Taking the Initiative

January 2005


At this time of year, when we're preoccupied with the holidays, we're apt to concentrate on our own friends and families, with just a nod to other people and places. We resist the unpleasant thoughts of people we'd rather not trade places with. However, our fortunes affect others, whether we recognize it or not.

Americans like to think of themselves as knowledgeable, well educated, with-it people. To be honest, most Americans don't display a lot of latitude in imagining lives much different from their own. Good people try. Some succeed, but not very often.

War is different for Americans than for most folks. War happens somewhere else, you have to go to it, it doesn't come visiting you and decide to stay through the holidays. When you're thinking of your brother, or your best friend from school, you wonder what they'd like for Christmas, or what their children would like to find in their stockings. It just doesn't come natural for us to wonder whether the people we recall fondly are still alive, or whether their children are whole and living. But in a country like Afghanistan or Iraq, it's second nature. When you live in a neighborhood where cluster bomblets are common, you know too many children without a hand or a foot, or both eyes.

How do you find the right gift for that special someone when the store is a crater? Is it appropriate to give the person something they always wanted if they'll just have to sell it to feed their children? What do you give to your sister's children when she's in a mental hospital because she can't stop screaming when the lights go out? Life is a difficult enough proposition in a peaceful and prosperous place like Kansas -- imagine what it must be like in a land with practically no certainty bar death and loss.

This is one of the hard parts for our troops sent over yonder. Their minds and their hearts yearn to be back home out of harms way. Their minds and their hearts rebel at the thought that they are the harm that happens. It's what happens in war, especially a war that turns into an occupation. Whole generations of people on both sides get marred by death, by mutilation, by hatred, by vengeance, by all the gifts given gratis in war despite all the best efforts of everyone on both sides to make it stop. This is the inevitable legacy of war. This is what people who have never been in war seldom quite grasp, which is why they're often more eager to wage war.

The best gift we can give to anyone in a war is to end the conflict and bring them home. Don't think that's true? Ask any soldier. The best gift we can give to our communities and our nation is a broader understanding of the unacceptable cost of war. Just say "no" to war. A just war needs our permission to happen, needs our children to be offered up and our leaders acclaimed. It is a far greater thing to have achieved national aims without having had to resort to war than to have fought and won a war. If we fail to offer up our children willingly to the altar of war and fail to acclaim leaders who blunder into international conflicts, then war will indeed be the last resort of our national government.

One of the best things about being an American is living in a country where being just an ordinary person does not mean you're completely powerless and at the mercy of others. Many Americans have come to doubt the proposition that a person can make a difference. It's an easy decision to adopt. If you can't make a difference anyway, then there's not so much guilt in not trying to change things that are wrong. That's my Christmas gift to my fellow citizens this year: I'm going to refuse to bow to the inevitable -- least ways I'm not going to let anybody else define what is inevitable. After all, what is more inevitable than death? The person whose birthday we celebrate with Christmas didn't let death stop him.

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