Archive for November, 2010

This was the sign on a church we passed today in Plano, Texas: “Pray for the troops. Love your enemies.”

This sign confuses me, as the reader can draw any number of conclusions about what we’re supposed to ask for on behalf of the troops. I assume the attitude behind the sign is the attitude eviscerated so well by Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer.” I hope I am mistaken. Followers of Christ have no business cheer-leading for a war.

Here’s my prayer for the troops, that they:

  • Never fall under the impression that I want them to kill anyone or support a decision to do so;
  • Never pull a trigger or throw a weapon;
  • Return to their homes without physical or mental injury;
  • Live long, healthy, productive lives surrounded by people they love.

Suggested reading:

It may not feel like it while President Obama is talking about four more years of futile, brutal combat operations in Afghanistan, but the anti-war movement is winning. We just don’t know it.

Part of the problem is that most people in our movement have very little understanding about the way social movements grow and evolve, so we buy into narratives of failure and irrelevance, like this one from the September 4, 2010 issue of Politico:

Paradoxically, the anti-war movement has grown weaker even as public opposition to the Afghanistan war has grown stronger.  A recent Gallup poll found that 43 percent of those surveyed think the Afghanistan war was a mistake, compared with 30 percent in January 2009. But an anti-war rally in Washington in March 2009 drew fewer than 10,000 people — a fraction of the 500,000 activists who attended an anti-Iraq war rally in Manhattan in 2003.

This conflation of one aspect of a social movement–public anti-war rallies–with the entire movement is common, even among activists. That’s why people like CODEPINK’s Medea Benjamin and Cindy Sheehan can be fully aware of the massive public opposition to the war but still say things like this:

“We don’t have a very vibrant anti-war movement anymore,” lamented Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Codepink, one of the anti-war movement’s most visible organizations.

“I basically think that it’s over,” Sheehan said.

It’s a common idea among people who consider themselves activists that a lack of huge rallies, marches or mass demonstrations equals a dead movement. Thankfully, these activists are just wrong.

The author of the Politico article quoted above unwittingly described a social movement that is succeeding and that has outgrown a particular stage of its life and moved on to a much more powerful and widespread incarnation. According to Bill Moyer’s seminal 2001 book on social movements, Doing Democracy, huge rallies, marches and other demonstrations are expected to fade away as a movement progresses through the various stages of its life toward success. If we look at the movement through the lens of Moyer’s model of social movements, its clear that not only is the anti-Afghanistan War movement not “over,” but we’re winning.

There are eight stages of social movements in Moyer’s model (excerpted from p. 44-45):

  1. Normal times. A critical social problem exists that violates widely held values; the public is unaware of the problem and supports powerholders. Problem is not a public issue.
  2. Prove the failure of official institutions. Many new local opposition groups spring up. Social movement members use  official channels –courts, government offices, commissions, hearings, etc. — and prove in the process that they don’t work. Movement members do research and become experts.
  3. Ripening conditions. Recognition of the problem and its victims grows as the movement makes the victims’ faces visible. 20 to 30 percent of the public oppose powerholder policies.
  4. Take off. Trigger event(s) occurs. Dramatic nonviolent actions/campaigns occur that show the public that the problem violates widely held values. The new social movement rapidly takes off. 40 percent of the public opposes current policies.
  5. Perception of failure. Movement members see goals are unachieved and powerholders unchanged. Numbers at demonstrations decline and it seems like a return to normal times. Despair, hopelessness, burnout, dropout pervade the movement. The “negative rebel” emerges more strongly.
  6. Majority public opinion. The majority of the population opposes conditions and powerholder policies. The movement demonstrates how the problem and policies affect all sectors of society, involving mainstream citizens and institutions in addressing the problem. Problem is put on the official agenda and alternatives promoted. The movement must begin to counter each new powerholder strategy while powerholders demonize movement and its alternatives. The movement promotes a paradigm shift and seize on re-trigger events.
  7. Success. Large majority opposes current policies and does not fear the alternatives. Powerholders split off and change positions, changing policies, losing power or lose by attrition. New laws or policies are instituted. Powerholders attempt to make minimal reforms while movement demands broad social change.
  8. Continuing the struggle. The movement extends its successes, opposes attempts at backlash, promotes its paradigm shift and focuses on other sub-issues. It recognizes and celebrates its successes so far.

The trick to models like this is that they can tend to convey to users that there are clear demarcations between the stages, but the truth is that the transition between them is murky, and sometimes two stages can overlap. Despite that, Moyer provides a very useful framework for discerning where the movement is and what it’s job is at this point in the movement’s life.

I’d argue that the movement to end the Afghanistan War is in a combination of Stages 5 and 6, Majority Public Opinion and Perception of Failure, with the first hints of Success peeking through. Here’s my evidence:

  • A solid majority of Americans opposes the Afghanistan War. Most Americans think we shouldn’t even be involved there (Quinnipiac University Poll. Nov. 8-15, 2010), most think it is a lost cause (Bloomberg National Poll conducted by Selzer & Co. Oct. 7-10, 2010), and most want troop withdrawals to begin on or before July 2011 (Newsweek Poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Aug. 25-26, 2010).
  • Alternatives are being proposed. The Council on Foreign Relations, the thermometer of Very Serious Thinking on foreign policy in Washington, D.C., has proposed rapid troop withdrawals if progress isn’t being made (and it isn’t). The Afghanistan Study Group proposed a significant troop reduction beginning next year. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace proposed its own withdrawal plans. And, of course, anti-Afghanistan-War activists have been calling for withdrawals on a much faster time-line for months now.
  • All of this has contributed to a drastically altered national conversation about the war, which now focuses almost entirely on how and when we withdraw our troops. The administration attempts to diffuse solid public opposition by offering vague, unacceptable withdrawal time-lines, but this is exactly what the model predicts–an attempt by powerholders to co-opt the language and momentum of the movement to diffuse opposition without offering solid concessions. This is an indicator of success, and even though it’s frustrating as hell, it’s something that should be recognized and celebrated as a milestone of progress toward the end goal.

And yet, the movement is struggling with a perception of failure. Many of the activists I talk to express feelings of burnout, cynicism, and powerlessness in the face of the powerholder intransigence. I often feel these things myself. Moyer’s description of the Perception of Failure stage probably resonates with a lot of us, emphasis mine:

…[T]the high hopes of instant victory in the movement take-off stage inevitably turn into despair as some activists begin to believe that their movement is failing. It has not achieved its goals and, in their eyes, it has not had any “real” victories. They come to believe that powerholders are too strong and are determined not to change their policies. Moreover, the powerholders and the mass media report that the movement is dead, irrelevant, or nonexistent. Activists in Stage Five also believe that the movement is dead because it no longer looks like it did at the start of the take-off stage: the numbers at demonstrations and civil disobedience actions have dropped substantially. Many Stage Five activists develop cynical attitudes and some turn to destructive behavior. (p. 59)

But, Moyer cautions that these feelings and the powerholders’ intransigence are poor indicators of progress for the movement precisely because “powerholders will be the last segment of society to change their minds and policies.”

He also warns that the intellectual and emotional capital that we built up at the beginning of the struggle–the expertise about the depth of the problem and the knowledge of the damage it does to the victims, the burning drive to devote every waking minute to the fight, etc.–can begin to work against us personally. We fail to celebrate the milestones along the way to ending the problem, and we fail to take time for “adequate rest, leisure, fun and attendance to personal needs.” We overwork, we can’t see the forest for the trees, and we burn out. But that feeling of burnout is about us, and isn’t a good measure of the movement’s progress.

Think about the changed dynamic between this year and last year.

At this time last year, the public opposed the Afghanistan War, but President Obama decided to push ahead with a troop increase. However, this president, who campaigned on escalating the war, was compelled by public opposition into providing a concession: “In 18 months, our troops will begin to come home,” he said. War supporters worked mightily to redefine that concession into meaninglessness, and after McChrystal resigned in disgrace, General Petraeus worked to try to convince the American people that we were “making progress” even when it was obvious we weren’t. He failed spectacularly, and public opinion remained solidly in opposition to the war. As it was prior to the last two decisions by President Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan, the war is clearly failing to achieve the stated goals of its supporters. And yet, somehow, the option of sending another major surge of troops is off the table, even though administration officials have repeatedly stated that the troop levels have not been “capped.” That didn’t just magically happen. The political environment shaped by the work of anti-war activists did that.

Today, there’s an end date to combat operations on the table. This date is too vague, too far out and comes with too many loose ends, but it’s not insignificant. We’re past the “ifs” of withdrawal and are into the “whens,” and whether we realize it or not, powerholders have entered into a bargaining process with public opinion.

Now, it’s incumbent on us to recognize powerholders’ true intent here. As Moyer warns, the purpose of this negotiation is “for show and to confuse, defuse, split, and co-opt the opposition. Any serious negotiation will not happen until Stage Seven.” They’re hoping slapping a vague end date to something like combat operations will act as a steam valve on public opposition. Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. But again, regardless of the powerholders’ intent, this move on their part is a sign that we’re making headway and are on the road to bringing this war to an end.

The success that we’re headed for, by all indications, is what Moyer calls the “quiet showdown” or “victorious retreat.”

A quiet showdown happens when powerholders realize that they can no longer continue their present policies and they launch a face-saving endgame process of “victorious retreat.” Rather than admit defeat and praise the movement for its correct views and its principled stand, the powerholders adopt and carry out many of the goals and policies that were demanded by the movement. The powerholders claim credit for victory, even though they have been forced to reverse their previously held hard-line policies. the mainstream media complies by reporting this as a success of the powerholders. (p. 76)

President Obama and his administration will likely never say anything like, “Man, you anti-war activists really shut me down. Good job. We’re ending combat operations because I can’t sustain political support if I keep pushing policies in opposition to you.” What he will say is something like, well, what he’s saying right now. It will be something along these lines:

“Thanks to the outstanding performance of our troops and General David Petraeus, our assessment shows we’re making sufficient progress to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011, if not before, and we’ll end combat operations by [insert end date here].”

We’ll do every thing we can to push that end date forward in time, and the generals and the pro-war politicians will do what they can to roll it back, but in the end, we will end this war. The president will do his best to save face, the media will, as always, comply and convey the powerholders’ narrative, but we’ll tell our grandchildren how we ended the Afghanistan War.

Most people agree with us that the Afghanistan War isn’t making us safer and isn’t worth the cost. The national conversation has shifted onto a playing field that is advantageous to ending the war. Further major troop increases appear to be off the table. The powerholders are fencing with us, attempting to co-opt the energy of our support base through the use of the language of withdrawal, yet offering as little as possible in the way of real concessions. The latter can be frustrating, but is also a sign that they cannot ignore us and the sentiment we’ve helped generate in the public at large. This is no time to get complacent, but it’s not a time for despair either.

Take care of yourselves, keep your eye on the prize, and keep up the fight. It’s later than you think.

I’ve not written anything specifically for this blog in quite a while. I’ve been struggling quite a bit lately, trying to figure out whether I still had faith in The Faith at all. My problem is epitomized by this blog post, penned by Bryan Fischer, a prominent supposed “Christian conservative.” He’s decrying the fact that there seems to be a trend among Medal of Honor Awards lately wherein the medal is awarded to people who save lives, rather than kill “bad guys.” Here are some excerpts.

We have feminized the Medal of Honor.

According to Bill McGurn of the Wall Street Journal, every Medal of Honor awarded during these two conflicts has been awarded for saving life. Not one has been awarded for inflicting casualties on the enemy. Not one.

Gen. George Patton once famously said, “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his.”

When we think of heroism in battle, we used the think of our boys storming the beaches of Normandy under withering fire, climbing the cliffs of Pointe do Hoc while enemy soldiers fired straight down on them, and tossing grenades into pill boxes to take out gun emplacements.

That kind of heroism has apparently become passe when it comes to awarding the Medal of Honor. We now award it only for preventing casualties, not for inflicting them.

So the question is this: when are we going to start awarding the Medal of Honor once again for soldiers who kill people and break things so our families can sleep safely at night?

I would suggest our culture has become so feminized that we have become squeamish at the thought of the valor that is expressed in killing enemy soldiers through acts of bravery. We know instinctively that we should honor courage, but shy away from honoring courage if it results in the taking of life rather than in just the saving of life. So we find it safe to honor those who throw themselves on a grenade to save their buddies.

Jesus, in words often cited in ceremonies such as the one which will take place this afternoon, said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). So it is entirely right that we honor this kind of bravery and self-sacrifice, which is surely an imitation of the Lord of lords and King of kings.

However, Jesus’ act of self-sacrifice would ultimately have been meaningless – yes, meaningless – if he had not inflicted a mortal wound on the enemy while giving up his own life.

Let me say at the outset that I have a hard time mustering a respectful response to this sort of vile garbage. Not only are the teachings of Jesus nowhere to be found in the sentiments expressed in the article, but there’s a deep sexism overlaying the entire piece that conflates the feminine with weakness and negativity. Unfortunately, in my experience with American Christianity, Fischer is a microcosm of the faith these days.

Jesus never killed anyone, period, and his teachings allow for no celebration of killing people. A metaphorical, even spiritual, mortal blow cannot be conflated with using a projectile to puncture a human body so it cannot function. They are not the same thing.

Self-sacrifice in the service of high ideals is never meaningless, not even when they fail to strike even metaphorical mortal blows. Remember this guy?

Tank Man

A lone protestor for democracy stands alone against a line of tanks during the Tiannamen Square protests.

Does that scream “meaningless” to you? I note that China’s authoritarian government is still standing. The meaning of Jesus’ nonviolent self-sacrifice includes the same sort of meaning we see in the picture above. Part of the meaning of the cross is the stand Jesus took against the Roman occupation and the self-serving collusion of the political and religious leadership of his people. Even if nothing else happened but a mundane death on a mundane piece of wood, there is deep meaning here from which we can learn.

Fischer’s article is hardly the only example of this sort of false Christian spirituality rampant in the group of people that considers themselves the “Body of Christ.” It entails an obfuscation of the concrete, inescapable and thoroughly nonviolent meanings of Christ’s actual words in favor of a formulaic and otherwordly system of thought that gets adherents blissfully free of the actual ethical demands made in the teachings of Jesus. It allows people who ostensibly follow the Prince of Peace to celebrate the killing of other human beings, as long as they are “bad guys,” even though the spirituality they espouse loves rubbing people’s noses in the fact that we’re all “bad guys” who deserve to die.

This sort of thinking produces all manner of perverse attributes of the so-called “Church.” For example, the followers of a man who was tortured to death by authorities are inexplicably more likely to support government-sponsored torture. And frankly, if these are the indicators of what it means to be a Christian in America these days, I’ve got no interest in sharing the label. If Fischer and the pro-war, pro-torture crowd are the dominant manifestation of Christianity, count me out. To put it another way, if Fischer is a Christian, then I am not.

Sometimes the only way to follow Jesus is to get away from the Christians.

Last week I posted about the silly contradictions in the various spin pieces coming from General Petraeus’ press shop in Afghanistan. At the time, ISAF was claiming that a) Kandahar and Helmand were “security bubbles” and b) ISAF was obviously winning because they were confining most of the violence in Afghanistan to…Kandahar and Helmand. This week, ISAF wants to top their crossed messages with whole new contradictions.

Today Petraeus’ folks are screaming bloody murder about the Taliban’s killing of civilians:

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) — The NATO-led command in Afghanistan said insurgent fighters were responsible for scores of civilian casualties in October — more than 100 deaths and 200 injuries.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, which has been staunchly criticized by Afghans over the years for civilian casualties during the war, said the latest violence belies senior Taliban claims that the insurgents have protected civilians.

“Their message simply does not match the reality that every day, insurgents are deliberately killing, injuring and intimidating Afghan civilians.” [Rear Adm. Vic Beck, ISAF spokesman]

But wait…remember this from last week?

The number of civilians wounded and killed last quarter (July-September) was 20 percent lower than the same period last year, despite the increase in fighting and increased numbers of coalition forces and Afghan forces. ISAF believes this means that even with rising attacks, it is reducing the ability of insurgents to harm the Afghan civilian population.

Since both of these stories were filed by CNN staff, it sure would be nice if any of their 4,000 news professionals asked ISAF about these contradictions, wouldn’t it?

The truth is that the massive troop presence and escalated military activity isn’t protecting Afghan civilians. That means the U.S. and allied forces are failing at the basic requirement of counterinsurgency: protect the population. The war’s not making us safer, and it’s not worth the cost. Get those troops home.