November 2004


America has meant many things to many people around the world. Sometimes what America means to a person comes down to one person, and the good, or bad thing that person does. It is an awesome part of the human condition that so much can rest on so little.

Years ago, my family lived in Europe. My father got a job with a Christian service organization in Vienna and packed up the family in Chicago and headed for Vienna. This was just after the end of WWII. Much of the cities and towns were still in ruins. Every now and again some unexploded ordinance would go off somewhere nearby, particularly in the Wintertime. Most people just hunkered down and did what needed to be done, and didn't spend a lot of time considering options. There was quite a bit of that kind of disillusionment that is rooted in the fear of being wrong again.

I remember the old folks, too. There were fewer of them and mostly women, like Greta who spent most sunny days in a small park near the end of our street. "The wars, they ate my father and my brothers," she said, "my schoolmates, my boss... eleven nephews I had once, if you can believe it. All gone." Then she'd look across at the buildings and conclude, "but always there are coming more children."

And there were children, lots and lots of children, always running, often laughing. Young children, that is, as they got older they gradually adopted their parents' dour demeanor, walked more slowly and only occasionally flashed short-lived smiles.

The old folks told us about how it had been after the first war, when they thought everybody was just going to starve. They told us about how the Americans sent them food and it was like a miracle that they would live. They never knew much about Americans. Many people said terrible things about them, but they knew these things could not be true. "They fed us, when they didn't have to. I don't care what people say, they must be good people."

Yet today, so many years later, the children and grandchildren of those people are looking at us and what we're doing in the world, what we're doing in Iraq. Many of them are questioning what they had always assumed to be true. "Maybe," said one to me on the phone, "maybe they didn't do it for us, after all. Maybe they did it to get something they wanted, like Iraqi oil. I don't know about you Americans no more."

I weep for all those people who gave of themselves so unfailingly, to help people in need, to lend a hand and to banish hunger and hopelessness. One dirty little war can ruin forever the reputation built by generations of compassionate Americans. How do these people dare to squander such a noble heritage to make a quick buck. And like the land, the water, and the air -- once you ruin these things, you've had it.

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