Friends of ours from Seattle were here recently, and we got to talking about the state of the world. We wondered aloud how we got into this relentless chugging towards war in Iraq that seems more inevitable each day. And wondered whether there is any way to stop it.
Dick and I were in Turkey together 35 years ago, and he had just returned from a trip to Eastern Europe through his work with the City of Seattle. His wife Kate has family living in England and France, and they have a daughter recently returned from an overseas educational stay. Their ears are tuned to other places in the world.
We remembered our times in the Middle East, remembered how friendly Turks and others had been in the mid-sixties, and how hatred of U.S. government policy in Vietnam and Cyprus had gradually poisoned people against us. We remembered the book, The Ugly American, which had been part of the inspiration for the Peace Corps, a new kind of organization that would send people to learn languages and live with people in villages and cities across the world.
The Peace Corps has in fact promoted friendships across the globe. Volunteers continue to do good work and form wonderful individual relationships. But the knowledge gained and the individual friendships made over 40 years have not made the world a safe place, or even, in an increasing number of cases, a friendly place for Americans. We seem at this point to be where we were in 1966, when individual Americans were still befriended, but our leadership and our government was being questioned. (A Wallowa County friend has just returned from a trip to Egypt, where she said they "love Americans, but wonder about our leadership.") By 1970, our government was widely despised, and our individual welcomes were gone. The Peace Corps was asked to leave Turkey, a country that had fought alongside us with great distinction in Korea.
Is this some vicious cycle that we are doomed to repeat? And if so, why?
Our Seattle friends are close to an Italian family that lives in Seattle. After several years, the Italians couldn't stand it, and had moved back to Italy for food and culture. But lo and behold, a few years later, when the first of three daughters began university, they moved back to the States. They said that for all they loved in their homeland, it was still a very macho place, with limited opportunities for their three daughters.
In a recent television documentary on Islam, one of the Moslem clerics commented that it was ironic, but that Moslems in the United States enjoy more freedom in the way they worship than they do in many countries considered Moslem (this because in Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, there are many denominations).
Last week a new president was elected in South Korea. Our relationships with that state, where we still have thousands of troops stationed along the border with hostile North Korea, have been tested of late. Most recently, we are criticized for not allowing two of our soldiers to stand trial in a Korean court for running over and killing two Korean children (shades of our days in Turkey, when a drunk Air Force officer was whisked out of the country after running over a Turk on the highway).
New President Rho admires America greatly, fashions himself an Abraham Lincoln - but wants to reevaluate the relationships of our two governments, including the treaties that deal with American military personnel and the Sunshine Policy of reconciliation with North Korea that he favors and the American government opposes.
In many places in the world we are admired greatly for what we do within our borders. Admired for freedoms of press and religion, for social and economic mobility, for our medicine, technology, and economic productivity.
And yet America is hated for bullying, for exploitation of natural resources in other lands, for the business deals and defense deals and diplomatic deals that we Americans cram down other nations' throats.
In this holiday season it is painful to see sabers rattled across the world. Painful to watch hostilities continue in the Holy Land. And painful to watch the inching towards war in Iraq.
I'm reminded of a history class in college and a professor that said that in 1914 Europe was doomed to go to war. There had been a period of peace.
The people of Europe were satisfied, if anything a little bored with life.
The European governments all had military plans and intricate treaty plans that leaned on each other. The assassination of an archduke in far off Serbia set off a string of events that ended with millions dead across the continent.
We too have a population that does not, for the most part, remember war. We are wrapped up in private worlds. We are consuming intensely, and looking for the next thrill or the next new thing. Our corporations have complicated relationships with corporations and governments across the globe. Our government commands immense military power across the globe. I don't know what the spark will be, but I fear it.
In this Christmas season and this Christmas spirit, I ask that we not take peace for granted, and not take war for granted either. I ask that we consider everything of ours that is admired by millions across the world - our freedoms, equalities, work ethic, technologies, and habits of helping - more important than our military and industrial might. I ask that we work for peace as hard as we seem to be working for war.