Iniquities and Inequities of War

"For the oppressors, what is worthwhile is to have more-always more-even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be the class of the 'haves.'"
--Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Finally, the truth is seeping out. Contrary to how President George W. Bush has tried to justify the Iraq war in the past, he has now clumsily-if inadvertently-admitted that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was aimed primarily at seizing predominant influence over its oil by establishing permanent (the administration favors "enduring") military bases.

He made this transparently clear by adding a signing statement to the defense appropriation bill, indicating that he would notbe bound by the law's prohibition against expending funds:

"(1) To establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq," or

"(2) To exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq."

But, if you have been asleep for the past five years, you may ask, what about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and its ties to al-Qaeda? A recent study by the Center for Public Integrity found that Bush made 260 false claims about these in the two years following 9/11. He was followed closely by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell with 254. Nor can they any longer pretend they were deceived by faulty intelligence, since hard evidence that continues to accumulate shows they knew exactly what they were doing.

Moreover, it has become abundantly clear that the "surge" of 30,000 troops into Iraq was aimed-pure and simple-at staving off definitive defeat until Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are safely out of office. Some, but not all, of those 30,000 troops are slated for withdrawal, but those who still expect more sizable withdrawals have not been reading the tea leaves. It is altogether likely there will still be 150,000 U.S. troops, and even more than that number of contractors, in Iraq a year from now.

In the administration's view, the oil-and-bases prize is well worth the indignity of refereeing a civil war and additional troop casualties. That view was reflected recently in the words of a well-heeled suburbanite, who suggested to me, "You must concede that a few GIs killed every week is a small price to pay for the oil we need. Many more died in Vietnam, and there wasn't even any oil there."

That person was unusually blunt, but I believe his thinking may be widely shared, at least subconsciously, by those Americans who are not directly affected by the war-which is to say he vast majority. It is easier to assimilate and parrot the administration's dishonesty than to confront the reality that these are consequential lies. They bring untold death and destruction-and not only in Iraq, where several hundred thousand civilians are dead and one out of six families have been displaced-but to thousands of our fellow citizens as well.

The Human Cost

Not only have almost 4,000 American troops been killed, but another 30,000 have been wounded in action. Veterans Administration documents obtained by Veterans for Common Sense show that nearly 264,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans already have been treated at VA hospitals, including more than 100,000 for mental health conditions.

According to a Harvard University report, the VA is projected to spend up to $700 billion over the next 40 years for medical care and disability payments for veterans of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Add the billions sunk every week into the quagmire of Iraq-it is madness.

We are approaching a trillion-dollar war, while our Treasury is bankrupt, our economy is in shambles, and our infrastructure crumbles. The only things on an upward swing are the profits of oil companies...and suicides in the military.

For a fraction of the money wasted on an un-winnable occupation-cum-armed-referee-duty in Iraq, premium health care could be provided to every American, including veterans, whom we owe big time, and the almost 50 million of our brothers and sisters who lack health insurance.

The iniquities of war have widened the inequities in our society, stretching the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It is not right for me, one of the haves, to have so disproportionate a share of the nation's wealth and opportunity. Nowhere is this more obvious than the access to excellent health care to which privilege has "entitled" me. A recently discovered challenge to my health brought this home to me like a ton of bricks.

Why Me?

The doctors said they needed more tissue from what they called the "mass" in my lower abdomen, so they could determine what kind of cancer had set up shop there. There was some sense of urgency, so just days later a surgeon made room for me at the end of a very busy New Year's Eve.

The cutting was over; the stitches were in; the pain was slight; and there I was, wide awake in a comfortable hospital room, welcoming 2008 with painful questions.

For the hundredth time I found myself asking, Why me?

But wait-it may not be what you're thinking.

The troubling question was why was I privileged to have prompt access to the best in medical care, when such is not available to most of our veterans and some 50 million other Americans. We are called to be concerned about our brothers and sisters. It did not seem fair.

Why was it that I could expect excellent doctors to plan a therapy regime that would probably shrink the grapefruit-sized cancerous "mass" and add still more years to my 68? What about the others? Without access to good doctors and advanced medical technology, is it likely that they would not become of their "mass" until it was the size of a melon-and perhaps too late?

Waking Up

The anesthesia had worn off, and the only real discomfort came from the dangling questions. December had brought surprise and new awareness. I needed some quiet time to process it all, and the turn of the year seemed appropriate. So I turned off the TV and scribbled what follows.

To hear I had been invaded by cancer was a bummer. But from the very start that unwelcome surprise was softened by awareness that I was one of the lucky ones. No, not "lucky"-privileged.

A health insurance card lay in the white knapsack full of privilege that I carry around with me, usually without much awareness on my part. The voice of conscience was whispering that it is not right to be unaware. One out of six Americans have no insurance card in their knapsack or in the plastic bag that serves as their chest of drawers. Is that the America of which we were once so proud?

It started with my swollen right leg. No big deal, I thought; I had simply sprained that ankle too many times playing basketball. And besides, varicose veins run in my family. Small wonder my blood was having trouble circulating down that way.

But at my annual physical my doctor saw it differently. We needed to find out what was causing the swelling. Sclerotherapy, a sophisticated, expensive procedure seemed indicated, but would my insurance cover it? It would, so we went ahead.

But the swelling got worse, suggesting some kind of blockage higher up. Enter the world of multimillion-dollar technology-CT-scan, PET-scan, and pinpointing of the mass, followed quickly by a needle biopsy. All covered by insurance.

It looked like lymphoma. But the oncologist wanted to be sure of exactly what variety of lymphoma it was before he decided what the optimum treatment regime might be. Hence, the New Year's Eve surgery and extraction of tissue immediately dispatched to the Mayo Clinic for a thorough pathology report. See what I mean about privileged?

Stress Tests...

My thoughts went back to the thallium stress test before the surgery. The nurses injected some dye and measured my heart on an accelerating treadmill to induce stress. They encouraged me, and stood ready to catch me if I fell off. I found myself thinking of less benign ways to induce stress-stress positions, sensory deprivation, and what President Bush calls "an alternative set of procedures." And my thoughts went to Guantanamo and the hundreds of prisoners flown there in shackles with no assurance they would survive the kind of deliberately induced stress they would encounter there.

And then they strapped me onto a narrow gurney where I had to remain still for twenty minutes while another million-dollar machine hovered low over my chest and took pictures. There were two technicians and nurses there to ensure my comfort and allay my concerns. And I thought of the gurneys of Guantanamo and the strapped-in prisoners surrounded by other kinds of folks, including physicians and psychologists who, in a mockery of the Hippocratic oath, do their best to inflict, not alleviate pain.

...and Suicide

I also thought of the two dozen Guantanamo detainees who tried to starve themselves to death two and a half years ago. They, too, were strapped onto gurneys, while thick plastic tubes were forced through their noses to force-feed enough nourishment to keep them alive, lest the Bush administration be embarrassed. On June 10, 2006 three detainees did succeed in hanging themselves, the first successful suicides after 41attempts by some 25 individual detainees.

Those detainees' hope was for the release that comes with death; I could hope for healing.

The three who killed themselves incurred the wrath of Guantanamo commander, Rear Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., who announced that the suicides were "not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare against us." In similar spirit, Colleen Graffy, deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, told the BBC that the suicides "certainly (are) a good PR move to draw attention."

I wonder how Graffy would describe the actions of those U.S. veterans experiencing such suffering that they, too, commit suicide. A CBS study showed that in 2005 alone, 6,256 veterans of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan took their own lives, many of them after experiencing very long waiting lines for medical treatment. That is an average of 17 suicides a day. Shame on us!

As for those on active duty, "Soldier Suicide at Record Level," a report by the Washington Post's Dana Priest on Jan. 31, shows that in 2007 suicides among active duty soldiers reached their highest level since the Army began keeping such records in 1980.

Army 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside, 25, made the most recent known suicide attempt. On Monday evening, as the president gave his State-of-the-Union address, Whiteside swallowed dozens of antidepressants and other pills, after leaving a note expressing the hope that "this will help other soldiers." Thanks to a Good Samaritan neighbor, who quickly called Walter Reed Army Medical Center authorities, Whiteside's survived. She has now been transferred from the intensive care unit to the psychiatric ward.

Lt. Whiteside is a high achieving graduate of the University of Virginia and had been given high ratings by her Army superiors. She decided to talk to Dana Priest late last year, after a soldier Whiteside had befriended at the psychiatric ward of Walter Reed Army Medical Center hanged herself after being discharged without benefits.


Many U.S. servicemen and women can blame their cancer on contamination from the depleted uranium used in artillery and other shells and toxic chemicals that have saturated regions of Iraq, including populated areas, leading to a spurt of cancer illnesses.

Against this background, I reflected on how fortunate I was that the cause of the cancer that had invaded me would probably remain a mystery. I wondered how it would feel to be able to trace a fatal disease to the instruments of war; how it would feel to be an Iraqi parent watching a child die of cancer, or living in fear that a new child might be born with serious birth defects.

No, I cannot blame my illness on someone's negligence, or cavalier disregard of the consequences of highly toxic weaponry. But thousands of Iraqis can. And so, too, can those U.S. troops who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq-including in the virtually "casualty-less" Gulf War in 1991. How many Americans are aware that, of the almost 700,000 deployed to theater during the 1991 Gulf War, roughly one in three has sought medical care from the VA?

You didn't know that? Please ask yourself why.

Higher Powers and Favorite Philosophers

President Bush has recently taken to talking again about his "higher power" and redemption.

The higher power with whom I try to stay in touch is concerned first and foremost with justice and then (only then) peace. In the biblical sense, peace is no more nor less than the experience of justice.

I would guess the Bush's higher power was appalled at the Coliseum-type spectacle Monday evening, as the President of the United States played cheerleader for Team America killing still more people-to standing ovations from his supporters in Congress.

Nor would the person President Bush has called his "favorite political philosopher," Jesus of Nazareth, be likely to endorse the spectacle, much less join in. He had a pretty clear take on all this.

As we reflect on the growing inequality in this country, manifested so clearly in whether or not one has access to quality health care, we might remind the president of what his favorite philosopher had to say about goats-not as in "My Pet Goat," but goats portrayed as lining up for a serious, long-term "alternative set of procedures."

And the goats will turn and ask: 'Lord, when did we see you...ill...and not attend to your needs?' And he will answer: 'As often as you neglected to do it for the least of these, you neglected to do it for me.' (Matthew 25)

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