“Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of ’empire’; they make a desert and call it ‘peace.’” – The British chieftain Calgacus, speaking of the Romans as he rallied his army, quoted in Tacitus, De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae, xxx
Even while campaigning, the late Robert F. Kennedy was not afraid of being candid with his audiences, nor of lecturing his own supporters. Once during a speech at the University of Oklahoma, during the height of the Vietnam War, he informed his hearers that he was against draft deferments for college students, since he could afford to send his boys to college, while poor people could not. The audience booed and hissed.
“Let me ask you something,” he said, undeterred. “How many of you are for deferments?” A cheer went up. “And how many of you were for the escalation of the war?” Another cheer. “Now how many of you who voted for the war also voted for the student deferments?” A loud gasp, followed by grim silence, then thunderous applause. “The poor are carrying the burden of the struggle,” he concluded, and so long as that continued, the middle class did not mind a further escalation of the war. It was only in late 1967, when college deferments became scarce and their own sons were drafted, that mainstream America began to sour on the war. (From Arthur Schlesinger, Robert Kennedy & His Times.)
Let me ask you something. Would you be for the escalation of the war if you knew your son or daughter would be fighting there?
In one speech in the U.S. Senate, RFK lectured his colleagues:
“Few of us are directly involved while the rest of us continue our lives and pursue our ambitions undisturbed by the sounds and fears of battle. To the Vietnamese, however, it must often seem the fulfillment of the prophecy of St. John the Divine: “And I looked and beheld a pale horse, and his name that sat on it was Death, and hell followed him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with the sword, and with hunger and with death.” All we say and all we do must be informed by our awareness that this horror is partly our responsibility; not just a nation’s responsibility, but yours and mine. It is we who live in abundance and send our young men out to die. It is our chemicals that scorch the children and our bombs that level the villages. We are all participants.”
We are all participants.
As Thomas Maier records in his biography The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings, “Invoking this apocalyptic vision, Kennedy portrayed an America so absorbed in its materialism, so caught up in its own political hubris, that the consequences of its actions were ignored, its collective conscience inured to the suffering it caused.”
“Are we like the God of the Old Testament,” he asked, “that we can decide in Washington, D.C. what cities, what towns, what hamlets in Vietnam are going to be destroyed?”
Forty years later, we still have not learned our lesson; our overweening pride remains yet unchecked, our ignorance and antiseptic cruelty proverbial throughout the world. As a nation we are overfed, overmedicated and over-entertained, watching our flat screen TVs to see, now in hi-def, the bombing of civilians in lands so far away, we don’t even know how to spell them correctly. Women and children plucked limp from the rubble of their villages. “Made in the USA” emblazoned over their staring eyes.
America, see what is done in your name.
“The American people want this…The American people don’t want that….” Politicians use our name like a 15-year-old her father’s credit card. War, after all is big business, meaning hundreds of thousands of jobs, and, more importantly, hundreds of billions of almighty dollars for an almighty few. Why don’t we stand up and tell them what we really want? Because– sadly, tragically, even grotesquely —it seems our silence implies all we really want is lower taxes and nothing to impinge on our selfish lifestyles. Go on, fight your wars, we say. Just don’t ask us to change or to sacrifice. And while you’re up, bring some dip.
Our enemies warn us in reasonable words, but we do not listen. We’re America and if we do it, it must be right. Our leaders flatter us and mislead us with myths of our greatness, when in truth through our actions, or inactions, we are no different from any other cruel empire or tyrant which has gone before us, whose bloated corpses, in poet Edmund Spenser’s image, are now heaped high in ditches behind the House of Pride. In every way we resemble the Roman populace, whose emperors kept them drunk and busy with bread and circuses, while their armies roamed the world, in Calgacus’ words, plundering and lusting for dominion. The Celtic chieftain knew of what he spoke, for his own land had become the unwilling recipient of this Roman idea of “peace.”
But there is a God who both sees and hears the cries of the destitute, the groans of the oppressed. And he asks us, Is this the nation you want to be? Selfish, blind, ever at war? “For this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned. They did not help the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). Already the hour is late, but not too late for you to turn. Rise up and shake off your complacent slumber. Strengthen the weak, lift up the downtrodden, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and you will know what it means to be a land the Lord has blessed. Make peace, and you will know peace.
For eight years we have waged war in revenge for 9-11, to make America safe, they tell us. A futile effort, which, if it is ever over, will be the longest war in our history, and what kind of desert will we leave behind? Futile because the real war we’re fighting is one against poverty and fear, oppression and ignorance, corruption and greed. And we’re fighting such a war with bombs and drones, Humvees and night vision goggles, instead of planting crops, building schools, cleansing our own government, and searching our own hearts.
Would that we had true night vision goggles to see through this darkness of war and know that “In repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength” (Isa 30:15).