The holidays are traditionally a time for reflection — looking back at the year nearly passed and forward to the one about to begin. I’ve been doing a lot reflecting as 2009 draws, mercifully, to a close and 2010 looms menacingly near. I’m sharing my pain because, as that sage philosopher Ellen Griswold says in the heartwarming seasonal epic Christmas Vacation, “It’s the holidays and we’re all in misery.”
For starters, I’d like each of you to watch the “In Excelsis Deo” episode from the first season of the West Wing. In it Toby Ziegler arranges a full military funeral for a homeless veteran who dies of exposure while wearing a coat that he had donated to the Salvation Army. You have to watch the entire episode, not just the two minute clip on You Tube. When you do you will be uplifted. You will be touched. Tears will well in your eyes and pour down your cheeks. You will sob audibly.
When you are done crying—and you will whether you are watching for the first or the 100th time–you will be outraged by the sheer believability of the episode. Writer Aaron Sorkin didn’t have to make it up. We all know there are homeless veterans living under bridges and in shelters in Washington D.C., New York, Chicago, L.A., and a hundred other cities large and small.
There’s no real reason why these men and women –many of whom come from working class families and served in the military either because they were unable to dodge the draft like Dick Cheney or because it was the best job they could find in post-industrial America — should have to live this way in the richest nation in the world. But they do and they will and that’s wrong. We should all be ashamed.
When your vision clears, take a moment and read two columns by Bob Herbert of the NY Times. The first, “A Tragic Mistake,” begins thus: “I hate war,” said Dwight Eisenhower, “as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” He also said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
I guess we will never learn.
Mr. Herbert asserts that committing an additional 30,000 troops to the Afghan war was the “easier option” for President Obama and says, “It would have taken real courage for the commander in chief to stop feeding our young troops into the relentless meat grinder of Afghanistan, to face up to the terrible toll the war is taking — on the troops themselves and in very insidious ways on the nation as a whole.”
He’s right, it would have taken real courage to stand up and say “no” to the military establishment and the likes of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Cheney, and the other conservative compulsive liars who have hijacked patriotism and distorted its meaning. In fact, it would have taken the same type of courage to refuse to commit more troops to a losing cause that it would take to refuse a Nobel Peace Prize that hadn’t been earned. But as anyone who has been watching over the past year has seen, courage and conviction seem to be in short supply at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
In the second column on my suggested reading list, “A Fearful Price,” Mr. Herbert bluntly and accurately identifies why Mr. Obama did not have to fear public revulsion over his misguided decision to waste more human and financial capital on a conflict that history teaches cannot be won:
The reason it is so easy for the U.S. to declare wars, and to continue fighting year after year after year, is because so few Americans feel the actual pain of those wars. We’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we fought in World Wars I and II combined. If voters had to choose right now between instituting a draft or exiting Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops would be out of those two countries in a heartbeat.
In that passage, he’s clearly placed his finger on something those of us who study and write about the working class have known for decades: as long as the people marching off to war are coming from working-class enclaves like Youngstown, East Chicago, Detroit, Gary, and Compton rather than East Hampton, Beacon Hill, Georgetown, or Beverly Hills, the nation’s powerbrokers simply won’t give a damn. They’ll just continue to invest in the stocks of defense-related industries because war is damn good for business.
Now that I’ve suggested a TV show to watch and two columns to read, I’ like to recommend a movie: Charlie Wilson’s War. This Academy Award-nominated film depicts how a bunch of nomadic goat herders and opium growers chased the Russian Army out of their mountainous, pre-historic country with the help of the CIA. It also points out that these brave and brazen heroin producing shepherds have beat back everyone who has ever attempted to conquer their land—you can’t really call it a nation–from Alexander the Great, to Genghis Kahn, to the British Empire.
The country? Well, it’s Afghanistan, of course.
Obviously, Generals McChrystal and Patreus, President Obama, and Secretaries Gates and Clinton missed this great flick when it was in town. I’ve got an idea. Let’s give it to them for Christmas. It would make a great stocking stuffer. Hell, we’ll even throw in some microwave popcorn. They can dim the lights in the White House theatre and chuckle at the zany antics of the turban wearing Taliban who emerged from caves to blow the living daylights out of the Ruskies until those dirty commies turned tail and ran back to Moscow.
By the way, as the lights in the theatre come up they should consider this: the crazy guys from the Taliban are using the same Stinger missiles the U.S. gave them to blow up working-class kids from Minsk in the 80’s to blow up working-class kids from Cleveland today.
That’ll dampen the ho, ho, hos.