A week after announcing that he’s committing 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, President Obama flew to Geneva to accept the Nobel Peace Prize where he had to acknowledge the irony up front. Then, he went on to defend his decision to have our country remain at war, again, an unusual message for a Nobel speech.
I certainly found it painful to hear the President’s justification for troop escalation in this context, a prize to honor the valiant goal of seeking peace. While I do not disagree that there will be seemingly intractable conflicts between peoples across countries’ borders and within nations, as well, I disagree that our adding military force to the situation in Afghanistan will help us ensure that we leave that country in a more peaceful situation—or any safer—and I fail to see how destroying so many more lives (at such a high economic cost) in that country and ours will build a stronger peace.
For that matter, so many groups and regimens that have threatened us seem to have in some way been trained by us or benefitted from our military presence and firepower. Beyond that though, the shadowy threats of terrorist groups have not exactly weakened despite years and years of war. It’s hard to envision how more will break them down.
On the nature of peace, President Obama said, “For peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting.” And this is where I get most confused, because tearing a nation apart—killing innocent people there, destruction of infrastructure—seems to steal inherent rights and dignity (even if part of what the military then does is rebuild). I would venture further to say that even though our military is an all-volunteer one, the ways we are damaging lives of our soldiers and their families is no longer vaguely just. Estimates about PTSD are as high as forty percent amongst those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The physical injuries are not only profound individually and widespread across those returning, the physical and emotional repercussions for the families (parents, siblings, spouses, children) will ensue beyond measure.
President Obama spoke of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi in his remarks, saying he remains “mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: ‘Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.’ As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak — nothing passive — nothing naïve — in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.”
Then, he distinguished himself as leader of a nation essentially required to employ military force.
In the case of our nation at this time, the social problems are only becoming more complicated as the pie is sliced so disproportionately in favor of fighting wars in the Middle East, whilst greed here seems to inform how we cut the rest up.
The National Priorities Project has a tally of how much Afghanistan is costing us, even per soldier. (If you have not examined these numbers, do, because should be informing our collective decisions and the fact that they are not is terrifying and sobering). Look only to such travesties as these, just for starters: health care reform being determined by how to keep insurance companies profiting (and not necessarily offering as much coverage or as widespread coverage as needed, with single payer or another meaningful public option withering on the vine) and the lack of accountability major corporations are required to have for monies received from the bailout (and the top executives still getting disproportionately large bonuses, even as many people lose middle class jobs in those companies). There are countless ways to document the huge gutting of the middle class in this country. There is no question that people are struggling, regardless of any improvement in the stock market.
At the end of the week, I visited the Northampton Survival Center for what I would call the Dream-to-Reality tour. Like many people in the community, I’ve been friend (and am a neighbor) to the NSC, which is quietly raising funds in order to do a major renovation and expansion of the building it’s in with the public phase of this fundraising to launch soon (they hope I’ll donate to this project; it goes without saying that they’d be delighted if you would, too). Having a larger building will help the agency more effectively help its clients, making the center that much more useful to the community. Over 4,000 clients—many temporarily out of work, in need of some bridge assistance between jobs; many working and still unable to afford full food security; and many with more extended need—benefit from the food distributed through the center (over a million pounds each year). Clients may also receive other non-food items, from clothes for a job interview to something for a growing baby like a carseat. Additionally, they may receive counseling or critical referrals.
When I told Lucien, my sixth grader, that I was writing about Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize and the Northampton Survival Center, he mentioned National Priorities Project (which I’d also already included) and said this: “When we’re spending billions on the war, we’re not feeding people, and that’s wrong.”
He told me about a seeing a clip of a news expose on child labor from 2006 (he wasn’t sure which program) with his class this past week. Child labor isn’t just an historic construction, he explained; it exists, even now. Here’s a fact that stuck with him: when people worked at the Ford Motor Company long ago, two months’ salary bought them a car. In Indonesia, in a Barbie factory, child workers would need three years’ pay to buy a Barbie doll. As Lucien said, “Two months versus three years for a doll versus a car—that’s so wrong.” The sense that people’s lives are not improving over time—that progress isn’t meted out to all—was not lost on him.
Much as I’m trying to listen and trying to hear why we cannot risk stepping down from Afghanistan now, but require continued, escalated military presence, I do not comprehend how it is we believe our security isn’t being so grossly eroded that the calculations made are simply wrong. I’m not going to joke about fuzzy math, because there are too many lives at stake, including the lives of people in my town, whose insecurity is absolutely, undeniably huge. Does it not seem wrong, and completely counterintuitive, to be worried about going hungry in such a wealthy land? For so many people here—and in places like Afghanistan, too—bombs are not nearly so threatening as the gnawing sense that they may slip into insurmountable poverty. Maybe we can’t afford to remain a military superpower or maybe no country can. And into these calculations we should, must really, add the costs of war to the environment against the need to aggressively and adequately address climate change; call it environmental security.
So, mustn’t we reframe security? Shouldn’t we re-envision it from various perspectives? Practically before our eyes, it looks as if poverty is going to become intransigent for an astonishing number of people in this country as mortgages are no longer sustainable and health care reform does not render health care affordable (not to mention that this is the case in so much of the world). And how is this for irony: potentially the steadiest job for someone without much education in this country is probably to serve in the military?
Clearly, there are dangers lurking—real ones, threats to national security, terrorist attacks and would-be attacks—and extricating our troops without upending those war-torn countries is the responsibility of the United States, given its contributions to making the countries experience such turbulence and violence (even if the goal was/is peace). I write this wide-eyed, aware of that truth, too. I just cannot believe it’s the only factor or even as leading a factor or as immovable a factor as the 30,000 additional troops suggest, and I cannot believe the world will be more secure—in all its senses—with this decision.