Caring and Killing

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Dear Barack . . . Mr. President . . . brilliant, courageous (I once thought) guy I voted for:

You’re great. I mean the way you put words together. As I listened to you on Tuesday night, I thought about the interlocking, dovetail-joint perfection of your language: the crisp-edged certainty of your delivery, the clean precision of your logic, even an acknowledgement of some of the big values (peace, human dignity) so beloved by your voting base.

And when you were done, wow, it was like you’d tiled the rec room floor right before our very eyes, and there it glittered: the case for escalated war, 30,000 more troops. This was geopolitics at its finest. Watertight, solid. The kids could play on it. We have a national defense constructed of equal parts good intentions and precision bombing — caring and killing, you might say. We can go to the mall this holiday season secure in the knowledge not only that America is being defended from the extremists who would destroy us, but that we’re still the greatest country in the world.

“And the message that we send in the midst of these storms must be clear: that our cause is just, our resolve unwavering. We will go forward with the confidence that right makes might . . .”

Wow, whatever that means. I guess it means something akin to what I actually believe, that strength and empowerment flow from compassion and love, not from kicking butt.

“. . . and with the commitment to forge an America that is safer, a world that is more secure, and a future that represents not the deepest of fears but the highest of hopes.”

And that was it. Speech over, God bless America. I write to you today on the precipice of a despair I don’t fully comprehend, but it begins with the questions that leaped to mind the moment you started speaking: Are you my president? Does the future I believe in, and the future you reference, really have a seat in your cabinet?

If you are and if it does, I fear I saw no evidence of it Tuesday night — or not enough to give me any hope. You talked about living our values: pulling out of Iraq (in two years), closing Guantanamo (whenever), stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, pursuing the goal of a world without them. You talked about diplomacy, mutual respect, mutual trust. You said: “America seeks an end to this era of war and suffering . . .”

But these words were simply softening agents. Your action plan was nothing but war and suffering: a $30 billion transfusion of war and suffering to perpetuate, for the coming year, the insanities launched by your predecessor. You spoke of America as the great Boy Scout nation, making altruistic and occasionally thankless sacrifices on behalf of global order for six decades, but made no reference to the military-industrial complex that profited from these “sacrifices,” nor to the amoral, corporate interests our global order served, the brutal dictators we propped up, the suffering we inflicted.

The “military effort” in Afghanistan you spoke of hummed with clean precision and limited duration. You betrayed no awareness of how dirty this effort is on the ground. You made no mention of 20,000 Afghan deaths (8,000 dead civilians) since the war was launched eight years ago — no mention of the number of wedding parties we have bombed and strafed over those years; no mention of the tons of ultra-fine, extraordinarily toxic depleted uranium powder we have spread over the region; no mention of the serious hatred for America our military efforts have so far generated among large segments of the population; no speculation on how many enemies we’ve created since the war began.

As you announced the surge of 30,000 troops, and praised, before the rapt audience of West Point cadets, the sacrifice of our troops, you made no mention of how many of these troops suffer grievously not only from physical injuries but from post-traumatic stress disorder, or how many of the 30,000 to be sent to Afghanistan in January will be veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan on their third or fourth tours who already have PTSD and will be struggling with it for the remainder of their lives. You made no mention of the spike in suicides among our troops, or homicides, or spouse abuse.

You spoke of human rights but not of our own human rights abuses in these two wars of choice launched by the Bush administration. You spoke of extremism and the “cancer” (metaphorical cancer, not real cancer) of terrorism, but made no mention of root causes. You spoke of national security, but made no mention of a reality I’m sure you grasp: that true security has nothing to do with national borders or nation-states.

You made a case for war and assured us it would lay the foundations of peace, even though none of the wars fought previously throughout human history have done so. You made, in short, a political speech — one your despised predecessor could have given.

I understand that the presidency is a ferociously political office, with complex, competing, amoral forces that must be balanced and placated. Does this mean you can serve only the war economy and must subordinate our greatest ideals to its needs? Do you still plan to make a stand for real change? The signals you transmit indicating you do are getting weaker, Mr. President. And time is running out.