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Katrina, Vietnam, Iraq: National Purpose, National Sacrifice
  (September 15, 2005)

A year ago I penned two short essays-- Is This a Nation at War? and A Nation in Denial--about the surreal state of denial in which Americans happily wallowed. Nothing has changed in the past year, but cracks are beginning to appear in the nation's rickety facade of self-absorption and excess.

Let us start with Katrina, by some accounts the single most destructive natural disaster since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. (The larger disaster seems to be a very human hubris, but never mind that for the moment.)

Though some $70 billion in Federal aid has already been approved, today's Wall Street Journal estimates the eventual total at $200 billion. Who is going to front this enormous sum? The same people who have fronted the current year's $412 billion Federal deficit, of course--the governments of China, Japan, et. al. via their purchase of U.S. bonds.

Was there a call for national belt-tightening by our President or Congressional leaders, a call for a national surtax to fund this vast rebuilding? Of course not. No sacrifice is necessary, as long as foreigners shower us with billions to spend any way we choose.

Are Americans really so shallow and greedy that they cannot bear any financial sacrifice? I think not; last week in Virginia, local fire department folks passed buckets along the lines of commuters waiting at stop lights, collecting cash donations for the Red Cross. Untold numbers of residents in Houston and other nearby cities have toiled overtime to take care of New Orleans' refugees. The failure, it seems, is not in our citizenry, but in our leaders complete lack of faith in our willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. Clearly, our leaders fear that there is no political will for any sort of sacrifice; their measure of American character is so low and mean that I wonder why no one else feels outraged by their crass depreciation of our willingness to face facts.

The lead article in last week's New Republic, titled American Idle, reveals that America's civil engagement has quickly returned to its pre-9/11 lows. Military enrollments were down even before the Iraq war, civic involvement (which correlates nicely with watching TV--the more you watch, the less you do for your community) has returned to the lows of the late 90s, and the stupidities and mindless excesses of our rabidly consumer culture pile ever higher.

For those too young to remember how our nation slipped into a war in Vietnam without a national debate or act of Congress, let me offer you a brief refresher course. Reckoning there was little political support for a ground war in Asia, President Lyndon Johnson avoided telling the American public what was as stake in Vietnam (propping up a hopelessly corrupt but nominally anti-Communist regime created out of whole cloth after World war II). Rather than face a rejection of his policies, he simply slipped us into war "on the cheap," a little at a time, until there were 540,000 American troops in Vietnam and tens of thousands more in Thailand and at sea.

Now we find ourselves yet again in a war being waged "on the cheap," with no visible sacrifice being asked of the American people, with the exception of the National Guard and our 1.4 million-person Armed Forces. Unlike Vietnam, we have been told this war will last for years, perhaps even a decade, but collectively we have not been asked to sacrifice anything for this great effort. All the sacrifice falls on our professional, volunteer military, who are also asked to "tighten their belts" fiscally so our government can pay absurd sums for largely ineffective medicines for our seniors, who vote, it seems, in their own self-interest rather than that of the nation.

Although I generally avoid religious topics, it is time to look for inspiration to our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, and his deeply religious assessment of the Civil War. The version of Christianity currently popular in our nation is quick to absolve sins; nothing is demanded except a confession or appeal to Jesus. But Lincoln's understanding of sin and sacrifice is nothing like this easy, facile redemption; consider this quote from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
For those who didn't grow up in a deeply Christian household, allow me to translate: slavery was a terrible sin, and the massive slaughter of the War was payment in kind for this sin. If God wills it, then the cost of redemption may be the entire wealth of the nation and a measure of blood equal to the suffering of those millions the nation enslaved.

Although the sins of greed, self-absorption and wanton excess are much less than those of slavery, I wonder if there won't yet be a cost to our nation's mindless denial of fiscal, social and environmental realities. Not a happy thought, perhaps, but perhaps it's time to face the gathering storm head-on.

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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