15 November 2007

The romance of war

My seven-year-old friend, who lives up Yalagin Street a short ways, is with his grandmother today. I can tell--he's sending me a steady stream of text messages on her cellphone, asking me when I'll be stopping by again. I'll probably drop in on him and his brother this evening after my last class.

These days, whenever I visit, he's always eager to show me a new fighting technique. He loves to demonstrate how to slither along on the floor, holding his gun high so it doesn't touch the mud of his imaginary battlefield. He drops down from the top level of his bunk bed, cushioning his fall (as he solemnly explains to me) by bending his knees just right so that he lands soundlessly. His gun is slung over his back, his rubber knife is in his sock, his eyes sweep the bedroom for signs of the enemy. Now his back is to the wall and his toy grenade is in his hand as he edges toward the door, ready to peek into the corridor. His face is utterly serious as he sets out to capture singlehandedly the living room where his younger brother is assembling a long bumper-to-bumper line of cars in a question-mark-shaped pattern. ("A traffic jam," he explains.) Younger brother is very accustomed to two roles: either he's the other member of the border patrol unit ("I'm the commander, since I'm more experienced as a fighter," the seven-year-old points out) or as the enemy, having been taken prisoner numerous times, and having survived many gun battles (ftew! ftew! ftew!) .

My friend also loves to tell me about Russia's high-tech weapons. "My dad says that Russia has the best and most modern weapons in the world; nobody will dare attack us," he explained to me. His grandmother, amused, asked him, "You don't think anyone else has such weapons?"

The voice of our country consists of our voices ["voices"
and "votes" are the same word in Russian]
It's a political season, with the Duma elections coming up in a bit more than two weeks. There's plenty of reinforcement for young warriors in the election campaigns--one TV ad for the ruling party shows fighter jets while the voice-over says, "Once again, Russia is a force to be reckoned with." It's pretty mild compared to what Americans are subjected to on television--consider our steady stream of alarmist and jingoist programs of the "Iran: The Ticking Time Bomb" genre, with their flash-by images of military hardware and American soldiers on the move, and their invitation not to discuss simply "being reckoned with" but to prepare for and anticipate and cheer on our next actual armed intervention somewhere.

Putin's plan -- Russia's victory
In fact, the American assumption that our interventions half a world away are always righteous, whereas any attempt by Russia or an Arab country or Iran to influence events in a country right next door to them certainly represents intolerable mischief, helps set the context for Russia's present-day combination of defensiveness and assertiveness.

Back to my young friends. When they get a bit older, they can choose to join youth clubs in which they will practice all these exciting military maneuvers wearing uniforms and using real mud, and get training in hand-to-hand combat and martial arts, and learn to use real guns and knives, courtesy of the local Center for Patriotic Education and similar organizations. Of course such scenes play out all over the world, as yet another generation of God's children on planet Earth get indoctrinated into the myth of redemptive violence (or, even worse, violence as gratification). But I admit it's hard to witness it happening with little children I've known since birth. Their parents are believers and patriots; they're the ones in charge of their children's upbringing, not I. But I've always been close to these boys who call me "uncle," and if I want that closeness to remain genuine, I will have to find some way of saying, at the very least, why guns and I don't get along.

(Mike Slothower, pastor of River of Life Friends in Post Falls, ID, is admittedly in possession of photos of me holding an AK-47 rifle from his collection.)

The romanticization of the military is something very different from the sober, thoughtful counting of the costs of past wars. In the last few days, I've seen remarkable examples of the latter task--and they remind me that I'm living in a country that has suffered from war losses on a scale that dwarfs anything we Americans have ever experienced. The Soviet Union lost 27 million soldiers and civilians in World War II, not to mention a huge amount of housing stock and infrastructure. Many dead soldiers have never been found, identified, and properly buried, but a small group of Elektrostal's young people have been participating in "expeditions" to battle sites in the Novgorod area, going to locations identified in archives and by elderly residents as being possible sites for recovery of remains and war paraphernalia. The Elektrostal museum "To the Memory of the Unknown Soldier" has abundant patriotism but not a shred of war glorification. Instead, there's a subdued and very moving sense of respect for the war dead whose recovered battlefield possessions form the basis of the collection. Photos and videos show the grim work of uncovering, sorting, and cleaning bones, identifying them when possible, and then giving them a loving Orthodox burial. German remains and paraphernalia are treated with equal respect. "We don't make distinctions and we're not concerned about blame," said one of the museum workers.

The original impulse for these expeditions and the resulting museum came from Afghanistan war veterans, who have their own museum in a public school near the corner of Mir and Pobeda streets (Peace and Victory streets!). This older museum is also utterly unromantic, focusing on proper honor to those who died rather than an unseemly fascination with the instruments of death.

On the one hand, these museums can be seen as important elements of the restoration of patriotism in Russia. Certainly memories of wars past can be exploited to encourage an unreflective "Motherland" or "Homeland" mentality with all its dangerous consequences. But I doubt that anyone who is all starry-eyed with the romance of war would go through these museums and remain unchanged.

One other fascinating item came out of my visit to the "Unknown Soldier" museum. The Elektrostal expeditions work together with a team from a town closer to the battle areas. That other team has recently expanded its research and recovery efforts to the victims of Stalinist repression. We Western observers frequently comment on the ambivalence of many Russians concerning any deep focus on those terrible years, but I was fascinated that for these young people, unencumbered by layers and layers of either obsessive introspection or defensive denial, this sort of recovery project seemed a simple and logical extension of their respect for the costly past.

Here are some glimpses of this remarkable museum:

The moral language of Martin Luther King: After spending a month on the Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and various founding fathers, today my American studies class took stock of the uneven and imperfect implementation of those founding ideals by looking at the civil rights movement. I showed two videos: Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech from August 1963, and a remarkable NBC news "Look Here" interview (PDF) with King from October 1957, available from iTunes.

It was wonderful to see how spiritual, linguistic, and historical material could be so perfectly integrated simply by studying King's rhetoric. For example, starting with the August 1963 speech:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men— would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.
I handed out a full copy of the speech, with footnotes locating the biblical quotations.

The "Look Here" interview was incredibly rich with examples of English usage carrying powerful moral freight. Just a few examples:
  • [for the Montgomery bus riders] The cup of endurance had run over
  • I faced this problem at a very early stage in the whole struggle: how could this method [the nonviolent boycott] be reconciled with the Christian faith?
  • We were not seeking to put the bus company out of business but to put justice in business.
  • Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.
  • One who believes in nonviolence must recognize the dimensions of evil in human nature. There is a danger that one can indulge in a superficial optimism, thinking that man is all good.
  • Both [political] parties must come to the point that they see the moral issues involved rather than making a political football out of the civil rights issue.
  • Privileged classes rarely give up privileges without strong resistance.
  • the folkways of white supremacy
  • the rolling tide of world opinion

Righteous links:
Ehren Watada gets a major legal boost in his struggle as a conscientious objector facing a second court-martial.

Quaker House, Fayetteville, has on its Web site one of the best historical summaries of the Quaker peace testimony I've ever heard. (I was a participant at the conference where Jeremy Mott, its author, first presented it, and I'm delighted that it's available online.)

A different view of Benazir vs Musharraf, from the Rootless Cosmopolitan.

"Dirty Harry for President." OK, so Thomas Reese is preaching to the choir, but I love his crisp and clear blanket denunciation of torture from a Catholic (and, for that matter, a Gospel) viewpoint.

While we're dipping into the Washington Post's religion coverage: Does interfaith courtesy trump justice? A synagogue offers hospitality for the ordination of two Roman Catholic women priests.

Northwest Yearly Meeting's own Paul Anderson continues on his quest for the historical John (the Gospel and its writer, that is).

Today's dessert: Charlie Musselwhite in Brazil.

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