In the last two terms of the People’s College we have talked a lot about war. We read a biography of Jane Addams that described her opposition to World War I. She and many other women argued that we could negotiate a settlement of this conflict; they knew that war would ravage the fabric of individual nations and international relations. When World War II followed in less than twenty years, many had to concede they had a point. Now we have just finished a book about the Vietnam War. Histories of wars are complex; they tell stories about the people who make the decisions to go to war, the people who actually fight them, the people who are displaced by them, the people who are the innocent civilian casualties of them, the people who find themselves targeted and then slaughtered in them. All of this makes wars not only complex, but controversial, bringing deep emotion and often angry exchanges between those who have supported, and maybe even participated in, a particular war and those who opposed, and maybe protested, it.
I spoke recently with someone who has become a war critic. He said people did not want to hear his views and considered him unpatriotic. The Literacy Council does not adopt particular political views, but does deem it essential that people be able to speak and write about their beliefs. So here is what my acquaintance had to say about war, edited a bit.
“I have lived through the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Grenada, the actions in Nicaragua, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq again, Syria. I think of myself as a patriotic American, supporting our government, our citizens, our freedoms, our principles. I supported some of these wars, or actions, at the time. But I must confess now some doubts and confusions. Were all of these actions necessary? Were they about protecting our freedom and democracy? Where they about important principles? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. But the older I get, the more cynical I have become about war and proclamations about the necessity or nobility of war. I worry more and more we have created a culture of war that makes it easier to accept it and harder to criticize it. And part of this culture of war may be because of the size, expenditures, and coverage of our military. According to some sources, we have almost 200,000 troops stationed in over 100 countries at an annual cost of $100 billion. In 2015 we had a military budget of $596 billion. The next highest military budget was China’s $215 billion. Russia’s military budget was $96 billion. The budget recently adopted by Congress has significant increases. Is all of this necessary? Is this the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower warned us about? How can we know? Maybe we just take these numbers for granted, assuming they make sense. Hopefully, we don’t think that asking questions about them is unpatriotic or an attack on the military.”
I share this conversation because, at the Literacy Council, we talk a lot about democracy being dependent upon citizens stating their views and asking questions, including tough questions. We may disagree with others on specific issues but fight for their right to express their views.
I have recently finished a work of historical fiction, about German occupation of Yugoslavia in WWII and the growing reluctance of a German captain, in military intelligence, stationed in Sarajevo, to condone the Nazi war plans. As he is riding in a jeep, across mountains and valleys east of Sarajevo, he sees refugees walking or camped along the roads, he sees farm villages where houses have been burned and fields overgrown. He sees bowed heads and sunken shoulders and bodies aged well beyond their years. They are the product, the victims, the casualties of a war they had no part in planning. They experience what is happening to them – the displacement, the death of family members and neighbors, the uncertainty of the future – without any comprehension of what has brought these experiences about. The German captain realizes he has had enough; his sympathies are with the victims and the partisans of Yugoslavia, who want the Nazis out of their country and defeated. This is unusual. We expect soldiers, when asked to fight, to trust in their leaders, to serve without questioning why they are serving. So, we the citizens of a country must be the ones to ask questions. We owe it to our soldiers to be sure we are putting them in harms way only when absolutely necessary, in accordance with principles and values that underlie sour country.
Democracy and freedom may, at times, require military action to preserve the conditions under which they may flourish, but it is ordinary people, serving in their roles as active, engaged citizens who actually promote and maintain the institutions and processes of democracy. Regardless of what the military and soldiers do, our freedoms slip away and democracy dies without citizens. So, we thank soldiers when they fight to preserve our opportunity to be free and democratic; however, without active citizenship, freedom and democracy will wither and die.
Until next time, keep reading!
Joseph McDonald is a retired sociology professor from Newberry College and has worked with the Newberry County Literacy Council for more than 20 years as a tutor and board member. The Literacy Council is located at 1208 Main Street. Visit newberryread.com, call 803-276-8086 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.