Remembering Fear: The War Turns Five

This column was published on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on March 10, 2008. It is dedicated to all the brave men and women who opposed the war from the start.

This month, the war in Iraq turns five. It’s a milestone worthy of note, and no doubt many people are taking time to reflect upon the Marches that have come and gone since American military boots first trekked into Baghdad. Some folks will honor the bravery and dedication of American men and women in uniform. Others will pause to consider the immense cost in American and Iraqi lives. Without question debate over dinner tables and in the halls of power will focus on the dubious wisdom of the war and upon the war’s deleterious effect on the nation’s economy.

This is appropriate. A robust and honest conversation about the war is essential if we are to be a people who learn from our mistakes, and as part of that dialogue I want us to remember how unpopular it was publicly to articulate an opposition to the war in the early days of fighting and in days and weeks and months leading up to the great battle for Babylon.

This isn’t to say that the war was without dissenters in the beginning. Lots of us protested the war, loudly and often passionately, but in March of 2003 it was a difficult position to hold, especially away from the demonstrations and from the comfortable company of peaceniks.

Flags and yellow ribbons were everywhere. Patriotic bumper stickers were ubiquitous. Those were the days when Arab Americans and people of South Asian descent lived in fear of being mistaken as Al Qaida operatives. We ate “freedom fries” and sang “God Bless America” in the seventh inning stretch. No one wanted to look unpatriotic. No politician with presidential ambition opposed the war. Major media outlets acquiesced to whims of defense department spin.

In Reno, Linda Ronstadt made anti-war comments during a concert. Security guards escorted her off stage when the audience reacted violently. In London, the Dixie Chicks dissed the President during a show. In response Clear Channel, the nations largest proprietor of radio airspace, refused to play their music.

Things were no better in my line of work. Not long after hostilities commenced in Iraq my local newspaper published a story noting that even in the very liberal Bay Area, very few clergypersons mentioned the war on the Sunday after it began. It happens that I was among the minority of preachers who did preach about the war and I learned very quickly why so many of my colleagues remained silent. In some corners of my congregation I caught hell for mentioning my reservations about the war from the pulpit. A few people walked out of the sanctuary in the middle of my sermon. Some have never returned.

Things weren’t much easier for me in my role as a writer. Over the years I have provided social and political commentary for KQED FM in San Francisco, the largest NPR affiliate in the nation. When the war began my editor invited me to share a faith perspective on the war, and so I wrote a piece about the suffering of civilians. It was rejected. Even among Northern California’s public radio audience, a consideration of civilian suffering was too controversial.

With the passing of time it is becoming increasingly evident that those of us who opposed the war from the get go were right to have done so. We need to remember how hard it was publicly to articulate an opposition to the War in Iraq, so that the next time folly beats the drums of war we will be brave enough to speak out and wise enough to welcome and heed the warnings of those who urge caution and restraint.

2 thoughts on “Remembering Fear: The War Turns Five

  1. Ben,

    Thank you for your courage in the past and in the present. That was a time when few leaders chose to lead.


  2. Ben,

    Dotti and I were numbered among the small group that marched down Broadway in San Diego in March 2003. We had sent out dozens of invitations for friends and neighbors to join us. Eric and Kati Matis and their young son, Evan, joined us and about two hundred other citizens of America’s Finest City. They last time we had marched was during the Vietnam Anti-war rallies.
    This occasion sounded/smelled very similar. We were convinced that our government was rushing to judgment. We tried to dig in our heels and call a halt to the madness. Obviously, we had no critical mass. We looked and sounded foolish by most everyone’s measure.

    On Sunday, our pastor confirmed our convictions: our nation was on thin moral ice…and our American ideals were being challenged by a new “Pre-emptive Strike” doctrine.

    A radical change began to invade my thinking as we invaded a soverign nation on the pretence that they might do us harm in the future. Fuzzy thinking invaded the Halls of Congress and the Whitehouse. Patriotism short-circuited our reasoning ability, just like adolescent hormones drive us on to sexual conquest, before we have thought out the consequeces. It wasn’t rational; it became a patriotic cause. God bless America….and by implication….to hell with whoever gets in our way.

    As a result, I now think differently.

    I am now aware that to understand our foreign policy, we must follow the money. If oil is scarce and pricey, then we will want to Liberate an oil rich country that will be grateful to us in the future. If there is no money to be made, then we ignore the great foreign wrongs of Uganda, Congo, Ruwanda, and Kenya. If there is money to be made, then we ignore the Chinese Human Rights record and charge full course ahead with trade. In the case of Cuba, there is no money to be made, so we can be high minded with a Communist government. No one in government seems to notice this inconsistency.

    Follow the money! This morning’s paper tells us that the Israeli government is beginning new housing settlements on the West Bank which by most everyone’s agreement is Palestinian land. No Congressperson or White House person will condemn this, because everyone has received large sums of money from the Jewish Lobby. This buys silence when there is a gross injustice in progress.

    Someone will have to pay for this five-year war. I think it will be your kids, Ben. We have yet to pay a nickle as a nation. It is all borrowed. We can’t even pay for our current national lifestyle, let alone the cost of this war…which by all estimates is beyond my mathematical ability to numerate.

    Follow the money!


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