I am a member of a progressive faith community in this state--quite possibly the most educated, dedicated and heart-filled gathering of humans I may ever encounter in this lifetime--and we are in great pain over the issue of Iraq. Like many urban congregations, we sent hundreds to swell the thousands in our largest urban park on Sunday the 18th to express our collective pain. With incredibly swift movement, our congregation—all within ten days--learned of the march, signed up marchers, arranged for food, arranged for songs, arranged for signs--and then to send 375 adults, teens and children out the door.
Now our faith community is debating the next best step. Do we seek the opinion of wise men and women, form committees, establish education programs? The debate seems, unexpectedly, to be splitting along generational lines: those who remember and were involved in the Vietnam War protests are on the move. Those younger, without such memory or personal experience, want wise leaders, committees, and study groups.
This child of the Vietnam War era wishes for none of those things. I know great men and women, many who were veteran leaders of the Vietnam protest era, many who were enlisted or conscripted veterans of the armed forces that fought there and came home damaged beyond our ability to comprehend. It’s happening all over again and I—one human in this city, in this state, in this country—have no taste for committees, scholars, or classrooms.
Mohandas K. Gandhi forced the departure of the British from India by massive demonstrations of civil unrest. The Indian National Congress was uninterested in dialogue until they were--as Gandhi would put it in an early encounter with General Smuts in South Africa--in a position of advantage. Then the dialogues began. Until then, he felt that conversations and dialogue were wasted on the wind.
This nation was in dialogue for years before massive public demonstrations -- and outbreaks of violence in Ohio, Chicago and Washington D.C. -- finally forced the Administration to make new plans about America’s involvement in Vietnam. So much for talk. People died on the barriers and front lines of those marches: no amount of dialogue could have prevented it.
We are far more educated via multimedia now than we ever could have been then. If having the opinions of civic and political leaders helps, then by all means go get that. But in the late ‘60s and the early 70s, our civic and political leaders knew no more than we did, and could do no more than we did: in that final year it was truly a national groundswell, grassroots Out Of Vietnam event, without the benefit of email or websites.
The Grateful Dead wrote in an early song one of my hallmark ethics: Sooner or later you have to go down to the street all alone. Any political leader of integrity will tell you that you have to make up your own mind, and then act, that you know as much as any other citizen about what is happening in Iraq, that their wisdom is no greater than your own.
Speak your own anger and grief, knowledge and ethics and truth.
We have magnificent global communication tools that we can use to keep the information flowing, but their greatest value is in instant organization and consensus. I intend to make full use of these tools. What civic and political leaders had forty years ago was standing and power, and we oldsters who remember our protest skills will be dusting them off and looking to harness the same standing and power from our leaders once again, old fighters on a new but horribly familiar front.
If we leave Iraq right now, as it is now, are things better or worse? We went in by error and may have to leave in disgrace. We strode unprepared into an ordered tyranny for “nation building” and are now fighting a rear-guard action on something that cannot in any way be described as a democracy.
And the price is so high. At this writing: 3,200 American military deaths, 59,000 Iraqi civilian deaths (half of those in the past twelve months), 409 trillion of our tax dollars which should have gone to our schools, to our hospitals, our national social services, our police and firefighters, instead of protecting oil resources for the Saudis and the Bush family. And our National Guard would be home...home.
I am grief-stricken, lose sleep, wonder at the stars. I know we cannot stop the violence we have unleashed. The cork is out of the bottle, and we cannot put it back.
Deborah Morse-Kahn is Director of Regional Research Associates in Minneapolis. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org