Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Purple Heart

Proverbs 27:6 (King James Version)

6 “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”

It’s been a while since I’ve written about the war in Iraq. Over the past few months I’ve just observed the rhetoric rise and the popularity of America’s leaders descend. Two years ago the protests came primarily from the left, but that has changed over time. In mounting numbers, conservatives are decrying this war. Many Americans now believe it’s a futile enterprise.

From the left the battle cry is compassion – “We care about our troops, but we hate this war.” From the right the battle cry is leadership failure – “Our leaders, from the top down are incompetent.”

I sensed this would happen when this war started. The primary argument from the left two years ago was that it was all about blood for oil or weapons of mass destruction. The right supported it because they believed that George Bush and his team were on the right course and that we needed to prosecute this war to a just conclusion. A lot has changed since then, and very little of it has been for the better.

I have some sense of admiration for those on the left. They’ve consistently opposed this war. But, I’m troubled by the change of direction I’ve seen from the ranks on the right.

I don’t agree with either side. This war, for me, has always been a just war.

I listen to many on the left say that the President never justified it on the basis of justice and morality. When I hear that I assume that, since the argument wasn’t clearly made, it did not exist. I’m honestly mystified by that strand of logic.

But more than mystified, I’m appalled by the behavior of many of those who supported this war to begin with and have now abandoned the cause. When the going has gotten tough in the dark alley too many have decided to run, leaving someone else to take the beating.

I read the bitter complaints and I hear them on the airwaves. As I read and listen I’m reminded of John F. Kennedy’s words upon accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for President in 1960:

“But I think the American people expect more from us than cries of indignation and attack. The times are too grave, the challenge too urgent, and the stakes too high--to permit the customary passions of political debate. We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future. As Winston Churchill said on taking office some twenty years ago: if we open a quarrel between the present and the past, we shall be in danger of losing the future.”

- From John F Kennedy acceptance speech – July 1960

I believe it’s time for us to rise to the demands history has placed upon us. For me, it’s still as simple as that.

Here in Emporia the war is hitting close to home, to a small bungalow just down the street from me. Terry Bassler, one of my neighbors, was wounded in Iraq a couple of months ago. He spent some time at Walter Reed, then came home for a couple of weeks, and is now at Fort Hood, Texas getting more treatment for his shrapnel wounds.

My prayers, and the prayers of the good folks of Emporia, are with him. Terry Bassler, like America, will have difficult days ahead. But, with God’s help, and ours, he and America will recover. The wounds will be healed. The victory will be one.

I want to take time to honor Terry and remind as many people as I can that his service, and this cause, have not been undertaken in vain. To that end I’m republishing an essay I wrote to a group of Emporia’s National Guardsmen a little over two years ago.

My words were heartfelt then. They are, especially at this critical time, even closer to my heart than they were then.

The original essay now follows:

To the 425th
Phil Dillon

I learned today at church that 48 of my fellow Emporians, members of the Army’s 425th, are being deployed to the Persian Gulf in a few weeks.

Like many Emporians, my wife and I prayed first, that war might be averted. We also prayed, that if it could not, that these brave men and women would go reflecting the best of America, and that, in the end, they would all come home safely.

After church, I reflected on those being called and the task ahead of them. Who are they? What values do they represent? What, if anything, could be just in the cause they may be called on to vindicate in battle?

I reflected, first, on my own experience. I went to Vietnam in the summer of 1964 as a soldier and as a “New Frontier” Democrat. John Kennedy’s words, spoken three years earlier, were fresh and alive in my heart and mind - “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Like many, I went believing that our task was to advance the cause of freedom.

I recall vividly, years later, watching the fall of Saigon. As North Vietnamese tanks rolled down the boulevards of the city, many South Vietnamese desperately attempted to flee. They clawed at the walls of the U.S. Embassy compound. Some attempted to board already overcrowded helicopters on the Embassy roof. Most failed and resigned themselves to their fate. They were being “liberated.”

In the days and months that followed, the media gave us all an occasional glimpse of overcrowded “junks” floating aimlessly in the South China Sea. They carried a desperate human cargo, willing to risk their lives to either flee something or to find something else. “What” I wondered, “are they so desperately trying to escape?” “Freedom?” “Justice?” Equality of opportunity?” “America?” “Where were they trying to go?”

Even now, some thirty years later, I’m occasionally haunted by the memory of what might have been. I’ve been told that I take it all too personally. I’ve been told that I, and my country, can’t cure all the world’s ills. When I hear, I just nod and turn away. Their words bring neither answers nor comfort. I know they mean well, but I’m still haunted by the vision of millions of faces now living in the grip of tyranny. My “comforters” mean well, but two sentences, however well meant or placed, will never be able to overpower those faces.

Why, if my thoughts are with the 425th, am I even mentioning my experience? How could it possibly be relevant to them and the task before them?

I write to encourage them with the knowledge that they go supporting principles Americans have always been willing to give their lives for. They go supporting principles that we have, in a very unique way, embraced since we declared our independence in 1776. In his book, Making Patriots, Walter Berns notes that “the terms Americanism, Americanization, and un-American have no counterparts in any other country or language.” That is, those principles we Americans treasure – justice, equality of opportunity, and freedom from tyranny – rise above us and call us to act nobly in their support. Being an American, as Berns puts it, “Expresses the conviction that American life is uniquely founded on a set of political principles.”

Why is it so important that you know this as you go?

If war comes, so will difficulty. If war comes, voices will bellow from the “seat of the scornful” – “It’s all about oil.” “The administration just wants to make war.” “It’s all about American imperialism.” The voices will rise. They always do.

In his first inaugural speech, Abraham Lincoln pleaded for the preservation of the American union. While he spoke to all Americans, he spoke primarily to those determined to retain the obscene institution of slavery. Many in the American south were well aware of Lincoln’s views on slavery. He was the one who had, years earlier, said that a nation could not endure “half-slave and half-free. Many viewed him as an aggressor out to destroy an institution and a way of life. The voices rose up. If there was to be war, he was going to be the one responsible. Lincoln closed his address to the nation with these words – “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors.”

Even now there are some who would blame a war, if it comes, on George Bush or Colin Powell or Condaleeeza Rice or Donald Rumsfeld. They believe that if war comes, it will come because of a failure on our part to be reasonable or a failure on our part to act in good faith. It can be averted if we only listen to the voices of reason in our midst. They will, by their superior wisdom, show us the way out. They will mention, in passing, that Saddam is a brutal tyrant, but in the end, if war comes, it will be our fault. They will never agree to the idea that the answer to the grave question of war or peace resides in Baghdad. When the sound and fury begins you will need to rise above the call to abandon the sacred trust set before you. You must oppose tyranny. You must support the cause of freedom and justice.

There are some, even now, who say that war will come only because we want it to come. Here, in our local newspaper, for example, there is an on-line survey with the question “Do you think the U.S. should go to war with Iraq?” There are no conditions outlined in the survey question that would lead to war. The question is simply, “Do you think the U.S. should go to war with Iraq?” The question could just as easily be, “Are you a war-mongerer? A yes response would mean that the respondent just adores war and is itching for a fight. A no would mean that the respondent is a reasonable, intelligent, peace-loving person. Of course, as a member of the military you know all too well that no sane, reasonable person wants war. You understand that you may be called upon to give your life if war does come. You’re not a war-mongerer. You’re someone with a family you love. You have noble goals in life. You want nothing more than to live in peace. And you are, thankfully, someone who is willing to serve so that the principles that guide your life may be afforded to those who are denied them.

Some will tell you that this is all about oil. It’s a very effective myth. What they fail to tell you, though, is that nothing could be further from the truth. If all this was about is oil, then we could just leave Saddam alone to bully the Middle East and brutalize his own citizens. All we’d have to do is just leave him alone and we’d have all the oil he can pump out of the ground. We could leave him alone and we’d have, for a while, the illusion of peace. But, in the end, we’d come to see it for the devil’s bargain that it was. Hopefully our eyes would be opened before it’s too late.

If it’s not about oil, then, what is it about? Some years ago, in the wee hours of the morning, a young woman was attacked by a predator in a lower floor hallway of the New York City apartment building she lived in. She screamed and cried for help, but none came. Neighbors heard the screams. Some put pillows over their heads to muffle the cries for help. Some even turned their radios up to overpower the desperate screams. Some just ignored what was going on, believing it was none of their business. The tragic fact was that no one did anything. No one called Nine One One. No one attempted to help. The assailant even left the scene of the crime for periods of time and came back again and again to continue his assault. Morning came and the woman’s body was found and taken away. When her neighbors were asked why they hadn’t helped the answers ran the gamut. “I was hoping someone else stronger than me would help her.” “It was none of my business.” ‘What was I to do? “He might have killed me too?”

In a matter of weeks the incident was forgotten and life went on.

The people of Iraq today are much like that woman who was brutalized years ago. And, to say that intervening would only be about oil is as obscene as a neighbor saying, “It was none of my business.” We are the neighbors who can hear the desperate screams for help. We are not only citizens of a nation, we are citizens of the world. And, like those neighbors years ago, we have a moral imperative to act. In fact, if we fail to act, we in essence would be abandoning principles we say we cherish. We would be frauds whose only considerations would be our own safety and comfort. We can choose to ignore the screams, but the nightmares will surely follow. If we fail to act, that failure will hang from our collective necks like an albatross. We’ll be haunted by the faces of Kurds whose faces, in death, reflect the brutality of the “justice” meted out to them by Saddam. We’ll be haunted by the screams of Iraqi children being tortured in front of their parents.

You see, there is a moral imperative here. It is the people of Iraq.

In Lincoln’s day some tried to frame the issue of civil war in terms of “states’ rights.” In 1863, though, the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation gave the Union cause its true meaning and its proper moral imperative. Thousands of Americans gave their lives to preserve the Union and to emancipate fellow human beings who were treated as property and denied human dignity and freedom. What American, living today, would not be willing to die for such a cause? Who in America would not be willing to gladly lay down their life so that another might live in freedom?

Centuries ago, St. Augustine addressed the issue of whether or not war could ever be justified with the following words (from City of God) – “For better is it to contend with vices than without conflict be subdued by them. Better, I say, is war with the hope of peace everlasting than captivity without any thought of deliverance. We long, indeed, for the cessation of this war, and kindled by the flame of divine love, we burn for entrance on that well-ordered peace in which whatever is inferior is for ever subordinated to what is above it. But if (which God forbid) there had been no hope of so blessed a consummation, we should still have preferred to endure the hardness of this conflict, rather than, by our non-resistance, to yield ourselves to the dominion of vice.”

To my brothers and sisters of the 425th I close with the words of the sixth article of the American Fighting Man’s (or Woman’s) Code of Conduct:

I will never forget that I am an American fighting man (or woman),
responsible for my actions and dedicated to the principles which made my
Country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.

May God be with you. May He vindicate your just cause. May He bring you safely home to us.


Gone Away said...

Powerful writing, powerful speech.

James Fletcher Baxter said...

While it is true that all we Americans share in political principles that undergird our Nation and its People, those principles are spiritual and transcendent at their causal root.

Most Christian principles are directed at individuals - who makeup a nation - but, inevitably, they have a superior causal relation to the plural unit of Nationhood and its values and laws.

"And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by him on the other side.

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him.

And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again , I will repay thee.

Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?

And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise."
Luke 10:30-37

Americans do.

Ed Darrell said...

Good cause, bad execution. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and Bush has a lot of good intentions.

Allan said...

Powerful words, Phil. Stay the course. The original article makes use of my favorite JFK quote, "let every nation know...".

Re the departure from Saigon. For anyone who doesn't know, the famous picture of the helicoptor atop the roof with a ladderful of people ascending toward it is not from the American Embassy nor is it a military helicoptor.

It is an Air America machine, a privately run enterprise contracted to the CIA. It is atop the roof of the Pittman apartments, about three blocks from the embassy.

Dave said...

If this war is about being the world's good neighbor, we've got a lot more wars to fight. Iraq won't any time soon and it surely won't end with Iraq.

But I don't think this Administration had such an altruistic goals in mind.

And no, I don't think it was about oil. I think it was about revenge, plain and simple.

It's all very sad.

dog1net said...

What an incredible tribute, certainly one of the best contemplations I've read on why we are involved in this particular war.