peace in Afghanistan

No Warlords Need Apply: A Call For Credible Peacemaking In Afghanistan

Editor’s Note: This article was co-authored by Buddy Bell.

July 30, 2015

A second round of peace talks between Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives, expected to begin before the end of July, 2015, suggests that some parties to the fighting want to declare a cease fire. But even in the short time since the first round on July 7th, fighting has intensified. The Taliban, the Afghan government forces, various militias and the U.S. have ramped up attacks, across Afghanistan.

Some analysts say the Taliban may be trying to gain territory and clout to give them leverage in ‘peace talks.’ Taliban forces, apparently beginning to splinter since the supposed death of Mullah Omar, are now competing with a new Islamic State presence in Afghanistan as various armed groups try to recruit new fighters from among ultra-conservative sectors of the regional population. Spectacular and frightening suicide bombings, hostage taking and a demonstrated capacity to force Afghan government soldiers into retreat or surrender might bolster a group’s claim to be effectively ejecting foreigners from Afghanistan.

However, the U.S., with its history of waging aerial attacks, using helicopters and weaponized drones, and engaging in constant aerial surveillance, along with its continued night raids and detention of civilians, effectively carries itself as the most formidable warlord in the region.

Throughout June, according to the New York Times, “American drones and warplanes fired against militants in Afghanistan more than twice as much as they had in any previous month this year, according to military statistics.” On July 19th, 2015, U.S. helicopters even fired on an Afghan army facility in the Logar province, killing seven troops and wounding five others. The Afghan Ministry of Defense told CBS News that “coalition helicopters were flying through the area early Monday morning when they came under fire from insurgents. After the insurgents’ attack on the helicopters, the helicopters bombed the area, and as a result an Afghan army outpost was destroyed.”

Meanwhile, top U.S. military officials have met with president Ashraf Ghani to talk about extending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, beyond 2016, in light of a possible threat from Islamic State fighters. On July 19th, the Los Angeles Times reported that Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Following the meeting, General Dempsey said he agreed that the U.S. needed to have a transnational strategy against the Islamic State. He said he would raise Ghani’s idea that Afghanistan “could serve as a hub from which the U.S., its allies and Afghanistan itself could work to prevent Islamic State from gaining followers in South Asia the way it has in the Middle East.”

U.S. military officials diminish the credibility of any proposed cease fire when they suggest that the U.S. will, after all, consider maintaining bases and troops in Afghanistan far beyond the supposed 2016 evacuation of U.S. bases. Confidence in a cease fire is further undermined when parties to negotiations know that the U.S. could assassinate them if they appear on a list of U.S. targets.

The U.S. State Department published its Country Reports on Terrorism: 2014 on the 19th of June 2015, from which we can see that in 2002, at the start of the U.S.-led global war against terrorism, 725 people were killed worldwide. During President Barack Obama’s first full year in office, in 2010, the number rose to 13,186. In other words, terrorist-related deaths grew by more than 4,000 percent from 2002 to 2010.

This is borne out on the ground in Afghanistan where the United Nations has been reporting record increases in civilian casualties.

Stopping the failed, counter-productive war against terrorism in Afghanistan and removing drones from her skies during peace talks would inspire respect for the idea of peace processes. Rural populations — the “constituency” of the Taliban in Afghanistan– fear the drones and look for protection, making them vulnerable to recruitment by armed militias vowing to eject the foreign militaries.

The U.S. could  indicate that it doesn’t wish to keep military personnel in Afghanistan or maintain ongoing bases there.

Yet, even were the U.S. to take these steps, a declared ceasefire between warlords who have, in the past, neglected the needs of Afghanistan’s poorest communities, whose war making has exacerbated suffering and poverty, may not be very meaningful to ordinary people living in rural areas. Whose interests would the warlords aim to secure?

It seems that the most crucially needed ceasefire agreement, in Afghanistan, would be one that occurred among ordinary communities, agreeing to no longer cooperate with warring parties, to no longer allow warlords to use them as pawns. This kind of ceasefire might fill the need and longing for peace so often expressed by people who are weary of living through wave after wave of destruction. But ordinary Afghans living in rural areas need to feed their children, plant crops, restore irrigation systems, replenish their flocks and rehabilitate their agricultural infrastructure in order to survive. If they could have some realistic assurance of sustained resolve to help them reach these goals, they’d have good reason to link up and rise up in opposition to continued war.

What source of funding and skill could possibly offer the assistance required for this kind of rebuilding?

The U.S. military doesn’t hesitate to demand sums for continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan which could instead be dedicated to rebuilding the country. The U.S. should state that it wishes to pay reparations for suffering caused in the past. This could be done in the form of setting up an escrow account to be administered by an NGO or agency that has not been accused of succumbing to corruption in Afghanistan.

By doing so, the U.S. could credibly begin to withdraw from warlord status in Afghanistan, and apply itself to being part of reconstruction, setting a model desperately needed throughout the world.

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) and Buddy Bell co-coordinate Voices for Creative Nonviolence www.vcnv.org

Image Credit: Stock Photo by Serdar Bayraktar, 123rf.com

Screen shot from Franklin Graham's Facebook page.

Franklin Graham, Islam, and the Future of Progressive Christianity

Franklin Graham recently made a stir with his 2.1 million fans on Facebook when he posted about the murder of four US marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee.* He wrote,

Four innocent Marines (United States Marine Corps) killed and three others wounded in ‪#‎Chattanooga yesterday including a policeman and another Marine–all by a radical Muslim whose family was allowed to immigrate to this country from Kuwait. We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized–and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn’t allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now? Do you agree? Let your Congressman know that we’ve got to put a stop to this and close the flood gates. Pray for the men and women who serve this nation in uniform, that God would protect them.

Franklin Graham is the “mouth piece of God” for many Christians throughout the world – a modern day prophet for his millions of fans. But, sadly, Franklin misunderstands the very nature of God.

I share Graham’s concern for the victims of this violent act and pray for their families, but his statement about how Christians should respond to that violence also concerns me. Graham’s understanding of God is contaminated by fear and exclusion that responds to violence with more violence. He believes that Islam is a great threat to America and that we should respond by excluding Muslims from the United States because “they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad.”

I’m pleased that many Evangelicals have already critiqued Graham’s misunderstanding of Islam, but here I’d like to offer a progressive alternative to his understanding of Christianity.

But first, I should note that humans have misunderstood the very nature of God throughout our history. According to anthropologist René Girard, humans have managed our internal violent conflicts by channeling them onto a scapegoat who has been deemed to be a great threat to our security. This scapegoat became a victim as the community united against him. The scapegoat was sacrificed or excluded from their midst. Where there was once the threat of violent conflict, there was now peace. Of course, that peace was only temporary because the true cause of the conflict was never addressed. Conflicts re-emerged and a new scapegoat was found to thrust our collective violence upon.

The peace and unity that emerged from the sacrifice was so powerful, so profound, that it was deemed a gift from the gods. And this is where the radical misunderstanding of the gods developed. Divinity was misunderstood to desire sacrifice in the name of peace. It’s a misunderstanding because the sacrificial mechanism was a purely human phenomenon. The one true God had nothing to do with sacrificial violence. As Girard points out, this misunderstanding led to the idea that violence and the sacred were woven together.

By attempting to exclude Muslims and labeling them a dangerous threat, Franklin Graham is simply repeating this ancient ritualistic pattern of archaic sacrificial violence. But a Christian understanding of God has nothing to do with fearing and excluding others. In fact, the culmination of Christian theology claims that “Perfect love casts out fear.”

God’s whole project in Jesus is to save us from the fear of death so that we can be free to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus frees us from the archaic scapegoating mechanism that blames others so that we can love others, including those we call our enemies – those who have become our scapegoats.

Jesus reveals that God has nothing to do with our violent forms of sacrifice, exclusion, and death. He was very progressive as he confronted those who were bound up in conserving the ancient human scapegoating mechanism that was based on exclusion. As he confronted the sacrificial system, it turned against him and nailed him to the cross. But instead of returning violence with violence, he took that violence upon himself and offered divine forgiveness in return. From the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Jesus radically changed the human perception of God. God has nothing to do with violently excluding those we perceive to be a threat to our security. That’s the ancient human project of scapegoating, not the divine project of nonviolent love that embraces everyone, no exceptions or exclusions.

I know all of this, and yet I’m struck by a strong temptation to scapegoat Franklin Graham. Those of us who identify as Progressives can mirror that very same acts of exclusion that we condemn in those who seek to conserve the sacrificial mechanism of exclusion. We can start to scapegoat people like Franklin Graham, accusing them of being the “real” threat and damaging our attempts at real progress. Scapegoating the scapegoaters is a huge temptation for me and when I do that, I actually conserve the ancient pattern of scapegoating. I show that, like Franklin Graham, I don’t really understand God, either.

In his book Raising Abel, James Alison claims that Christian theology should be guided by the statement “God is love.” He states, “The perception that God is love has a specific content which is absolutely incompatible with any perception of God as involved in violence, separation, anger, or exclusion.”

God is love means that God has nothing to do with expelling or hating Muslims, nor does God have anything to do with expelling or hating Franklin Graham.

So, how might Progressive Christians stand up for justice in the face of those who are caught up in the scapegoating mechanism? Understanding the ways in which we ourselves get caught up in the scapegoating mechanism is a good place to start, but Ephesians 6:12 takes it a step further,

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Inasmuch as Franklin Graham is scapegoating Muslims, he is only a pawn in the sacrificial mechanism of scapegoating. The same could be said of people like me when we unite against Graham. When we mimic one another in this way we only strengthen the spiritual forces of evil that is based on the scapegoating mechanism. The only alternative to participating in the forces of evil is to participate in the Kingdom of God, where we love our enemies as we love ourselves.

Christians can no longer afford to conserve the ancient human ways of responding to violence with more violence. If we take Jesus seriously, then we will leave the ancient ways of violence behind and progress toward a more loving and peaceful world.

Image: Screenshot from Franklin Graham’s Facebook page.

*This was originally posted at the Teaching Nonviolent Atonement blog for Patheos’s series on the Future of Progressive Christianity. You can read the rest of the series here.

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Taking Down The Flag

The flag in front of Home Depot was at half-mast and I felt myself wondering why in an awkward, despairing way.

The nation and the news cycle were still thrashing in the wake of the Chattanooga killings and I figured, oh, it’s for the soldiers — but all that realization did was intensity the troubled feelings the spectacle had aroused. This is America, where you can shop and mourn . . . but it wasn’t just that.

I suddenly thought about Sandra Bland’s apparent suicide in a Texas jail cell and, from there, I thought about a year’s worth of video footage of racism-scarred arrests and violence and, beyond that, the brutal stupidity of the wars we wage and two dozen or more vet suicides every day — this was all in the space about 20 seconds, while I was parking my car — and by the time I reached the entrance of the big box, I found myself asking: Why should the flag ever NOT be at half-mast?

And that was just the beginning. The flag, the flag . . .

Maybe it’s part of the problem.

Reflecting on the recent controversy that erupted in South Carolina over the flying of the Confederate flag in front of the state capitol, following white supremacist Dylann Roof’s murder of nine people there, GeorgePayne, writing at the website The Deconstructed Globe, asked:

“But why not take down the United States flag as well? After all, the two atomic bombs that eviscerated Nagasaki and Hiroshima were not dropped in the name of the Confederate flag. Nor were the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Afghanistan and Iraq fought to preserve the national security of the ‘Stars and Bars.’”

Could it be that we’re forcing schoolchildren to pledge their allegiance to a divisive — poisonous — symbol? Could it be that honoring it, waving it, saluting it holds together an allegiance to moral superiority and unending global conflict?

Lee Drutman, writing some years ago about the psychology behind the American flag, discussed several studies which concluded that viewing the flag primarily invoked in participants feelings of nationalism — aggressive national superiority — rather than an inclusive patriotism.

The flag “makes people think that some people and some countries are better than others, a mode of thinking,” he wrote, quoting one of the studies, “that makes people ‘feel more entitled to express prejudice.’”

Thinking about lowering such a flag to half-staff to honor someone who has died makes all this even more troubling. It takes the focus away from the honoree and places mourning and grief in a context of aggression and the common enemy. This is war. And for a nation at war, step one everlasting is the dehumanization of the enemy of the moment.

“Our thoughts and prayers as a Nation are with the service members killed last week in Chattanooga.”

So begins President Obama’s recent proclamation mandating that American flags be lowered for four days.

“We honor their service. We offer our gratitude to the police officers and first responders who stopped the rampage and saved lives. We draw strength from yet another American community that has come together with an unmistakable message to those who would try and do us harm: We do not give in to fear. You cannot divide us. . . .”

It goes on, but what I feel is that these words already begin to divide us. Indeed, they slice an “us” out of all humanity and reduce mourning to rage. And this mixture of mourning and rage is a toxic, addictive brew, keeping a nation ever-prepared for war. Nations are born of war. Certainly this nation is.

“When the first English settlers moved into Indian land in Massachusetts Bay and were resisted, the violence escalated into war with the Pequot Indians,” historian Howard Zinn wrote for the Progressive some years ago. “The killing of Indians was seen as approved by God, the taking of land as commanded by the Bible. . . .

“When the English set fire to a Pequot village and massacred men, women and children, the Puritan theologian Cotton Mather said: ‘It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day.’”

And speaking of the birth of a nation, consider that this year marks the 100th anniversary of D.W. Griffith’s silent movie classic, The Birth of a Nation, once an icon of Americana. It tells the story of how the Ku Klux Klan saved the South from the predatory ambitions of emancipated slaves.

“The critics were raving,” author Dick Lehr told NPR in an interview earlier this year. “People were on their feet cheering at the climax of the film, when the Klan is seen as a healing force — restoring order to the chaos of the South during Reconstruction.”

This movie wasn’t merely a fabulous recruiting tool for the KKK, which underwent a huge membership surge after the movie came out; it was an emblem of national greatness, revered by mainstream white America which, for at least 50 years after the movie’s release — and certainly throughout my childhood and youth — remained clueless about the toxicity of the movie’s racism. Its central place in American culture, its cohesive power, rivaled that of the flag itself.

Over the course of American history, the flag has been far, far too tolerant of genocide, slavery and war. It has defined a nation by its hatreds and waves proudly over the military-industrial complex. Let’s lower it slowly and look to a different future.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

 

Image Credit: Photo by Kahunapule Michael Johnson via Flickr. Creative Commons License 

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Why I’m Glad Sally Jenkins Wasn’t President In 1865

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie concludes his study of the history of the Confederate battle flag by pointing out that neither the North nor the South could claim moral high ground in the Civil War. History is far more complex than the self-justifying myths we create to help us understand and live with our past… and our present. 

 

Here, at last, is a final set of thoughts sparked by the recent controversy over public displays of the Confederate battle flag. (I say “recent,” even though it’s been almost three weeks since the flag was removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state capitol, and three weeks in the blogosphere is just a hair shy of an eternity.) I’ve already written at length on the controversy (see here, here,here, here, and here), not because it was “trending” (a social media euphemism for “trendy” and “transient”), but because I think it provides a marvelous example of the way that we’re all tempted to remember the past in simplistic and self-justifying ways, ways that rob history of its power to speak truth into our lives.

The recent war of words about the battle flag quickly became a debate about the larger meaning of the American Civil War. For a century and a half Americans have resisted remembering that struggle honestly, and the online debate mostly perpetuated that cultural amnesia. Defenders of the flag resurrected the southern myth that the war had little to do with slavery; opponents trumpeted the northern myth that it had everything to do with the institution, that the war was first and foremost a moral crusade to rid the nation of human bondage. Neither view is true. Both prevent us from effectively confronting our complicated past with regard to slavery and race.

While it’s important to realize that both the southern and northern views are incorrect, it’s not enough simply to say that both sides have invented comforting myths. We still need something to hang our hats on, historically speaking—a story or narrative of the war that’s true to its complexity and fair to both sides. Thankfully, I think we’ve always had such a narrative, more or less hiding in plain sight. It comes from Abraham Lincoln, who bequeathed it to posterity in one of his last public addresses before his assassination.

I was first reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address of March 4, 1865 while reading Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins’s diatribes about the Confederacy. After comparing the Confederate battle flag to a swastika and charging the Confederacy with a “crime against humanity,” Jenkins opined that “Jeff Davis and Bobby Lee should have spent the rest of their natural lives in work camps, breaking rocks with shovels.” By March 1865 Lincoln was wearily familiar with such sentiments, and in his second inaugural he pointedly rebuked them. Despite an unimaginable death toll and incalculable human suffering, the president exhorted his northern listeners to proceed “with malice toward none, with charity to all.”

These are the words we’re most likely to remember from Lincoln’s address, if we remember any part of it, but they can’t be understood when wrenched from the larger context of Lincoln’s brief speech. In isolation, we may be tempted to read them simply as an exhortation to northerners to forgive their enemies or to leave retribution to the Lord, who said “vengeance is Mine.” Both are Christian sentiments and both are good counsel, but neither really captures Lincoln’s point. Lincoln knew the Bible well—he quoted it twice in the address—but he had also practiced law for thirty years and his cast of mind was relentlessly logical. Lincoln’s call for charity is best understood when we read it as the culmination of a logical argument about the cause and nature of the war. It was a war, Lincoln told his uncomfortable audience, in which neither side could claim the moral high ground. Because both sides were morally culpable, it would be hypocritical for the North to impose a draconian peace as if only the South were to blame.

I recommend that you look for the address online and take the time to read it in full. It’s only 700 words long (and over 500 of those words contain only one syllable!) so you can review the whole thing in five-six minutes. The heart of the address comes in the third and longest of its four paragraphs. In it Lincoln made three crucial assertions.

First, the cause of the war was slavery, period. Lincoln reminded his audience that, when the war broke out,

“one-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union.”

Note that the president felt no need to prove his assertion. “All knew” that it was true, so why belabor the point? Even white Southerners agreed at the time, although their memory would play tricks on them later. So much for the southern myth.

But note the key qualifier “somehow.” In insisting that slavery was “somehow the cause of the war,” Lincoln was not proclaiming that the conflict had ever been a clear-cut moral contest over slavery. In fact, he explicitly dispelled that simplistic notion. “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained,” Lincoln went on to observe. More important,

“Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

Lincoln’s wording here may be a little hard to follow. Two tips will be helpful. First, bear in mind that, even though he referred to both sides in the conflict, his immediate audience was exclusively northern, and it was the North that he was consciously addressing. Second, remember that he had already identified the cause of the war as slavery earlier in the paragraph. With these in mind Lincoln’s point becomes clear: he was bluntly reminding northerners that they didn’t go to war in 1861 to end slavery. The conflict’s most “fundamental and astounding” consequence—the end of an institution that had been entrenched in American life for two hundred and fifty years—was something few northerners had in mind when they rushed to enlist after Fort Sumter. So much for the northern myth.

With the final defeat of the Confederacy all but certain, most of Lincoln’s audience on this cold March day was surely expecting the president to congratulate the North on its impending victory. But instead of a celebration he gave them a sermon. In the rest of the paragraph, Lincoln dismissed the facile, pervasive assumption that God wore Union blue. Although both sides had prayed to God for His assistance, the prayer “of neither has been answered fully,” he observed. This was because “the Almighty has his own purposes.” Not only did Lincoln discourage the North from taking credit for the end of slavery, he went so far as to suggest the possibility that the blood-bath of the past four years had been a form of divine judgment on both regions. It was possible, Lincoln told his supporters, that God had given “both North and South this terrible war” as divine retribution for the offense of slavery, “until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.”

Was Lincoln’s speculation correct? I don’t know, nor do I think we can know for certain. But this much I do know: In one eloquent paragraph, Lincoln offered a complicated narrative of national responsibility for slavery that was mostly absent from the recent controversy over the Confederate battle flag. Now, as in 1865, it’s a story that many of us would rather not hear.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

Top Image: Photograph of Lincoln less than a month before his Second Inaugural Address.

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Pushing Up

[Two weekends ago], about 100 U.S. Veterans for Peace gathered in Red Wing, Minnesota, for a statewide annual meeting. In my experience, Veterans for Peace chapters hold “no-nonsense” events. Whether coming together for local, statewide, regional or national work, the Veterans project a strong sense of purpose. They want to dismantle war economies and work to end all wars. The Minnesotans, many of them old friends, convened in the spacious loft of a rural barn. After organizers extended friendly welcomes, participants settled in to tackle this year’s theme: “The War on Our Climate.”

They invited Dr. James Hansen, an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, to speak via Skype about minimizing the impacts of climate change. Sometimes called the “father of global warming,” Dr. Hansen has sounded alarms for several decades with accurate predictions about the effects of fossil fuel emissions. He now campaigns for an economically efficient phase out of fossil fuel emissions by imposing carbon fees on emission sources with dividends equitably returned to the public.

Dr. Hansen envisions the creation of serious market incentives for entrepreneurs to develop energy and products that are low-carbon and no-carbon. “Those who achieve the greatest reductions in carbon use would reap the greatest profit. Projections show that such an approach could reduce U.S. carbon emissions by more than half within 20 years — and create 3 million new jobs in the process.”

Steadily calling on adults to care about young people and future generations, Dr. Hansen chides proponents of what he terms “the fruitless cap-and-trade-with-offsets approach.” This method fails to make fossil fuels pay their costs to society, “thus allowing fossil fuel addiction to continue and encouraging ‘drill, baby, drill’ policies to extract every fossil fuel that can be found.”

Making fossil fuels “pay their full costs” would mean imposing fees to cover costs that polluters impose on communities through burning of coal, oil and gas. When local populations are sickened and killed by air pollution, and starved by droughts or battered or drowned by climate-change-driven storms, costs accrue for governments that businesses should repay.

What are the true costs to society of fossil fuels?   According to a recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) study, fossil fuel companies are benefiting from global subsidies of $5.3tn (£3.4tn) a year, $10 million per minute, every minute, each and every day.

The Guardian reports that the $5.3tn subsidy estimated for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments.

Dr. Hansen began his presentation by noting that, historically, energy figured importantly in avoiding slave labor. He believes some energy from nuclear power is now necessary for countries such as China and India to lift masses of their populations out of poverty. Many critics strenuously object to Dr. Hansen’s call for reliance on nuclear power, citing dangers of radiation, accidents, and problems with storage of nuclear waste, particularly when the radioactive waste is stored in communities where people have little control or influence over elites that decide where to ship the nuclear waste.

Other critics argue that “nuclear power is simply too risky, and more practically speaking, too costly to be considered a significant part of the post-carbon energy portfolio.”

Journalist and activist George Monbiot, author of a book-length climate change proposal, Heat, notes that nuclear power tends to endanger “haves” and “have-nots” equally. Coal power’s deadliest immediate effects, with historic casualties clearly outpacing those of nuclear, are linked to mining and industrial areas populated by people more likely to be economically disadvantaged or impoverished.

Climate-driven societal collapse may be all the more deadly and final with grid-dependent nuclear plants ready to melt down in lockstep with our economies. But it’s crucial to remember that our direst weapons – many of them also nuclear – are stockpiled precisely to help elites manage the sort of political unrest into which poverty and desperation drive societies. Climate change, if we cannot slow it, does not merely promise poverty and despair on an unprecedented scale, but also war – on a scale, and with weapons, that may be far worse than dangers resulting from our energy choices. Earth’s military crisis, its climate crisis, and the paralyzing economic inequalities that burden impoverished people are linked.

Dr. Hansen thinks that the Chinese government and Chinese scientists might marshal the resources to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, including nuclear powered energy. He notes that China faces the dire possibility of losing coastal cities to global warming and accelerated disintegration of ice sheets.

The greatest barriers to solution of fossil fuel addiction in most nations are the influence of the fossil fuel industry on politicians and the media and the short-term view of politicians. Thus it is possible that leadership moving the world to sustainable energy policies may arise in China, where the leaders are rich in technical and scientific training and rule a nation that has a history of taking the long view. Although China’s CO emissions have skyrocketed above those of other nations, China has reasons to move off the fossil fuel track as rapidly as practical. China has several hundred million people living within a 25-meter elevation of sea level, and the country stands to suffer grievously from intensification of droughts, floods, and storms that will accompany continued global warming. China also recognizes the merits of avoiding a fossil fuel addiction comparable to that of the United States. Thus China has already become the global leader in development of energy efficiency, renewable energies, and nuclear power.

What’s missing from this picture? The Veterans for Peace earnestly believe in ending all wars. Deepening nonviolent resistance to war could radically amend the impact of world militaries, especially the colossal U.S. military, on global climate. In order to protect access to and global control of fossil fuels, the U.S. military burns rivers of oil, wasting the hopes of future generations in the name of killing and maiming the people of regions the U.S. has plunged into destabilizing wars of choice, ending in chaos.

Corruption of the global environment and compulsively frantic destruction of irreplaceable resources is an equally sure, if more delayed, manner of imposing chaos and death on a mass scale.   The misdirection of economic resources, of preciously needed human productive energy, is yet another. Researchers at Oil Change International find that “3 trillion of the dollars spent on war against Iraq would cover all global investments in renewable power generation needed between now and 2030 to reverse global warming.”

John Lawrence writes that “the United States contributes more than 30% of global warming gases to the atmosphere, generated by 5% of the world’s population. At the same time funding for education, energy, environment, social services, housing and new job creation, taken together, is less than the military budget.” I believe that “low carbon” and “no carbon” energy and energy efficiency should be paid for by abolishing war. Lawrence is right to insist that the U.S. should view problems and conflicts created by climate change as “opportunities to work together with other nations to mitigate and adapt to its effects.” But the madness of conquest must end before any such coordinated work will be possible.

Sadly, tragically, many U.S. veterans fully understand the cost of war. I asked a U.S. Veteran for Peace living in Mankato, MN, about the well being of local Iraq War Veterans. He told me that in April, U.S. veteran student leaders at Minnesota State’s Mankato Campus, spent 22 days gathering daily, rain or shine, to perform 22 push-ups in recognition of the 22 combat veterans a day – nearly one an hour – currently committing suicide in the U.S. They invited the Mankato-area community to come to campus and do pushups along with them.

This is an historic time, posing a perfect storm of challenges to the survival of our species, a storm we can’t weather without “all hands on deck.” Whoever arrives to work beside us, and however quickly they arrive, we have heavy burdens to share with many others already lifting as much as they can, some taking theirs up by choice, some burdened beyond endurance by greedy masters. The Veterans for Peace work to save the ship rather than wait for it to sink.

Many of us have not endured the horrors that drive 22 veterans a day, and countless poor in world regions that U.S. empire has touched, to the final act of despair. I would like to think we can lift hopes and perhaps bring comfort to those around us by radically sharing resources, eschewing dominance, and learning to join courageous others in the work at hand.

 

This article was first published on Telesur English.

 

Kathy Kelly (kathy@vcnv.org) co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org)

 

 

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Armed Insecurity

“. . . no real security, just powers of retaliation.”

This was Norman Mailer, four-plus decades ago, writing in Miami and the Siege of Chicago about the obsessive security measures – “helicopters riding overhead like roller coasters, state troopers with magnums on their hip and crash helmets, squad cars, motorcycles” – at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, which . . . uh, didn’t actually provide security, but sure allowed us to get even afterwards.

This is still the unnoticed insanity haunting the American news cycle, whether the story being reported is domestic or international. As a society, we’re armed and dangerous – and always at war, both collectively and individually. We’re endlessly declaring bad guys (officially and unofficially) and endlessly protecting ourselves from them, in the process guaranteeing that the violence continues. And the parallels between “them” and “us” are unnerving.

Mohammad Abdulazeez opened fire at a naval reserve training facility in Chattanooga and killed five people. He was suffering from depression and possibly radicalized by ISIS. Fox News headlined the story: “Tennessee gunman was armed to the teeth and ready for war with America.” The story pointed out that he was a naturalized American citizen born in Kuwait.

A few days later, a gun shop owner in Florida posted a video on YouTube declaring, with the Confederate flag in the background as he spoke – summoning the spirit of Dylann Roof’s murder last month of nine African-Americans in Charleston, S.C. – that his store, Florida Gun Supply in Inverness, was now a “Muslim-free zone.”

“I will not arm and train those who wish to harm my fellow patriots,” he said, paradoxically espousing a weird, racist form of gun control.

He also said: “We are in battle, patriots, but not only with Islamic extremism. We’re also in battle against extreme political correctness that threatens our lives because if we can’t call evil ‘evil’ for fear of offending people, then we can’t really defeat our enemies.”

Ray Mabus, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, spoke of the shootings with less clarity about the nature of the enemy: “While we expect our sailors and Marines to go into harm’s way, and they do so without hesitation, an attack at home, in our community, is insidious and unfathomable.”

Yet a few days later at least 10 Afghan soldiers – American allies – died “at home, in their community” when the checkpoint they were manning in eastern Afghanistan was taken out in a U.S. helicopter strike, which the Afghan regional commander described as “a very big mistake.” He pointed out to the Washington Post that the strikers should have known they weren’t attacking the enemy because it happened in daylight and “the Afghanistan flag was waving on our post, when we came under attack.”

Well, you know, collateral damage and all. These things happen. But somehow the deaths of these soldiers didn’t cause the same stir the Chattanooga killings did, though the victims’ lives were equally precious and were cut short in an attack that probably seemed, to them, equally unfathomable.

But, whereas the Chattanooga shootings were a “horrific attack,” the friendly fire killings were an “incident” – just like all the other bomb and missile killings, accidental, intentional or whatever, of civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere over the last decade and a half. The Wall Street Journal added that the incident “threatens to strain relations” between the U.S. and its allies in the war that has no prospect of ending, but added that “the airstrike is under investigation,” which is the epitaph of choice for news stories about to be buried for eternity.

All of which leads me back to the Norman Mailer quote, that we have no real security, just a massive power to retaliate. This is the nature of armed self-defense. In order to feel like they have some control over an unfathomably complex world, many, many people – inspired by the governments they either revere or despise – categorize large swaths of the human race as bad guys, who therefore need not be regarded, or treated, as fully human.

As I wrote several years ago, speaking of the “moral injury” that so many vets bring home from their war service: “Killing is not a simple matter. It’s not a joke. The argument can be made that on occasion it’s necessary, but military killing is not about self-defense. Soldiers are trained to kill on command, and this is done not simply through physical preparedness exercises but through dehumanization of the enemy: a cult of dehumanization, you might say. Turns out we can’t dehumanize someone else without dehumanizing ourselves.”

And the more that people lose touch with their own humanity, the more, I fear, they will feel the need to be armed – desperately imagining it’s the same thing as being secure. And the news cycle will continue, endlessly bringing us more of the same.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

Image Credit: 123rf.com Stock Photo, Copyright stillfx

Copyright: kagenmi / 123RF Stock Photo

The Iran Deal and American Self-Deception

Politicians and pundits on both sides of the American political divide are debating the merits of President Obama’s deal with Iran. While Obama claims he has forestalled an Iranian nuclear weapon for at least another 10 years with unprecedented weapons inspection, Republicans state that the deal will only encourage the world’s most dangerous sponsor of terrorism.

Only time will tell us about the merits of the deal. For now, I’m interested in the response from our Republican presidential candidates.

The Republican candidates are swirling around, trying to point the finger at the greatest enemy of the United States. Is it the dreaded Mexican immigrants? (Gasp!) Or is it the terrorism that Iran threatens to unleash upon the globe? (Double gasp!)

American Terrorism

Forgive me if it looks like I’m picking on the Republicans. After all, this is American politics per usual. And maybe it’s just human politics. But Republican candidates in particular are trying to convince us that there is an extremely dangerous enemy out there that threatens our freedom. But that’s not all. They are also trying to convince us that the Democrats are enabling our enemies. And so we should vote for Republicans because they will be tough on our enemies.

This response from the Republicans is an act of American self-deception. They, and we the American people, should know better.

The United States has met our greatest enemy that leads the world in global terrorism. And it is us.

To prove my criticism of violent American foreign policy is bipartisan, I’ll point out that the Obama Administration’s indiscriminate drone strikes are terrorist crimes against humanity. While the Obama administration rightly criticizes al-Qaeda’s practice of attacking enemies during a funeral as morally heinous acts of terrorist monsters, nothing stops Obama from using drones to kill our “enemies” as they attend funerals.

I put “enemies” in quotes because they ended being regular civilians, many even children. You know, “casualties of war.” Aka, “Oops!”

And Iran is the most dangerous supporter of state terrorism in the world?

No, we are. And Republicans are trying to gain our vote by criticizing Obama’s terrorist policies and promising that they will be far better terrorists. Which, our politicians claim, will keep us safe.

A Relationship of Fear and Desire for Peace

The fact is that Iran wants to be just like the U.S. We fear Iran and Iran fears us. A relationship of fear is a recipe for disaster. But the U.S. and Iran want the same thing. Iran has a fearful political regime that just wants peace. Iran feels threatened, and it has learned from the U.S. how to respond to threats – by mimicking those violent threats with violent threats of its own.

We are enemy twins, who, even in negotiations, won’t take violence off the table.

The way that the U.S. can free ourselves from this relationship of violence is through honest self-criticism. Instead of accusing Iran of being a great threat to global security, we would do well to have the courage to admit our own terrorist acts of foreign policy.

American Honesty and Genuine Peace

It is the height of American self-deception to claim that we are completely innocent and Iran is completely guilty. Just look at our modern history with Iran. In 1953, the U.S. orchestrated a coup to topple the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh. Why? So that the U.S. would have “a major ownership in the strategic and highly lucrative trade of Iranian oil … with the additional bonus of a pliable client state in the heart of the Middle East.”

In 1985, the U.S. secretly shipped weapons to Iran and sent profits to Nicaraguan rebels. In 1988, the U.S. warship Vincennes shot down an Iranian civilian airplane. The U.S. says it mistook the Airbus A300 for an Iranian fighter jet.

Our greatest enemy is not Iran. It’s not Russia. Nor is it China. Our greatest enemy is ourselves. We have modeled for the world how to gain temporary peace through violence, which is a pattern that will only ensure a future of apocalyptic destruction.

The only alternative is to model a different method to achieve peace. American politicians must have the courage to stop deceiving the American people about our perceived innocence. Rather, we need our politicians to be honest about American involvement in terrorism and lead us in repenting of our violence. Modeling that honesty and repentance to other nations is the only possible way that the U.S. can help foster genuine peace in the world.

Photo Copyright: kagenmi / 123RF Stock Photo

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Dismantling Racism, Pt. 2: #WhatHappenedToSandraBland?

 

There are uneducated people who are hell-bent on self-extermination. I am not one of them. I am into building up my kings and queens.

She could have been my neighbor.

28-year-old Sandra Bland was on her way to changing the world. Outspoken in the Black Lives Matter movement, courageous and compassionate, she was on her way to claim a job she had earned at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, in student outreach. What should have been a joyful and celebratory time in her life ended in tragedy.  Pulled over for allegedly failing to signal a lane change, she was accused of assaulting the officer who stopped her. Video footage shows her head being slammed into the ground before she was forced into the patrol car. Three days later, she was dead in her cell. Authorities claim it was suicide. Her friends and family beg to differ.

The pain in my gut has barely subsided since I read about this news Thursday morning. Part of it is because she lived about 10 minutes away from my home in Illinois. Part of it is because I know I have made driving mistakes worse than a lane signal failure, and I feel privileged to have been let off without a ticket, let alone without an arrest ending in death. And part of it is something far more visceral: a disgust, a bewilderment, an aching that defies words. It is the awareness of a world that I am seeing from the outside coming into sharper focus with every injustice, every unwarranted or disproportionate arrest, every instance of police brutality, every knee in the back, every arm around the throat, every trigger-anxious finger gripping a gun pointed at a black body. It is staring through the eyes of privilege at an America that is a different world to those with skin darker than my own.

Sandra spoke of that world, asking white people to try to understand the difficulties of black life in the United States. And as the tragedies of the past year have compounded, from Ferguson to Charleston, I have tried to educate myself on these difficulties and write about them in my “Dismantling Racism” series. But as my education on the engrained institutional racism permeating and poisoning our nation is punctuated on a near-daily basis by any given particular outrage, I have to struggle to keep despair from crushing my spirit. It’s too deep, too horrible, too much.

These outrages don’t always come in the form of murders. Sometimes they come in the form of high school graduations that end in cheering relatives being arrested for “disturbing the peace.” Beyond the pettiness and insult of taking offense at an expression of joy, the fact that pride in a family achievement — an achievement that is disproportionately not guaranteed for black families due to factors controlled by white people (economic disparity, targeting by police for the school-to-prison pipeline, etc.) — was undercut and punished is a slap in the face that should make anyone sick.

Sometimes they come in the form of black teenagers being detained, berated and assaulted for accepting an invitation to a pool party. Dejerria Becton was brutally harassed by Officer Eric Casebolt, his knee digging into her bare skin as she lay face down on the ground in a bikini. He also pulled his gun to intimidate and enforce his power over a crowd of unarmed, terrorized teenagers. The fact that they posed no threat and quite obviously were not carrying weapons did not mitigate the cruelty and nastiness with which they were treated.

But all too often these outrages come in the form of chokeholds, severed spines, multiple bullets tearing through bodies, and children mistaken for adults and shot within 2 seconds for reaching for toy guns. In the last case, that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the officers’ crimes are compounded by the treatment of his 14-year-old sister, Tajai, who was handcuffed and thrown into the police vehicle for trying to attend to her brother. She watched helplessly as he died. Although a judge found probable cause to indict the officer for murder, he lacked the legal authority to do so, leaving it up to a grand jury to determine if charges are even warranted at all.

These outrages are only a few of those that made the news, which themselves are only a few of those that actually take place. Statistics claim that one African American is killed by police every 28 hours. And these individual injustices are simply outward incarnations of the toxic culture of racism that penetrates to the core of our nation. I recoil as I plunge into the depths of Christianity’s unholy alliance with white supremacy that allowed white slave-owners to demonize and assault their human property and claim themselves fulfillers of God’s law. I shudder as I gradually grasp the magnitude of the denial of the humanity of the African race by the nation’s revered Founding Fathers. I realize that these spiritual and national ideologies allowed a nation to be built on stolen labor and a sense of identity for whites to be built over and against and at the expense of blacks. Stolen black labor was the backbone of our national economy, but the workers who provided that labor were considered mere bodies to be used. Even the white abolitionists were rarely guilt-free when it came to the influence of white supremacy.

These vicious myths so blurred white vision that to this day we are unable to see our black brothers and sisters clearly. They eroded our souls just as surely as they destroyed black lives. I trace this mythology through slavery and Jim Crow, through lynchings and mobs of opposition to human rights. I trace it through laws designed to deny housing and benefits based on race and through a highway system that deliberately tore black neighborhoods apart. I trace it through gentrification and the enduring concept of “white value” that devalues black integration and tells parents of white students that their children are better off in schools without diversity (while giving black parents the opposite message).  I realize all the ways in which de facto segregation undermined the Civil Rights movement, and realize that, even though it is now politically correct to claim racial blindness, the marginalization and stigmatization of black people over time has created hidden fears and prejudices in the white psyche.

And then I look at the greed of the prison industrial complex, and realize how easy it is for a nation that has never confronted its diabolical racial history to design a system of for-profit prisons reintroducing slave labor via prisoners, mostly African Americans disproportionately arrested and convicted. Our nation is still running on the marginalization, brutalization, and exploitation of African Americans. The 13th amendment still allows for slavery as punishment for a crime. But prison labor is just the tip of the iceberg. As Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report says, “black mass incarceration serves the vital purpose of morally justifying America’s viciously unequal and racist economic and social order.” By disenfranchising and stigmatizing prisoners and ex-prisoners, the incarceration system limits resources for many African American communities and blame the victims of a heartless economic system instead of the system itself. We could not get away with our bloated prison industrial complex and corrupt criminal injustice system without the persistent devaluation of black lives, and the persistent devaluation of black lives helps uphold our corrupt criminal injustice system.

The deeper I go, the uglier it gets. Privilege has clouded my eyes by sheltering me from the indignities of the realities faced by African Americans. Even those who emerge successful from this lopsided system are still met with distrust, prejudice, and belittlement. And they are still in danger of a more blunt and vicious racism – still in danger of having their heads slammed into the sidewalk by police officers for offenses as benign as failing to signal a turn.

I can read name after name, see face after face, lose count as I try to tally all those who have fallen prey to racism at its most lethal (even as I resolved to write this article I became aware of 18-year-old Kindra Chapman, also found dead of alleged asphyxiation). I can plumb the depths of the systemic racism that form essential context to every one of these stories. I can feel rage and disgust at the cruelty and ignorance of my racial ancestors. The fact that some of my personal ancestors were fairly liberal and compassionate (though they evolved from their own blind spots, just as I must continually evolve from mine) is irrelevant to the fact that they and I have benefitted from a nation that has profited off of exploitation. I can even claim that white privilege is harmful to white as well as black people, for it robs us both of a fuller relationship. I do honestly believe that, but of course, I cannot compare the debits I experience as a result of white privilege to those of an African American.

But no matter how much empathy I cultivate, I cannot know what it is like to fear for my life or those of my loved ones every time they or I get into a car. I cannot know what it is like to walk down the streets and evoke misgivings and fear that might easily rebound against me. I cannot know what it is like to mourn a loved taken in a crime and fear that the law will not be on my side. I cannot know what it is like to need protection from those whose job it is to serve and protect.

My heart aches for Sandra Bland. I have no proof of how she died, but I cannot believe she committed suicide. Look again at her opening quote, taken from this video. She was about to start a job in student outreach, and from the video, showing her radiating kindness and confidence, I believe that she would have excelled and enhanced the lives of all with whom she would come into contact. Like her friends and family, I have questions about how she died and demand a full investigation. The pattern of police brutality against African Americans, rooted in the myth of white supremacy, is enough reason to doubt the official story, but the particulars of Sandra’s case make the allegation doubly suspicious. She was outspoken against police brutality and grateful to the gentleman who videotaped her arrest despite the officer’s protest. The officer’s illegal command to stop the filming is evidence that he wanted Sandra silenced, no matter what further action may have been taken.

If Sandra did commit suicide, then authorities managed to break her spirit as well as assault her body. And I find that much harder to believe. Her spirit lives on in those who continue her struggle to assert that #BlackLivesMatter. I join this struggle. Taking my cues from Sandra Bland and my African American friends, I strive to transform white privilege into true equal rights for all, repent of my complicity, and help untangle this wicked web of racism– a lie that has caused true suffering and stolen too many black lives.

 

Image via Twitter  #WhatHappenedToSandraBland

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Exchanging One Myth For Another? Our One-Sided Memories Of The Civil War

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie reminds us, lest we scapegoat the South, that emancipation was not an original goal of the Union, and the entire nation bears responsibility for a terrible history of slavery and continuing injustices of white supremacist ideology. 

If you are like me and don’t have to earn an honest living during the summer, perhaps you had the opportunity to watch last week as the Confederate battle flag was lowered from its flagpole near the South Carolina state house. The ceremony marked the culmination of an extraordinary three weeks of national conversation about American history, and especially the power of race in the American past (and present). It began with the tragic murder of nine congregants at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church on June 17 combined with the subsequent dissemination of pictures of the gunman posing with a Confederate battle flag. Since then, politicians and pundits from across the spectrum have weighed in, debating not only the symbolism of the flag, but also the nature of the Confederacy and the larger meaning of the Civil War. Much of their claims have been superficial and sensational, but their instinct to look to the past for understanding is dead on. There are times when “we cannot escape history,” as Abraham Lincoln once told Congress, and this has been one of them.

One of the positives of the public debate has been to hold up to close scrutiny the tired assertion that the Civil War was caused by a dispute over states’ rights rather than slavery. As I wrote earlier, that view is indefensible–preposterous even. It’s not just that modern-day historians widely condemn it; more to the point, white southerners between 1861 and 1865 didn’t believe it. The statesmen and journalists who shaped the southern justification for secession made their motives abundantly clear. Disunion was necessary, they declared repeatedly, in order to preserve both slavery and “the heaven-ordained superiority of the white over the black race.”

When black Americans view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism, they absolutely have history on their side. The point is not that every rebel soldier marched into battle thinking about slavery and white supremacy. No academic historian that I’m aware of would argue that. The point is rather that it is utterly ahistorical to depict the defense of slavery as somehow incidental or peripheral to the Southern cause. All Americans understood that slavery “was somehow the cause of the war,” President Lincoln observed as the war was winding down. He was right.

But now let’s complicate things. There’s been a lot of righteous indignation coming from online pundits who remind us that the South seceded in defense of human bondage. “The American South has always been the most barbaric, backward region in any developed democracy,” Vox’s Dave Roberts tweeted. “The Confederate battle flag is an American swastika,” wrote Sally Jenkins of theWashington Post, “the relic of traitors and totalitarians, symbol of a brutal regime.” Nationally-syndicated columnist Harold Myerson writes of “the South’s vile history” and “the grotesque reality that was the antebellum South.” “Barbaric.”  “Totalitarian.”  “Vile.”  “Grotesque.”  These aren’t exactly nuanced arguments.

Freedman’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, D.C.

Freedman’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, D.C.

For most of the last century and a half, two competing regional myths have struggled to shape popular American memory of the conflict. Boiled down to its essence, the southern myth depicts the war as the culmination of a philosophical struggle over the rights of states in the American Constitutional system. Slavery was at best coincidental to this struggle, which might just as well have come over mules, as one southern apologist famously contended near the close of the nineteenth century. In contrast, the northern myth defines the war as a moral crusade to remove, at long last, the blight of human slavery from the American republic. This is the view embodied in the 1876 Freedmen’s Monument to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.  It’s the view that poet Carl Sandburg popularized in his rapturous (if wordy) 2,800-page biography of Abraham Lincoln. It’s the view that Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker perpetuates when she describes the Federal invasion of the South after Fort Sumter as “noble” and insists that “no one would argue otherwise.” As she put it recently, “Wars to liberate people from human bondage don’t come any nobler.”

Despite the glaring difference at their center, these regional myths actually share a lot of common traits. For one thing, both became popular ways of viewing the war after the shooting stopped, not before. Both are self-serving and self-justifying, placing one or the other section in the best possible light. Both are also grossly simplistic, portraying the war as a kind of Manichaean struggle between good and evil. According to the southern myth, the war was a contest between zealous defenders of the Constitution and those who would trample the country’s founding charter beneath their feet. According to the northern myth, the conflict pitted advocates of human bondage against champions of human freedom. Finally, most importantly, both regional myths are wrong.

I’m worried that, in their rush to remind us of the centrality of slavery to the sectional struggle, many of the critics of the Confederate battle flag are simply replacing the southern myth about the Civil War with the northern one. For the most part, they’re not doing this explicitly. (Kathleen Parker’s gushing tribute to the Union army is the exception to the rule in what I have read.) Rather, they are doing so implicitly by focusing  on the Confederacy in isolation. One of the cardinal rules of sound historical thinking is that it is imperative to pay attention to context. We cannot claim to understand any individual or group or event or belief system from the past when we have ignored the historical context. “Know context, know meaning,” I constantly remind my students. “No context, no meaning.”

Most of the anti-flag editorials that I have read ignore this foundational principle. If they allude to the Confederacy at all, they tend to focus on it exclusively.  They identify its prevailing values, measure them against twenty-first century mores, and draw their blistering conclusions. Along the way—whether intentionally or not I cannot say—they perpetuate the impression that the attitudes of the North and South regarding slavery and racial equality were diametrically opposed.  This is a fundamental tenet of the northern myth, and it is wrong. Careful attention to context shows that nothing could have been further from the truth.

It is important to broaden our focus to include the Civil-War North, but not primarily to rehabilitate the reputation of the Old South. I have no patience with southern apologists who think that they somehow exonerate the South by proving that the North was racist also. No, we need to bring the wartime North into the conversation because it affects the story that we tell about America’s racial history. In their indignant condemnations of a “vile,” “barbaric” Confederacy, writers like Jenkins and Meyerson are actually reinforcing a perspective that has long been an obstacle to racial progress in this country. This is the view that racism has somehow been a peculiarly southern problem throughout our past. By making the South a sectional scapegoat for a national problem, the rest of the country has been able to reassure itself that racism is an aberration, a pathology limited to the country’s one sick region.

A careful attention to the broader context of the Civil War does nothing to weaken the conclusion that the Confederacy was conceived in a determination to defend slavery and white supremacy. It does, however, show us that the war itself was never a clear-cut struggle over the morality of slavery, much less the injustice of white supremacy. I’ll address the first in the remainder of this post and turn to the second in a few days.

The Civil War was not a clear-cut struggle between defenders and opponents of slavery for one simple reason: while the South was nearly unanimous in its defense of the institution, the North was badly divided. Let’s start with the most obvious reality: throughout the Civil War “the Union” included four states where slavery remained legal—Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. With the exception of Delaware, these states had large slave populations and large pro-slavery majorities that would have bolted to the Confederacy if the new Republican administration threatened to strike immediately at slavery. Although we sometimes fall into the bad habit of describing the struggle between North and South as a struggle between slave and free states, it was never that clear-cut.

Next we have to consider the Constitution: On the eve of the secession crisis, one of the things that northern whites shared in common with southern whites was that both groups believed unquestionably that the Constitution prevented the federal government from interfering with slavery within states where state law already recognized it. The leaders of the Republican Party, which emerged exclusively within the North during the latter half of the 1850s, accepted this view to a man. They sought to use the federal government to limit the expansion of slavery into the western territories, but they acknowledged that they were prevented from attacking it where it was already entrenched. Northern Democrats, who represented just under half of the Union-state electorate, thought that the white population of the territories should determine whether slavery was legal or illegal there, but they agreed with the Republicans in maintaining that the federal government must leave slavery alone within the states where it was already legally recognized.

And so it was that, when states of the lower South began passing secession resolutions in the winter of 1860-1861 in response to the election of Abraham Lincoln, one of the ways that northern congressmen tried to assuage southern fears was to support a proposed amendment to the Constitution that stated explicitly that the federal government could not touch slavery within a state:

No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State.

This proposal—which if ratified would have become, ironically, the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution—was passed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress at the beginning of March 1861, but the shooting began before more than two states (Maryland and Ohio) could approve it. Once blood was shed, the momentum for ratifying an amendment designed to pacify the South came to a screeching halt.

Even so, the belief that the war was not a war to end slavery was the near unanimous position among northern officeholders during the first year of the conflict. In his first major address to Congress after war had begun, Abraham Lincoln vowed that he had “no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with slavery in the states where it exists.” A few weeks later Congress passed a joint resolution that staked out the same ground. Named in honor of its primary sponsors, the Crittenden-Johnson resolution of July 22, 1861 was the closest thing to a formal declaration of war ever approved by the U. S. Congress. According to the wording of the resolution, the war was not being waged

in any spirit of oppression or for any purpose of conquest or subjugation, or . . . of overthrowing or interfering with the rights or established institutions of . . . States. . . . [The goal of the war is to] defend and maintain the supremacy of the Constitution, and to preserve the Union with all the dignity, equality, and rights of the several states unimpaired; and . . . as soon as these objects are accomplished the war ought to cease.

Put simply, abolition was not to be a goal of the northern war effort, according to the Crittenden-Johnson Resolution. Whenever the southern states ended their rebellion the war should stop immediately, and their “established institutions”—a euphemism for slavery—should remain undisturbed.

Historians who have closely studied the values of Union soldiers have determined that they professed similar views during the war’s first year. For example, in his study of the correspondence and diaries of nearly six hundred Union soldiers, eminent Princeton historian James McPherson concluded that in 1861 fewer than one out of ten were motivated primarily by the desire to end slavery.

Union Major General George B. McClellan

Union Major General George B. McClellan

The highest ranking officers in the Union forces tended to show the same indifference—if not outright hostility—to the cause of emancipation. More than a year into the war, Major General George McClellan, for instance—at the time the commander of the main Union army in the eastern theater of the war—wrote to Abraham Lincoln to express his view that “neither confiscation of property . . . nor forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment.” Although he surely overstated the case, McClellan further warned Lincoln that “a declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.”

Now without a doubt, much changed after the war’s first year. One of the most important developments in all of U. S. history was the transformation of northern war aims between 1861 and 1863, as a war that began as a war exclusively for Union evolved into a war that linked Union with emancipation. Part of the reason for this transformation was a new understanding of the president’s authority in time of war, in particular the belief that the rebellion had created a Constitutional window of opportunity that allowed the commander-in-chief to strike at slavery as a military measure to restore the government’s authority.

But the transformation of war aims rested on more than just a shift in technical Constitutional interpretation. There was also a profound change in popular sentiment in the North, particularly among those in uniform, that the events of the war brought about. To prevent this already lengthy post from becoming ridiculously long, I won’t go into a full explanation of how this came about. Imitating Inego in The Princess Bride, rather than explain fully, “let me sum up”:

For many Union soldiers who were exposed first-hand to the reality of southern slavery as they marched through the South, the war quite genuinely revolutionized their thinking. Some became wholly converted to the cause of emancipation as a moral obligation and readily embraced Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863. And yet the evidence is clear that a large portion of the Union army felt betrayed by the redefinition of Union war aims. James McPherson found that, for every Union soldier who welcomed the emancipation policy in the winter of 1862-1863, another declared it to be “unconstitutional and illegitimate.” Fairly typical of the latter were the Indiana private who wrote that “if emancipation is to be the policy of this war . . . I do not care how quick the country goes to pot”; the soldier in the 12th Maine who wrote, “I do not want to hear any more about negroes when I get home”; and the Illinois private who confessed to his parents, “I am the boy that Can fight for my Country, but not for the Negros” [sic].

Although support for emancipation in the Union Army grew gradually and significantly over time, McPherson finds that it was frequently couched in the most pragmatic of terms, so much so that he labels most supporters of emancipation in the army as “practical abolitionists.” These soldiers came to advocate emancipation as a way to cripple the Confederacy, to exercise revenge against their enemies, and to shorten the war. “We have been playing with traitors long enough” was a typical viewpoint. Believing that slavery was the backbone of the southern economy and the primary source of wealth of the planters who had fomented the southern rebellion, these soldiers agreed with the Yankee private who concluded that “the war will never end until we end slavery”; with the Union surgeon who decided that “slavery must be cleaned out” because “the only way to put down this rebellion is to hurt the instigators and abettors of it”; and with the Minnesota officer who declared that “crippling the institution of slavery is . . . striking a blow at the heart of the rebellion.”

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

Abraham Lincoln in 1863

A consummate politician, Abraham Lincoln correctly understood that the way to build broad support for emancipation was to link it to the cause of Union. After studying, teaching, and writing on the Civil War for a quarter-century, I am persuaded that Lincoln’s opposition to slavery as immoral was absolutely genuine. But it is also clear that he took seriously his role as leader of the Republican Party and the consequent obligation to frame the policies of his administration in a way best designed to perpetuate his party’s success at the polls. A viable majority could never be built in support of emancipation as a moral crusade, Lincoln recognized, but it might be politically possible to forge a majority willing to swallow emancipation as a pragmatic measure necessary to save the Union. In the summer of 1863, Lincoln famously defended his proclamation against northern critics in a public letter that embodied such a pragmatic strategy:

You dislike the emancipation proclamation; and, perhaps, would have it retracted. You say it is unconstitutional—I think differently. I think the constitution invests its Commander-in-chief, with the law of war, in time of war. The most that can be said, if so much, is, that slaves are property. Is there—has there ever been—any question that by the law of war, property, both of enemies and friends, may be taken when needed? And is it not needed whenever taking it, helps us, or hurts the enemy?

When Lincoln was re-elected president in the fall of 1864, 55 percent of the northern electorate supported him, but 45 percent cast Democratic ballots, supporting a party whose platform condemned the war as a failure and renounced emancipation as a war aim. Emancipation divided the North through the Civil War’s bitter end. Concentrating solely on the Confederacy obscures that crucial reality.

Back with more soon.

Copyright: 123rf.com Stock Photo

Absolute Power

“The existence of the approximately 14,000 photographs will probably cause yet another delay in the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as attorneys for the defendants demand that all the images be turned over and the government wades through the material to decide what it thinks is relevant to the proceedings.”

This was the Washington Post a few days ago, informing us wearily that the torture thing isn’t dead yet. The bureaucracy convulses, the wheels of justice grind. So much moral relativism to evaluate.

“They did what they were asked to do in the service of our nation,” CIA director John Brennan said at a news conference in December, defending CIA interrogators after a portion of the 6,700-page Senate Intelligence Committee report was made public.

Serving the nation means no more than doing what you’re told.

God bless America. Flags wave, fireworks burst on the horizon. Aren’t we terrific? But this idea we celebrate — this nation, this principled union of humanity — is just a military bureaucracy, full of dark secrets. The darkest, most highly classified secret of all is that we’re always at war and we always will be. And war is an end in itself. It has no purpose beyond its own perpetuation.

This is the context of torture.

At least this is what occurred to me as I reflected on the most recent non-news, that the existence of multi-thousands of photographs of U.S. black site operations are out there somewhere, classified but known and pulsing. What more can we learn that we don’t already know?

“On Nov. 20, 2002, (Gul) Rahman was found dead in his unheated cell. He was naked from the waist down and had been chained to a concrete floor. An autopsy concluded that he probably froze to death.”

So the Los Angeles Times informed us in December, in an article about two psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who were serving their country in the early days of the War on Terror by developing the CIA’s torture methodology.

“When he was left alone,” the article reported, describing another detainee’s experience, “(Abu) Zubaydah ‘was placed in a stress position, left on a waterboard with a cloth over his face, or locked in one of two confinement boxes.’

“In all, he spent 266 hours — 11 days and two hours — locked in the pitch-dark coffin, and 29 hours in a much smaller box. In response, he ‘cried,’ ‘begged,’ ‘whimpered’ and grew so distressed that ‘he was unable to effectively communicate,’ the interrogation team reported.

“The escalating torment, especially the waterboarding, affected some on the CIA team. ‘It is visually and psychologically very uncomfortable,’ one wrote. Several days later, another added, ‘Several on the team profoundly affected . . . some to the point of tears and choking up.’”

And a few weeks ago, The (U.K.) Telegraph, quoting from the Senate Intelligence Committee Report, described the experience of Majid Khan, who “was raped while in CIA custody (‘rectal feeding’). He was sexually assaulted in other ways as well, including by having his ‘private parts’ touched while he was hung naked from the ceiling. . . .

“‘Majid had an uncovered bucket for a toilet, no toilet paper, a sleeping mat and no light. . . . For much of 2003 he lived in total darkness.’”

And the awkward part of all this, for defenders of the military bureaucracy, is that these torture procedures produced no information of any value. We sold our soul to the devil and got nothing at all in return. Bad deal.

Whatever details about the torture program remain classified and buried, these stories, along with plenty of shocking photographs, are fully public. There’s enough data here to open a deep conversation about what it means to be a nation and what the limits of power ought to be. What I see instead is a sort of official resignation — on the part of media and government — to the inevitability of out-of-control power in the pursuit of self-defense.

Philip Zimbardo called this phenomenon the Lucifer Effect: the utterly corrupting nature of total power over others. Reports of CIA torture are rife with observations that the interrogators were out of control. The information they sought from the utterly powerless detainees in their keep was a treasure to be extracted, like oil or diamonds from the bowels of the earth, and no technique was too inhumane, too morally odious, to achieve that end. Call it human fracking. It’s for the good of America.

The awareness that must emerge from a decade-and-counting of torture revelations is that absolute power over others does not keep us safe and should not be pursued. And torture is only a minute fraction of the wrong we promulgate through unchecked militarism, the aim of which is domination of the planet.

Step one in the unhealthy pursuit of power is the dehumanization of “the enemy.” The consequences of what we do after that will always haunt us.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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