Monday, June 28, 2010

"This Means War!"

[I dedicate this blog-entry to Sen. Robert Byrd who died at 3:00 AM this morning.  He staunchly stood up against going to war against Iraq in 2003.]

Have you ever noticed how easily we use the term “war” when confronting difficult, complex and recalcitrant issues in our nation?  The first thing we do is declare war: war on crime, war on drugs, war on poverty, war on illegal border crossings, to name a few.  We like the term.  It implies a clean cut and decisive ending: we will conquer, they will capitulate.  We Win they lose.  We triumph they surrender.  Victor verses the Vanquished and oh how sweet is the victory!  I wonder, are we not kidding ourselves?

Take our “War on Poverty.”  I was just a kid when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared this war.  It was January 8, 1964, during his State of the Union Address.  He and his administration were going to lead this nation into new levels of prosperity and gain.  Enough with poverty!  So, what did he do?  He declared war, unconditional war on poverty in America.  Furthermore, he assured us, “We shall not rest until that war is won.”  Tell me, did we win it?  How can such a war be won?  Apparently this nation had roughly a 20% poverty rate before Johnson’s 1964 declaration of war on poverty.  By 1973 the poverty rate was down to 11%.  Today it is about 12%.  But, 12% of 310 million people (2010) is actually not much less than 20% of 192 million people (1964): 37.2 million versus 38.4 million.  So, in terms of reducing the actual number of people in poverty, we’ve made no gain to speak of (2010 numbers compared to 1964 numbers).  That is to say that in pure “victor verses vanquished” terms, Poverty has NOT been defeated.  Poverty continues to wreak havoc in our society.  That “war” has been lost.  But was it best to approach the challenge of poverty in American in terms of “war” in the first place?  Perhaps not.

The same is true for our “War on Drugs.”  Will we ever win this one?  Realistically, no.  Not in terms of the language of “war,” that is.  A declaration of war usually means armed and fatal conflict, a fight to the death, between one Nation and another.  Two (or more) social, geo-political, and/or ethnic entities fight until one side is defeated or surrenders.  This could not and did not happen in the “War on Poverty,” nor will it happen in the “War on Drugs.”  There will always be drug addicts, drug dealers, and drug producers.  And there is no national, geo-political, or ethnic group that is in a position to say, “Stop!  We surrender.”  Nobody along the drug-producing and drug buying/selling chain will ever say, “Okay you win!  Stop all hostilities.  We will no longer push, deal, or take drugs.”  It’s just not going to happen.  I suggest we use a different model, paradigm if you will, to help us define, explain, and address our concern about drug trafficking and drug addiction in our country other than the war model.  We need to throw-out the catchy phrase, “war on drugs,” so as to become more effective in dealing with this social cancer.  But let’s not stop here.

Let us consider the two places of armed conflict that our nation is now engaged in, where the term “war” should make very good sense and seem quite applicable, Afghanistan and Iraq.  Here is where the term is most appropriate, is it not?  We are in armed conflict, it involves our military, and we are speaking of actual geo-political, well defined social, ethnic, or national people-groups.  No argument here.  However, look at it more carefully.  Who is fighting whom?  Is the U.S. at war with the nation of Iraq?  Are we at war with the nation of Afghanistan?  No, supposedly these two national entities are on our side.  We “won” the “national” conflict and are supposedly in partnership with the established governments of these two countries, are we not?  Who then are we fighting?  We are fighting insurgents.  What is an “insurgent”?  Insurgents are revolutionaries.  They are rebellious native citizens bringing armed resistance against their own established government.

Why are we having so much trouble, taking so much time (Years!) and resources (Billions!) to win these wars?  Because, it is not merely a question of brutal strength, power, and weaponry (do we get this yet?).  It is a war of values and vision, purpose and priorities, ideals and ideas.  How can we begin to win such a war when we can’t speak their language, don’t understand their history and culture, or have little deep appreciation for their own internal tribal conflicts that they themselves have little ability to master and control?  We are foreigners within a revolutionary, civil war, which we produced.  As far as Iraq is concerned, we now see how naïve it was for us to have gone in and taken out Saddam Hussein thinking that we’d be celebrated as liberators and everyone would hop-to in unison and help remake Iraq into a free, democratic, State that would resemble a little America and would reflect all the values, principles, ideals, and priorities that we have here in the U.S.  Believing and assuming that THAT was going to happen, was a great mistake on our part.

Have we learned any lessons from this?  I suggest that there are three lessons that we should have learned from these two wars, especially our war against Iraq:

First we defined war too simplistically.  We painted a childlike black and white picture of war.  “Good guys” versus “bad guys,” the good guys and bad guys would readily be identified and easily sighted and divided.  The good guy will capture and/or kill the bad guy, or the bad guy will surrender and give up all resistance.  And once the bad guys are taken out, peace and prosperity will be restored.  Hindsight being what it is, we can now say, “How naïve!”  The dynamics are just not that simple in either Afghanistan or Iraq.  It did not play out that way, and it’s not going to end that way.

Secondly we employed war too readily.  We neither realistically counted the cost, nor accurately assessed the actual state of affairs before we entered the war(s).  When we attacked Iraq in 2003, it is safe though sad to say that most Americans simply thought, “We’ll go in, take out Saddam, establish a new order, and Bing, Bang, Boom, mission accomplished and we’re out of there.”  Again, in hindsight we can now say, “How foolish was that idea?!”

Thirdly, we relied on war too trustingly.  We thought, “We have the power, means, and resources.  We can do this.”  We too easily assumed that superior power will automatically result in superior winnings, a clear and concise victory.  (By the way, did we not have this same mistaken idea when we expanded our engagement in the war in Vietnam?)  Brute force is not everything.  Ever heard of the saying, “You might capture or kill my body, but you’ll never have my heart and soul!”?  If anything, we Americans have lived this out in our own national experience, in our own Revolutionary War, in the Civil War, and in World Wars I and II.  It defines our own fighting spirit!  Our mistake however is that we think that we are the only nation, tribe, or people-group that embraces such a spirit of resistance.  We are greatly mistaken if we think so.

So before we declare war so readily, easily, and trustingly the next time around, let us keep in mind the following principles:

1.    War is easily started and most difficult to end.  And wars with “messy endings” never truly end; they simmer and smolder until ignited once again.
2.    War is complicated.  People, tribes, nations, and people-groups are complicated.  And so war always has negative results and consequences unanticipated.
3.    War is severely costly.  We pay a dear price, not only in terms of finances and material resources, but most especially in terms of people, lives and whole families, affecting more than one generation.
4.    War is the exercise of sheer power and force in the belief that it is the only means left to decide between two sides.  However, as in sports so in war, victory is not always to the Strong.
5.    Because of this, war should always be a last resort, never a first “preemptive” choice.

[My condolences to the Byrd family, friends, and colleagues who worked with him and knew him well.]

Monday, June 21, 2010

Face the Music

“Face the music” is an idiom that originated in Japan, or so I read somewhere.  According to the story, a man of great wealth and influence, wanting to “perform” before the emperor, demanded that he be given a place in the imperial orchestra.  The trouble is that he himself couldn’t play a note.  But, he had power and influence so… well, you know, money talks and power persuades.  So, he was given a flute and the conductor agreed to let him sit in the second row of the orchestra, despite the fact that he could neither play nor read a note of music.   In concerts the man would raise his instrument, pucker his lips and move his fingers along the flute, going through all the motions of playing but never making a sound.

This deception continued for two years.  Then a new conductor took over.  He told the orchestra that he wanted to audition each player personally.  One by one they performed in his presence.  Then came the “flutist’s” turn; frantic with worry, he pretended to be sick.  However, a doctor was ordered to examine him and he was declared to be perfectly well.  The conductor thus insisted that the man appear before him and demonstrate his skill.   Unable to “face the music,” shamefacedly the “flutist” had to confess that he was a fake.

Do we have a right to get what we want simply because we could afford it?  Do we have a right to have our way simply because it is within our power to demand it?  When we become so used to getting our way and receiving every demand we make, we lose perspective.  We no longer think in terms of what’s best, fitting, or right, as in “Is this good for me or is my “request” healthy, beneficial or even proper?”  We simply demand and indulge.  Pretty soon we begin to believe that we can do anything, even perform in an orchestra without playing a note.  We’re out of touch with Reality.  In the end, when real authentic integrity is called for, “Reality Check!” we are at a loss and are unable to “face the music.”  Perhaps we have seen this truth played out in other people’s lives, but this truth is as applicable to nations and corporations as it is with individuals.

Big business, powerful nations, as well as rich and powerful individuals are in constant danger of this temptation: getting what they want because they can afford it, demanding what they want because they have the power and influence to make it so.  Remember the saying, “Better watch what you ask for, you just may very well get it.”  It is not always good to get what we want, especially if we’re so used to having our way that we think it is our god-given right to demand it and get it at any cost, regardless of consequence to self and others.  (Might it be that having this kind of attitude is the very reason why we are in two wars in the Middle East that we just can’t seem to resolve and pull ourselves out of?)

We are a big and powerful nation and we know it.  Have we become too comfortable with our wealth and power?  Do we too easily expect that we should get what we want simply because we, the U. S. of A. demand it?  Has throwing our weight around become second nature to us?  I can’t help thinking of the history of nations and empires: Where is the great Babylonian Empire (present day Iraq), or the Great Persian Empire (Iran), or the once great Ottoman Empire (Turkey), or the great empires of the Pharaohs (Egypt), not to mention the glory days of Greece and Rome?  And do you remember when it was said that “The Sun never set over the British Empire” and India was the jewel in her crown?  Where is the British Empire now?  Is the U. S. any different?  Effectively, great Kingdoms, Empires, and Nations crumble from within before they are crushed from without.  Pride goes before a fall, and the greater the pride, the greater is the fall and its shame.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Being Responsible

“Who’s responsible for this?!” asks the teacher none too happy, “He is,” all students pointing at me.

“Michael, are you responsible for this?” “Well, uh, you see, I…” my voice evaporates into a soft inaudible wisp of breath. Sigh. “Yes.”

“Get him, snatch him, grab him and take him to the closet where he is to be tortured!” Or so her voice seemed to say to me. “To the closet you go, young man. And you shall stay there until you have thought over what you did.”

“Okay, sure, send me to the closet. Yeah, I’m the responsible one, guilty as charged. But it’s not like I’m going to beg for mercy or anything,” says my defiant spirit in my heart. It was a walk-through closet so it wasn’t scary and it actually gave me some down time. I didn’t mind. I was in Kindergarten. But my second grade teacher? Well, I’ve no doubt she’d die of shock, have a heart attack or something, if she learned that I grew up to be a preacher. I’m sure in her mind I was headed for the gallows. But I digress.

In short, as a kid, to me “being Responsible” meant “being The Guilty One.” “Taking responsibility for my actions” simply meant, “admitting guilt and paying for it.” Yet adults would praise me as being quite the responsible kid if I managed to stay OUT of trouble, which wasn’t always that easy for me. This was confusing.

Then one day in my late teens, I heard a preacher say that being responsible is “Being able to respond, response-able.” That is, if I am able to make a difference by “responding” positively and constructively to a situation, doing something helpful, supportive, or encouraging, etc., then I am being “responsible.” This did not fit my childhood’s definition of responsibility. It was worse. Indeed, this new definition was far, far more demanding and scarier. Why? It meant that just being indifferent can make me guilty, if it is in my power to make a real positive difference for the good of others and I choose not to.

In short, if I have the power to do good by helping others, for example, and choose not to, I do harm. I not only may cheat others of a necessary benefit that is in my power to provide, I may even cause them damage, heartache, and suffering by the good that I have refused to do for them. Thus, failing to respond for the good, ignoring a needy situation, knowing that it was in my power to have made a positive difference, is being irresponsible, and I will have to answer for it.

Do you get the feeling that we are becoming more and more irresponsible as a people, a nation? Is it not simple and stark naked irresponsibility that led to the financial crisis in Wall Street and our Banking industry? Is it not irresponsibility that led to BP’s infamous Oil “Spill” in the Gulf of Mexico? Profit margins, “Bottom Line” thinking, quick and immediate payoffs, looking out for “Number One” while the rest be damned, is this not the height of irresponsibility?

We do damage when we choose to ignore and NOT care about, or concern ourselves with the needs of others, be they our family, our neighbors, our community or nation as a whole, while focusing only on our own quick and immediate gratification and gain. Yet this is exactly what companies and corporations ask of their employees over and over again: What’s in it for us, the company, our business, our profit margin, our stakeholders, our monthly/annual goals, and especially our bottom line? The rest will take care of itself.

NO, the rest will not take care of itself. If we are going to stay strong as a people, Companies and Corporations, like individuals and households, must actually see themselves as responsible members of the community, looking out for the good of others within the community, and not simply focus on their own well-being and/or public image. Indeed, the more powerful they are the more responsible they are, given their financial muscle and the ability they have to make a positive (or negative) difference in the lives of others.

People count. Corporations are made of people. And so, passive interest in the local community, with a “business is business” attitude is not good enough. Corporations must care and must engage in the positive construction of the health and welfare of the communities within which they do their business. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that everything is winding down from order to disorder, from complexity to chaos. In other words, everything moves from brand new and perfect working condition to old, broken and run down condition. Thus, doing nothing for a community is the same as working against it; it is equivalent to contributing to its rot and decay. He who does not help to maintain, helps to destroy.

Big Business, Large Corporations, and Multi-National Companies need to remember some basic simple principles that go into the making of (economic) dynamic and healthy societies:

1. People count. The most valuable asset than anyone can have is another human being by their side, working with them, helping, serving, caring, and loving them. Never throw away, discard, minimize and/or waste a human life.

2. We are responsible for one another; it is called community. We must contribute where and when it is in our power to do so for the good of our community. It is as much for our own good as well as for the good of others. All are to benefit and gain from one another.

3. Those who have are to bless those who have not. We are born for a reason, to reach beyond ourselves and to bring up others, not just to please ourselves. All great gifts should benefit the many, not just the few. Thus, those who are gifted with special talents, skills, ability, money, and/or power, are to use those gifts for the good of the many.

4. We are to hold each other accountable for the above principles. It sometimes takes courage and bravery to stand up to powerful individuals and/or corporations and governments and remind them of their need to behave as honorable citizens of the community and be responsible to do what is right, true, good, and just—even in the face of pain and loss.

5. It is a matter of fidelity and faith. Fidelity because it relies on mutual trust and respect. Faith because nothing that is of any significance has ever been done with a prior guarantee of its success; defeat and failure is always a threat. That is, all great feats in history were accomplished by human beings with a certain amount of faith and trust in others, in one another, not to mention a faith in God. In this light, Large Corporations must learn to act more human and less calculatingly machine like and impersonal. They must become personal, humane companies that care for, engage with, and interact with their local communities toward a greater purpose and higher calling, other than mere profit.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Finding Fault

“Don’t blame me, I didn’t do it!  Well, I didn’t, so quit lookin at me.”

We were five kids in the family, three boys and two girls.  When something was broken or lost and no one knew “who did it,” all five of us claiming absolute innocence, my stepdad would say, “There’s our ghost again.  That ghost causes more mischief in this house than the five of you put together and then some.”  I’d shrug my shoulders and think, “Must be, cause I know it wasn’t me.”  Though I had a good idea as to who it was, and he was no ghost.  But my brother would as quickly beat me as blame me if I said a word, so my lips were sealed.  Ghost or not, I hated the idea of being blamed for someone else’s misdeeds.  My four siblings were quite capable of causing as much trouble as I, if not more so, especially my two older brothers.  And when my cousins came over, adding three more boys to the mix.  Wow, talk about a tornado in a hurricane.  It’s a wonder our house was still standing when they left.  Can’t say we didn’t have fun though.  The nice thing was that it was easy to blame THEM for the mess they left behind, as if we were just innocent bystanders as we watched them tear up the place.

Apparently growing up makes no bit of difference, we still love to blame our brothers, sisters, cousins, or neighbors.  Anyone, just about anyone will do as long as it’s not us, me, to blame.  If you don’t think so, look at our national politics, especially when anything, anything at all goes wrong or doesn’t work or isn’t fixed right.  If we’re Democrats, it’s a certainty that the Republican’s are at fault.  If we’re Republican, we can be darn sure that the Democrats are to blame.  And if we’re the Independent Party, well, by golly isn’t it as obvious as a wart on the nose that both the Democrats AND Republicans are responsible for the mess we’re in!  It’s never us and always them that are at fault; it’s never me and always you who are to blame.  Me, mine, and ours are always innocent; they, them, and those are always guilty.

It’s no wonder that grade school kids are awestruck by George Washington and the Cherry Tree account[1]:

"George,'' said his father, "do you know who has killed my beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?  I would not have taken five guineas for it!''

This was a hard question to answer, and for a moment George was staggered by it, but quickly recovering himself he cried:

"I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie!  [Strange kid he must have been.]  I did cut it with my little hatchet.''

The anger died out of his father's face, and taking the boy tenderly in his arms, he said:  "My son, that you should not be afraid to tell the truth is more to me than a thousand trees!  Yes - though they were blossomed with silver and had leaves of the purest gold!''  [What kid wouldn’t want this man for a father?]

Little six year old George Washington actually admitted it: “I did cut it.”  “Unbelievable!”  That’s what most of us think when we first hear the story in what, first or second grade?  That kid wasn’t normal.  But of course he wasn’t.  After all, look at what he grew up to become, the very first President of these here United State of America.  Yep, he was destined to do great things and become a great man.  All because he owned up to cutting down that cherry tree.  What a guy!

So where’s this famous American character[istic] now?  Take the oil spill.  We’re mad.  Everybody’s mad.  We hate what’s happened.  The president is furious with BP: they’re not doing enough.  Gulf residents are furious with the president: he’s not responding forcefully enough.  We’re all furious with BP AND the government: neither BP nor the Government is addressing the crisis well enough.  We’re all hopping mad and getting angrier and angrier as the spill spreads and spreads.  And of course the minority party will politicize this to the max in order to regain control.  What an irony.  Instead of uniting and saying, “Hey, S**# happens.  Let’s get together and fix this thing!”  We’re posturing, accusing, and demanding.  We’re expecting “others,” the “they, them, those and theirs,” to fix things for us.

Folks, its’ us!  I looked in the mirror, and therein is my enemy.    None of us are doing enough.  Are we not ALL to blame?  We wanted it, accepted it, and gladly received the oil that required the drilling in the first place.  We, us, the American people, you, me, my neighbor, your neighbor, we all wanted it and were willing to pay for it.  We asked for it, even demanded it.  But we seem to have gotten ourselves in a mess over our heads, because of it.  Yes, “we,” not them, they, or those people over there, but WE!

I suspect that what the gulf region needs is a great influx of manpower (women too!), the kind that comes from a mass of volunteers as we saw after hurricane Katrina or 9/11/01.  Hired mercenaries just won’t cut it.  But instead we’re playing the blame game and moan and groan: the President is not on top of things as he should be; BP is avoiding responsibility; the government is dragging its heels.  But what about the American people themselves?  Can we, the American people, really distance ourselves from this calamity and pretend we are not to blame?  Think about it.  Every time you fill up your tank with gas, think about where that gasoline/oil is coming from.  Then ask yourself, how might I help make things right for the Gulf region?

Yes, I cannot tell a lie.  It was I…and YOU.  You and I are to blame for the big mess in the Gulf.  BP was only an agent, doing our bidding.  But it is we who ordered it.  No, this statement is not to let BP off the hook (or the government).  It IS, however, to hold US accountable as well, as we should be.  Hopefully we will hear less and less blaming and more and more calls for uniting in our effort to keep our land safe, clean, and livable!  As the song says, “This land is your land, this land is my land, this land is our land …from the mountains to the oceans.”

Excerpt from The Cherry Tree by M. L. Weems, see