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We do not care—
That much is clear.
Not enough
Of us care
We are not wise—
For that reason,
Mankind dies.
To think
Is much against
The will.
And easier—
To kill.

Stop American Wars

 Langston Hughes, “Wisdom and War”

According to ABC exit polling, 64 percent of white American males (hereafter wAms) voted Republican in our 2014 election. Despite my disappointment, this essay will not bash my fellow wAms.

In 2001 the editor of The Progressive Review, Sam Smith wrote, “one of the besetting sins of many in the progressive movement is that they have made white men the enemy. In fact, no ethnic group in history has given up so much power so quickly and so peacefully.” Later, elaborating on that thought he added, “Behind every significant advance of blacks, women, homosexuals, latinos, youth or what have you of the sixties and seventies was the voluntary capitulation or active assistance of a large number of that constantly criticized creature: the straight, white, over-30 American male.”

There is much truth in Smith’s words, but we wAms need to acknowledge our group’s past failings. It is simply a fact that from the early days of our history until the present, despite all the recent gains by women and minorities and the presence of an African American president, white males have dominated our politics and society. For the terribly brutal treatment of Native American Indians and African Americans (during slavery and beyond), we wAms have been mainly responsible. When it comes to support of wars, we white males have also been more hawkish than women or minorities (on Vietnam and Iraq, for example, see here and here). We have not been as tolerant, sensitive, and compassionate toward others, whether of a different race, gender, or nationality, as we should have been. At present, the passionate feelings being displayed by Republicans against President Obama’s new immigration actions to ease the burden of illegal immigrants often involve racial feelings and questions of tolerance and compassion. And white male hawkishness is still relevant as we debate to what extent U.S. money, arms, and/or troops should be sent to (or kept in) places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, or whether we should take war-like steps to prevent Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.

My plea here is not that our nation refrain from ever again sending U.S, troops abroad, but merely that we wAms stretch our minds and hearts and imaginations to other races, genders, and nations, that we become more cognizant and cautious of the terrible sufferings caused by discrimination and wars. Too often we have been intolerant, indifferent, or blasé about the fate of “others.” It may be natural for us to care more about the lives of those most like ourselves, but we need to broaden our empathy for those who are “different."

Sometimes this lack of sympathy has even spilled over into dehumanizing others. In World War II some white males referred to the Japanese as “little monkeys.” In the Vietnam War some wAms called the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong “gooks” (see here for more on such dehumanizing name-calling).

While it is natural for us to grieve and emphasize the tragedy of 9/11/2001, in which about 3,000 people, mainly Americans, died, should not 8/6 and 8/9 1945, when about 200,000 Japanese died in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, also be considered a great tragedy? Was not pacifist Dorothy Day justified when she criticized in her newspaper, The Catholic Worker, the jubilation of President Truman and others over the Hiroshima bombing? As she indignantly stated, the celebrators “hoped they are vaporized, our Japanese brothers—scattered, men, women and babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York on our faces, feel them in the rain.” Shouldn’t our national response—even if we believed the killing justified, which I do not—been grief that war had brought us to the mass bombing of so many members of our common human family.

During the Vietnam War our televisions every night let us know the latest U. S. body count, and indeed we are right to mourn the 58,000 plus individuals listed on D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. But during that war I never heard any estimation of the number of Vietnamese deaths. Did we not care? Long after the war was over, various estimates appeared. In his recent book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, Nick Turse estimates the North Vietnamese civilian deaths, mainly from U.S. bombing, at “at least 65,000,” and overall “an extremely conservative estimate of Vietnamese deaths found them to be ‘proportionally 100 times greater than those suffered by the United States.’”

During the war there was not only heavy bombing of North Vietnam, but also of Cambodia. Tapes of U. S. President reveal him in 1972 telling his national security adviser Henry Kissinger: ''The only place where you and I disagree . . . is with regard to the bombing.'' And Nixon added: ''You're so goddamned concerned about the civilians and I don't give a damn. I don't care.'' Nixon also raised the idea of using a nuclear bomb, but Kissinger advised against it.

Charges that the U. S.-led sanctions against Iraq in the decade after the war led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, whether true or not, seemed to matter little to most Americans, partly because many of us never dug deep enough to come across such charges.

During the first Gulf War (1991) against Iraq and Saddam Hussein, the American public considered it a great success partly because less than 200 American lives were lost. It is difficult to believe that most Americans would have thought the war worth the cost if the price had been tens of thousands of American lives. Charges that the U. S.-led sanctions against Iraq in the decade after the war led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths, whether true or not, seemed to matter little to most Americans, partly because many of us never dug deep enough to come across such charges.

Of course, not all Americans were so callous or indifferent, and among those criticizing our ho-hum attitude toward foreign deaths have been some prominent wAms. Two that especially deserve mention are poet and Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg and farmer-writer Wendell Berry.

Although Sandburg was an American patriot from head to toe—his friend Governor Adlai Stevenson said that he “is the one living man whose work and whose life epitomize the American dream”—he was amazingly empathetic to the concerns of non-wAms. In response to a question about his religion, he once said that among other things he was “a Christian, a Quaker, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Shintoist, a Confucian. . . . I am all of these and more.” (For the sources of all Sandburg quotes, see here.)

His Jewish friend Harry Golden wrote in 1961 that his commitment to “the fight against anti-Semitism and Negrophobia had been a special project.” That same year Roy Wilkins died. He had been head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and not long before his death he had made Sandburg a lifetime member of the organization and declared him “a major prophet of Civil Rights.” As early as 1919, he had displayed compassion for the plight of Chicago’s African American community in his articles and book The Chicago Race Riots, July, 1919. During World War II he hired two Japanese-Americans to work for him during the same period that over 100,000 other such Americans were being uprooted and sent to internment camps. He also wrote a column warning against such prejudice.

Sandburg also championed the right of women to vote nationally before they received it in 1920. In 1911, soon after the birth of his oldest daughter, Margaret, he wrote a magazine article entitled “My Baby Girl.” In it he stated

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She shall see women go forward and cast ballots and speak and write and with passionate earnestness take part in political movements . . . .

. . . Woman, the common woman—the wife of the workingman—is the slave of a slave, cooking, sewing, washing, cleaning, nursing in sickness, and rendering a hundred personal services daily for a man who is himself not in power to dictate a constant job and living wage for himself. My baby girl shall see the slave achieve freedom for himself and his class," and Sandburg suggested that freedom for the workingmen would also liberate their wives.

In the early 1950s, as Senator Joe McCarthy was stirring up flames of intolerance and suspicion of foreign ways, Sandburg collaborated with his brother-in-law, who was the famous photographer Edward Steichen, in putting together a photographic exhibit for New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It opened in January 1955 and subsequently was displayed in various parts of the world, becoming the most viewed display of photographs in history. In 1959, the two men took the exhibit to Moscow, hoping it would further understanding among Cold War rivals. The pictures in the exhibit were gathered from almost seventy countries and were meant to demonstrate humanity’s oneness. Sandburg also wrote the Prologue for the extremely popular book, The Family of Man, which reproduced the photographs. In it he wrote:

Everywhere is love and love-making, weddings and babies from generation to generation keeping the family of Man alive and continuing. Everywhere the sun, moon and stars, ­­the climates and weathers, have meanings for people. Though meanings vary, we are alike in all countries and tribes in trying to read what sky, land and sea say to us. Alike and ever alike we are on all continents in the need of love, food, clothing, work, speech, worship, sleep, games, dancing, fun. From the tropics to arctics humanity lives with these needs so alike, so inexorably alike.

And he closed the Prologue with a portion of a poem he had first written a few years before.

There is only one man in the world
and his name is All Men.
There is only one woman in the world
and her name is All Women.
There is only one child in the world
and the child’s name is All Children.

In the early 1960s in the last section of the last poem (“Timesweep”) of his final book of poetry, he repeated these lines.

Writer Wendell Berry displayed a similar openness to others, and I have already written (here and here) on his sympathy for African Americans and women. In 1968-69, he expressed sympathy for the Vietnamese people being harmed by U.S. war efforts. In an essay entitled “A Native Hill,” he wrote:

I am forever being crept up on and newly startled by the realization that my people [in Kentucky] established themselves here by killing or driving out the original possessors [Native American Indians], by the awareness that people [slaves] were once bought and sold here by my people, by the sense of the violence they have done to their own kind and to each other and to the earth, by the evidence of their persistent failure to serve either the place or their own community in it. I am forced, against all my hopes and inclinations, to regard the history of my people here as the progress of the doom of what I value most in the world: the life and health of the earth, the peacefulness of human communities and households.

In another essay I have quoted Berry on our callousness toward the lives of others. Here are a few of those quotes. In 1999, he wrote, “How many deaths of other people’s children by bombing or starvation are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent, and (supposedly) at peace?” His answer is “None. Please, no children. Don’t kill any children for my benefit.” In his novel Hannah Coulter (2004), his main character thinks that “want of imagination makes things unreal enough to be destroyed. By imagination I mean knowledge and love. I mean compassion. People of power kill children, the old send the young to die, because they have no imagination.” And once war begins “the rhetoric of violence prevents them [opposing sides] from imagining each other.’ And in 2012, Berry expressed his belief that we kill other people partly because we view them abstractly, as statistics: “Statistical knowledge is remote, and it isolates us in our remoteness. It is the stuff itself of unimagined life.”

Sandburg and Berry remind us wAms that in addition to the qualities of soldiers and/or sports stars that we admire— for example, courage, diligence, competiveness, loyalty, and patriotism—we also should seek to be more compassionate, empathetic, and imaginative toward non-wAms, at home and abroad. Before we talk of expelling illegal immigrants, we should try to imagine what their lives are like, for example, what it would be like to live with the constant fear that at any time you could be deported. According to recent research,


The typical unauthorized immigrant has been here for nearly 13 years. . . . About 65 percent of unauthorized immigrants over age 15 are employed . . . a higher share than for the U.S. population as a whole. A large percentage work in construction, hospitality, food service and other sectors often associated with immigrant labor. But unauthorized immigrants can be found in virtually every industry.

A majority of unauthorized immigrants are struggling financially. Nearly a third live in poverty, and nearly two-thirds earn less than twice the federal poverty line. Two-thirds lack health insurance, and less than a third own their own homes.

Many of these illegal immigrants have children—in 2012, about 7 percent of K-12 students had at least one such parent. Are we really so heartless as to wish to expel all these immigrants? Not only would it be callous to try to do so, to even suggest it would be living in a fantasy world. Expel more than 11 million people? Really?

Thus, all the wAms who voted for Republicans in our recent election not only need to be more compassionate about our unauthorized immigrants, but they need to get more real. Unlike the Republican-dominated House of Representatives in the past few years, they need to work toward wise, compassionate immigration reform. They also need to tell the Republicans that they voted for that they no longer want them to support bogus voter ID legislation that seeks to keep minorities from voting. And we wAms should think more compassionately about people in other countries before using U.S. military force abroad. If we had done so in 2003 before invading Iraq, many fewer Iraqis might be suffering today.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss