02 December 2004

Genuine war vs official terrorism; more on Elektrostal

I wonder if there is such a thing as an artificial war. 

This is the sort of question that can only be asked at a distance, of course; people in Iraq, for example, would probably not hesitate to name what they are experiencing as real. The casualties are real, and these casualties include the psychic wounds of the soldiers. For a vivid essay on all these wounds, read the book review/essay "On War" by Chris Hedges in the New York Review of Books.

One of the most poignant thoughts in Hedges' article occurs between the lines of his comment on the journalistic importance of covering wars close-up: "The reason wars should always be covered from the perspective of the common soldier or Marine, as Wright does, is that these foot soldiers are largely pawns. Their lives, despite the protestations of the generals and politicians, mean little to the war planners." As this reality dawns on the soldiers themselves, a grim realism sets in that gets expressed in various ways, sometimes cynically and sometimes fatalistically. Here's a scene from Chris Hedges' article:

One of the Marines in the book returns to California and is invited to be the guest of honor in a gated community in Malibu, a place where he could never afford to live. The residents want to toast him as a war hero.

"I'm not a hero," he tells the guests. "Guys like me are just a necessary part of things. To maintain this way of life in a fine community like this, you need psychos like us to go out and drop a bomb on somebody's house."

I can't even count how many questions beg to be asked in this scene.

Back to the artificiality of this war: To earn the name "war" (as opposed, say, to "battle," say, or "campaign," ... or to go another direction entirely, "massive, organized, conspiratorial, criminal abuse of power on an international scale"), there ought to be some sort of societal mobilization. Whether or not I agree to go along with what my society is doing in "wartime," I should at least be asked. Shouldn't I be asked to recycle metal, buy war bonds, give blood, knit scarves for the brave soldiers, volunteer at an army hospital or something? Perhaps if more were asked of us, more accountability would be demanded of the Commander-in-Chief and his subordinates concerning the legitimacy and operational competence involved with this war.

Instead, the word "war" is actually used only when it is useful as political rhetoric: "It's better not to change commanders-in-chief in wartime." We certainly don't want to refer to the rules of warfare when discussing the treatment of prisoners. The sheer asymmetry of sacrifice involved in the current conflict (with Fallujah in ruins while we in the coalition of the 51%-willing are just required to say whatever we want as long as we keep paying our taxes - and even those are reduced!) is what really gives me pause in thinking about the word "war." I'm edging toward a term such as "official terrorism" for US behavior. In case you think that's a bit too severe, I hasten to add that terrorists probably always feel that their ends justify their means. Surely the President and his advisors can't be pleased by the numbers of innocent victims generated by their post-September 11 activities; the ends justified the means, right? Is the word "terror" too strong to describe the activities of a government that explicitly promised "shock and awe"?

Advocates of worldly realism say that the USA is the only country sufficiently powerful, self-aware, and essentially decent to confront the world's organized forces of tyranny and mayhem, and that parlor-discussion squeamishness should not get in the way of our doing what needs to be done. It's a legitimate argument in the sense that the world really is a dangerous place and those who argue against the neo-conservatives' strategies for gaining safety are under an obligation to offer counter-proposals. Here are a few elements of my response, not necessarily in order of logic or all on the same scale:
  1. We need to take responsibility for our actions as thinking beings. Defining the human species in terms of countries and religions and other manifestations of herd behavior can obscure the fact that we are animals operating on a combination of physical stimuli and psychological processes. There may be good reasons for me to agree to one form or another of social mobilization (whether for cooperation with my neighbors, for government, or for war), but there is nothing sacred or beyond my right of personal evaluation in the request made by society to me.
  2. Once I became a Christian and acknowledged the Lordship of the Prince of Peace, all other loyalties and psychological constructs (countries, boundaries, national mythologies, ideologies) became secondary. This doesn't trump social obligations; after all, I could deceive myself into thinking Jesus doesn't want me to do things that coincidentally are inconvenient or costly. Nevertheless it strengthens my personal obligation to question all imperatives, no matter how urgently pressed, if they seem to contradict Jesus. How do you get around the explicit command to love the enemy? At times it seems that willingness to put Jesus above the commands of official terrorism is very much a minority viewpoint even within the church, but this is no mystery: the mechanisms of social mobilization are observably very strong. (Even Christian faith sees utility in social mechanisms: Jesus says to "give Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's" and Paul asks us to be good, obedient citizens; but the Bible is also clear on our responsibility when Caesar tries to play God. The OT prophets confronted official terrorism and official idolatry head-on; NT civil disobedience began when the wise men disobeyed Herod, and includes the powerful scene in Acts of Peter and John before the authorities, saying, "Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.") We Friends have explicitly spoken out for the minority viewpoint in this matter of peace; the Richmond Declaration of Faith, quoted here a few weeks ago, points out that "He who has bought us to Himself has not prescribed for man precepts which are incapable of being carried into practice, or of which the practice is to be postponed until all shall be persuaded to act upon them." (My emphasis.)
  3. Ultimately, for one nation to appoint itself sole arbiter of the fate of other nations or social groups is for that nation to risk irritating the rest of the humanity to the point that the others rebel and develop mechanisms of defense and rejection. Today the USA is militarily more powerful than any of its rivals or groups of rivals, but economically we are vulnerable to creditor syndicates or boycotts or other, perhaps yet unanticipated forms of systemic rejection.
  4. The neo-conservative advocates of the machismo of realism need to confront the wounds to the national psyche that correspond to the combat soldier's psychological scars. If it is true that you can't make a democratic omelet in the Middle East without breaking some innocent eggs, I would like to see some evidence that our leadership (someone other than Colin Powell, whose doctrine would have nixed this whole mess) has thought about how many eggs are too many. Moral laziness is not the exclusive province of the liberal! At some point, the toxic backwash of causing so much harm to so many people in so many countries on behalf of our oblivious North American affluence will catch up to us no matter how much effort is put into keeping us spin-dizzy and culturally hypnotized.
  5. The only sustainable solution to tyranny is human solidarity. The church is a wonderful (although certainly imperfect) example of an organization that connects people across all other social lines for its own shared purposes, without anyone else's official permission. The church's own mechanisms for intelligence-gathering, social interpretation, and communication need to be strengthened, and we should also be enthusiastically involved in other organizations that undercut human fragmentation. We need to study, trade, buy, sell, broadcast, publish, and love across any line that propagandists, ideologues and tyrants put up against us. We also need to do more thinking together about what constitutes legitimate boundaries and criteria for alliances among organizations with different core values. For example, as a Christian, I would not join an organization that has as its core value the equal validity of all faiths, but I might well work with such an organization on behalf of religious liberty or some other urgent shared goal. I would also not object if other Christians questioned me about that cooperation and subjected me to some searching questions. We need to build up an accessible body of experience, expressed in everyday terms, that helps us discuss these taboo subjects. In any case, my main point is that if the government of the USA won't return to the old consensus policy of collective security, updated for this era of global pollution, global epidemics, and global corporations, then we as people have to work that much harder at subverting the systems that keep us apart.
  6. I hope that Americans who oppose the "war" in Iraq, and our brothers and sisters in other countries involved in this official terrorism, will begin a deeper discussion on the role of dissent, in its spiritual and political dimensions. I personally have been living in a state of outrage for so long that I'm approaching burnout. I'm not the only one. We need to support each other in staying spiritually alive and in thinking about practical ways of keeping our more vulnerable brothers and sisters out of harm's way (I'm talking about Iraqis, too, damn it, whether or not they approve of the way we're running their country.) As I wrote here a few months ago, I've found Jennifer Haines's book Bread and Water a wonderful source of inspiration on prayer and dissent. I also find inspiration in the direct action of people such as Paul Milling (more on the "Fairford Five"). Just as we think more carefully about the imperatives of dissent, we also need to counteract the tendency to demonize and objectify those we disagree with, and those whose apparent passivity frustrates us. I can think of many times when my own passivity or indifference might have been someone else's frustration!

Musical PS: I went to the official Sam the Sham web site (my nominee for the tackiest site ever) [archived] and found a page [now archived] with a free mp3 file for Samudio's new song, "Rippin' and Running'." It is an interesting song - as an expression of a sort of conservative populism, it reminds me of the neighborhood we used to live in back in Richmond, Indiana ... among people who took care of each other, mistrusted college-educated people, believed in Miller Lite and kicking Saddam's butt, and who rarely had contacts with the peace movement.

I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Sam the Sham, now a bilingual evangelist, who claimed in aninterview once that he really wanted to play blues, but the record company wouldn't play along.

Best known for such energetically-played throw-away tunes as "Wooly Bully," he now sings "You're amazed and you wonder how the wolves at the top get away, while the hungry and the homeless need a meal and a place to stay...."

Sam was always hard to categorize; he's played blues, R&B, "garage" rock, novelty pop (remember "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Hair on my Chinny Chin Chin"?), Tex-Mex, country, and gospel. I would love to have been there when Ry Cooder arranged for him to be part of the musicians involved with the film The Border; as Cooder explained to National Public Radio's Leanne Hansen, "I found him working on a boat in the Gulf of Louisiana servicing these oil rigs offshore. I don't know how it was I found him. I mean ... obviously made some calls. And he called me from some pay phone down there and said 'Are you looking for me' and I said 'yeah man' and I said 'Here's the story and you know something about this.' I said 'I need you here just to do whatever you can do cause its gonna be good.' And he jumped on a plane and he came out with a couple of songs that he'd written in Spanish for the story cause I'd explained it to him. All of a sudden you had Sam The Sham, Freddy Fender, and Flaco Jimenez meeting for the first time in the same room. You know, and that's it as far as I'm concerned. That's payback! I mean these things don't happen but once in awhile and when they do you feel, you know, ah ... I've seen something, I've propelled something into existence here and its just, its just really great!" (Source.)

PS # 2: More on Elektrostal

After I posted a fairly unflattering description of Elektrostal a couple of weeks ago, I began thinking that I should say a bit more about the city, which has after all been a home away from home for me, for up to a month at a time, for a whole decade now.

Education has become a major part of the city's life. Aside from the public schools, there are now ten institutions of higher education in Elektrostal - most of them local branches of larger schools in Moscow.

The McDonalds I wrote about is not the only restaurant in town. Several good ones have opened up in recent years, including the reasonably-priced Kafeinya; and the beautiful new student cafe located in the New Humanities Institute is hoping to open its doors this month to the general public.

Retail shopping is very different from the big-city pattern - most shopping is done in small storefronts scattered all over the city. No matter where you live in Elektrostal, the basic necessities are nearby - food stores, Perekrestok supermarketstores for hardware and housewares, hairdressers, banks, even mobile telephones. The central area has a large variety of shops all within walking distance of each other.

Public transportation is frequent and well-organized, both within Elektrostal and onward to Moscow. Buses go to Moscow every twenty minutes, and trains are also frequent.

Elektrostal has several beautiful parks on its periphery. Although its architecture is pretty severe, reflecting its recent origins as an industrial site created during one of Stalin's five-year plans, some of the older buildings have a solid elegance and proportionality. And ten minutes to the north the older, less severely industrial city of Noginsk has its own beauty. If you like older architecture, including some classical church buildings, a central plaza, and nice lakes and riverscapes, they're a 12-ruble bus ride from Elektrostal. Noginsk also provides relief from one of the sadder aspects of life in Elektrostal: the environmental pollution generated over decades by the city's metallurgical and atomic power industries.

Just north of Noginsk (photo by Liz Sugden)
The churches in Noginsk also provide a contrast with Elektrostal. For much of its existence, the latter had no working churches; as a new city in a land of official atheism, that need was not part of the urban plan. Now there is an Orthodox church, at least two Baptist fellowships and a nearby Adventist congregation ... still a tiny presence for organized religion in a city of 150,000 people.

The most important thing to say about both cities concerns their people. I've never experienced more hospitality, literacy, humor and sheer dedication to the mission of education than among the people I know in Elektrostal and Noginsk.

(Official Elektrostal web site) (Elektrostal site's photo gallery)

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