Friday, December 5, 2008

The Black Swan Visits the Land of Smiles

I was supposed to go to Thailand three days ago, however, protesters closed the airport the week before and made connecting flights to Bangkok impossible. A week later when the airport re-opened, the backlog of cancelled flights made reliable flight information difficult to obtain. So rather than take a chance on getting stuck in Tokyo’s Narita Airport without my connection, I sadly cancelled my trip.

It seemed an easy task to go to Thailand. December kicks off the tourist season with hot and sunny weather. Thailand is a safe, interesting, low-cost place to go. The people are welcoming and accommodating. It is a casual place so packing is easy. However, something was brewing below the surface that gave everyone a big surprise.

The People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) wanted Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat to resign. They said he had committed election fraud and believed he was acting as a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra who had been ousted in a coup two years before. To press their point, the PAD took over Suvarnabhumi International Airport and Don Muang Airport, which handles domestic flights.

A lot of people were pretty angry about the PAD’s protest, besides the 230,00 to 350,000 people who were left stranded. The new, $4-billion Suvarnabhumi serves as Southeast Asia’s major hub for tourism and export trade, which is the foundation of the Thai economy. Its closure threatened economic disaster. The king’s birthday, treated as a national holiday and scheduled for Dec. 5, would be spoiled. Finally, once the crisis began, the government knew the world would be watching, so it had to handle the situation well.

My sister-in-law and I watched the news intently for developments. We were to meet in Tokyo and then go on to Bangkok. She kept telling me that the situation would be resolved quickly and peacefully because “the Thais are not an antagonistic or violent people.” This seemed to play out because the police largely resisted using force against the protesters.

On Dec. 1, the Constitution Court dissolved the People Power, Chart Thai and Matchimathipataya parties on charges of electoral fraud. It then threw out the prime minister on Dec. 3. The PAD protesters had won. When my sister-in-law passed through the airport two days later, she noticed no evidence that a major disturbance had just taken place.

The situation in Bangkok barely received any media attention, neither its crisis nor its resolution, but what distresses me is that this crisis may be “Black Swan event.”

Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, is a native of Lebanon. He comments that his country was a peaceful, multicultural land for over a thousand years. When civil war suddenly broke out in 1975, no one believed it would last because past history dictated that it never did. People stayed in hotels for months waiting for things to blow over. Others were exiled for years waiting. No one anticipated that the war would go on until 1990.

Taleb’s homeland experience eventually led him to formulate the “Black Swan” principle, which recognizes that “our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable” and getting to be more so. These events can be bad, like the Lebanon civil war or 9/11, or they can be good, like J.K. Rowling’s chance creation of Harry Potter or Barack Obama’s unprecedented election to the presidency.

When extreme events occur, Taleb says that we should regard them as “starting points” for a new direction rather than just a blip in an unchanging continuum. Understanding these events through the lenses of the past doesn’t accurately provide insight into their handling in the present or their effect on the future. In fact, it cripples innovation and flexibility and dealing with reality.

The airport closures in Thailand were an extreme event in a place that hasn’t traditionally had much conflict. The country is known as the “Land of Smiles” for that very reason. However, Reuters reports that the effects of the airport shutdowns are already devastating and pervasive, which means that last week’s standoff could lead to further conflict, which could escalate to revenge, retaliation, even war.

Let’s look at what has transpired so far. Bangkok Airways (THAI) lost 20 billion baht (about $606 million) as more than 1,000 flights were cancelled and prospective customers abandoned their travel plans. Low-cost carrier Thai AirAsia lost more than 320 million baht (about $9.5 million).

The airlines are looking into whether or not they will press legal action against the protesters. The courts must then determine whether the airport demonstrations should be classified as a riot or as civil unrest. The PAD says it anticipated possible legal action and already raised funds for its defense.

Although airport officials managed a “technical return to full operation” with a promise to “return to normalcy” by December 15, there is some question about their skimping on airport security and that has many ambassadors hopping angry, including our own.

On top of all this, the 81-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand became “slightly ill” with a throat infection and was unable to speak or attend his birthday party.

Everyone wants a return to normalcy, of course, however, will it be possible? I hope so, especially since some Thais fear that there might be a power struggle over the selection of a new prime minister and result in more anti-government protests, according to the Bangkok Post.

Actually, I must admit that the reason I wanted to go on this trip was because I thought it might be my last. The world has changed since I first began traveling internationally 25 years ago. Terrorism, political crises, weather disruptions, economic woes, high oil prices and war threaten to prevent or impede safe and convenient travel.

The United States and a great many countries have made tremendous strides in educating their people about the world through travel. Millions of people have cultivated a broader global perspective by visiting different places and meeting others through study abroad programs, tour groups, sister-city relationships, school and organizational exchange programs, business, citizen summitry efforts and even space walks. Travel is a peace-building mechanism that opens us to the new and unfamiliar and to appreciate other cultures and societies. It is a means of reaching out to others and forming friendships. We must protect our ability to travel.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Seriously, Excommunication over Women’s Ordination?

The Vatican has threatened Father Roy Bourgeois with excommunication if he doesn’t take back his position that women be ordained priests.

The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith notified Bourgeois by letter on Oct. 21 and gave him 30 days to respond. The deadline seemed suspiciously timed to the annual weekend demonstration of School of the Americas Watch (SOAW). Since 1990 thousands of people have gathered at Fort Benning, Ga, to demand closure of the U.S. Army’s combat training school for Latin American soldiers.

Bourgeois responded to the Vatican on Nov. 7 with a letter refusing to comply because he said the Church’s teaching on this issue was wrong and he could not in good conscience support it.

Bourgeois, 70, entered the Maryknoll Missionary Order after serving as a U.S. naval officer for four years, including one year in Vietnam where he received the Purple Heart. In 1972 he was ordained and sent to Bolivia for his first mission. He has been an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America since 1980 after a Salvadoran death squad raped and killed four American churchwomen. In 1990 he founded the SOAW.

What led to this altercation between the Vatican and Bourgeois was his homily at the ordination of Janice Sevre-Duszynska, 58, on August 9 in Lexington, Ky. She was the sixth woman ordained this year in the United States, according to the NCR.

Actually, the last slap down on women’s ordination occurred in 1994 when Pope John Paul II placed a gag rule on the subject after persistent calls for ordination were uncorked in 1979 by Sister Theresa Kane who pleaded with the pope to reconsider his position. It’s now timely to talk about it once again.

The Church claims that the priesthood should remain male because Jesus was a man, his 12 apostles were all men and the Church has never had women priests.

The Women’s Ordination Conference counters these arguments by citing two Scripture passages:

“In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus.” — Galatians 3:28

“Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them, female and male, God made them.” — Genesis 1:27

The early Church did not have an ordained priesthood. Breaking bread and doing good works for others was considered a shared responsibility of both men and women. Celebrating the Eucharist was a reminder of their commitment to be like Jesus—not in physical appearance, but in word and deed. Archeologists have even found images on frescoes, mosaics and tombs of women serving these ministerial roles dating from 100-820 C.E. in the Mediterranean region, according to the Women’s Ordination Conference.

Throughout its 2,000-year history, the Church has reversed its position on many issues so it’s entirely possible it could do the same with women’s ordination. For example, one of the Church’s most blatant blunders was its belief that the sun revolved around the earth. When Galileo (1564-1642) proved that theory inaccurate, the Church accused him of heresy and restricted him for the last 10 years of his life. In 1992, the Church publicly forgave Galileo for his “crimes.”

Corrupt bishops and priests and the practice of indulgences and other financial abuses led Martin Luther to launch the Protestant Reformation in 1517. The Church responded with the reform-oriented Council of Trent (1545-63), which founded seminaries for priest training, urged religious communities to return to their spiritual foundations and encouraged new spiritual movements that focused on the devotional life and personal relationship with Jesus.

The Church has also succumbed to change on its own accord. For example, the Italians seemed to have control over the papacy after four and a half centuries until 1978 when John Paul II, a Pole, and his successor, Benedict XVI, a German, started a “new tradition.” Some people think the next pope will come from Africa or Latin America.

The past 30 years have seen women all over the world make giant strides in taking on leadership roles. One almost made it to the U.S. presidency. So it was not totally surprising that on June 29, 2002, seven women stepped up to be ordained to the Catholic priesthood. Since then, over 60 others have followed, most of them Americans, according to the Women’s Ordination Conference. Four of the women priests are bishops and nearly 100 more are in a preparation program sponsored by the Roman Catholic Women Priests.

The idea of women priests is no longer an aberration, according to a September 2005 Gallup Organization survey where 63 percent of U.S. Catholics said they supported ordaining women and only 29 percent indicated that an exclusive male, celibate clergy was “very important.” The Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken in April 2005 found the same thing.

The Episcopalian Church can probably be thanked for much of this attitude change. It started on July 29, 1974, when 11 women forced the issue by finding three bishops willing to ordain them. Two years later, the 72nd General Convention in Philadelphia passed a resolution declaring that “no one shall be denied access” to ordination on the basis of their sex. In 2006 the Episcopalians elected their first presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.

The Vatican is undoubtedly fearful that women’s ordination will further divide the Church. The dissension suffered since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) has been enormous and no one is in the mood for much more. Catholics left the Church in droves. Priests and nuns quit. Vocations plummeted. Recently, parish closings are affected by a priest shortage and the pedophilia scandals have caused mistrust and anger.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported last February that 28 percent of adults have left the faith in which they were raised with Catholics coming out as the largest group—about 10 percent out of a population of 305 million Americans.

Admittedly, it’s difficult for an institution to change, especially one as huge, as old and as steeped in tradition as the Catholic Church. But traditions are man-made, not God-made. And one might conclude that this confluence of events signals God’s call for the Church to renew itself yet again.

The Church has endured difficulties in the past and it has adjusted. Quite frankly, today’s problems are so great, we need every leader we can get. To eliminate half of the population from priestly leadership is to see the world with only one eye or to fix it with only one arm.

Gender shouldn’t determine whether or not a person is fit to be a priest. Neither should class, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation for that matter. The priesthood should be open to men and women who are called to it. And those who advocate for women’s ordination, like Father Roy Bourgeois, should not be punished for their public stands. We need to concentrate our energies on the things that matter!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Call to Hope and a Healing of the Past

Some people believe that forgiving the perpetrators of horrendous crimes is letting them off the hook. Victims want revenge. Families of victims expect retribution.

Most people concede that the death penalty or lifetime imprisonment is the only viable way to handle such criminals. Anything less would be seen as acting irresponsibly to society. The assumption is that such punishments teach criminals a lesson and stop would-be criminals from committing crimes. That’s what the criminal justice system is designed to do.

However, the criminal justice system can’t address perpetrators of nation-wide, systemic crimes, which is occurring more frequently in more countries all over the world. While the law might call for justice, which is usually interpreted as “punishment,” such a strategy tends to reproduce an unending cycle of violence. So where can governments turn? What can grassroots people do? The answer is: forgiveness.

The world expected violence to break out in South Africa when apartheid ended in 1994 and four million white Afrikaners lost control over the country’s 40 million blacks and coloreds. However, as Episcopalian Bishop Desmond Tutu, head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said: “It didn’t happen.”

Tutu has also pointed out that if peace could come to South Africa where the crimes against humanity were “so ghastly,” it could happen anywhere.

So, how did it happen in South Africa? How was it possible that after so much tragedy, the victims of apartheid forgave their countrymen of heinous crimes that were not only government-sponsored but sanctioned by church theology? How could healing and peace take place among people whose friends and families had been killed and where whole cities were terrorized?

Clinical psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela of South Africa has made it her charge to find out. She has facilitated countless encounters between victims and their families with the perpetrators of apartheid through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She even interviewed and counseled Eugene de Kock, apartheid’s death squad chief who was often referred to as “Prime Evil” itself. (She recounted her encounters with him in her 2004 best-selling book, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid.

Gobodo-Madikizela’s work has led her to believe that a human response aimed at healing the wrongs of the past go beyond what the law can provide because it calls for care and compassion for both the victim and the perpetrator. Moreover, sustained and truthful dialogue about the past among those involved in criminal acts is the ONLY strategy for a lasting peace without a backlash of violence.

What occurs in forgiveness is a “transcendence of the heart” that begins with a recognition that gross human rights violations were committed. This is done by telling—and listening—to stories about what happened to individuals in a particular incident.

“It is only when the story can be heard and integrated into the individuals that the past traumatic events can be worked through,” said Gobodo-Madikizela. Then, an “empathetic repair” takes place as those involved begin the process of working through something that was broken. In this way, both perpetrator and victim are able to encounter each other’s humanity and form a connection. This is possible because each person has exposed him or herself “to the naked face of evil” that is within him/her.

The perpetrator who is able to express remorse suddenly finds an opening to his conscience that was silenced long ago because he was driven by something that allowed him to do these evil deeds. In effect, he had dehumanized himself! In asking forgiveness, he wants to re-engage himself with those he wronged.

Gobodo-Madikizela says that there is something innate in human nature that connects us to others when we are in pain: we want to rescue them because we can feel their pain. This is not a cognitive response but rather an emotional one where victim and perpetrator are present to each other and suddenly mirror each other’s humanity.

What is key in this process is that the truth is spoken and perpetrators acknowledge that they have done something wrong.

It is also significant that the Truth and Reconciliation Committees took place in a public space instead of being hidden in private. Revealing the truth in public “validates” the participants’ horrific experience, said Gobodo-Madikizela.

Likewise, each person became accountable for his/her actions by listening to each other’s story and the “truth of the heart.” Such is the difference between the law and reconciliation.

In law, the perpetrator attempts to deny and escape the truth as his defense. In reconciliation, the perpetrator remorsefully lays himself bare to tell the victims and their families what he did and to ask their mercy for his crimes. In this way the victims, who already know pain, are able to connect with and reach out to the very person who caused it.

Gobodo-Madikizela illustrated how this happened in an American setting she witnessed with Kim Phuc, the subject of the Pulitzer-Prize winning photograph taken during the Vietnam War in 1972. Kim was the naked girl running down a road, screaming in pain from the napalm that was burning through her skin. Kim has since become an international speaker and an ambassador for UNESCO.

One day Kim met with a group of U.S. veterans and recalled the napalm incident. She admitted that while “we can’t change history, we can work together to change the future.” She added that someday she hoped to meet the man who dropped the napalm.

Soon after her speech she received a note that said: “I am that man.” He came forward and the two of them embraced with her sobbing: “I forgive. I forgive. I forgive.”

Gobodo-Madikizela noted that this encounter was “a gesture of so much grace.” Here was a woman reaching out to the man who had done an evil deed. And “there was no training involved, no 12-step program.”

After this encounter, other American Vietnam veterans arranged to return to Kim Phuc’s village to meet with the people there, to tell stories and to share each other’s pain.

“This is [an example of] the turning point of transformation,” said Gobodo-Madikizela.

Clinical psychologist Edward Tick who has worked with Vietnam veterans since 1978 (and now is seeing Iraq and Afghanistan vets) relates a similar experience with men who have suffered PTSD in his book War and the Soul. Among his treatments are return trips to Vietnam as well as invitations for the men to participate in Native American sweat lodge rituals.

Gobodo-Madikizela is quick to point out that forgiveness does not mean that the evil deeds committed are forgotten. Instead, forgiveness means that “the spirits of vengeance must be transcended.” That allows a “moral humanity” to set in where care, compassion and empathy are seen as freeing oneself—and a nation—from the past, which is what South Africa has strived to do.

“This is the beginning of hope,” she said, “that the past can be healed.”

As our country moves on to a new presidency and with all the terrible baggage of our history behind us, may we begin this new era with hope and truth, forgiveness and reconciliation.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday, September 19 at 8 p.m.
Unity Church of Kalamazoo
(1204 Whites Road between S. Westnedge and Oakland)

Tickets $15 for adults and $5 for students. Buy them at the door or order in advance by calling 269-731-4289.

This program is presented by the U.S. Department of Peace campaign in SW Michigan. and

Ask a wise Swami what he’s doing delivering political jokes, and he’ll give you a wise answer: “Because there’s definitely something funny going on.”

Swami Beyondananda, whose favorite yoga pose is tongue-in-cheek, is coming to Kalamazoo on Friday, September 19, 2008 in an event sponsored by the U.S. Department of Peace and Nonviolence Campaign of Southwestern Michigan.

At a time when the economy is suffering from the “Greenspan Effect” (i.e., not enough green to span the average month), the Swami seeks to bring cosmic comedy and healing laughter to the political conversation. Why laughter? Because, as the Swami will tell you, “There’s definitely something funny going on!”

Swami is campaigning to help politics rise to a higher level—through levity, of course. “We don’t need a revolution in this country,” the Swami declares. “What we need now is an evolution where we the people realize we are the leaders we’ve been waiting for. Fortunately, people are waking up and wising up—and that’s good, because we could sure use a good ‘up-wising!’”

In these times where war is too often seen as the solution instead of the problem, the Swami says it’s time to try something new. “If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we will only get what we’ve always gotten. Like spending our energy getting even. What a waste! An eye for an eye only creates blindness. So I have another new slogan for the new millennium: Don’t get even ... get odd!”

And they hardly come any odder than the Swami, whose comedy has been described both as “comedy disguised as wisdom” and “wisdom disguised as comedy.” Just a look at the titles of his books, CDs and DVD indicate that this turban-powered comedian sees the world from a slightly different angle: Yogi From Muskogee. Don’t Squeeze the Shaman. Beyondananda and Beyond. Drive Your Karma, Curb Your Dogma. Duck Soup for the Soul, Supreme Court Jester, Tickling the Body Politic.

Swami’s latest book Swami for Precedent: A 7-Step Plan to Heal the Body Politic and Cure Electile Dysfunction, uses the magic of humor to enlighten, encourage and empower anyone who wants a more just, healthy and sustainable world. With mind-expanding wit and heart-opening humor, the Swami offers a 7-Step Plan because “frankly, we don’t have time for 12 steps.”

Swami is the alter ego of California-based writer and humorist Steve Bhaerman, who claims that Swami first flew into his head twenty-nine years ago. “I was struck by enlightening during a brainstorm,” Steve says. Swami first appeared in Pathways Magazine, an Ann Arbor, Michigan-based publication serving the newly blossoming holistic community. Steve noticed that even if people read nothing else, they would eagerly turn to Swami’s column each month.

In the early years, Swami was a sacred cowpoke, poking fun at overly serious aspirants and the foibles of self-styled seekers. Something about the Swami would let him get away with telling an audience, “There’s a seeker born every minute, and two to take him along the path,” or offering them the prosperity mantra, “Everything I eat turns to money, and my drawers are full of cash.”

Now the mission has changed, but Swami’s offbeat perspective as an “uncommontator” remains. “For years,” Steve says, “people everywhere have been cultivating consciousness and talking about spirituality. Now it’s time to turn the talkie into a walkie-talkie. Politics—the way we make our community, national and world decisions—is applied spirituality. Swami’s new mission is to awaken the body politic to this truth. And what better way to wake up than to wake up laughing?”

Join the “Cosmic Comic” for some serious laughter for serious times. And tell your friends because when it comes to laughter, the more the merrier. Guaranteed to keep you laughing till the sacred cows come home!

The event marks a return of the Swami, supreme master of levity and guru of political and social satire, who incarnated in Kalamazoo in September 2007. People who saw him then are still laughing.

This event is a FUNdraiser and awareness raiser for the U.S. Department of Peace and Nonviolence Campaign in Michigan’s Sixth Congressional District.

Swami will perform at Unity Church of Kalamazoo, 1204 Whites Road (between South Westnedge and Oakland) in Kalamazoo, on Friday, September 19th at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $15, and $5 for students. A Full House is expected (and maybe even a Royal Flush), so advance tickets are recommended.

For advance tickets or more information, please call (269) 731-4289. The SW Michigan Department of Peace Campaign can be found online at

To find out about Swami’s World Win Tour schedule and his books and other products, visit him online at or call toll free (800) SWAMI-BE

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Be Careful What You Ask For

Today is the 63rd anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima, which resulted in the deaths of 200,000 people. Three days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and killed another 70,000.

The bombings signify the first time one nation used an atom bomb against another. Apologists for “the Bomb” justify the action because the Japanese would have fought to the death—and brought along a lot of Americans with them.

Col. Paul Tibbits, pilot of the B-52 bomber Enola Gay that carried “Little Boy,” never expressed regret for the Hiroshima mission nor lost sleep over it. In 2002 the retired U.S. Air Force Brigadier General responded to Studs Terkel’s question about whether or not he had any second thoughts.

“Second thoughts? No. Studs, look. Number one, I got into the air corps to defend the United States to the best of my ability. That's what I believe in and that's what I work for.... So, no, I had no problem with it. I knew we did the right thing because when I knew we'd be doing that I thought, yes, we're going to kill a lot of people, but by God we're going to save a lot of lives. We won't have to invade (Japan).

Other people involved in the mission had different reactions, however.

On Tinian Island, Father George Zabelka, a Catholic chaplain with the U.S. Air Force, blessed the crews before their flight and even blessed “the Bomb!” For the next 47 years of his life, he not only had a change of heart about the bombing but about war in general.

In 1985 on the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima, Father Zabelka gave a speech about the bombings, war and the Church’s misguided stance on just war theory. He also talked about how he sought forgiveness from his God and from the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The “father of the atom bomb,” J. Robert Oppenheimer, regretted building his new invention. As he watched the first successful demonstration of “the Bomb,” he reported that a line from the Bhagavad Gita immediately came to mind: “I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

There is no argument that the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war, however, we need to reflect on the effects “the Bomb” has had on the world and on what we have become.

First of all, we must recognize that an American president (Franklin D. Roosevelt) commissioned the Manhattan Project to build “the Bomb” and another one (Harry S. Truman) ordered it to be dropped. Although we tried to beat Hitler in developing “the Bomb,” we must also admit that winning this race allowed us to kill massive numbers of people in the process. Any dictionary would define such action as genocide.

Secondly, the military industrial complex (MIC) has created a culture of fear and a stranglehold on this nation. The military’s needs are pitted against citizens’ needs in a competition for resources and by dangling defense industry jobs in front of people’s votes. The MIC also threatens our democracy by influencing congressional district boundary lines, making deals with private contractors and skewing budgeting priorities in its favor.

Thirdly, after winning World War II the U.S. government decided to build bigger and more lethal bombs. This choice inadvertently unleashed an arms race where other nations followed our lead in playing the same deadly game of “protecting national security.”

The world has become increasingly unsafe with nuclear weapons proliferation. Worse yet, Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, estimates that another 20 to 30 countries are now capable—and interested—in building their own Bombs!

The following list the world’s nuclear weapons stockpiles, according to data compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Nuclear Weapon Archive. It shows the number of warheads each country has as well as the year of their first successful weapons test:

United States – 9,962 with 5,736 active (1945)
Russia – 8,600 (1949)
United Kingdom - 200 (1952)
France - 350 (1960)
China - 400 (1964)
India - 60-90 (1974)
Pakistan – 24-48 (1998)

In 1974 India began developing “the Bomb” but it wasn’t until 1998 that it successfully tested one. Six months later its archrival, Pakistan, tested its own Bomb in order to counteract India’s.

In 2006, North Korea let the world know it, too, had “the Bomb,” although recent negotiations presumably convinced them to dismantle it.

Many people suspect that Israel has a stash of 75-200 warheads, however, leaders remain tight-lipped about reporting these weapons.

Although the members of the Nuclear Club have been dismantling many of their weapons, the world currently has about 31,000 nuclear warheads, according to Nuclear Files with 13,000 warheads active and about 4,600 on high alert.

The United States alone has a nuclear stockpile worth at least $5 trillion, according to Stephen I. Schwartz, editor of the 1998 book Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940.

Nevertheless, despite all its might, the U.S. military is still not satisfied. In 1997 it stepped up its strategic weapons capacity with Vision 2020. This plan aims to exploit and dominate outer space by linking all land, sea and air-based weapons systems. (It is important to note that Vision 2020 would violate the United Nations’ 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which banned the deployment of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in space.)

“The Clinton administration opened the door to developing space weapons but that administration never did anything about it. The Bush policy now goes further [with a weapon-in-space plan designed in 2004]” said Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center, a Washington-based international peace and security non-profit institution.

Last fall, concern about “the Bomb” was immediately stirred up when President Bush said that Iran’s desire to acquire nuclear power could lead to the development of nuclear weapons, which could lead to World War III. Even recent revelations that the Iranians ended their weapons program in 2003 didn’t quell the administration’s “fears” over Iran.

Fortunately, there is a growing worldwide movement to eliminate nuclear weapons arsenals because of the danger they pose to all life on earth, especially in the hands of would-be terrorists. However, most Americans are largely unaware of the vastness and lethality of U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles, say Sisters Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert and Jackie Hudson. The three nuns did time in federal prison for breaking into a Colorado Minuteman III missile site in October 2002 as a protest to nuclear weapons. They also said that the end of the Cold War somehow gave people the impression that the weapons had disappeared.

On this anniversary of our country’s dropping of two atom bombs on civilians—especially as we continue to wage an unjustified war in Iraq where one million people have lost their lives—let us face the question of why we need to continue this insane preparation for nuclear holocaust.

Let us admit our faults, ask the world’s forgiveness and show authentic leadership by dismantling ALL our nuclear weapons as an example to all nations.

The U.S. government’s desire to save the world from communism, terrorism or any other abstract or imagined enemy is misguided, misspent and extremely dangerous. We should instead be focused on the REAL threats to our lives such as environmental degradation, climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, world hunger and global capitalism.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pandora's Hope

Three distinguished campaigners for peace, justice, and sustainability presented a panel discussion on “Pandora’s Hope: A Livable World in a Nuclear Age,” Thursday, July 17, at Skyridge Church of the Brethren in Kalamazoo.

Tom Small, environmental activist, who introduced the panel, and Robert Weir, author of “Peace, Justice, Care of the Earth,” who moderated, explained the Greek myth of Pandora, whose curiosity compelled her to open a box of “gifts,” which released all the evils now afflicting humankind. The last gift in the box, however, was Hope. Is there hope, they asked, in this age of crisis, threatened with nuclear annihilation, disastrous climate changes and massive extinctions of species.

Each panelist addressed the question in a different way. Mike Nickerson, a founding member of the Green Party of Canada and author of “Planning for Seven Generations” and “Life, Money and Illusion: Living on Earth As If We Want to Stay,” explained that throughout humanity’s very long childhood and adolescence, more people, more powerful tools, and cheaper, more efficient energy enabled us to better provide for each other. But now that we’ve reached maturity, filled the earth, and are exhausting its resources, this same process is drastically undermining our well-being.

“The main obstacle,” he said, “to solving our present complex of problems is the customs and institutions that were established in the past to encourage growth. It’s a question of direction. Will we continue to expand until we cause irreparable damage, or will we choose a new direction and provide for our needs in a way that can be sustained indefinitely on this wonderful planet?”

Nickerson is the husband and activist partner of Donna Dillman, who spoke of the destructive power of uranium weapons and uranium mining. When uranium mining was to begin last fall near her eastern Ontario home, she fasted for 68 days to protest and to raise public awareness of the dangers.

“When the full cycle of mining, generation, atomic weaponry, and waste disposal is considered, nuclear technology is not cheap, not safe, not clean, and certainly not affordable,” Dillman stated.

"When dealing with one of the most serious matters on the planet,” she said, “drastic measures become necessary.”

The third panelist, Cliff Kindy, organic farmer and long-time peace activist, spoke of his experience as a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, both before and during the current Iraq War, most recently to teach nonviolent peace-action techniques in the northern Kurdish area.

While there, Kindy learned of radiation contamination illnesses and birth defects which increased dramatically in areas most affected by the depleted-uranium weapons used by the U.S. Kindy now leads protests against and studies of the effects of the manufacturing of depleted uranium weapons by Aerojet Ordinance in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

He spoke of the destructive effects of depleted uranium and the fact that though the U.S. continues to manufacture DU weapons, Europe and the U.N. have banned their use.

The forum concluded with animated discussion between the audience and the panelists on ways to change direction and hopes for achieving a livable and sustainable world in a nuclear and destructive age.

Dillman’s final words were, “To protest and to raise public awareness of the dangers we face, we’ll need to be in the streets. I’ll see you there.”

Many thanks to Tom Small who submitted this post.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Prescription for Peace: Moving from Control to Compassion

Father Michael Crosby, OFM Cap., was in New York on September 11 and saw the smoke streaming from the World Trade Center towers. Two days later, as the wind shifted in his direction, his eyes began to water and his mouth and nose became parched. He thenrealized that the smoke contained the remains of both the perpetrators and the victims.

“It was a most powerful experience. In the smoke was the world of good and evil,” he said.

With only a white board, a red and a blue marker and a Bible, the author, lecturer and retreat director led a two-hour discussion on how to counteract violence in our world at the Transformations Spirituality Center of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Nazareth, Mich.

“Control is at the heart of all violence in the world. That is why we have terrorism and counter-terrorism,” said Father Crosby, 68. “And it won’t stop. Power is the ability to influence, it can be a force for good or for harm.”

Totalitarian regimes, for example, use their power by exploiting others, he said. As a market economy, American advertisers use their power by manipulating people’s feelings and identities and by preying on our insecurities. Likewise, the Catholic Church uses its power to dominate others, especially women, through fear and intimidation.

These negative uses of power injure and abuse people and they all come down to the obsessive need to control others and not care about them, he said. And power that employs violence severs relationships in many ways through physical, emotional, sexual, even verbal abuse.

“Verbal abuse all by itself can destroy a relationship,” he said. “It can be a warning of physical abuse to come.”

Father Crosby also railed against institutionalized violence where the system supports unequal relationships as the norm. He illustrated this point with the example of a Pakistani woman who sought a divorce and was murdered by her parents in the name of family or community honor.

“Institutional violence is why we have racism, sexism, ageism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, tribalism, elitism,” said Father Crosby who added that the source of violence is WITHIN us, not outside of us.

"When we are violent it means we don’t care about whether we inflict injury or impose our will on another person. Violence in any form, however, is never justified. It is always a sin.”

Father Crosby criticized the violence done by political commentators like Ann Coulter who call dissenters of the Bush administration’s policy to wage war on Iraq “unpatriotic” and “traitorous.” The Catholic Church has done the same thing by calling people who disagree with the Holy Father disloyal, heretical, and deserving of excommunication.

“We have got to find another way of communicating,” said Father Crosby. “Not to engage in discourse encourages misunderstanding and the need to control. It is unhealthy. Jesus, by contrast, was a most powerful person but he wasn’t violent. The energy of Jesus is spirit….So if God is in me, I must allow God to be a force through me. This requires a change of heart from trying to control others. Then the reign of God is at hand.”

The effect of this change of heart is that we realize that we cannot avoid caring about others, especially when they’re in pain. Instead, we must CHOOSE to be in the reign of God and act on it.

Father Crosby suggests that an alternative response to the violence and counter-violence of 9/11 could have been accomplished through conflict resolution—in the same way that any interpersonal relationship would resolve its issues:

* Agree to stop fighting.

* Engage in active listening, i.e., understanding what the other is saying
without interruption.

* Accept the other person.

* Admit your part in what led to the conflict.

* Say you’re sorry.

* Forgive each other.

“When we become aware that we have been abusing our power, we develop a new pattern,” said Father Crosby, intimating that the United States has not always recognized its domineering relationships with other countries. He pointed out that the first Sept. 11 occurred in 1973, when the United States overthrew the democratically-elected Chilean president, Salvador Allende.

“Compassion is the whole goal of the spiritual world. Justice is making the relationship right. When we have justice, we will have peace.”

Father Crosby maintains a website at

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Death of a Parish

It’s exciting to build new things like churches. The difficulty comes with having to dismantle them, as many Catholics across the country have had to do.

This summer it happened to my hometown parish, St. Conrad’s, located in Melvindale, a small town outside of Detroit. Despite all efforts, the 210 families could no longer keep the parish going.

St. Conrad’s was one of 16 parishes slated to close in the Archdiocese of Detroit, according to a Spring 2006 strategic plan, which reduced the total number of parishes from 306 to 290. The last plan occurred in 1989 when 30 parishes were closed.

At its peak St. Conrad’s had over 400 families, however, the past few years have seen a decline in numbers because parishioners have died, found a new job, or moved to a new home in the suburbs. For the past three years the parish has had a part-time pastor, which means that the parishioners have pretty much run the parish.

What happened to St. Conrad’s reflects a national trend of demographic shifting, financial difficulties, and the priest shortage. So after 42 years as a faith community, St. Conrad’s held its final Mass.

Actually, I wasn’t going to go to the Mass. After seeing my elementary and middle schools and a college where I worked closed and demolished, I didn’t think I could take another “burial” of an institution that had been a vital part of my life. At the last minute, however, I changed my mind and went. And I’m glad I did because it got me thinking about the significance of closing a parish and its relationship to the changes going on in our world today.

St. Conrad’s meant a lot to me. One day, at a time during my greatest need, I turned to this church and kneeled on the hard, tiled floor praying for deliverance. A couple years later God answered my prayer: I became a Catholic and later joined a religious order, which launched my lifelong career in the human service professions. My sister converted to Catholicism at St. Conrad’s, too, and later was married there. My father never became a Catholic but he was married at the parish and eventually he attended weekly Masses, Bible study classes, and participated in various Christian service programs. The parish had provided him with purpose and friendship.

It may sound corny and trite but when you must let go of something precious, you suddenly realize its place in your life. At this last sad but jubilant Mass, parishioners—past and present—had an opportunity to honor the place St. Conrad’s held in their lives. What I also discovered was that even though I hadn’t been a member of the parish since 1975, I was still quite attached to it.

Attachment to a parish has an uncanny effect. A parish represents something bigger than you are, it has a purpose greater than your own ambitions, and it reaches more people than you could ever possibly touch. It also has an enduring presence, which produces fond memories that make you a part of the parish and the parish a part of you. When you lose your parish, it is like losing a limb!

This enduring presence is easy to take for granted because you believe that your parish will always be there for you. And although you can change parishes, you cannot always replace a faith community as you would a material possession that is lost or worn out.

The families who struggled to keep St. Conrad’s going felt a deep commitment to each other as neighbors and friends in a particular place. They knew they had something special and they didn’t want to change it. However, sometimes change happens to us as circumstances create an untenable situation. In losing their parish, the parishioners at St. Conrad’s had to witness yet another painful change.

For many parishioners this latest change was difficult. Some of them went through the Depression and World War II. Some sent their kids to Vietnam or Iraq. They saw the rise and fall of Detroit, the great industrial capital of the world. Most all of them went through the Vatican II changes.

In truth, the parishioners have been witnessing the dismantling of old structures, which is happening everywhere. It happened in New Orleans when the infrastructure could not protect the city from a devastating hurricane and in Minnesota when an interstate freeway bridge suddenly collapsed. It happened in New York City and Washington, D.C. on 9/11 when terrorists attacked the grand symbols of American economic and military might. It is happening now in California where drought has made the forest so dry that there are now 1,000 fires burning and in Alaska where the permafrost is melting and threatening people’s towns and way of life.

The parishioners’ faith has told them that as human beings we are forever challenged to cope with change and that we must differentiate between changing what we can and accepting that which we cannot change.

Saying good-bye to the parish through the Mass was an excellent way of honoring the life and ministry their small faith community had fostered these past 42 years. I have to believe that God’s grace will carry St. Conrad’s parishioners—and all of us experiencing these traumatic changes—into a new and vital future.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Overlooking the Elephants in the Room

West Michigan became the scene of an imported brand of Middle Eastern conflict over politics and religion recently when Nonie Darwish, a member of the nonpartisan Young America’s Foundation (YAF) speakers bureau, presented her view of the world at a lecture organized by the College Republicans in my town.

The YAF speakers bureau includes such colorful personalities as Patrick Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, Ann Coulter, David Horowitz, Michelle Malkin, Rick Santorum, John Ashcroft, Ward Connerly and Ted Nugent.

After September 11, Darwish, 59, an Egyptian-born author, activist and translator, decided to speak out against her own Islamic culture because she felt it perpetuated hate against the Jews in the Middle East.

“I learned that hate, vengeance and retaliation are important values to protect Islam and Arab honor,” said Darwish, recalling her education as a young girl. “Self-criticism or questioning Arab teachings and leadership was forbidden and could only bring shame, dishonor and violence open those who dared try. Peace was never an option and never mentioned as a virtue.”

In her speech, Darwish also railed against Arabs and radical Islam for causing Israeli-Palestinian tensions and pointed to verses in the Quran that invite Muslim violence against non-Muslims.

Darwish came to the United States 15 years ago. She is the daughter of Lt. Col. Mustafa Hafaz, an assassinated Egyptian guerrilla leader of the fedyadeen, a terrorist group that regularly raided Israel.

In addition to the 30 students who attended the lecture, Darwish drew another 15 - 20 peace activists from the local community who were there to protest her message. At first they were silent but as Darwish continued her 45-minute diatribe, they reacted to her with audible snickers and gasps of disgust.

The Q&A was even more surreal. Darwish ignored the students who were seated in the front half of the assembly room and instead turned her attention to the protesters in the back. She first called on two Pakistani Muslim men who argued with her over the details of Muslim life and religion. Then she called on two peace activists.

The students in the room remained largely silent and puzzled by what was transpiring before their eyes until Darwish finally called on one student who asked something on the order of Rodney King’s plea: “Can’t we all just get along?”

The organizers of the event were noticeably flummoxed by the response of the audience and struggled to know what to do. However, they had admirably adopted a free speech platform and maintained it, especially when two unarmed security guards suddenly appeared to calm down a couple vociferous peace activists who came very short of being thrown out.

After her speech, a small crowd surrounded Darwish to ask more questions, point more fingers and poke more holes in her arguments. The guards, at the prompting of the student organizers, eventually escorted Darwish out.

The evening’s program had become one filled with fiery affect lacking in intellectual content and ending up quite a distance away from the intended forum for “enlightened thinking” the organizers attempted to provide.

An English major might characterize the scene as a post-modern drama complete with many obscure levels of context, irony, paradox and identity politics.

It was sad to see the peace activists forget their mission of nonviolence and react rudely to Darwish. They could have been more effective by simply maintaining a silent demonstration in protest to her message.

Equally troubling is the College Republicans’ reliance on the YAF, which purports to furnish the aspiring conservatives with political savvy and organizational strategy. What it seems to do instead is to divide the world up into liberals and conservatives and to foment antagonism against liberals.

For example, according to the YAF website, the “nonpartisan” group provides conferences, internships and resources to promote the conservative agenda on college campuses and strategies for countering “leftist tactics against your speaker.”

The YAF suggests ways students may “maximize funding from the university and private supporters” who would presumably be against them and their politics. It also has a program that teaches students how to fight “anti-military bias and misinformation” by leftists who “continue to belittle our armed forces and to prevent as many students as possible from participating in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and from speaking with military recruiters.”

The YAF sponsors the “9/11: Never Forget Project,” which it began in 2003 after it discovered that “most college campuses were either completely ignoring the anniversary of the terrorist attacks or scheduling a politically-correct activity instead.”

Ronald Reagan is the group’s standard bearer and his creed is “the centerpiece of the student programs.” The YAF proudly touts its role in the preservation of the president’s Western White House, Rancho del Cielo, as a “living monument to Reagan’s lasting accomplishments.”

Actually, what the student audience’s nonplussed reaction to the event perhaps makes clear as we ramble along in this first decade of the twenty-first century is that arguing about religion and politics has become pointless, especially when we refuse to deal with the “elephants in the room” like $4 per gallon oil, two wars we won’t end and can’t win, global warming, food shortages and price hikes, unprecedented species extinction, sub-prime mortgage failures, crumbling infrastructure, violent weather patterns and destructive earthquakes.

It’s time for all Americans to turn the page on the old politics and to start working on the new challenges we face in our world.

This article appeared in Common on June 10, 2008.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Moving From the Margins to the Mainstream

Movements for change begin mysteriously at the margins but if they take hold, they can have a big impact on society.

“Things happen. You have to count on it,” said Tom Hayden at a recent lecture sponsored by the Southwest Branch of the ACLU of Michigan.

The veteran activist first witnessed the process of social change while a student at the University of Michigan in 1960. As editor of the Michigan Daily he was covering John F. Kennedy’s visit to campus and discovered that a small group of students got to the presidential candidate about 11 p.m. and handed him a plan for an international peace program.

That group included local activist David MacLeod, who Hayden recognized at the lecture.

At the time Kennedy didn’t know fully what he was signing on to and his advisers were stunned by his spontaneous policymaking. The program turned out to be the Peace Corps.

“It was unexplainable how David got the [plan] into JFK’s hands,” said Hayden who pointed out that “chaotic processes” often accompany movements for change.

A year later Hayden would co-found the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which promoted the 18-year-old right to vote. This idea had first surfaced during World War II but it was the Vietnam War that brought home the point that the nation that felt its young were responsible enough to fight a war should be responsible enough to vote.

“We were relatively marginal but that didn’t matter because we found a cause,” said Hayden. “It was driven into me at the time that all things are possible.”

Although the idea for the Peace Corps literally happened overnight, change usually takes at least a decade, said Hayden, and not all movements achieve their goals. Women’s suffrage took 100 years; ending slavery took 500 years.

The Electoral College seems to be an obvious issue for change, especially since the 2000 election when Al Gore won the popular vote and George W. Bush won the electoral vote. However, there seems to be no political will to eliminate it.

“The Electoral College was one of the dynamic compromises of the Constitution,” said Hayden, adding that the “imperfect document” also follows the movement for change model.

Prior to the Revolution of 1776 the Continental Congress grappled with whether or not to declare its independence from England, a prospect too radical for most colonists. However, taxation without representation eventually tipped a majority of the public toward separation.

In 1787 the framers of the U.S. Constitution incorporated independence as a key theme for the new republic but they could not end slavery or extend suffrage beyond white, male property owners. Such radical ideas would have split the movement for nationhood.

“Each generation claims the promise, ideals and aspirations of the founders and they become a movement,” said Hayden. “This is how social change works and it’s an important concept for professors to discuss and teach.”

Hayden wasn’t sure what America’s next great social movement would be but he predicted that it will come out of the “Obama generation.”

Obama came from the margins, too, Hayden noted. No one saw him coming anymore than they did Kennedy. And like Kennedy, Obama may end up articulating a new vision for the country based on the next generation’s desire for change.

“They have a self-confidence that their moment has come,” said Hayden of today’s young. They don’t want to settle for the way things are or for the way they were achieved in the 60s.”

Hayden’s own 34-year-old son has had to convince his father of this break from the past.

“You have to go to Obama’s rallies to see this or you’ll miss it, too,” said Hayden. “There is an unexpected social movement that has not occurred since 1968.”

Hayden’s eight-year-old son, who is African-American, is also swept up in the “turbulence” of change. Interestingly, he isn’t moved by race in this presidential election as much as he is by the environment. He aspires to be a marine biologist to do something about it.

The former state legislator and sociologist by profession illustrated that social change occurs once activists achieve 25 to 30 percent support from mainstream public opinion. When they reach 40 percent, the idea becomes a “norm.” Politicians then pass a law to institute the change, although it is far more compromised from its radical origins.

Nevertheless, the existing order co-opts the movement for change, said Hayden, because grassroots activists usually disperse once they achieve their goal, much like the Iraq War peace movement has.

The existing order also seeks to erase the memory of the movement or to claim it as its own through commemorations on postage stamps or the naming of parks, buildings, boulevards and holidays.

“This was the same government that jailed radical reformers [like Martin Luther King, Jr.,]” said Hayden.

The activist, writer and politician is a leading voice for withdrawal from Iraq and last year published Ending the War in Iraq. He spoke about that prospect somberly.

“Ending the Vietnam War took 12 years of my life,” said Hayden. “So far, the Iraq War has been going on for five years — 15 if you count Gulf War I.”

Hayden said that even with a Democratic win, the plan is to leave tens of thousands of troop advisers in Iraq. The Baker-Hamilton Study Group also advocated withdrawing all but 20,000 troops in order to stabilize the country.

“If we can’t win with 150,000 troops, how can 30,000 finish the job?” he asked.

Hayden also pointed out that this war has been designed with the Vietnam War in mind. For example, there is no draft and the number of dead soldiers is minimal in comparison. There is also a great effort to subdue the protests, which accounts for the media’s sketchy coverage of the peace movement.

“Fighting tolerant warmakers is harder than fighting those who beat you up,” said Hayden, who was thrashed and jailed during the 60s protests. The Internet generates much more information to a broader audience but it creates much less face-to-face interaction and fervor.

Hayden urged peace activists to help end the war in Iraq with the following suggestions:

* Spend time with those who disagree with you and make alliances.
* Work with anti-war people in the armed forces and let them know their rights.
* Show up at community colleges and conduct debates on military recruitment.
* Consult to find out and report how the cost of war is diverting funds from your community.
* Make alliances with those hurt by war’s budget (i.e., senior citizens, veterans who need medical care, educators).

Hayden also said that any movement for change can happen by focusing on one’s own experience. Working for energy efficiency on college campuses is a good example of what students can do.

“Start with things that are achievable and reach out to the undecided population,” he advised. “Look for friends on the faculty but focus on your student friends.”

Because activism often competes with students’ time for study and a job, Hayden recommended that students combine their activist interests with service learning opportunities, work-study projects and research papers.

Hayden’s Web site provides information about his other causes, which include erasing sweatshops, saving the environment and reforming politics through greater citizen participation.

This article appeared in Common Dreams on June 2, 2008.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Memorial Day 2008

The following accounts are interviews I had with Vietnam War veterans, men of my generation. They reveal examples about the meaning of war and military service to veterans who have risked and who are risking their lives for our country.

Roger – USMC 1969-71

“Being a Marine is like being a member of a brotherhood,” said Roger, who works at the VA hospital in Battle Creek, Mich. Among the many tattoos on his arm is the Marine motto: “Retreat is not an option.”

“If you join the Marines you know it’s the toughest group in the military and that a lot of responsibility is heaped on to Marines, more than in the other services. You honor the flag, the president and never dishonor yourself or your mother. You know that the fellow next to you will take a bullet for you.”

“In the Marines you carry its values with you for the rest of your life, values like honesty, helping others, always being faithful to other Marines, taking care of your own….It’s a brotherhood.”

“Nobody wants to take a life but if the enemy shoots at you and you refuse to shoot back, what do you think is going to happen?”

“You won’t find veterans that believe in war, but you’ll never find a vet who doesn’t believe in his country.”

Roger suddenly realized at the beginning of the Iraq War that “our babies were fighting in a war.” He suddenly started to tear up. When he enlisted in the Marines in 1969, he was a baby, too.

“I guess my mother was really worried. She had four sons in the service at that time.”

Although he stayed in the United States during his service, when he returned from duty his reception was less than what he expected.

“I got spit at and had drinks thrown at me in bars because I was a military man.”

Nevertheless, throughout all these years Roger has remained firm of purpose regarding the Vietnam War: he and his fellow Marines did their duty. Yet, he showed some sympathy and understanding for those who treated him and his comrades so badly:

“They were just taking it out on us because we were in the military.”

Art – USMC 1968-70

“When you’re 18 you think war is a big adventure,” said Art who enlisted in the Corps right out of high school because he had no other direction in life and “didn’t know any better.” After he finished his tour, he got a job at the U.S. Post Office where he’s worked ever since.

“When you get there [in Vietnam], you find out they are shooting real bullets.”

Art said he started questioning the idea of war in the spring of 1969 when he first went into combat. His life was forever changed.

He arrived in Vietnam just after the Tet Offensive and was assigned to a clean-up maneuver in the northern-most province of South Vietnam near Da Nang. He encountered many small skirmishes, but the happy-go-lucky extrovert said he soon adopted a cynical outlook on life.

“A certain feeling overcame me when people started shooting at me. It put me in a reflective mode. I began to lose my life and ask about the nature of our existence in this world.

Art doesn’t claim to be a spiritual or religious man, at least not in organized religion, but when he was in intense combat he had a “out-of-body experience.” As he found himself elevated above the battle below, he realized he could have died there.

“I came to appreciate the gift of life that God gives us and realize that it’s a shame that we squander it in conflicts.”

Art is especially concerned about the psychological damage done to young men in war and how it affects everyone around them: their family, spouse, kids and co-workers. He knows Vietnam vets who have struggled with lifetime repercussions because of that war.

“Why should we send the young in harm’s way? They have no sense of risk and they’re not old enough to reflect on the value of the life they have been given. They think they will either be heroes or dead men, but then there’s a gray area they don’t think about: what if they get wounded?”

Vietnam War statistics show that 58,226 soldiers were killed or classified as missing in action and 153,303 were wounded.

“I’m not sure about the spiritual existence after this life, so I appreciate the life I have here and now. I savor the moments. It makes war and killing so senseless.”

George – U.S. Navy 1967-69

George had never visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. so before the January 2003 peace march began, he and I decided to spend some time there.

On that cold, 20-degree day, we walked in silence to the memorial. As we neared the deep gouge in the earth, I felt an ache in the pit of my stomach. This was our generation’s war. It was George’s war.

We walked a few yards into the memorial and looked at the names engraved on the shiny, black granite wall. Even in his silence it was obvious George was deeply touched.

We continued about a quarter into the walkway until George stopped. He had a “peace on earth” sign with him and we took photos of each other holding it. Then he wanted to leave.

As we left the walkway a solitary security guard suddenly appeared near the entrance and told us that signs were prohibited at the memorial.

“Peace on earth,” the guard said as he read our sign out loud. “What an idea.”

As George rolled up the sign and put it under his arm, the guard saw us fumbling to capture the meaning of his words.

“You don’t think I’m for war, do you?” he snapped.

The guard probably saw hundreds of people a day at the memorial. As the prospect of a new war loomed, just 30 years after this one, he had pulled duty at the stark, black wall with the 58,000 names etched on it.

George and I walked on to the huge white “temple” nearby, the Lincoln Memorial. We climbed the smooth marble steps and gazed at the towering sculpture of the somber president who oversaw a divided nation, which resulted in the deaths of 620,000 soldiers, according to some estimates. Now, nearly 150 years later, we were a divided nation once again on the brink of war, only this time the war would be fought in a faraway land.

George and I walked a short distance to the Korean War Memorial. It commemorated our fathers’ war. (The memorial of their other war that had occurred seven years earlier was in the process of being built further down the mall.)

The memorial’s triangular shape and its position on the mall opposite the Vietnam and Lincoln Memorials, called to mind the demands that war makes on our young. The faces of the immobile metal figures are grim. Their hunched stance caused by the weight of their equipment and the weariness of war contradicts the men’s otherwise youthful strength and presumed optimism in the future.

On this Memorial Day, let us honor our dead by asking why we are willing to sacrifice our young for the “just” causes of the old? Let us likewise seek to devise alternative ways of settling our conflicts without going to war.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Architect for Alternative Futures

David Macleod is a tall, lanky, graying red-haired man, who walks with a slight hunch and talks with a gentle, low resonant voice. He has spent a lifetime assiduously informing himself about the technical aspects of how wars are waged and how peace can solve conflict.

While some people regard David a hopeless idealist, others find him a steadfast advocate for peace. One of David’s proudest achievements was his suggestion that the government institute an international peace program. This idea turned out to be the Peace Corps, which John F. Kennedy announced in his 1960 presidential bid on the steps of the Student Union at the University of Michigan where David was a student.

The 71-year-old former professor turned handyman is currently studying how the Bush administration distorts scientific data in order to promote its agenda. He is also writing a book about the history of peace activism in Kalamazoo.

I first met David in 1985 at Nazareth College, a small, private, liberal arts college located in southwestern Michigan. He taught geography there as a part-time professor, one of many jobs he had stitched together to make a full-time living. He seemed reserved and a little eccentric to me at the time, but I didn’t really know him or understand his projects. Talking with him today about his tireless efforts for peace over the past 58 years sheds new light on him and the way an individual’s call to be a peacemaker is often a lonely, yet enduring, vocation.

In 1950 at age 13 David attended the Boy Scout Jamboree held in Washington, D.C. On the night before the event, he and a group of boys saw the movie, “Forgotten Men.” The film featured a history of World War I and how it led to World War II.

“I was so appalled, horrified and upset that night, I couldn’t sleep,” said David. When he finally got some sleep he awoke from a nightmare quite shaken with the sun shining in his eyes. It took him awhile to adjust to reality. He had just dreamed that the atomic bomb hit Washington and that he was trying to escape his hotel that was in flames.

After breakfast, David attended the Jamboree with 40,000 other boys from around the world. The event proved to be a moving and influential experience for him as well. “We all got along with one another,” recalled David. “Somehow, I thought back then, that we should all be able to avoid what the world was coming up against with war and nuclear weapons.” Ironically, on the same day, North Korea invaded South Korea (June 24, 1950). “It was only five years after World War II and we were right back into war again,” said David mournfully. It was on that day, however, that he made a lifelong commitment to peace.

During the late 1970s David and his wife, Mary, returned to Kalamazoo. On the day after they arrived, the Fetzer Institute held a peace conference that featured Anwar Saddat, prime minister of Egypt; Norman Cousins, editor of the Atlantic Monthly; and Robert Mueller, former U.N. undersecretary general and president emeritus of the University for Peace in Costa Rica. At the conference Mueller encouraged the audience to consider Kalamazoo an ideal place to establish a world center for peace that would offer conferences and serve as a think tank toward specific actions for peace. Besides, Mueller said, Kalamazoo’s odd name would attract the necessary attention for the cause.

“I was delighted to hear others reflect what I thought,” said David who never forgot what Mueller said. Ever since David has worked hard to make that vision a reality. For example, David taught a course in peace education at Western Michigan University and wrote a pamphlet to accompany the class entitled “World Peace: A Positive Approach.” Other professors across the country adopted it for their curriculum. In the pamphlet he advocates a five-point positive approach to peace that includes the establishment of idealistic but necessary beginnings:
· a code of world law
· a democratic world government
· a program of peace education and world citizenship
· a way for people to become world citizens
· a military conversion program, which adapts systems, hardware and
personnel to peaceful uses.

But David doesn’t just think up ideas, he works to implement them. For example, he developed a plan for a military-base conversion program in Michigan and, in 1976, came close to convincing the state to convert Kinchloe Air Force Base near Sault Ste. Marie into a global disaster relief project. The state seriously considered his plan until then-Governor William Milliken suddenly changed course and transformed the base into a state prison instead.

David also wanted to see the Fort Custer Army Base in Battle Creek converted into a world agricultural center. He submitted a proposal but this one, too, fell short of adoption. Part of the base did become an industrial park that welcomed several international manufacturing companies including Japan’s giant auto supplier, Denso.

In 1990 when Nazareth College announced it would close its doors, David proposed that the campus become a world peace education center, but authorities nixed that idea, too. Despite these setbacks, David has never given up on his vision for world peace. Actually, even today especially since 9/11, David still can’t fathom any reason why the world can’t be peaceful any more than he could when he was a boy scout at age 13.

“We have computer networks that allow us to speak to each other. We have an awareness that the violence of modern weapons could have untold destruction of the whole world,” said David. As an emergency preparedness coordinator for Kalamazoo Township, David also knows the tandem effects of nuclear weapons, that is, if one goes off, a whole system trips off a response for several other bombs to go off as well. “The first thing we should do about this nuclear weapons system is shut it all down,” said David.

Still, despite his efforts and his optimism that peace is possible, David said he is quite discouraged with what the Bush administration has done with Iraq. He has even become a full-fledged pacifist as a result, which surprises even him.

“I’ve found that various methods of violence are degrading to the human spirit and counter-productive,” said David who defines the scope of violence as anything from interpersonal relationships to global military conflicts.

“The Bush administration seems determined to make Iraq a U.S. colony, when the country has the potential of being an example of what can be done globally,” David said referring to the Iraqi Governing Council that wrote a democratic constitution. However, he maintains that Iraq presented no credible threat to the United States in the first place, at least, not enough to warrant going to war. He also questions why the administration saw such an immediacy to war with Iraq when it didn’t see one with the more volatile North Korea—which has nuclear weapons.

“The rule is that if we threaten them with the bomb, they’ll break down. However, North Korea’s one weapon is enough to create a credible threat to us,” said David. Consequently, David has made a stand for peace at the community peace vigils since fall 2002 and shows no signs of quitting.

To David, today’s geopolitical situation is as dangerous as it was in 1950. Back then he thought we were on the verge of World War III when he heard General Douglas MacArthur declare he wanted to use nuclear weapons to stave off the North Koreans.

“I felt an urgency then and I still do now,” said David. “I feel an urgency to do something.”

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Five Years Later and Still No Mission Accomplished

Five years ago today George W. Bush, in flight suit regalia, flew onto the deck of the U.S.S. Lincoln to let America know that we won the war in Iraq.

His speech with the Navy’s accompanying pomp and circumstance made the peace activists look like wimpy losers once again. The dangers of the war they feared weren’t realized—not even close. The call for cooler heads and world peace as a strategy has been shelved once again.

And boy, didn’t Bush look great in that flight suit!

The jubilation, however, wouldn’t last—either for the Americans or the Iraqis. Soon we saw terrible images of destruction. Fire. Burning jeeps. Black, black smoke. Rubble everywhere. Iraqi men in the streets pounding their chests. Iraqi women and children sitting on the ground crying.

However, it was that eerie pattern of death that developed where an American Marine or a soldier was killed every day. People suspected an organized effort, and Al Queda was the likely culprit. After all, Americans had been trained to the shuttering reminder that terrorism could strike at any time in any place in any way on anyone.

That meant that we were all at risk at home and abroad—and one billion Muslims and Arabs from 22 countries in the Middle East were deemed responsible. Nevertheless, that drip, drip, drip effect of death was unsettling.

“Peace protestors,” as they were called, complained that the declarations of victory had been premature. War supporters countered that war requires sacrifices: some people get hurt; some people get killed. They questioned the peace activists’ patriotism and even accused them of treason.

Fallen troops’ photos appeared in the newspaper with rather lengthy obituaries. The PBS Newshour ended each broadcast with a silent display of photos and names of the dead. Each day Yahoo News announced a new death and tallied the total number of deaths. Now the news from Iraq is buried deep within the paper.

Oddly enough, our military commanders who had feared urban warfare saw it come to pass—and in the stifling heat of the desert. Our troops were exposed to extreme danger every time they patrolled the neighborhoods or drove their trucks on the IED-littered highways. When the killings increased, our troops had to be less trusting of the people they were presumably protecting, which included every man, woman and child.

Then there were the troop rotations and the stop-loss system that would beckon soldiers and Marines to return to Iraq to fight two, three and four tours of duty. New traumas cropped up: PTSD soldiers, wounded soldiers, divorced soldiers, suicidal soldiers.

And those poor National Guard reservists who thought they had signed up to be stateside “weekend warriors.” Suddenly they found themselves stuck in the desert far from home and under fire.

Commander-in-Chief Bush was accused of never attending a soldier’s funeral. He still hasn’t.

As the months rolled into years and the death tolls accumulated, some terrible things happened at home. Some people turned off the war by going into denial and avoiding the news.

Others went into depression because they feared a Bush re-election in 2004 and/or an escalation to more war.

A few Bush supporters got ugly and blamed peace activists for inhibiting progress on the war.

Arabs and Muslims became the source of America’s problems.

Conspiracy theorists surfaced with stories about government subversion during 9/11. (In 2006, polls would show that six out of 10 Americans believed Bush didn’t take the necessary precautions to avoid 9/11. Nine out of 10 soldiers believed Saddam was involved with 9/11.) Worst of all, Democrats who took the majority in both houses on the promise to end the war, are failing on their promise.

Almost immediately people started comparing this war to the Vietnam “quagmire” and some fretted that “We’ll never get out.” Others dreaded a return of the “draft.”

That’s when it became clear that many people were still haunted by the ghosts of 30 years before. Presidential candidate Kerry in 2006 and now McCain in 2008 are recalling their war days in Vietnam as proof that they should be elected commander-in-chief.

Other people, young people, those most at risk at being drafted, tried to deal with the war by ignoring it. Their parents silently held their breaths at the prospect of turning over their son or daughter to the harsh and never-ending conflicts of the Middle East.

Now, five years later our troops are still in Iraq and the death and destruction continues, often in more grisly ways like Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, the displacement of four million and the deaths of one million Iraqis. The great hope that our soldiers would return home after a civilian government took over Iraq on June 30, 2004 vanished.

Now, five years later, it doesn’t look as though the United States will ever get out of Iraq. Worse yet, the Bush administration seems to want to pick a fight with Iran.

Will the next president learn anything from this war?

Will the next president be as insensitive to those hurt in the war as Bush has been?