Sunday, January 25, 2009

Still Dreaming

Since coming out as a conscientious objector to war and violence, the most difficult challenge for me is the propensity of others to foment war and violence. Self-defense, both personal and national, is justified when an adversary is capable, willing and clearly demonstrating intent to employ force. Perhaps a true pacifist would stand and die in the face of such threat but I personally am not likely to do that nor can I as an individual ask my country to allow its citizens to be put at risk by other nations’ or groups’ willingness to employ violence. As a nation we have a responsibility to defend our legitimate interests.

War and violence are extremely common among nations and sub nations. It’s a fact of life that conscientious objectors must factor into our thought and beliefs. Although I maintain a complete abhorrence of war, I don’t expect the US to ignore or idly dismiss grave international threats. What I do expect is that America’s leaders will evaluate those threats realistically and then find ways, preferably allied with other nations, to alleviate threats and avoid violence. As a conscientious objector, I want my country not to introduce violence into any dispute; when force is unavoidable, it must be proportionate and limited to the threat at hand.

This concept is largely ignored by most nations and by any number of groups with grievances to avenge. Force and violence are as much a part of human relations as the blood that pumps through our bodies. Nations have been at war since they were created. Before nations, tribes and clans fought. About the only significant difference to modern war is its potential scope and staggering costs. Nineteenth century warfare could lay waste to a region or individual nation. One hundred years later war could destroy an entire planet even as its ineffectiveness in resolving serious disputes was demonstrated time and again. Our greatest failing as a species is our inability to reject violence.

We justify our attachment to violence, pointing outward and claiming that “they” threaten us. It is true that some “they” may actually pose a threat but these days, “their” threats, while deadly and destructive, are limited and so is “their” ability to carry out those threats. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, “they” were the Soviet Communists who commanded a powerful military. However distorted those views of Soviet power actually were, they posed a serious existential threat to the US. As a result, we embarked on National Security Race and have hardly looked back. In the Age of Terror we apply that same metaphor to a very different threat.

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney simply took a well established policy, rooted in human fear and weakness, to extremes at a time when the great military threats of yesteryear had been defeated or dissolved. The threat that did emerge—sophisticated determined terrorist networks--was nowhere near the existential threat of the Soviets, Nazis or Japanese. Yet Cheney and Bush presented the terrorists in those terms and marched the nation into endless war and occupation. As much as they bear personal responsibility for their overt and covert wars, secret operations and criminal policies, foreign intervention, arms dealing and use of force is nothing new in American policy.

That is what I want to change. Long before force is contemplated, I want my country to engage its adversaries and to defuse tensions. I want to eliminate the word “enemy” from our diplomatic lexicon. America should have no enemies, only adversaries or, better yet, allies. I personally do not have an enemy in the world—all people are my kin—so I am at a loss to accept that America has enemies who want to kill, maim and destroy us. I am not naïve; I know that economic and strategic interests give rise to opposition and attacks on American interests. I know, too, that many other nations have a strong sense of identity and may legitimately object to the United States intervening or otherwise interfering their affairs. In a nonviolent world, this intercourse among nations would occur as a mater of mutual interest and satisfaction. We wouldn’t need an army to enforce it.

That’s my dream. Human nature being what it is, I may not live to see it come true but simply understanding this ideal gives it a force in my consciousness. It will be a part of me and inform my actions and associations in coming years. Although I am writing in 2009, the idea isn’t new. What I recognize now is how long I have been a conscientious objector and that, more than ever, I need to speak with fellow Americans about nonviolence as a legitimate policy that in world and national affairs.

The “practical minds” and “realists” will dismiss me as deluded, bent on a quixotic quest. We must be prepared and take resolute action in this dangerous world, they all say. In return I say that simply because an idea is difficult, its truth is no less clear. In all things, I seek only that all people recognize the humanity of their fellow human beings. Once this recognition takes place, non-violence is the only ethical and moral alternative. After all, if I don’t want someone to harm me, how can I justly take that same action against that other person.

It’s true that I have not always acted as a conscientious objector. When my nation said “kill”, I took that rifle and pursued other human beings. I certainly did not live up to my ideal then. But the experience has haunted me ever since because I knew that I had no right to go halfway around the world to attack other people. Even more, I knew that I was waging war in someone’s home and my mind conjured the image of soldiers making their way through my backyard in Virginia. It was then that I realized my connection with my so called “enemy”. The connection is part of my consciousness to this day.

So, yeah, I got it wrong back then. I did not have the courage to act on my beliefs. Nothing I can do will ever change that fact. Everything I can ever do in the future will make sure I don’t fail again.

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