War Without End: Sermon for Yom Kippur 5772Posted: October 9, 2011
In 2006, I was approached by JRC’s Peace Dialogue task force and asked if I would consider adding something to our Shabbat prayer for peace. Could we, they asked, introduce the prayer by reading the names of three American soldiers, three Iraqi civilians and three Afghan civilians who had been killed in these two ongoing wars?
The reason, they explained, was to remind ourselves that peace is not just an abstract concept. If we’re going to say a prayer for peace, we should own up to the stakes – we should acknowledge that we are citizens of nation at war, that war comes with a very real human cost, and that as American citizens, we are complicit in all actions made by our country.
So for the past five years, that’s how we’ve begun our prayer for peace every Shabbat evening: a JRC member will stand up and bring the names of real people into our sanctuary. Three will invariably be American teenagers or twenty somethings, followed by six Iraqis and Afghans with harder-to-pronouce Arabic names.
One year ago, when President Obama when announced a reduction of American combat forces in Iraq, I was tempted to finally stop reading the names of Iraqi civilians. It felt to me as if the war effort was finally winding down and transitioning into a fundamentally different kind of operation. I was also eager to shine a brighter spotlight on our war in Afghanistan, which had officially become the longest war in American history, with no end in sight. (Yesterday, by the way, marked the tenth anniversary of that war – a milestone that managed to pass our nation by without much fanfare.)
I ran this idea past several Peace Dialogue members and got different kinds of responses, both pro and con. In the end, I was prevailed upon to continue. After all, Obama himself said that our active combat presence would be maintained until the end of 2011. And as long as this is the case, I realized, we’d be hard pressed to deny that we were still a nation at war.
As I think about my response to Obama’s announcement, I realize, somewhat shamefully, that I had fallen prey to a very convenient form of naivete. Or at best, wishful thinking. Because the painful truth is that we’re going to be in Iraq well past even 2011. The truth is no one really knows when our military is going to leave Iraq, but even when it does, there can be no doubt that we will remain an armed presence in that country for a very long time.
Our government actually makes no secret of the fact that we’re digging in. All the signs are there, even if they are not widely reported by the media. Most Americans don’t know, for instance, that the US mission in Baghdad is the world’s largest embassy – built on a tract of land the size of the Vatican and actually visible from space. Why? Because after the military withdraws, the State Department expects to have 17,000 personnel in Iraq at some 15 sites. If those plans go as expected, 5,500 of them will be armed “security contractors.” Of the remaining 11,500, most will be in support roles of one sort or another, with only a couple of hundred in traditional diplomatic jobs.
In short, when the military leaves, the US presence in Iraq will shift over to a heavily militarized State Department presence. But make no mistake: we’re in Iraq for the long haul.
And when it comes to our presence in Afghanistan, the news is even worse, I’m afraid. In 2009, President Obama said 2011 would be the “transition point” for bringing the troops home. One year ago, NATO announced that it would be moving the goalposts to 2014. Now just two months ago, we’ve learned that the US and Afghan governments are negotiating an agreement that will allow US military forces to remain in Afghanistan until 2024.
This, even though a new poll shows fewer Afghans than ever support a US presence in the country or believe we are making their country any safer. This, even though a CNN poll earlier this year revealed that 63% of Americans “completely oppose” this war.
The hard truth about all of this – the very hard truth – is that our nation is now essentially entrenched in a permanent state of war: war without end. It is our new normal.
I find it all the more frightening when you consider the sheer magnitude of this “permanent war condition” – and how far its reach actually extends. If are to truly gauge our military presence honestly, it does not end with Iraq and Afghanistan. Our nation is also engaged militarily in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The Washington Post reported last year that US has deployed special operations forces in 75 countries, from South America to Central Asia. We are also expanding drone wars throughout the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. And none of these “operations” show any sign of winding down. On the contrary, by all appearances we’re just getting started.
How did it all come to this? Well, students of US history can can surely chart a course leading from the earliest days of manifest destiny to our first overseas military adventures in the 19th century, through World War I, World War II, the Cold War and now, the huge buildup in the aftermath of 9/11. In each period of history, our military reach has extended greater and greater across the world. And in each period, our national mission – our sense of our place in the world – has slowly but fundamentally shifted.
It’s not quoted that widely any more, but George Washington, in his farewell address to the nation urged his country to cultivate its own garden and avoid foreign entanglements at all costs. That notion seem utterly quaint today, particularly in the post 9/11 world. Today, America is world’s only superpower – and such we are wielding that power with impunity literally all over the world.
Consider these facts:
- We have approximately 300,000 troops stationed abroad, again more than the rest of the world combined. According to the Department of Defense, we have 761 military bases in foreign countries around the world. (And that number might actually be higher than 1,000, depending on which report you choose to believe.)
- The Pentagon has literally divided up the planet, maintaining armed readiness under what it calls “Unified Commands.” Each command headed by a four-star general or admiral. The “Pacific Command,” which comprises 50% of the earth and more than half its population; the “Central Command” (namely the Greater Middle East); the “European Command,” which was established in Germany following World War II, the “African Command,” created in 2007, which conducts military activities and operations in 53 African countries; the “Southern Command,” which encompasses Central and South America and the Caribbean; the “Northern Command,” namely North America, established in the wake of 9/11; and finally, “Space Command,” responsible for the largest region of all.
While all this information is technically public domain, I wonder how many Americans really know these facts about their country. My suspicion is that we know just bits and pieces of the puzzle, but are simply too overwhelmed by the enormity of it all to contemplate it for very long. And most of us who do think about it for a second longer generally throw up our hands and say, “Well, that’s just the way of the geopolitical world.”
Of course it’s all well and good when we Americans say things like this. But rarely do we stop to consider how the facts I just listed for you are experienced by the rest of the world’s inhabitants. I’ll put it plainly: while our pursuit of military entitlement around the world may help us feel safe here at home, it is fueling anti-American attitudes around the world. We know this. Every international poll tells us this in no uncertain terms. And yet the buildup continues.
And that really is the crux of the issue here. For some Americans the most salient lesson of 9/11 was that the world is a dangerous place and we must use military power to mitigate the danger. I include myself among those who learned a very different lesson: 9/11 taught us that when we intervene militarily abroad, we beget blowback here at home.
Many of us had hope that Obama truly believed this as well – that he would turn back the Bush doctrine and steer our nation’s foreign policy toward a saner course. But as it has turned out, the very opposite has happened. He has embroiled us in even more Mideast wars and has deployed even larger numbers of special operations forces to that region. He has also transferred or brokered the sale of substantial quantities of weapons to these countries and has continued to build and expand US military bases at an ever-increasing rate.
He also promised to prosecute the so-called “War on Terror” with greater attention to civil liberties, but that hope has been fairly dashed as well. During his campaign, note what he had to say about this subject:
As president, I will close Guantanamo, reject the Military Commissions Act, and adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Our Constitution and our Uniform Code of Military Justice provide a framework for dealing with the terrorists. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.
Well, it’s over two years later and Guantanamo is still open. This past March, the Obama administration announced it would be resuming military tribunals there. And just last week, we learned that our President did something truly unprecedented – our President actually approved the extra-judicial assassination of an American citizen in Yemen.
Now I know there are many out there, including many liberal folk, who aren’t expressing over-concern about this incident. It is certainly true, Anwar al-Awlaki was a radical Muslim cleric, and yes, his language and speeches were incendiary. He may even have plotted against the United States – but we will never know that for sure because he was never indicted for a crime. What we do know is that Yemen experts said he was a minor player – and that he likely had no operational connection to Al Qaeda. But again, we’ll never know that for sure. What we do know is that Mideast extremists now have a new martyr and we have crossed a terrifying Rubicon: our government now openly assassinates its own citizens without due process.
I’m focusing these observations exclusively on our Commander-in-Chief, but of course I realize that this issue is much, much larger than just one man. I know it’s natural to look to our primarily to our President, but in truth what we call “Washington” is really a massive bureaucracy that includes a myriad of interests. It’s a far reaching power elite that includes not only the federal government but the national security state, as well as the intelligence and federal law enforcement communities. It also includes big banks and other financial institutions, defense contractors, major corporations and any number of lawyers, lobbyists former officials, and retired military officers, all of whom hold enormous influence over our foreign policy.
This, in short, is what empire looks like in the 21st century. It may differ from empires past, but if you have any doubt, just take a look around: just like all empires, our nation has has positioned itself to fight war without end, and like all empires, we’re starting to buckle here at home under the weight of our own power and ambition.
As I’m fond of pointing out, we Jews actually know quite a bit about empires. Whether it was the Babylonian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, we’ve experienced them directly over the centuries. We’ve lived among them, we’ve been oppressed by many of them, but most critically, we’ve seen many a mighty empire rise and fall throughout our history.
As a Jew, I’ve always been enormously proud of the classic rabbinical response to empire. The Jewish people have been able to survive even under such large and mighty powers because we’ve clung to a singular sacred vision. That there is a power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora. It is a quintessentially Jewish vision best summed up by the venerable line from the book of Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”
Indeed, the Prophets give us a powerful paradigm for understanding these kinds of issues. In the Hebrew Bible, we read that after the Israelites enter the land, they eventually come to the prophet Samuel and tell him they want a king – to be “k’chol ha’goyim – like all the other nations.” God considers this to be a personal rejection, but tells Samuel to tell the nation, essentially, “Fine if you want a King, I’ll give you a King. But just you wait and see what happens.”
Of course as they come to discover, kingship in Ancient Israel doesn’t go so well for the nation. It becomes focused on militarism, becomes incorrigibly corrupt, splits in two and eventually gets overrun from within and without. During this period, it is only the prophets who speak the hard truth to power, who rail against the toxic ambitions of Israelite empire, who warn that this path will eventually be their downfall. And so it becomes.
Given all this, it would seem to me that as American Jews, we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. Because for the first time in our history we find ourselves, by and large, as the beneficiaries of empire. Even more than that, I’d say we American Jews have firmly hitched our wagon to it. The state of Israel represents our major military proxy in the Middle East and the American Jewish establishment is very well enmeshed in the political power elite of our country. There is no getting around it, at the dawn of the 21st century, Jews have firmly cast our lot with empire.
But it’s certainly worth asking: in doing so have made a kind of Faustian bargain? Are we bucking the most central lesson of our survival over the centuries? We more than most, should understand the limits and dangers of nations that venerate unmitigated power. After all, aren’t we quite literally living proof of this fact? We know full well that although mighty empires will rise, it is not by might and not by power that they will be sustained.
If this is so – if this is truly so – then we of all people should be helping lead the charge for a new direction. We should be proclaiming the lessons of our own historical experience for all to hear. We’ve seen this before. We’ve seen what happens to powerful nations that depend exclusively upon military might to make them strong. We know what happens to countries that neglect the needs of their own citizens while pouring more and more blood and treasure into foreign wars. We know that when nations attack and occupy other nations, it doesn’t make them more secure. It only isolates them further, creating more enemies than allies in the end.
I know that many feel it is hopelessly naive to say these kinds of things. Those who challenge the status quo of permanent war today are dismissed as out of touch, over-idealistic or just plain oddball. Anti-war activists are generally treated by the political establishment – by liberals and conservatives alike – with condescension, if not downright contempt. We just don’t understand the way the “real world” works. The real world is a “dangerous place.” In the real world, things get messy.
But I can’t help but think that as things get messier for us here at home, we might actually start to see a change in this mindset. When it comes to our various wars, the middle class has gotten something of a free ride up until now. The government has gone to great lengths to ensure that we don’t feel the pain of permanent war. We’ve instituted a poverty draft where only half a percent of Americans actually serve in the military. We are outsourcing military service more and more to private security contractors – and are increasingly using drone technology to fight our battles, so that no matter how much violence we mete out, our citizenry experiences war as little more than a video game. All of this has served to anesthetize us. The reality of war is just not that real to most Americans.
But it may get real before too long. As these wars continue to draw out with no end in sight, with no discernible progress – and as economic hardship starts to affect more and more of the middle class – growing numbers of Americans may well start to connect the dots. The Occupy Wall Street protests forming around the country may represent an early indication of this – the nascent stirrings of a new movement that finally challenges the culture of empire that has been gripping our nation. If not now, however, it will come. It will come because we are, quite simply, on an unsustainable course. At the end of the day, there really is no such thing as war without end. Sooner or later, something has to give. It is only a matter of when – and how.
In the meantime, I believe the most important thing we can do is to educate ourselves. To learn, as Americans, the truth about the wars our nation is fighting. To understand the suffering it inflicts on others. To grasp the costs we are paying ourselves here at home in so many unacceptable ways.
And I hope that as Jews, we might at least be able to have this conversation: as citizens of a nation engaged in war without end, how seriously will we honor a spiritual tradition that demands we pursue peace at all costs? How seriously will we heed a historical legacy that has witnessed all too well the price of empire? Is this really the kind of Jewish voice, Jewish vision, we want to hand over to the next generation? Or do we want to reclaim our prophetic voice and vision – one that speaks truth to power and points out the hard lessons of history?
All good questions for Yom Kippur. This is, after all, the season in which we are commanded to ask hard questions together as a community. As American Jews, it seems to me, as members of two communities, we do this twice over. As Americans, as Jews, how are we betraying the values we hold dear? As Americans, as Jews, how are we accommodating ourselves to a life of war without end? Are we really, truly prepared to bear the consequences of our acquiescence?
This year, let us pursue peace.