War Is Inconceivable
1989 was a very seminal year. It began, for me, in January when my daughter was born on the other side of the world in South Korea. The anticipation of her arrival inspired the completion of my doctoral dissertation and she arrived at the Memphis airport just in time for me to carry her in procession at my commencement at Vanderbilt.
As Valerie was taking her first hesitant steps that fall, 1989 became a seminal year for most of the world as the Berlin Wall, that symbol of global division, tyranny, and threat of global war, was finally taken down.
Those of you who grew up during the era of school drills, hiding under our desks to protect ourselves from the falling debris of a nearly inevitable nuclear war will understand why I have kept a piece of the Berlin Wall in my office these past 33 years. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the certain signal of the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
I remember writing sermons in those years about the much anticipated “peace dividend” that would result from the lowering of international tensions. Now, surely, we would be able to gut the bloated military budget and reallocate those resources to housing, education, health care, mass transit, and safer roads and bridges. I was young and naive but let me not get ahead of myself here.
As you may recall, the breakup of the Soviet Union, was not all cotton candy and rainbows. As the eastern bloc nations began to seek independence, they were not leaving the Soviet Union empty handed. The Ukraine had the third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. Western nations were rightly concerned about the potential for those weapons to find their way into the wrong hands…. As if there are good and right hands to ever have a stockpile of nuclear weapons. . . but I digress.
In 1994, the Russian Federation, Great Britain, and the United States persuaded the new governments of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for promises from the west that if Russia ever tried to invade their sovereign territory, that we would come to their aid. This was called the Budapest Memorandum. If you can’t remember having ever heard of the Budapest Memorandum, don’t feel bad. Evidently no one in any major news source seems to remember it either because no one ever mentions it.
Obviously, if the Ukraine had not agreed to give up their nuclear weapons, Crimea would still be a part of the Ukraine. But in 2014, Putin had his soldiers dressed in these green uniforms with no national identification and sent them into Crimea, while denying that they were Russian soldiers. I’m telling you the truth. You can’t make this stuff up.
Putin tested the metal of the Budapest Memorandum and found that it was nothing but straw.
Frankly, I’m surprised that he has waited this long to take another bite of the apple. With obvious preparations for invasion mounting up on the Russian side of the border there are some of us who still dare to talk about diplomacy. But, folks, diplomacy means that you are trying to understand one another, that you are listening and trying to find a rational solution that solves the problems on both sides of the equation.
I hope that diplomacy is taking place in private conversations, but the public reporting is disheartening. It is like the people who talk about Pearl Harbor as if the Japanese just decided to attack our naval base in Hawaii with no provocation. Most people I meet don’t even know that we had embargoed Japan, stopping all shipments of iron and steel to the island nation, metals that were crucial to their industrialization. We wanted their silk and pottery, but we didn’t want them to compete with us in the global market.
Most people, even the veterans of the Vietnam War, don’t know why we took over that colonial war from the French. There was no “domino theory” that made us send troops to Vietnam. Southeast Asia had been colonized and turned into rubber tree plantations because the growing auto industry needed rubber for tires. Folks, nothing happens in a vacuum. No country risks resources and lives to start a war for nothing; and since the Crusades, no one has really started a war over religion. It was always money. And, if you scratch the surface of the Crusades, a lot of brainwashed people may have gone to fight for religious reasons but, trust me, their monarchs didn’t send them to fight for Jesus. Jesus doesn’t need soldiers.
As soon as we learned how to make tires without so much rubber in them, and the supply was no longer an issue, we never talked about the domino theory again.
In fact, even though almost all of the world’s rubber still comes from Southeast Asia, can you even tell me which Southeast Asian nations became communist: Is Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, or Thailand currently communist? The answer is: Just Laos and Vietnam. Folks, America is not typically altruistic in our use of our armies. We are not always the liberators. We are not always the heroes.
A book cover with a flag Description automatically generated with low confidenceIn recent years, we have not so much fought over natural resources as we have fought simply to fight. It is the money spent on the war that is the treasure. War is the product that is bought and sold to transfer America’s resources into the hands of the corporate war machine. I wish that I was exaggerating, but I am afraid that this is not just my opinion, I happen to be entirely correct about this.
I have been slowly reading this book for the past 6 weeks: David Vine’s “The United States of War.” I have been reading it slowly because it is painful to read. Vine chronicles the growth of the number of American military bases abroad and the growth of our military budget.
Not counting the number of military bases we have on our own land, how many would you guess we have abroad? You could name Germany, Japan, Guam, maybe a few more if you have served in the military. But when I pose this question to experienced veterans, most will guess three or four dozen. The correct answer, as of today, is 850. Most of which serve no purpose in keeping the peace or preventing war. Most are placed strategically to safeguard our corporations’ access to natural resources.
Half of America’s discretionary budget goes to military expenditures. Why do other western nations have tuition free higher education, universal health care, and admirable mass transit systems? Because they don’t have 850 foreign military bases to pay for. Our military budget is larger than the next 10 nations combined and 8 of those are our allies! Our defense budget is, in a word, indefensible.
But, speaking of a peace dividend, we have finally ended our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we even have a Democrat in the White House, now, surely, the military budget will be dramatically downsized. . . but no, Biden’s first Defense budget is larger than the budget we had while fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is economic insanity, but it makes perfect sense to the military industrial complex.
But as we turn to the present crisis, with Russia amassing troops on their border with Ukraine, do you know anything about the back story . . . like our embargo of iron and steel being sent to Japan, or the demands of the automobile industry for rubber out of Vietnam? Why is Putin demanding that the Ukraine not join NATO?
Even at my estimable age, I can barely remember the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviet Union planned to put nuclear weapons on a base in Cuba, just 234 miles from Miami! We were ready to go to war to prevent this and very nearly did! There was no way that we could feel secure with Soviet military arms that close to our country. But do you know where NATO has nuclear weapons that are pointing at Russia? In Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Belgium and in Germany.
I would say that we have them surrounded with military bases, loaded with long range nuclear missiles but I don’t think China will allow us to build a base on Russia’s eastern border. Key to Russia’s concern about the Ukraine is that when the Soviet Union was falling apart, Russia was given promises from the west that we would not try to move military bases into the former eastern bloc nations because, wait for it, . . . . if we did, that would be a military provocation and would rob Russia of security, setting the stage for future military invasions.
The diplomatic offer that Russia has made to turn back from invading Ukraine is to be given assurances that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO, an assurance already given 30 years ago but now we are telling Russia that this is a non-starter and Ukraine can join NATO if they want to. Which, as I understand this global game of Risk, makes the Russian invasion of the Ukraine almost inevitable.
You have heard me say this before, if all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. We are so invested in military might that it becomes inevitable that we will use it. No arms race ever preserves the peace. Even though we say we are seeking peace through strength, look how that is working out for Ukraine. Our powerful defensive posture in Europe will possibly cost them their freedom. This is wrong-headed on a very stupid level. We could do so much better.
Folks, I realize that I am just a dumb country preacher and that I am talking about things that are way above my paygrade right now, but I do know this, as much as I don’t like guns and security cameras, if my next-door neighbor sets up missiles aimed at my house in his front and back yard, some counter measures may be in order. And if diplomacy fails, well, you can follow that line of reasoning to its necessary conclusion.
Since WWII, we have encircled the globe with military installations, all under the guise of a defensive posture, but no other country in the history of the world has done this at such an empire building scale. It is virtually impossible to invest so heavily in military hardware and armies and to not use them, even if we gaslight every other nation into believing that in spite of our provocations, they are the bad guys.
I am leaving later this week to spend a couple of weeks with my scuba buddies in Central America. We are going to an island where I have never been before, the Roatan. But without having ever seen it, I can bet right now that the best grocery stores on the island are Chinese. Because, from Bonaire to Belize, every Caribbean Island I have visited over the past 30 years, the best grocery store is Chinese, run by a Chinese family, funded by the Chinese government to spread Chinese language and culture around the globe. Grocery stores, not military bases.
Eighty years ago, Americans were afraid that Germany would invade our east coast and Japan would invade our west coast. But there are no Japanese naval installations in California or German air bases in South Carolina. There are, however, Japanese automobile plants in 11 states and German car makers employ 50,000 Americans in South Carolina making cars that are better and cheaper than American cars . . . while Detroit falls into decay.
Can you imagine how the world might be different if we closed a few hundred bases and moved that labor and money back into our idle manufacturing plants and began to build electric cars, high speed rail roads, solar panels, and wind turbines?
Sort of like what they are doing in the rest of the developed world, while we continue to impoverish our nation with foolish military spending.
But, of course, the real issue here is not about economics. We have tracked human history, often citing the advancement of our weapons. The Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, each marking the ascension of superior weapons that allowed one tribe or culture to dominate others.
The inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, who left his fortune to establish the famous Nobel prizes, thought that dynamite would make warfare unthinkable because of the potential for mass killing with explosives. But he underestimated the human capacity for accepting violence.
About the same time, Richard Gatling invented the Gatling Gun which he thought would make warfare unthinkable because you could use it to kill so many people so quickly. He thought his invention would end the Civil War but it just increased the casualty count.
Albert Einstein is credited with being the genius who made the atomic bomb possible and he deeply regretted his part in the project, saying that if he had only known that the Germans were not going to succeed in developing an atomic weapon, he never would have lifted a finger. He added, “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”
I titled this piece, “War is Inconceivable,” but maybe I should have titled it, “War Should be Inconceivable.” Because, no matter how deadly it becomes, someone can conceive of it. Vladimir Putin, Dick Cheney, but Barak Obama too, Harry Truman and Senator Josh Hawley.
For more than 2000 years, old men have quoted Horace to new generations of young soldiers: Dulce et decorum est Pro Patria Mori
"It is sweet and fitting to die for the homeland."
After the carnage and horror of chemical warfare used in WWI, the modern poet, Wilfred Owen, suggested that if only you could see young men choaking and dying in the trenches, you would never again tell the old lie, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” Because it isn’t sweet or fitting. It isn’t honorable. It is a nightmare, a nightmare from which we are waiting for the world to wake up. Owen writes:
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
It is time, isn’t it, to stop lying about “thank you for your service” and to start telling the truth about warfare.
Some commentators have said that it is impossible to conceive of a ground war in Europe in which one nation seeks to occupy and take another. I don’t know why Russia or Europe is viewed that differently from the invasions that have been taking place in other parts of the world. How is a Russian invasion of Ukraine different from the American invasion of Iraq? That war should have been inconceivable too.
The larger truth, men and women, is that we must stop marking human progress by the invention of superior weapons and begin to measure it with planet saving innovations in renewable energy. The development of an economy that redistributes wealth in a way that ends poverty. . . that spends the world’s resources on healthcare, housing, education, clean water, nutrition, and peace.
I do not know if Russia is going to invade and occupy another large portion of Ukraine this week. But I know this, until we change our priorities, until we start building hospitals, universities, train stations, and wind farms instead of military bases, someone is always going to be invading someone and that madness must stop.
Dr. Roger Ray