War is a struggle of conviction. It demands things of a people that nothing else can. When we wage it, it is the ultimate expression of our collective wills. More than our technology or our budget or the size of our standing army, our conviction determines the outcomes in armed conflict. If it runs out before our ability to sustain arms, we lay them down. If our ability to fight runs out before our conviction, we find a way to fight on in other ways until the flame of fury goes out. History is lined with proof of this. The German’s after WWI, growing in anger and dissatisfaction in its outcome would conquer most of the continent in retribution one generation later. The conviction of the Confederate army, once destroyed, lived on in the Jim Crow south for another hundred years. The conviction of the Japanese people was so ingrained in their culture that it took the detonation of two nuclear weapons over hundreds of thousands of their citizens before they capitulated. Right now we find ourselves once again engaged in a war with a group whose conviction runs deep. As history tells us, there’s much work to do before we’re out of it.
There’s good news though. We’re at war with a group that actually has little power to hurt us. Though they certainly seem to have the ability to scare us, when we think of war and the potential outcomes that a people face when they are engaged in one, there’s not that much at stake for Americans these days. That may feel wrong. But it’s actually not. How wrong it feels is a function of how effective the terrorists we’re fighting are at their core task of creating fear. And this group is good. This is where context is immeasurably important.
I don’t mean to devalue the sacrifices of those who have given their life in this conflict. Loss of life has no minimum acceptable toll for those touched by it. But it’s important to help put them in historical context. When we talk about the impact on a collective people, it’s important to understand what the score is. During the six years of heaviest fighting of WWII, the world lost 60 million people to combat or the secondary impacts of it. That’s about 27,000 people a day. And it went far beyond just military personnel. Every aspect of life was affected. Great Britain was on war reparations until the 60’s. 60 million people is a Paris attack every day for just under 1,3oo years.
In direct action, when you think about the ability of our enemy to hurt our armed forces, our relative safety is even more compelling. After 14 years in active combat in Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, we’ve lost about the same amount of Americans as we did in three days at Gettysburg. In context, anyone living at any other period of war in American history, would view our current predicament as peace.
So why do we care about it? Well, though it’s not Stalingrad, it’s still war and it matters. Those we’re up against are awfully good at the fear and mayhem game. So it needs to be addressed. But how? It’s been a long time since I worked in the region that is generating our problems and I like to keep my opinions informed. So when it comes to what to do about the Middle East, in Tom I trust. As in three time Pulitzer prize winning journalist Thomas Friedman who has forgotten more about the Middle East than any ten people on the street will ever know. Here’s what he said in his column in the N.Y. Times this past week.
“I believe U.S. foreign policy out here should progress as follows: Where there is disorder, help create order, because without order nothing good can happen. I will take Sisi (Egyptian’s military strongman president) over the Muslim Brotherhood. But where there is order, we need to push for it to become more decent and forward-looking. That is where Sisi is failing: His vision is just order for order’s sake, with no positive slope. Where there is decent order, like the U.A.E., Jordan or Kurdistan, encourage it to gradually become more open and constitutional. And where there is constitutional order, as in Tunisia, protect it like a rare flower.”
If you subscribe to Friedman’s point of view, “creating order” in areas like Syria and the al Anbar province of western Iraq, is a priority. And that priority might require large scale military action. It also might not. I actually don’t know. Like I said, I require my opinions to be informed and I’m not close enough to that world to know what right looks like any more. My experience in a war in that exact place with the exact same people would lead me to believe that military force is required. But there’s something else that won’t address, and that something is the point that both Friedman and I are trying to make. We’re at war with an ideology. And the conviction to define and wage war against an enemy is what you’re addressing by the commitment to establishing and fostering order and progress in the region.
But that’s the long game. There’s something else we can do to help that. Something we can do immediately with no investment whatsoever. Something we have to do. And it’s simple. Be America. Not the one you’re seeing in our political discourse in 2015. The America founded by the great disrupters of western civilization and the immigrants that flocked to her shores. The America made rich by her diversity and countering points of view. The America we were and still are capable of being.
That America is more tolerant and accepting of different cultures than any other place on the planet. That America was built by immigrants at every part of her history. That America has stood firm and sacrificed much more in the face of dire odds than we are asking of our people today. The amount of xenophobic intolerant rhetoric we’re seeing from our media, our current and prospective civic leaders and the painfully uninformed masses on social media is alarming. It’s not alarming because it’s incompatible with our values as a nation, though that’s true. It’s alarming because it is the engine of conviction that the enemy we are facing is relying on to strengthen their resolve and grow their force.
Every anti-Muslim meme, every racist tweet, every ounce of rhetoric is wind in the sales of our enemy, urging them onward. I have no idea what it feels like to be a young Muslim American right now. I can’t imagine the conflict they must feel. But I can imagine, if you were sitting on the fence and maybe thinking of doing something radical as a homegrown threat, your social media stream probably isn’t doing any of us a favor. If this isn’t resonating with you, I’ll offer you a different more direct challenge.
About 1% of Americans served in the two wars our nation has been engaged in these last 15 years. During the time that I did, every operation that I participated in was supported, led or entirely executed by Muslim allies, fighting alongside of my teammates in a combined struggle against the extremism that was destroying their society. I would ask those that choose to paint the 1.7B Muslims in the world, (1/4 of the world’s population) with the broad brush of extremism, a simple question. What were you doing when my brothers and sisters in arms were hanging it out there against the forces of evil these last 15 years? Not as much as they were, so stop the noise. It’s not helping. If you’re a civic leader, you’re supposed to be helping.
As for the Syrian refugee crisis, presently, 31 of 50 governors, both Republican and Democrat have openly voiced opposition to giving safe haven to refugees fleeing the conflict that we as a country helped create with our invasion and destabilization of Iraq. No terrorist plot, hatched by Syrian refugees, for which there is no precedence for ever having happened in America, makes us less safe than rejecting these people in need. I’ve seen their plight first hand in that region and in Africa. If you can look those people in the eye and turn your back in the name of a limited, low scale risk to Americans, how could any of these elected leaders look a service member in the eye, and send them off to war and into harms way? How far can our fear drive us from our values? I guess, when it’s an election year, pretty far.
One of the 31 governors, John Kasich is running for president. He recently said that if elected, he would commission the creation of a Judeo-Christian government organization to help communicate the benefits of our “American” lifestyle to foreign countries in an effort to promote progress and stability. He did this within days of voicing his opposition to accepting Syrian refugees. Many of those most deeply opposed to opening our door to these refugees hold true to the belief that our culture is a Christian one, though they also believe we have no requirement to open our door to those outsiders who may, in some future date, do us harm. I am a Christian. One who ground to his faith by the hard consequences of war and disability. So I’ll use the words of my Savior in response.
The book of Matthew: Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.
The book of John, In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
My faith is fearless and charitable. And if my nation is too, the forces of hate and destruction stand little chance. If we aren’t, we’re going to be doing this for a long, long time…