The following is what I wrote shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Bad Thing
in memory of my father
Ken McLintock, 1919-2000
September 17, 2001.
Rosh Hashanah is upon us. Rosh Hashanah is more than the Jewish New Year: it is nothing less than the celebration of the creation of the universe.
My father passed away one year ago, at the end of Rosh Hashanah. And so, from now on, this day brings with it his yahrzeit, the anniversary of his passing. It is a strange juxtaposition: the creation of the universe, and my father’s death.
And it gets stranger still: this Rosh Hashanah also brings the shadow of war.
I remember a Vietnam-era Doonesbury cartoon I read as a kid. A couple of the characters were discussing how a Student Congress meeting had attempted to address the war issue. A motion had been introduced to pass a resolution condemning the Vietnam war; but as the debate wore on, the wording of the motion kept getting vaguer and vaguer. At last the Student Congress reached a consensus: they resolved simply, “War Is Bad.”
I’m reminded of this cartoon every time I see progressives trying to tackle the issue of war and peace. Yes, war is bad, and one can always make that statement without fear of contradiction. But contradiction is a part of war, as it is a part of life.
“Violence begets violence”; “If we respond with force, we just stoop to their level”: do we really believe that a military response is no different from flying a jetliner into an office building? Then we are all in trouble.
I am not speaking here of pacifists. They are used to dealing with such difficult issues, and while I don’t share their philosophy, I respect it. If you are going to oppose violence -- if your belief is that, above all, all violence is wrong -- then you have a great tradition of teachers to draw on, from the Buddha to George Fox. (Green Party doctrine endorses the principle of Nonviolence, while sensibly stopping short of advocating outright pacifism.) But this is a serious situation, and it deserves to be treated seriously; simplistic, holier-than-thou slogans accomplish nothing.
It bothers me that some people’s sense of justice is offended by the prospect of a military retaliation for the attack, but not by the attack itself. People who say -- while trying to sound as if they’re not saying it -- that America deserved this horror. How many rationalizations can you make for a mass murder?
Sometimes we must go to war.
In simplest terms, the underlying wish of all warfare is to be able to push a button and “make the bad guys disappear”. Modern technological warfare fosters the illusion that this is actually possible. If you watched the war against Iraq on CNN, you saw America and its allies trying to make that wish come true.
My father fought the Japanese in World War II. To the end of his days, the contradictions of that war troubled him. He spoke bitterly of the rampant racism in the American ranks, not only toward the enemy but also toward African-American servicemen and toward our Pacific Islander allies. He recalled seeing his first enemy casualty -- “He was just a kid, our snipers had got him.” The 37th Infantry Division yearbook, which now sits atop my desk as I write this, chronicles his unit’s progress from Fiji to the Solomon Islands to the Philippines. It also records the attitudes of the Americans towards the Japanese people; my father never showed the book.
A lifelong Democrat (he voted for Nader in ’96), he admired the idealism of the New Deal but could not bring himself to admire the president who signed Executive Order 9066. Demonizing the enemy, my father used to say, is a sign that society is in decline.
Hiroshima was a thorn in his side. He recalled an article shown to him by a buddy, in a science magazine shipped from home, describing a terrible new bomb which, when perfected, would devastate the enemy. Dad said he had hoped it was science fiction; he was wrong.
Once he tried to describe the feelings close to the battle front. “The looks on the faces of those guys coming back from the front lines,” he said, shaking his head. He looked off into space, trying to find the words to express it. Finally words failed him, and he waved his hands helplessly. “It’s just a bad thing,” was all he said.
During a certain period of seven months in 1990 and 1991, I experienced some inkling of the things my father must have felt. We were facing a great and intractable army, and all sorts of new weapons were being brought in against them. Among these was a bomb called a “fuel-air explosive”; picture holding a lighted match over an open can of gasoline, then magnify that picture to the size of a football stadium, and you get the idea. And there were the massive bombs dropped on the Iraqi bunkers, burying thousands of men alive. And finally there was General Powell’s order to “cut it off and kill it”, ending the war with a massacre of retreating soldiers.
My own weapon of choice (the Marine Corps’ choice, not mine) was the TOW missile. You located the target (typically a tank) in the eyepiece, pushed the button, and tracked the target until the missile reached it. Push the button, and make the bad guys disappear.
I remember Sgt. James, our vehicle commander -- he would later lose his post -- coming back from the commander’s tent with tears streaming from his eyes. “Schroeder’s dead,” he said, “and Snyder...” and he gave the rest of the names. They were killed at Khafji, but not by the enemy. Their vehicle had wandered into the path of a friendly missile and had been destroyed.
We lost more men to an accident, when one of the drivers fell asleep on a long night drive. More stupid, meaningless deaths with no one to blame.
Then there was the guy who got promoted for falling asleep on watch. You always have to have someone awake at might, and the combat crew works out a shift schedule with each man waking the next in turn after a shift of an hour or two. The CO’s orders were that two men out of each four-man crew must be awake at all times. But Sgt. James had other ideas: he figured as long as one of our guys was awake at each shift, it would be OK and no one would be the wiser. So we followed his plan, and sure enough, the last guy on watch fell asleep -- Cpl. Carlos, Sgt. James’s second-in-command. When the CO found out what had happened, and learned that Sgt. James had given the one-man-awake order, he fired Sgt. James from his post. Cpl. Carlos took over as crew commander.
Carlos led the crew capably throughout the ground war, and was both liked and respected. Later he got kicked out of the service for being gay. Can it get any stupider?
Does it make a difference how you die? Or how your friend dies?
To a soldier, it does. Being killed or wounded by the enemy is one thing; being killed or wounded by friendly fire, or in an accident, is very different. It is a loss without meaning.
Every generation sheds its own blood to build the world that its children will inherit.
The two towers of the World Trade Center are destroyed, and more than three thousand people have died. Rich and poor died together. Now there is a question before us: What kind of lives will we give our children, and what kind of structures will we build?
“Don’t seek revenge” -- this is the most telling phrase from the well-meaning sloganeers. Very well; but what about justice?
Justice is a hard concept, and it involves making difficult choices and distinctions. But there can be no mercy without justice; and as Palestinian advocates are continually reminding us, without justice there can be no peace.
One of the distinctions we must make is the distinction between legitimate anger and indiscriminate violence. Nothing justifies the murder of thousands of innocent civilians. Anyone who fails to unequivocally and unambiguously condemn this act is only supporting such violence. And using the bombing as an object-lesson to advance any goal, no matter how worthy, comes dangerously close to supporting it.
Making distinctions: this is the tough process that is called for now. It goes against our training, even our nature. Tribalism is easy: us and them. Unlearning tribalism is one of the hardest things we do in life, and one of the most important.
The February 22, 2001 issue of the Daily Journal of Commerce reports: “Neighbors oppose proposed Bellevue mosque.” It seems the Muslim community of Bellevue, Washington, just can’t get it right: the mosque “simply doesn’t fit in”, according to local residents, and it’s “too big for a residential area” which includes two churches, one school and a golf course.
These complaints would have sounded familiar to my father, who, with other members of his congregation, spent many frustrating months trying to get permission to build a new synagogue in suburban Connecticut. Like the Washington congregation, my father’s meeting-place was overcrowded and lacked adequate parking facilities. And the neighbors, like the good folks in Washington, had their own list of perfectly reasonable objections: it would be too noisy; there would be too much traffic; it would interfere with the local wildlife; and, oh yes, it just wouldn’t quite fit in.
According the Bellevue city planning manager, “It’s the nature of the facility. If I were living there, and there was going to be a mosque in my backyard, I’d panic because I’m familiar with a Baptist church, a Catholic church. But a mosque?”
The official’s candor is refreshing. No one in Connecticut would have been so indelicate as to bring up religion. That would have been gauche. There are ways to do these things.
A young Jewish radical once said, “Love your enemy.”
I am not an authority on the Christian scriptures, so it is presumptuous of me to interpret this verse. But perhaps the teacher is calling upon us to embrace this contradiction: Love your enemy -- he is your neighbor, whom you are bidden by the Law of Moses to love; love him, even while he is still your enemy.
My own tradition is also skeptical of simple answers. It affirms that the Living God sometimes speaks in many voices; and that harmony rests in the elusive balance of logic and insight, justice and mercy, action and restraint. It understands, too, that the love of humankind is a concept simple enough to be understood while standing on one foot -- and that you must spend the rest of your life studying its implications.
For Osama bin Laden, war is a simple matter. The bad guys are everywhere, and getting rid of them is merely a question of resources and tactics. For the rest of us, it is different: the task of finding the enemy, identifying him, and destroying him, will be difficult and costly. Our laser-guided bombs will be of only limited value. It will be a back-to-basics war.
We will learn, one slow step at a time, who and what we are fighting. And perhaps, in the process, we will discover who we are.
War is a bad thing. But we must do this bad thing, and we must do it the hard way. American soldiers will travel to another country, where, along with soldiers from other lands, they will kill and die. Those who live will come back with memories.
An old proverb says, “The ones who know, don’t talk. The ones who talk, don’t know.” The ones who come back will know. They will know that the line between good and evil sometimes hides in the shadows. They will know that the bad people will never disappear. They will know that the pursuit of justice is harder than the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and infinitely longer, and that it matters more than anything. And they will know things that they will never tell, because how do you say it?
You can never say it all, even if you talk for a hundred years.