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The Oregonian

The Cost of War: What Is It That Defines Our Values?

Barry Bennett

A couple of weeks ago my friend Deena was laid off from her half-time job as a music teacher at Peninsula Elementary School. Deena is resourceful. She'll struggle a bit, but she'll survive. Of more concern are the students whose lives may be permanently diminished, as many Portland schools have responded to budget cuts by dropping or reducing music education.

What will the children learn instead of music? They'll still learn much -- at least "the basics." But they'll also learn that the greatest achievements of mankind -- the higher arts -- are frills, readily discarded in uncertain times. Outside of school, they may eventually understand that a society defines its values by how it chooses to spend its resources, and they will learn what the country's most important activity is: war.

More and more, America devotes its resources to war and national security. We squander tens of billions -- by credible estimates, trillions -- on seemingly endless wars while states lay off teachers, arts organizations fold and communities close. Although the official line is that we've ended our combat presence in Iraq, military experts recognize that U.S. troops will have to remain, and potentially face combat, for many years if we're to have a chance of success.

Our children are growing up in a nation in which war is the natural state of affairs. It's no longer a discrete conflict that erupts when tensions between nations are otherwise irresolvable. It's become as normal as the air we breathe. Eventually it may spur no opposition -- who questions the air? -- yet it demands that we ask: What is it we're defending?

Aristotle thought that the ultimate purpose in life was leisure, which to the ancient Greeks meant the pursuit of literature, the arts and science. In modern times the West has celebrated an economic system -- capitalism -- under which mankind for the first time mastered the basic struggle for existence, allowing many to devote time and resources to higher pursuits. In the United States the arts and sciences flourished as the country's extraordinary wealth created not only an astonishing economic engine but a world center of culture and learning.

Increasingly, however, we define ourselves not by our achievements but by our enemies -- not by what we are for, but by whom we are against. We barricade ourselves against threats while prosecuting wars that ensure the need for ever-higher barricades. We are undergoing a profound shift not only in our economy but in our consciousness. As we slowly let crumble our schools, our arts, our cities -- which, as The New York Times recently reported, are turning off streetlights and returning roads to gravel to save on maintenance -- we are no longer defending our way of life but merely our existence.

The dimming of streetlights is surely the mark of an impoverished nation, just as endless war is the mark of an impoverished imagination. Yet our leaders offer no hope for a saner course.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called the states "laboratories of democracy." The analogy is imperfect, but the states, to which the bankruptcy of treasure and imagination trickles down, must take the lead and demand that our government recognize that its efforts to save the nation are destroying it.

Some may think it utopian to believe that we can craft a different relationship with a hostile world. Yet many believe that our endless wars have only decreased our security, and that ending them would make us safer.

Our troubles extend beyond the waste and folly of wars. But bringing them to a close would not only free up tremendous resources but also would refocus our national energies at home. It's enough that we have likely lost two wars. Let us not lose our children's future with them.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Barry Bennett lives in Southeast Portland.

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