Drunk on Wars: the Long Hangover.
|Rabbi Arthur Waskow|
By Arthur Waskow
[Special to Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Between 1961 and 1971, the United States undertook three different wars. All of them were abysmal disasters.
One was the war against Vietnam, begun in 1961 by President John F Kennedy and expanded after his death by President Lyndon Johnson. The second was “the war on poverty,” initiated by President Johnson in 1964. The third was the “war on drugs,” initiated by President Richard M Nixon in 1971.
The first war resulted in the deaths of about 50,000 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese, and ended in 1975 with military and political defeat for this attempt to extend the American Empire and with the hasty withdrawal of American troops.
One might say “ignominious withdrawal” except that the true ignominy was that of the US government under three presidents, who had for no decent purpose wasted these lives and enormous resources that could have been meeting human needs, in America and the world. Indeed, the Pentagon Papers, published forty years ago, show that the Pentagon soon knew the war could not be “won.” From then on, its purpose was to terrorize nationalist movements in countries other than Vietnam by showing how bloody would be the cost of any uprisings against Western control.
The second “war” was – laudably -- not a war at all. Utterly unlike a war, which tries to impose order by violence from the top down that disempowers most of the country and people under attack, this policy tried to abolish poverty by empowering the poor. Indeed, one of the key elements in its efforts was “maximum feasible participation of the poor” in shaping the change in their own lives.
It was abandoned within two years because there was no money to put into serious change in ending and preventing poverty in America. The reason there was no money? The enormous costs of the real war against Vietnam.
In other words, 'guns over butter.' Choosing between a top-down war that killed more than a million people and a bottom-up effort to abolish poverty, the US political system chose war.
Then in 1971, the Nixon Administration announced an all-out “war” on drugs. This looked a lot more like war -- top-down violence, massive numbers of prisoners, increasing deaths. But the war was fought mainly against the nonviolent users of drugs, not against the sometimes violent purveyors.
And after forty years -– by far the longest “war” in US history -– the results are: more than a million nonviolent “criminals” in US prisons; the supply of tens of thousands of guns by US sellers across the Mexican border to drug cartels which use them against Mexican and US police and against civilians; spiraling deaths in cities like Juarez -– and no diminution in the use of drugs!
When the US government chose to fight wars in Vietnam and on the street corners where drugs are sold, it did not bother to look either at why Vietnamese were prepared to die in order to choose their own government, or why Americans were taking drugs.
If the US had looked carefully at Vietnam, it might have actually encouraged the impulse to end colonialism and foreign domination.
If the US had looked carefully at the urban street corners and the small towns where jobs had disappeared and at the GI hangouts of trauma and despair in Vietnam that themselves became hotbeds of the “drug epidemic,” they might have realized what the unmet needs were that led to the drug use. They might have realized that a “war on drugs” was precisely the wrong answer.
What were those unmet needs? Three: worthy jobs, a meaningful place in society, and non-drug moments of spiritual exaltation.
Paul Goodman’s book Growing Up Absurd addressed the first two, and became the sacred literature of many in the social-change movements of the Sixties because it named what young people knew was missing from their lives. (Goodman addressed only the plight of young men, but women soon realized they were suffering the same lacks.)
The absence of worthy jobs and a meaningful social place in some chunks of American society was a result of the failure of the misnamed “war on poverty.” If the effort to assist a grass-roots self-organizing movement of the poor had continued, instead of being snuffed out by Vietnam, and if military “service” in Vietnam had not itself poisoned a generation of many young men with despair that only drugs could nullify, then absurdity would not have been the fate of many young Americans. Drugs would not have been their need and their escape.
As for exaltation: In 1971, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was writing, "I interpret the young people's escape to drugs as coming from their driving desire to experience moments of exaltation.... The classical form of exaltation is worship.... But exaltation is gone from the synagogue [and] from the church....
“Our life thus devours the wisdom of religious tradition without deriving from it sources of renewal and uplift.... The new witnesses for a revival of the spirit in America may well turn out to be those poor miserable men and women who are victims of the narcotics epidemic. If we will but . . . try to understand their misguided search for exaltation, we can begin the task of turning curse into blessing." ("In Search of Exaltation," pp. 227-229, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed. (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996.)
Just as the ”war on drugs” was beginning under President Nixon, Rabbi Heschel was more truly naming the response we needed. And still need:
Worthy jobs paying enough to make an honorable life possible, and time for celebration that can exalt the place of a citizen in the eco-system of human society interwoven with the eco-system of all life-forms.
A living wage, and livable hours. “Six days shalt thou labor and do all your work, and on the seventh you shall pause to celebrate, give thanks, experience exaltation, reflect, share, love.” Given the technology we now have, the ratio should probably be “Four days shalt thou labor,” but the rhythm is crucial.
Why then did the US government and even such institutions as churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, not follow the path that Goodman and Heschel were blazing?
Because if you are powerful and reluctant to share your power by empowering the powerless, it is far more attractive to make war from the top-down than it is to encourage self-organizing at the grass roots or the cement pavements.
Because if you are afraid of uppity young black men but can no longer humiliate and disempower them into subservience with pleasant “White-only” soda fountains, grungy “Black-only” bathrooms, and lousy black-only schools, then you can write laws that define black ways of consuming cocaine as worthy of five times the prison time as white-suburbanite ways of consuming cocaine, and throw millions of blacks into prison. While they are there, they are not counted among the “unemployed,” and when they get out, they cannot get jobs anyway.
And so America got drunk on war, and the hangover has lasted fifty bleary years. Those who controlled our government, our lives, first found themselves lying filthy in a ditch of their own disenchantment, being challenged by the myriad movements for self-empowerment that grew out of the war-spree of the Sixties. But soon the powerful recovered from a brief period of alcoholics’ remorse.
Confronted with the murderous attacks of 9/11, they chose to use the drunkards’ response to being an alcoholic: They chose to “drink the hair of the dog that bit them” –- the hair of war and violence. They chose to repeat the blindness of the war on Vietnam and the war on drugs. Instead of asking what had led a tiny band of terrorists to do these murderous deeds, and then seeking to do at home and abroad the grass-roots empowerment that the misnamed “war on poverty” had promised and abandoned, they went to war.
They smashed Iraq, they are still smashing Afghanistan, they have started smashing Pakistan and Yemen, they have allied themselves with a right-wing Israeli government’s effort to smash any vestige of Palestine.
And even when the most respected scientists throughout the world shout warnings that they are smashing the planet itself, even when climate-driven droughts and floods destroy crops, when food prices jump and people starve and movements of the hungry shake the Arab world, they multiply their own wealth and power and pretend that global scorching is not happening.
But once again, the disempowered are stirring. Tens of thousands of teachers, firefighters, social workers in Madison Wisconsin, and thousands of supporters around the country. Conservative elders in upstate New York. Tens of thousands of people at thousands of locations around the world, speaking out against the Drug Lords of Big Oil Big Coal, demaning action to restore the bearable ceiling of 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.
And finally, even the US military budget is no longer a sacred cow. Finally, a bipartisan vote fell only 11 votes short (204-215) in the House of Representatives of requiring the US to begin detailed planning now to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and prepare for the transition to Afghan civilian and military control.
The need to meet civilian needs in the US is finally beginning to match the hangover of war-drunk top-down power. But the shift needs our energy!
Giving our energy, against the entrenched power of those drunk on war and violence, will not be easy. Here we must listen to Rabbi Heschel. “Exaltation” is what we will need, as the exalted prayerful joy of black folk singing prayer in the streets is what we needed fifty years ago.
(Arthur Waskow is a rabbi who heads the Shalom Center in Philadelphia).