May 2012 Archives

Memorial Day, 2012

      Since the end of the Civil War, our country has chosen to set aside one day in particular to remember and to pay homage to those who have lost their lives in the service of this country. On this Memorial Day, however, we should also set aside some time to reflect upon, and to discuss with friends and families, the terrible toll that war has inflicted upon this country and its citizens.                      

     Today, the United States spends more on defense than any other country, and about five times more than China, which ranks second on the list of major defense spenders. According to a CNN news report by Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer [Defense spending: Slaying the sacred cow, July 11, 2010 ], at $689 billion this year, "defense spending it accounts for about 20% of the entire federal budget and  it consumes up to 50% of the so-called discretionary budget, which pays for everything but entitlement programs and interest on the debt. In other words, all federal funding for education, infrastructure, transportation, the arts, and scientific research, to name a few."
    As of this date, there are approximately 1.5 million active duty personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States. There are an additional 1.5 million members of the Army Reserve and the National Guard, hundreds of thousands of whom have been regularly deployed overseas since 9/11. As of 2009, the budget of the United States spent $965 billion dollars on military and military-related expenses. Further, the most recent "Base Structure Report" of the Department of Defense states that the Department's physical assets consist of "more than 600,000 individual buildings and structures, at more than 6,000 locations, on more than 30 million acres." Most of these locations listed are within the continental United States, but 96 of them are situated in U.S. territories around the globe, and 702 of them are in foreign countries.

     Currently also, the United States has active duty personnel stationed in more than 150 countries. While many of these deployments involve assignments to American embassies and special training projects overseas, the presence of U.S. active duty military personnel in Europe, Japan and Korea remains significant, sixty-five years after the end of World War II and fifty-six years after an armistice was declared in Korea. More than 100,000 active-duty American military are currently assigned to these three countries, the cost of which is still largely borne by U.S. taxpayers. These three countries have been able, as a result of American military shield, to invest in the modernization of their manufacturing sectors and to increase the number of their exports to the United States at a time when American manufacturing has been increasingly our-sourced to third world countries. Japan and Korea, in particular, have adopted onerous, restrictive trade policies that make it almost impossible for American automobile companies and heavy equipment manufacturers to compete successfully in those countries.

    In response to the protests engendered by the Vietnam War, the United States Congress abolished military conscription. With advent of an "all-volunteer" military, this country's wars and foreign adventures have become, for most Americans, video diversions far removed from the daily experiences. The enlisted personnel for these wars have been largely drawn from the ranks of poor whites, blacks and Latinos who have been given few other opportunities in the current American economy; many of the officer corps are increasingly drawn from the families of professional soldiers and military academy graduates who are, by temperament and acculturation, right-wing, pro-defense Christians who strongly support the continued projection of American power abroad. As our professional officer corps has increasingly become composed of the children of previous officers, and the ranks of enlisted soldiers increasingly beckon to men and women to whom our country has extended few other options, the concept of the citizen-soldier has  begun to recede from the consciousness of most Americans.

    After the children of the affluent were sheltered from the shared sacrifice of conscription, the Pentagon and the defense contractors that depend upon government subsidies for their existence were able to vastly increase their share of the US. Budget. "Out-of sight,out-of- mind" has meant that the military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower warned, and worst fears of the Founding Fathers about entangling alliances and the dangers caused by a standing army, have become the American reality. Anyone who doubts the stranglehold that the military-industrial complex now exerts needs only to be reminded of the F-35 airplane that, notwithstanding even the Defense Department's efforts to eliminate the project as unneeded and redundant, continues to be funded by tax-payers because a craven Congress is unable to resist the lobbying power of defense contractors. Many of these same Congressional supporters decried the Obama administration's bail-out of the American automobile industry as a waste of money and have refused to vote extend unemployment benefits to those who have been unemployed more than ninety-nine weeks.

    Simultaneously, we are all paying the price for two misbegotten wars in which we were viewed as the invaders and in which we had little prospect of ending easily or of achieving "favorable outcomes." In addition to the thousands of soldiers lost, physically injured or traumatized, hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed and maimed. Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate Economist Joseph Stiglitz has predicted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost the U.S. taxpayers more than $4 trillion dollars when all costs, including long-term veterans care and disability payments are calculated.

    The welfare-through-warfare mentality that continues to dominate Washington groupthink threatens, if not challenged, to metastasize our republic into a garrison state perpetually at war, as Andrew Bacevich in his book Washington Rules has warned. As a nation, we will increasingly impoverish ourselves while our pandering political and economic elites, and their media surrogates, will continue to argue that this country no longer has the resources to address pressing domestic problems here at home. And, of course, our cemeteries and veterans' hospitals will continue to fill with the dead and traumatized whom we, by our indifference, will have allowed to be dispatched into harm's way.

    The Roman Republic, over time, was transformed and subverted by corruption and apathy. Its citizen-soldiers were ultimately out-numbered by legions of mercenaries recruited from abroad to fight its wars and to guard its borders. When the Roman Empire collapsed, it no longer had the resources to bring its legions home; thousands of its soldiers were abandoned throughout the vast reaches of the former empire.

    War exacts a terrible toll on its perpetrators as well as its victims. We are all diminished as citizens and as human beings because of our indifference in the face of such horror. The best pledge that we can make to one another on this Memorial  Day is to demand an end to our "welfare- through-warfare" economy. We need to bring our troops home and support international institutions that will promote ways to create a more peaceful future for all of God's creation.

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Is This Still Our Land ?


          "Woody" Guthrie was born in 1912 in Oklahoma, seven years after it was admitted as a state. He was one of eight children,  one whom, a sister, died in a coal fire. His father, who was active  in the Democratic Party, named him after the future President. Guthrie's father was a businessman and property owner who later fell upon hard times. Guthrie's mother, Nora, suffered from Huntington's disease - the same debilitating illness that would afflict Woody Guthrie during the last decades of his life.  Nora Guthrie was institutionalized when Guthrie was only 14 years old. Since Guthrie's father by then living and working in Texas in order pay off debts from failed real estate deals, Guthrie and his six remaining siblings were on their own in Oklahoma.

     , half-length portrait, facing slightly left, ...

     At that very early age, Woody Guthrie worked odd jobs around his home town, where he came to depend upon the compassion of family friends for meals and shelter. He soon taught himself to play the harmonica and displayed an aptitude for music that he learned to "play by ear." As a gifted listener, Guthrie also learned a number of ballads and traditional English and Scottish songs from the parents of his friends. To ward off hunger, Guthrie would often play a song in exchange for a sandwich or quarter. 
     When he was eighteen years of age, Guthrie began to travel with the migrant workers from Oklahoma to California. From them, he learned the traditional folk and blues songs. Many of the songs he later wrote described the wrenching suffering and injustices that he witnessed during in the Dust Bowl era and in the throes of  the Great Depression. His experiences instilled within him a life-long commitment to social justice that he expressed in his folk songs. His most famous ballad "This land is your land" has been a inspiration to generations of folk artists:

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream  waters
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.
I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

    The lyrics of Woody Guthrie's ballad capture the passion and love of country that is expressed by Walt Whitman in his poem, "I hear America singing," in which Whitman celebrated the lives of the mechanics, the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the shoemaker and the woodcutter. Much like Whitman, Guthrie believed that it was the ordinary person -  the Everyman - who personified the quest for equality and whose lives expressed the essential democratic values. Guthrie also understood, as did Whitman, that great concentrations of wealth in the few, if not curbed, would subvert democracy and render meaningless the phrase "equality of opportunity."

     In 1968, Guthrie's ballad became the unofficial song of Robert Kennedy's tragic presidential campaign. Kennedy's murder that year, coupled with the assassination of Martin Luther King and the tragic death of Thomas Merton, caused this country to fall into a deep, numbing slumber from which it has yet to awaken. Since that fateful year, the democracy that the Progressive Movement, the New Deal and the Great Society endeavored to create has been chipped away, brick by brick, by the purveyors of money and influence.

    The right-wing noise machine, fueled by an array of wedge issues such as guns, religious liberty, hostility to unions and public employees and budget deficits, are working feverishly to distract the attention of all of us who are vulnerable from noticing the root causes of our misery: a dysfunctional federal system and a poorly performing economy that are largely the fault of the political elite, at all levels of government, who continue to pander to the agenda of the wealthy and their corporations, rather than to address the needs of ordinary citizens.                  

        If a song has the power to summon a nation to reclaim its destiny, Woody Guthrie's ballad should become the anthem for all progressive voters in the 2012 election at all levels. The lyrics challenge each of us to take our country back from those who seek to privatize the American Dream and to close off the access of ordinary citizens to the public square with signs that say  "no trespassing."    


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