “another road” without checking in with King Herod after they visited the new King in swaddling clothes. This act of avoidance, perhaps rude in the context of routine diplomatic niceties awakened Herod’s deeper suspicions, and the action he settled on was the killing of all children born in the most recent two years in or near Bethlehem, the site of the usurper’s birth. A political killing of infants was Herod’s preferred option given the restive and rebellious nature of public opinion. There was precedent for the use of infanticide as an instrument of national security in the history of the Jewish life in Egypt and in other nations.
This sequence of stories in Matthew’s first two chapters includes five dreams and a message from the stars. In times like these when life and death nudge one another, access to all the insights available to people seeking to do the right thing is urgently required. The break through of wisdom from the unconscious were gifts that illuminated the journey of escape to Egypt and provide the prologue for Matthew’s story of the community of liberation.
Politicians caught in dilemmas that threaten their regime resort to brutality. The killings of all children under the age of 2 was a fear based warning to the population, no regime change, not now, not ever. Looking tough in the midst of unpopularity is essential . Despite the collateral damage, death to mostly innocent children meant that the gains from a limited massacre, only the area of Bethlehem, outweighed the risks. There was no time to consider the long term effects on political culture.
Behind this story recorded in Matthew but not mentioned was the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. Every nation and principality in the Empire understood the nonnegotiable demands made of vassals, demands for stability, reliability, ideological harmony and access to material or human resources when the need arose. The empire had financial and military limits and local rulers were left to their own devices including secret police to create at least the fiction of security and prosperity. The empire preferred to have its local strong man to carry out the heavy lifting of domination and cruelty to manufacture order. The interrogation, torture, and killing of enemies, often called terrorists is the work for lesser tetrarchs. The empire’s troops were only sent in as a last resort. The imperial heartland was reserved for pomp and endless repeating of the myths of its glory.
But there is another thread in this story of empire, client states, vassals, intrigue, and massacre. It involved the parents of the King baby, who listened the their dreams. It involved unexpected partners who offered protection and generous help along the way. The story of escape, return and new life is happening today too for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear and wise instincts to recognize the signs of the times.
Filed under: Connecting Across Borders | Tags: Afghanistan, Christmas, Santa Claus, war toys
Santa Claus was never a big part of my life until I let my white beard grow long. That was twenty years ago. My beard sometimes closes doors for North American Caucasian who think I never got out of the 1960s. But the beard opens more portals to wonderful conversations
in places like Viet Nam where they called me Karl Marx. Elders in Afghanistan admired my beard and apparently trusted me. They addressed me as Baba (Uncle) Noel. Once in Mexico City airport I got stopped eleven times by mothers with young children who wanted their child to meet Senior Noel. It was summer and I didn’t have a single gift to give, not even a piece hard tack candy.
When late November arrives I know I am in for surprise greetings every time I go out. The words from strangers carry positive energy because people have good thoughts about Santa except for children age seven and older who have become suspicious that Santa talk is a ruse and he can’t be trusted to be what they were taught about him.
The home I grew up in acknowledged Santa. We didn’t have a fire place so it was confusing to me how Santa would get into the house by way of a chimney that went to a coal furnace. Somehow he made it and the stockings were full when I awoke on Christmas day. There was at least one small present, an orange and some hard tack candy, not my favourite but I didn’t complain because I didn’t want to stop a good thing.
I first really became aware of the power of Santa and St. Nicholas, during the 1990s when I regularly visited Palestine where Muslims, Jews and Christians alike used my appearance as a conversation starter. When the second intifada (uprising) broke out in 2000 there were violent exchanges between Israelis and Christian villages like Beit Jala, near Bethlehem. In Beit Jala I was seriously introduced to St. Nicholas, their patron saint who gave special protection to the villagers since the 4th century. The story is that St. Nicholas was a pilgrim to Beit Jala in the years 312-315 and he lived in buildings and caves built by monks a century earlier. The people of Beit Jala told me story after story about how St Nicholas had saved their village over the centuries up to and including modern intifadas.
The original Saint Nicholas, one of the sources of modern day Santa lived in 4th century Turkey in the city of Myra and was known to be a prolific and secret gift giver particularly to people who left their shoes out for him. According to legend St Nicholas spoke up for justice and was imprisoned under the Roman emperor, Diocletian. He later became a church leader, bishop and according to historians participated in the Council of Nicaea of course after he was released from prison under Emperor Constantine the first emperor to court the support of church people. St. Nicholas died Dec. 6, 343 and according to reports a unique relic called manna formed on his coffin. The manna had special healing powers.
The merging of Santa Claus, in his flying sleigh and St. Nicholas, the gift giver and healer with the birth of Jesus has really only happened in the last several hundred years. The choice of December 25 to remember Jesus birth didn’t occur until 350 years after Jesus’ birth. It is almost certainly not Jesus birthday. It is winter in Palestine and shepherds are not likely to be in the fields at that time of year. The date was probably chosen because it was the Roman holiday that celebrated the winter solstice in the Northern hemisphere. Today Christian and non Christian cultures celebrate Christmas.
Somewhere between my childhood and the 1990s I learned that the combination of St Nicholas in the fourth century, European mythology, and imagination gave birth to the modern Santa Claus. There is just enough magic in all of the sources to maintain curiosity in children and adults. In the final chapter of this mashing together to make Santa Claus, the holiday season has become a marriage of commerce and advent that conveniently invokes Santa in order to escape the more demanding implications of the story of Jesus birth, the politics of domination, poverty, infanticide, peace, and hints of universal claims from the Magi.
The power of Santa is invoked to sell lots of stuff, in fact the whole economic year hangs on December sales. By the time Santa Claus works his wonders in the market place he has been thoroughly trivialized and there is not much connection to St Nicholas, gift giving, generosity, or even reindeer..
I have never played Santa for a commercial establishment, but I have impersonated Santa for events of gift giving. Commercial establishments need a lift from Santa because it is very hard to sell Christmas shoppers with a story about someone being born in a manger probably with goat manure on the dirt floor. Commercial life demands immediate results, the kind that a newly minted and happy Santa can offer. It does not need a birth story about unknown parents who are manipulated or forced by an emperor with no compunctions about using terror to impose his will, into travelling to that forsaken place where Jesus was born.
One time I visited Toys R Us dressed like Santa and accompanied by a team of elves. It was a few days after Christmas so the symbolism was still solidly implanted in people’s brains. I entered the store with my staff of elves and immediately requested the manager to remove violent war toys from his shelves. I explained to him how dangerous the toys were and that I had determined that the bad toys must be permanently removed for the safety of children. He replied that what was on his shelves was not my business to which I replied that toys are always my business.
We then used the shopping carts to load assorted dangerous toys from throughout the store that my staff of elves had marked for removal. By that time the police had decided to intervene to stop what they called a disturbance but what we designated a recall. TV cameras were also present. I informed the police that my staff and I would leave the store as soon as we had completed our work. The police threatened arrest. We had a quick staff meeting, elves and Santa, and judged that the police would never arrest Santa or his staff. We were right, however the police blocked our progress as we pushed our carts from aisle to aisle and finally into the backroom where we instructed the workers to hold toys for pick up by United Postal Service and prompt shipment to my workshop.
So you see Santa can be firm and hard nosed. That is why hard nosed adults should put Santa Claus and his ancient partner Saint Nicholas back into the holiday season!
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Iraq, Peacemaker spirit, Taliban, Viet Nam | Tags: Afghanistan, Afghanistan troop surge, conscience, drones, pacifism, peace, robotic warfare
What is the meaning of the Nobel Peace Prize? Alfred Nobel, Stockholm native and the inventor of dynamite and other explosives was chagrined that his inventions were used in cruel ways. In the late 1800s towards end of his life he dedicated his considerable fortune to those who had made the greatest contribution to humankind. Each year prizes are awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, economics and peace.
Two sitting American Presidents Woodrow Wilson (1919) and ninety years later Barack Obama (2009) have been presented the Nobel peace prize. Both men believed that they had an overarching role to move history in a more peaceful direction. Wilson was disappointed and died in office. His League of Nations was crippled from non support at home and then burned in the ashes of World War II. We hope for a better outcome for Obama. Former President Jimmy Carter received the prize in 2002, 22 years after he was defeated by Ronald Reagan for a second term. Henry Kissinger accepted the peace prize for negotiating with the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (North Viet Nam) in the early 1970s while B52s simultaneous bombed his enemy. His counterpart Le Duc Tho of North Viet Nam refused to accept the prize. The war continued for two more years after the Paris Peace agreements. Between 1973-1975, another half a million Vietnamese were killed and wounded, 340,000 of them civilians.
President Obama’s eloquent speech accepting the Nobel Prize on Dec. 10, Human Rights Day laid out the necessity of war and ruminated on his nation’s understanding of just war – “war waged as a last resort, or in self-defence; if the force used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.” To his credit he defined what theorists believe is a just war. He did not identify how his administration purports to fine tune war making to meet the criteria of a just war in two big wars, Iraq, according to him a dumb war and Afghanistan, a necessary conflict.
How will those who target drone attacks, and other expressions of air war make certain that no civilians are killed? How will a new chapter in just war be written in the basic training manuals of soldiers preparing for deployment, for interrogation of the enemy, for treatment of captives, and for clean up of military waste? Can Alfred Nobel’s dynamite and its prolific offspring ever be controlled? Will the apparent unlimited use of U S wealth for military purposes bankrupt its citizens as once happened in Rome?
For a century the Nobel Prize for peace has hovered in that space between active peacemaking represented by monumental efforts towards peace and justice like land mine eradication, civil rights, or relief efforts, and the work of nations to create a framework that will constrict war and its effects on civil society. The prize was not primarily intended to celebrate pacifist solutions to war although people who questioned all war and violence like Martin Luther King and Jane Addams received the award. The acknowledgement of their achievements gives hope.
In his speech President Obama deftly distanced himself and his office from pacifist traditions as a President with responsibilities consistent with empire must do. To his credit he did so without the normal checklist of charges of idealism, lack of realism and or even naiveté, a checklist deeply embedded in the pillars of liberal democratic thinking upon whose shoulders his politic relies for ideological ballast.
President Obama didn’t tell us if there are any serious negotiations with adversaries, coalitions of Pakhtoon villages or Taliban groups. In a part of the world where negotiations have been practised for 3000 years it is hard to believe that something isn’t happening to find an end to armed conflict. How is the conduct of the Afghan-Pakistan war creating the context for real peace, democracy or development? The people I talked to in Pakistan are not sure. How will his administration encourage or even mandate the military chaplain corps to become a genuine conscience and moral compass for “just combat” in the field. What about the thousands of soldiers who joined the nation’s forces and, in the process of soldiering, developed a conscientious objection to war? Will they be allowed to get out without having their dignity and personal integrity dishonoured?
For many peace people, church members and third world nations Obama’s speeches on Afghanistan and the acceptance of the Nobel prize despite their eloquence was a time of disappointment. This was the moment when I realized that my long-term hope for ending the practice of war in say a century will require harder more focussed work than ever. I believe I can use this experience as a time to bound forward. The speeches remind me that the Lamb of God with even wider reach in the stretch for justice can overcome the god of empire that imposes chaos and destruction under the guise of democratic order.
The speeches remind us that fundamentalist preachers or pundits are tethered together with the liberal establishment on the question of war. Both stumble through various versions of just war ethics as the Predator drones drag us into a scary future. Above all the speeches remind us of the very limited options that are available to an imperial President in matters of peace and war. This is the moment to pull up our pants, turn off the T V, awaken our imaginations, and listen to God’s spirit of compassion for all human kind, and get on with our work.
Some of us will be called to unexpected sacrifice of time, career, and life itself. The goal of a world without war is worth all of the sacrifice of a great army of unarmed soldiers. This dream of a nonviolent world may be the only realistic vision now, despite the fact that our leaders doff their hats to just war. The renewal of our spirit will come one step at a time in fresh and even larger ways as our spirits are awakened to the politics of renewal and hope, a politic like Jesus himself, that is never dependent upon a president who himself is often powerless to transform an imperial culture that devours good policies and strong words.
The universality of this season’s mantra, “Peace on Earth Good Will Towards People” is a good place to start and it gets the best angels involved. If the mantra is going to bring down the institution of war we better be prepared with discipline and armfuls of imagination infused with love. When we are called idealists we do well to give the realist answer, all of creation is groaning for something better. That is where we will put our energy. Even elder Alfred Nobel might cheer us on.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, Blaming the Victim, Politics of Empire | Tags: Afghanistan, Canada, corruption, counter insurgency, military contractors
Corruption is in the news again always with tough talk about what the next phase of US troops in Afghanistan will look like. As a young volunteer in Viet Nam in the early 1960s I was assigned to work with a USAID (United States Agency for International Development) sponsored program called hamlet education. At the time I thought that education was always good and it never occurred to me that I might be part of a larger plan to entice the Vietnamese government to embrace the U. S. Government agenda. As I got into my work I was warned of corruption. American government advisors told me that money for the program was lifted all along the way from Saigon ministry people, through province leaders and on down to district governments that administered the disbursement of money. I was never told what to do about it. I had not enrolled in a class that might have been called History of Corruption in the Western World although given the soiled history of US intervention in so many places over the last 40 years it should have been a required course.
At the local level where I worked, the district chiefs contracted to have the schools built. Vietnamese and Americans warned me that the contractors would cut corners by using insufficient amounts of cement and lower quality construction materials. According to these same people contractors were required to kick back a certain percentage to the district chief. It took forever for the paperwork and the money to work its way through the system down to the hamlets. So American advisors along the way were encouraged to pressure, nice talk, and occasionally throw a fit to get hamlet education and all the other counter insurgency programs moving. Eventually I figured out that I was the final link in that pressure process.
District chiefs told me that the blame for the slow pace of implementation order was due to the Viet Cong, or the general slowness of the Vietnamese way. Eventually schools were built, dedicated and opened. There were plenty of children. Occasionally when I visited schools there was propaganda on the school walls condemning American imperialists. I learned that when those signs appeared the schools usually closed shortly thereafter and if I went to those villages people continued to be polite and there was still tea to drink but the villagers didn’t want to talk about the school.
As the military build up proceeded I noticed that the US military civic action people took great interest in schools, loved to paint schools, and give support to projects. Like me they also believed that schools would bring a better future As security broke down such projects lost their luster. But many of the programs continued to be carried on the Saigon government books and something called corruption grew as the distance from money to effective implementation became more remote, often impossible, due to war. This led to more accusations of corruption and an influx of more American advisors always with their generous hardship pay. Like me they arrived generally underqualified in the local arts of communication, culture and corruption. Back in the White House situation room war councils were a weekly affair.
President Obama has promised to announce his Afghanistan decision next week in time for Christmas. West Point, his choice of location does not suggest to me that he or his advisors have learned what I thought I learned in Viet Nam about how war and corruption embrace each other usually with the language of economic improvement and development for the people. I can hear the generals and other senior advisors now in the situation room fine tune the use of new miracle weapons and at the same time integrating Canada, NATO and whoever else into the strategy of targeting the foe. And then some highly medaled general or civilian security advisor will ask about how the counter insurgency plans are coming along. Somebody pontificates about “the people” and someone else describes a conversation they had in Afghanistan recently. Maybe there is a silence in the room and then someone from USAID, the civilian counter insurgency agency, reports on how many new people have been sent in to advise and track roads, schools and other development work. Overall the mood is sombre and no one wants to say the strategy won’t work. Someone asks about negotiations. But that discussion doesn’t seem to go anywhere either. One of the elephants in the room reminds the solemn gathering how embarrassing it is to give money to a government that is corrupt so someone suggests that we have to get the press to cover a success story.
Corruption usually gets worse in war because people’s survival instinct tell them to think short term and clutch at every opportunity for golden nuggets, money, or anything that has value and can be traded. I doubt that the $500 dollar per day civilian advisors will stamp out survival corruption. I have not heard evidence that these pricy civilians are any more prepared with communication, culture and corruption medicine than I was 45 years ago. An Afghan’s monthly salary is less than half the amount a U. S. aid worker earns each day. It costs about $500,000 per year to put these pricy civilian advisors and corruption doctors in the field, including the cost of their housing, transport, and security (usually provided by even higher paid contractors). A soldier costs the American people about one million dollars per year.
But the suspension of legal and moral strictures so evident in conditions of war has its first cousins in New York and Washington where there isn’t a war. We don’t use the word corruption unless it’s a Ponzi scheme. By keeping the boundaries of the law as wide as possible in order to encourage free enterprise our rule of law here is respected even though people, corporations and syndicates plunder one another and feed on those who are not organized to escape the insatiable grasp for more money. It is this kind of condition that incensed the Old Testament prophets when they warned Israel about the fate that awaits the greedy nation. Corruption doctors are needed right here in North America, not the $500 a day kind that are sent to Afghanistan but the kind who have demonstrated with a life of bold words, or prudent action that the future is worth protecting. Preachers and modern day prophets whose thought and wisdom have tasted from the well of sustainable economy can help. Listeners and readers should, however, beware of the false gospel of perpetual prosperity celebrated in so many religious and economic holy places like some mega churches and Wall Street.
In Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan the word corruption is used when sharply dressed foreign advisors, who should know better, need someone to blame. Let’s face it, corruption is universal. Publius Cornelius Tacitus, roman senator, and historian who prosecuted a proconsul of Africa on corruption in the first century said “The more corrupt the state, the more laws.” We still have a habit of passing more laws to build a moat around corruption and deal with lapses in moral judgement.
The terms of the debate on Afghanistan are in need of change from corruption and blaming to respect and honest talk. Foreign power and might will not change the outcome in Afghanistan although generous doses of explosives from outside will certainly lengthen the war. The challenge of American powerlessness in Afghanistan now faces President Obama and his advisors. If he reaches back to his time as a community organizer he will get some hints of how to address the nation and the world when faced with powerlessness. Community organizers don’t take on campaigns that are not good for the community. A healthy campaign reaches out with the possibility of real gain for all the participants
Foreign fighters in Afghanistan from the Muslim or the Christian world can ill afford to pay for this war. This chapter of warfare can be closed by loading up the trains, trucks, and air planes with all existing and spent war equipment. By bringing instruments of war past and present, mines, spent tanks, everything, home for recycling it will not be used by anyone in Afghanistan or elsewhere to extend anyone’s conflict. Then the world can turn its attention to binding up the wounds from broken relationships, the tangle of terrorism, and building a world that is incorruptible.
Last week some people in the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall twenty years ago. The timing of its fall was unexpected but the energy leading to its end had been building from its beginning. On August 12, 1961 the East German government signed the order to build the wall. The wall lasted for 28 years probably above average for walls. Rulers have been building walls since the beginning of empires. Today sentries, hidden cameras and steel gates help wall off gated communities and corporate or government buildings to keep out people like terrorists, activists, street people and low-class sales persons.
A few barriers like the Great Wall in China built over centuries are now landmarks for tourists. The Chinese government is not interested in the Great Wall for security purposes. Reports today indicate that President Obama may pay the customary presidential visit to the Great Wall or the forbidden city. Yesterday he delivered advice to the Chinese, bring down the internet firewall. Perhaps a visit to the Great Wall could jog his community organizer imagination so that when he returns he will order the transformation of the 700 mile long border wall now under construction between Mexico and the US, into a tourist attraction where visitor fees could help pay off the deficit. Technical support for modern wall construction at the US Mexico border was provided by Israeli corporations who have considerable experience building their own wall to keep Palestinians out.
The barrier under construction by Israel to wall off Palestine is more than half completed. It will eventually be 436 miles long. Built to stop angry Palestinians from entering Israel, the wall traverses Palestinian villages, farms and property and is a source of great Palestinian inconvenience.
In February of this year I was in Northern England where one can view what is left of Hadrian’s wall developed after 122 AD. Actually I didn’t stop to look at Hadrian’s Wall but instead looked over Antonine’s Wall built across the Central Belt of Scotland 20 years later and 100 miles to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. Construction of Antonine’s turf and wood barrier took 12 years. It had 12 major forts plus many additional outposts for the imperial Roman defence force. It proved impossible to staff and maintain, served little strategic value and like many other past and future weapons was abandoned after 20 years. A city park now surrounds the part of Antonine’s wall that I saw. Unless someone told me I would not have known I was viewing a one time security border designed to keep bad people or terrorists on one side and protect the wealth of empire on the other.
A wall runs through the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland today, the remnant of a waning British empire. It divides Protestants and Catholics and provides an excellent opportunity for graffiti artists, though some of the panels are alarmingly racist. According to some local people it still serves a security function although the unguarded gates may suggest that its usefulness for any past or future kingdom may be limited.
Chunks of the Berlin wall are sought after as souvenirs usually by people like me who see the end of walls to be a symbol of a better way. Selling off wire clumps of the U.S. border wall with Mexico could be a promising industry. But good as the sales of that wall might be, the enterprise will lack in the special market appeal of chunks of concrete wall direct from the Holy Land.
A question that will probably require mediation for both the U. S. and Israeli walls is who will get the profits from wall sales, the people who ordered the walling or the people who were walled out. I assume that President Obama’s staff will be looking for advice on these details this week as he visits the people who built the Great Wall of China, the biggest and most elaborate wall of all. I am confident President Obama remembers that in Chicago where he once organized, the mayor built walls to hide poor communities from world-class convention goers, royal families, presidents and empire builders.
Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan, War and Poverty | Tags: Afghanistan, anti American, conscience, Muslim, pacifism, peace
Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter was caught in an impossible matrix of shame. As a Muslim he was asked to support the killing his fellow religionists. Islam forbids the killing of other Muslims. As a military man he was belittled and perhaps harassed for his growing Muslim convictions. Good soldiers do not identify with the enemy. Every day as a counselor and psychiatrist he was reminded of his impossible dilemma as he listened to the dreadful stories of broken soldiers caught in the vise of post traumatic stress syndrome disorder (PTSD). Their stories of fatalism, guilt, suicide and other life changing experience in combat killing reminded him that he was a part of the system that kills other Muslims. He was caught between two shaming systems and there was no place to turn for help.
The military does not allow for selective conscientious objection.* Soldiers, including officers of all religious and secular persuasions who try to extricate themselves from previous military commitments are belittled. And the bureaucratic path leads through months and even years of lonely and tortured hearings, appeals, reviews and rejections. Some go absent without leave (AWOL) only to grow exhausted over time with their semi underground life and loss of hope for a normal life. They may turn themselves in or even join the ranks of the homeless. In previous wars they were welcomed in countries like Canada where they took up new lives. Canada is no longer welcoming to objectors.
Objectors who are in uniform tend to act out of the deepest instincts of conscience that is available to them, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or humanist. Major Nidal Hasan is one in a long line of soldiers whose deep inner conviction led them to refuse to cooperate. He did it in a more destructive and dramatic form. If you want to meet other objectors you can visit Under the Hood Café outside of Fort Hood where G Is with objections to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan congregate. I met six of them in a recent trip to Austin. All of them described thoughts of suicide, anguish over their desire to get their lives back, frustration at the way the military refused to believe them when they objected, and counselling sessions with people like Major Hasan that helped little. In our conversations the group of objectors thoughtfully contemplated various versions of objection, selective conscientious objection (not recognized by the military), complete pacifism (recognized by the military) or continuing to run. However in the confusion of their stress, I was not sure if one or more of them could turn to violence directed at their families or even aimed at the military.
Like Major Hasan the non Muslim objectors were people who believed what the military recruiters who are required to meet quota, told them. They thought they would get money for advanced education. They believed that they were going to fight and kill persons who may terrorize America. They believed what they would do was right, good, honourable and even heroic. The reality and innocence of the people they have now killed overwhelms them. Their consciences were stirred by a more deeply rooted universal respect for human life. When they acted on their conscience it was interpreted as disloyalty to the military and to their nation and their lives are not celebrated like the media reverently acknowledges those who die in America’s wars.
Despite the macho cultures from which these non Muslim soldiers came their bodies and minds are now closed down to more war. For the young soldiers I met in Austin TX, massive killings by air, sea and land were enthusiastically approved and roundly supported by their superiors and political leaders. Each soldier I talked with has his or her own story of willy nilly, random shootings that are never investigated. In Major Hasan’s culture, suicide attacks are encouraged as the way to leave a mark or discourage the enemy. The dominant thread in both cultures is the ancient model, an eye for an eye and both have teachings about just war that are ignored by commanders, soldiers and the religious teachers who back them up.
The lessons from the Fort Hood shootings is one that all of us must hear and believe. There are great numbers of people returning from the modern battle field who are wounded in spirit. The belief in a system that threatens, shocks and kills does not bring real security. We all need to listen to people like Major Hasan and his colleagues at Fort Hood and help them find a way out of the system that is killing them and others. One way out for them would be a system of selective conscientious objection. We can press for that.
We can also push for a democracy that provides as many rewards for unarmed warriors, peacemakers and service workers outside the military as those promised to military recruits. Maybe we should even advocate a draft that recruits the sons and daughters of the ruling class first. In the long term we need to press for a dramatic cut in the military budget. And for all of us who dream of the day when a culture of peacefulness without killing might prevail we need to get serious about all kinds of experiments that build a culture where conflicts are settled without weapons.
*Major Nidal Hasan June 2007 notes for speech at Walter Reed Hospital advocating option for Consciencious Objector status for Muslims in the conclusion.