Slouching Out Of Iraq

Yesterday the New York Times reported on Iraq in the immediate wake of the U.S. withdrawal:  “Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq threatened on Wednesday to abandon an American-backed power-sharing government created a year ago, throwing the country’s fragile democracy into further turmoil just days after the departure of American troops.”

Okay, for starters, could we please agree to stop using the term “fragile democracy” in this context? Iraq is not and has never been a democracy, fragile or otherwise. Constructing a democratic government was the thin disguise for a U.S. invasion that was premised on other things: illusory weapons of mass destruction, getting rid of Saddam Hussein and the drive to secure the American oil supply.

Webster’s defines “democracy” as:                                                                                       a: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority                                                   b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections. 

The stage props that the United States set up to create an illusion of this definition are swiftly crumbling just days after our army withdrew, so let’s stop pretending that it is a “fragile democracy” that’s struggling in Iraq.  The Times article continues: “The escalating political crisis underscores the divisions between Iraq’s three main factions — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — that were largely papered over while the American military maintained a presence here and lays bare the myriad problems left behind with the final departure of American troops: sectarianism, a judiciary that the populace views as beholden to one man, and a political culture with no space for compromise…..I’d say that this analysis is a direct contradiction of the earlier characterization in this article of a “fragile democracy”.

Why am I making a big deal about this? Because words matter, and the truth matters. Call Iraq a “fragile democracy” and it implies all kinds of things: that the United States really intended to foster democracy in Iraq and truly succeeded in that wildly ambitious plan; that this delicate new flower of freedom is now threatened by outside forces bent on destroying it; and that the United States will be positioned on the sidelines, wringing its collective hands in regret that our well-intentioned efforts, so heavily financed by both money and the lives of over 4,000 Americans, are threatened by the forces of evil.

It would be well to point out that if our goal in Iraq had been democracy, we could have begun at any point during Saddam Hussein’s rule, since we established and sustained him in the first place. And it would be honorable to admit that the people of Iraq might organize for their own democracy, like those in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have begun to do, if they’d not been beaten down not only by years of dictatorship, an earlier US war, terrifically costly sanctions and then nine years of another US war.

I’m in the mood for a little humility and a lot of truth-telling as this shameful war winds down. I will not say “ends” because it is not going to end, though the US troops are largely withdrawn. We have set the conditions for more suffering. The least we can do is be honest about it.

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Veterans’ Day Prayer in a Time of War

Light a candle to name this hollow sadness,
to name the fear, and the tendrils of despair.
Watch the fragile light flickering there, and promise
in the name of all that is holy
that you will shelter within yourself an answering flame:
the call of peace, the insistence on peace,
setting other lights ablaze for as long as it will take.

Pray for the soldiers of our country,
warriors who battle in our name.
They are so young, these sons, these daughters.
They are afraid they will be killed,
afraid they will do grievous harm.
They are frightened of failure, and of what they must do
to succeed.
Pray for the safety of their bodies and the wholeness
of their spirits;
pray for some comfort to touch the ones who love them.

Pray for the soldiers of our enemy,
whose names are shaped by a foreign tongue.
Pray for their safety and wholeness as well.
Pray to remember that these are our brothers:
they bleed when they are wounded,
their hearts break in sorrow.
Like us, they long for a gentler day
when they might wake to the morning in peace
and know themselves to be safe.

Light a candle in a time of war.
Do not hide from the truth of what unfolds now
on the far side of the sweetly spinning earth.
Remember: swords do not shape themselves
into plowshares.
That work is in our hands.                                                                                                From Shine and Shadow, Kathleen McTigue, 2011 Skinner House Books

Tending the Secret Garden

As I sat at my desk last week I found myself staring out at the bleak-looking woods in our back yard. The recent winds took down nearly all the leaves, and the rain has wiped out the bright colors that pooled on the ground for a little while. Add in the high overcast blocking the sun, and all I could see were the dulled colors of early winter: brown and gray, drab greens and faded yellows. It was more than a little disheartening. And then as I looked out over this scene, feeling a little dull and gray myself, a pair of bluebirds flew suddenly to a branch directly at eye level, flashing almost neon in their brightness.

The “bluebird of happiness” has never been an image that works very well for me: a bit too saccharine, and certainly far too clichéd. And yet I have to admit, my heart did a little flip-flop of joy when those beautiful creatures lit up the scene, and after they had danced their jaunty bird jig on the branch for a few minutes and then flown away the landscape had a sheen to it, a little backwash of light left behind.

One of the quotes I keep posted in my home office on my Wall of Wisdom is from Sarah Breathnach: “Both abundance and lack exist simultaneously in our lives, as parallel realities. It is always our conscious choice which secret garden we will tend.”

Not a bad reminder as we wend our way toward Thanksgiving. Which secret garden will we tend today? Lord knows, most of us take meticulous care of our inner Garden of Dissatisfaction. We wander through its open gate almost before we’ve fully wakened in the morning, sorry for ourselves because of too little sleep or the wisp of some crabby dream. We admire each new little sprout and return, again and again, to the unkempt and extravagant growth of our favorite gripes, some of them many years old and still full of whining vigor.

But there’s another garden growing right alongside this one for each of us, so that just a little tilt of the head or a shift in our vision puts us deep within a world of a different shape. Along its paths we can see the ordinary grace of our lives that we ignore so easily: breath, health, love, friends, food, and all the small gifts brought to us by the unfolding day. In the Garden of Abundance, the bare branches against a November overcast become a blessing, not because of the bluebirds that lighted there for a moment but because the branches themselves exist, and I have the eyes to see them.

Which secret garden will you tend today?

Perpetual Veteran Machine

It’s painfully ironic to read the headlines today of all days — the endless speculation and leaks from those supposedly in the know about the numbers of additional troops who will be sent to fight in Afghanistan. Will it be 20,000 or 40,000? Something in between?

No one seems to believe that the President will stand with his VP and actually declare that the all-out war in which we’re already engaged is a mistake. No one seems to expect that there will be a clearly defined reason for this war that actually makes sense in the real world (in the real world, bombing the hell out of a country in order to “defeat Islamist extremists” seems akin to putting out a grease fire with Crisco).

Meanwhile, it’s Veterans’ Day. In the wake of the terrible shootings in Fort Hood last week, there has been a flurry of attention in the news to what kind of shape our returning veterans are in. Over 30% are suffering post-traumatic stress. The suicide level among active as well as returning troops is at a record high. Violence in and around military bases has skyrocketed.

In our worship services each Sunday during our time of prayer and meditation, I read aloud the names of the men and women who have died in the preceding week in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve been doing this for four years now, so the dramatic shift in numbers from casualties suffered in Iraq to those in Afghanistan has been explicit and horrifying. Two weeks ago I read out twenty-three names, all but one of them killed in Afghanistan.

I am beginning to wonder with increasing urgency about those whose names we never read out loud because they have been lucky enough to survive. Who are they, once they are finally released from the relentless round of multiple deployments? How do they think about the physical, psychic, emotional and spiritual wounds they have suffered fighting a war whose purpose no one can explain with real integrity?

I believe that the vast majority of these men and women are truly heroic. I don’t know any other word to use for people who are willing to risk their lives, repeatedly, because their country has called them to do so. But I don’t think the country that has called out to these sons and daughters is itself heroic. In our willingness to keep on sending them forth to kill, to be killed, to come home so damaged that in many cases they will never be able to resume a steady, peaceful and joyous life, to do all this based not on purpose and goals but out of inertia, confusion or delusion…. what are we? Who are we to do this?

In our continued pursuit of peace by means of the extraordinary violence of war, we are surely deluded. In a more traditional theological language I would say that we are sinful. I have very little hope that our leaders will find a way to bow to this truth, name our errors and our need for repentance, and take us down a path more worthy of the men and women who have become our sacrificial lambs: our veterans.

 

Memorial Day

Memorial Day is right around the corner, and in my small New England town it will be celebrated with a very traditional parade down the middle of Main Street. We will go to it as a family, arriving an hour or so ahead of time at the home of friends who live smack in the middle of the parade route. Each year they host pretty much everyone they know to a huge pot-luck brunch, and when we’ve all eaten our fill and begin to hear the brass band in the distance, we amble out to the front lawn with our folding chairs and wait for the first glimpse of our fellow townsfolk who “march” in the parade (“amble” is more like it).

When my kids were little, this was one of the big thrills of the year, right up there with Christmas and Halloween. The parade has all of the elements that sound so hokey it’s hard to believe they exist, and yet they will be repeated in just this way in thousands of towns across the country, and each one will make the eyes of little children go wide with wonder. There will be people on horseback and elected officials riding in old jalopies (for no apparent reason — nostalgia?). There will be makeshift floats representing groups like the Gardening Club, the Cooperative Nursery and the Girl Scouts, as well as both the Democratic and Republican Town Committees. There will be marching bands from each of the public schools in our two-town system, and we will smile bravely through the sour notes and sincerity of the younger kids and applaud with genuine enthusiasm as the skill set improves with age.

And of course, there will be soldiers. Our town always has a fife and drum group as the first whiff of military remembrance. They march in replica Civil War uniforms and play vigorous old marching tunes from that era. A little later come the veterans of World War II — a sparser group every year — and Korea and Vietnam. Then there will be a few active duty soldiers in current-day uniform, looking sternly ahead as they march (no ambling here); their duty at the end of the parade will be to fire off three rounds of blanks to honor the dead from all of our various wars. And somewhere in the course of this parade, the Air Force will make an appearance as they apparently do at towns all over the country. We’ll hear the jets coming from far off and everyone will look up as they streak past us high in the sky and then –hold your breath, here they come! — loop back around and roar above our Main Street low enough to make the ground shudder beneath our feet.

At the end of the parade the mayor (who we call the First Selectman, though this year it’s a woman) will give a speech about veterans and sacrifice, freedom and its cost. The soldiers will fire their guns in tribute, a prayer will be said by one of the local priests or ministers, and the haunting sound of Taps will come floating from a trumpet on the other side of the Town Green.

I have always been ambivalent about this celebration of Memorial Day. As a parent of young ones, I loved seeing my children’s breathless excitement at every single element of the parade. As a neighbor and friend I am moved by the small town feel of this celebration, the easy companionship of people who in some cases have shared this event through generations. I bask in the mix of sincerity and humor, of self-conscious goofiness and home-town pride. I feel cradled in community because of this little time-out from busy regular lives, to just sit along the Main Street of our town and chat while we watch our kids get a little older each year.

It’s as a citizen and a peace activist that I run into trouble. I feel sorrow and regret for our dead soldiers from every bloody war, and deep respect for the men and women who have donned the uniform to serve their country. But at the Memorial Day parade, it always seems as though these feelings get conflated with support for war: the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan, the “war on terrorism”. When the jets fly over us and make the earth tremble, it’s the destructive power of their bombs that is really being celebrated. When the soldiers walk past us and we applaud them, how would anyone watching us know that it is not the war they are fighting that we support?

Since the start of our war in Iraq, I have come to the parade with a peace banner. So far, I have been the only one every year, though I know many of my neighbors also oppose this war. Somehow it seems to be seen as a sign of disrespect, this gentle piece of rainbow silk with the single word “PEACE” emblazoned on it. I will feel conspicuous holding it, among the little sea of miniature American flags in everyone else’s hands. I know it will make some people uneasy and others downright incensed. But I can’t bring myself to go to the parade without it. Memorial Day is supposed to be about remembering the fallen soldiers of past wars. How dare we forget the ones who are falling each day, in a war made of lies and greed?

Torture, Again

The first time I ever addressed the issue of torture from the pulpit was February 29, 2004 (www.usnh.org, click on sermons and scroll to the date). This was actually a month or two before torture at American hands became front-page news because of Abu Ghraib. But those awful photos and the brief uproar they caused were only the loudest part of the story. There was plenty to go on before that, if any of us wanted to pay attention. It was clear that with at least a wink and a nod, and often through direct orders, torture had become an accepted part of the American way of war.

Now here we are more than four years later, and I still don’t understand why there has never been a real public reaction. Is it pure fantasy to think that at some point in our history, Americans would have been shocked and furious to learn that our government tortured in our name? Is it beyond us to envision an America in which a government would actually be brought down by such a thing?

Not that I believe that we were ever a nation – or had a government – composed of saints. Our track record on human rights has been at odds with our self-image ever since our ancestors landed on soil that was inconveniently occupied by others. But there was surely a time in the not-so-distant past when a government that defended its right to torture prisoners would have been met by loud and sustained public outrage.

Now it seems the outrage has been replaced by mere uneasiness, and even this is not universal. A year ago, the Pew Research Center reported that when asked if torture can be justified “to gain key information”, only 29% of Americans said “never”. 12% actually said “often” (who are these people??), and the rest were in between. These figures are disheartening, to say the least. I can only make sense of them by believing that they reflect not an endorsement of torture but our own collective fearfulness. Fear causes people to do some pretty terrible things. Fear causes people to look the other way even when they know something unspeakable is being done in their name.

People of faith should not be looking the other way. If fear and the yearning to feel safe lead the public at large to accept the unacceptable, maybe we respond by challenging and expanding the notion of what it means to be “safe”. The old biblical question put it this way: What does it profit you if you gain everything, but lose your own soul?

There are lots of arguments against torture: that it is not effective and results most of the time in bad information; that it will always include the innocent as well as the guilty, simply because of human fallibility; and that its use loses America much credibility in the world’s eyes. But religious people should also be wiling to argue that it is morally wrong, and that it damages our own selves, our own souls. Because torture is morally wrong – like rape, murder and genocide – it should never be accepted as “necessary”.

NRCAT (the National Religious Campaign Against Torture) has declared June “Torture Awareness Month”, and congregations of every faith all across the country will display banners that simply say, “Torture is Wrong” or “Torture is a Moral Issue”. I am glad my own congregation will be among them. It is such a strange thing to find ourselves doing — can you imagine having to proclaim “rape is wrong”, or “child abuse is wrong”? But in these strange times, it falls to religious people to do what we can to spread the word. Torture is wrong. Period. Get your congregation to put up a banner.

Forgive Me

There’s a lovely novel by Nicole Krauss called The History of Love. The main character is the author of his own book by the same title, and in it he writes a chapter called, “The Age of Silence”:

“The first language humans had was gestures. There was nothing primitive about this language that flowed from people’s hands, nothing we say now that could not be said in the endless array of movements possible with the fine bones of the fingers and wrists…

“Naturally, there were misunderstandings. There were times when a finger might have been lifted to scratch a nose, and if casual eye contact was made with one’s lover just then, the lover might accidentally take it to be the gesture, not at all dissimilar, for Now I realize I was wrong to love you. These mistakes were heartbreaking. And yet, because people knew how easily they could happen…people were used to interrupting each other to ask if they’d understood correctly.

“Sometimes these misunderstandings were even desirable, since they gave people a reason to say, Forgive me, I was only scratching my nose. Of course I know I’ve always been right to love you. Because of the frequency of these mistakes, over time the gesture for asking forgiveness evolved into the simplest form. Just to open your palm was to say: Forgive me.”

I love the language and imagery of this passage, and these imagined ancestors of ours, so wise in the ways of human error that their most common phrase, held in the simplest gesture, was Forgive me. The hand is open, not in asking for the best piece of fruit or that rope over there or some money, please, but for something so much more essential to these lives we weave together: Forgive me.

I have no idea how we would figure out the most common phrase in our own language, or what it would turn out to be. But I fear it would be something much more along the lines of, “that’s mine!”, or “I want”, or “my turn!”.

It makes me wonder what our lives might be like if we lived like those fictional ancestors: so alert to missteps, so aware of the constancy of getting things wrong, that our simplest gesture was designed to mend, to heal, to restore. Embedded in our language and woven through every exchange would be the thought, the possibility, that we might need to begin again so we could get it right.

I remember very clearly the television interview with President Bush during the last election season when he was asked what he considered his most serious mistake thus far in his presidency. He was unable to answer the question. After pausing for a few seconds of apparent reflection he said, astonishingly, that he could not think of any mistakes he had made.

It would be easy to simply add this episode to the long list of reasons people ridicule President Bush. But it points to a much larger issue that involves not one president’s errors, however grievous, but our own collective attitude reflected in each leader, each government we have had. Our nation has gotten many things right in its history, and we proudly own and proclaim those good things. We have also caused great harm in the world, and never once has a president of our nation had the courage or grace to say so: to speak from humility rather than pride and, on behalf of us all, extend that open palm: Forgive us. We were wrong.

Imagine such a thing concerning the war in Iraq: not just the language of victory or defeat, but of error admitted, repentance engaged, forgiveness asked and reparations begun. I hope I live long enough to see it happen.