"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Friday, November 24, 2006

America the Thankful

OK, so I'm a day late, but hopefully not a dollar short. I spent much of yesterday pondering the many things for which our family should be thankful, as I'm sure most of America did. Yet let us not lose sight of the big picture, that there are many blessings this nation bestows on us which deserve our thanks as well. Here's what tops my list, in no particular order:

The power of democracy: while some cynically claim that their vote doesn't count, or that there's no difference between our two major parties (in the words of South Park, choosing between a "giant douche" and a "turd sandwich"), this past election proved that yeah, votes really do matter, and when the citizenry of this country wants change, they can get it. It is a rare thing in this world that a nation's citizens can choose its leaders transparently, with complete freedom of choice, and with confidence that the transition of power will be peaceful and legitimate. And hey, if your side loses, you'll have another chance a couple years down the road. And, despite the judicial activism that's arisen in the past few decades, Americans still have the chance to make their voices heard on any number of legislative ballot initiatives. Where else can likeminded citizens band together to put laws they care about directly to a general vote? While there may be much to criticize about politics, there is more for which we should be very thankful. We live in a democracy that works and gets only stronger with time. That is a blessing much of this world's people live without.

Our collective moral sense: America has historically demonstrated an amazing capacity for self-correction. While not unique among democracies for this (i.e. Great Britain), the United States has proven time and again that it can fix internal injustices without the country falling apart. Admittedly, we've come close: the Civil War rent this nation apart for four years, and early Southern victories almost made that tear permanent. And, as the Civil War, the suffragette movement, and the civil rights crusade showed, the process is rarely without violence, bloodshed, or suffering. Yet in the end, what history has deemed "right" in fact happened: the slaves were freed, women got the vote, blacks finally got the rights that so many died to secure for them a century before. Thus, in spite of the frustration and despair many in this nation hold about this or that social injustice, I am confident that our ability to fix our own problems will lead to justice in the end.

Our freedom of (not from) religion: I will perhaps elicit a few groans with this segue, but it would be intellectually dishonest and historically blind not to. The bottom line is that this country was built on a strong religious foundation, and that, while the fault lines have changed over the centuries with the influx of new religions or no religion, America remains a nation of faith at its heart. And for those who want to see expressions of this faith removed as far as possible from political life, I remind you: the sense of justice, of right and wrong, of protecting the weak and franchising the disenfranchised that we find in religion has contributed greatly to our historical ability to do the right thing. It was theological notions of equality, liberty, and justice - along with (not instead of) demands for full Constitutional rights - that drove the abolitionists, the suffragettes, and Martin Luther King. Far from seeking to ban all traces of religion from the public realm, we should be grateful that this country allows us such freedom of belief. Further, we should be grateful that the faithful take their values into the body politic for the sake of justice and the greater good. This nation would be a much different, sadder, and unequal place if religious Americans had kept their beliefs behind closed doors.

Our generosity: perhaps this, too, can be linked to our fundamental religiosity; perhaps it's simply an intrinsic part of our civic upbringing. However you cut it, though, America is an incredibly generous nation. We saw this at home, in the aftermath of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. We've seen it abroad, in our response to the tsunami and earthquake in Pakistan. From private citizens to massive corporations, Americans are always willing to help out when others are in trouble. This generosity is accomplished without fanfare, and frequently received with indifference or outright hostility by the rest of the world. But that has never stopped us from digging into our pockets, or donating our time and sweat, when others need it.

Our military: never in the history of the world has a nation sacrificed so many of its own citizens for such little material gain. In the past, the success of a military campaign was judged by how much territory was captured, how many prisoners taken, how much booty was brought back home. By that old standard, American military ventures have been monumental failures. After all, we went to war twice in Europe, and the only territory we have to show for it are the graveyards our dead are buried in. By the standard that America values most, however - the gains of freedom - our wars have been unmitigated victories. We brought freedom to a whole underclass of citizens in the Civil War, protected Europe from wholesale conquest in 1917, liberated much of the world from bloodthirsty totalitarianism by 1945, saved South Korea from communism in 1950, fought against that same threat in Vietnam in the 60's and 70's, waged a cold war against the propegators of Stalinism for half a century, liberated tiny Kuwait from a monster in 1991, spent the next ten years policing the skies of Iraq to protect more of her citizens from wholesale slaughter, halted ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, removed a Stone Age government from Afghanistan, and finally toppled Iraq's dictator and offered the hope of peace and democracy to ordinary Iraqis for the first time in decades. Some of these wars were bloodier than others, some fought imperfectly, some less successful than they could have been, some ultimately failures, and some still hang in the balance. Yet the theme behind all of them has been the same: liberation, not conquest.

Our soldiers, too, are a different kind from the warriors of history. They do not fight for personal gain (with today's pay scale, you're crazy if you join the military for the money) or for the promise of land or slaves. Their motivations for joining are many and varied, but at the core, however hidden, is a sense that this country, its people, and its values are worth defending. Some join in time of peace, with the threat of war far over the horizon. Braver, perhaps, are those who join in time of war, with the knowledge that they will very likely be put in harm's way quite soon. In the face of battle, they are compassionate and professional. As one Marine general put it, our troops are "no better friend, no worse enemy." They will devote their blood and sweat as much to rebuilding a village as to killing those who seek to destroy it. And they can expect few accolades in return, both abroad and at home. Yet they do it just the same; and were it not for the consistent courage, patriotism, and professional conduct of these men and women, this nation would have succumbed to one enemy or another long ago.

I'm sure I could go on for hours, so I'll stop here before I start praising just how green our grass is. Bottom line: there are many reasons to be thankful we live in this country. Let's not forget them.

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