Friday, December 11, 2009

The War in Afghanistan

Editor's Note: The following entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, the director of De Sales Servcie Works in Camden, NJ. Fr. McCue reflects on the human costs of war that often are hidden from out sight, and offers a strong challenge from the Catholic tradition about the morality of this war and all the costs with which it is associated.

At our parish grade school, teachers reported recently observing that one boy in kindergarten was eating more than one of our free school breakfasts in the morning and was caught several times bringing food from breakfast or lunch back to the classroom. He was breaking the rules and did not respond to authority telling him to follow the rules. Our principal discerned that he was doing this because he is hungry. He and his 5 brothers and sisters live with their grandmother and frequently go without dinner. The great thing is that the principal and teachers looked to the source of the problem instead of solely addressing the behavior. They could then address the real issue, or one level of the real issue.

This story gives just one example of what makes me proud of our school: simple attention and care for our students as individuals.

The experience also gives a way for me to offer some thoughts about the war in Afghanistan. I hesitate to write about a public policy issue that is complicated and in an area where I have no direct experience or special competence. However, because democracy is all about everyone having a voice, and blogs are all about exchange of ideas; I write.

To put it simply, I think the course of action chosen by our president, sending more troops to Afghanistan, is unfortunate. Even if all goes forward according to best-case hopes, the many downsides which have accompanied the war so far are likely to continue.

1. The war involves a huge expense of money, and I have to think how we could spend the money better. And where does the money go?

2. Camden, N.J. is an American city that has stood out for its poverty and dysfunction for 40 years. Multiple efforts and plans to lead this community out of its dysfunction have come and gone. There is some progress, but entrenched problems remain. Aren’t we basically trying to do the same thing in Afghanistan? In addition, in central Asia we are not dealing with an American city, but with an area where we are outsiders to the many languages and ancient cultures of the region. How can we count on success there when we can’t do it here?

3. The number of Americans who have died in the war has exceeded the amount who died on 9/11. That comparison does not consider how many non-Americans have died so far, or how many non-combatants. How many young people are injured for life, missing limbs, health ruined or mental health stressed to the limits? The number of soldiers who have returned to the United States and subsequently committed suicide is also sobering.

4. Isn’t this war making enemies for America? Doesn’t the violence and disruption radicalize many people the conflict touches? Every bomb, on target or not, kills or maims someone’s son, brother, friend, nephew, husband, father, grandson, and creates anger and makes enemies of the U.S. As long as conflict provides more jobs than actual productive enterprises (put on hold because of war), there are more young men freed up to get into trouble.

If we bring the classic just war criteria (1) to the situation, my list of concerns raises problems. It is very unsure that other means of addressing the risk of terrorist activity are impractical or ineffective. The chance of success is small. My list of downsides most clearly challenges the criteria that the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver that the evil to be eliminated. Simply put, our war effort is creating more aggrieved people with reason to join in opposition to the United States.

This brings us back to the kindergarten story. The school officials might have simply addressed the problem of a student taking more than his share of food via discipline and punishment. Instead, the school had the good sense and skill to see and address the underlying issue. I want to suggest that an approach to this war in Afghanistan that thinks U.S. security concerns can be effectively addressed by more armed troops fails to address root issues.

Andrew J. Bacevich teaches history and international relations at Boston University. He articulates a critique of what he sees as an excessive dependence on military power to pursue foreign policy goals. I have heard him speak a couple times in radio interviews and have read one book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. His arguments make sense and carry particular weight for three reasons: 1. he is a retired Army colonel, he began his career during the Vietnam War era, 2. His son was killed in this war, 3. He is a Catholic who deliberately brings the insight of this tradition to his thinking.

He also argues that we simply do not have the resources to effectively fight an open-ended, world-wide “war on terror.” He argues that it would be more accurate and effective to treat the terror threat as a law enforcement issue. The terrorists are criminal thugs, rather than national actors, soldiers.

American economic prosperity is not infinite, not something that is guaranteed, he argues. Costly military actions divert resources and economic focus away from medicine, education, infrastructure and technology to things that support what, he argues, is a self-perpetuating reliance on military force. On the topic of American resources, he points out that our soldiers and their families are being asked to bear the burden of “the war on terror.” Isolating the responsibility of defense to a subgroup, distances the human cost of armed conflict from the rest of the nation. Talking about the draft-a structure that was supposed to distribute the burden of defense across economic and cultural lines of the citizenry-he writes, “Whatever the threat posed by Al Qaeda, most parents with teenagers will view the prospect of a draft as posing a greater immediate danger to their children’s well-being.”

What most advances American and world security? I recommend Andrew J. Bacevich’s work as a help to understanding the problem, and to seeing another way.

(1) These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
· the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
· all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
· there must be serious prospects of success;
· the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Drug Use in Camden

Editor's Note: In today's entry, De Sales Service Works director Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, discusses the rampant drug problems in Camden. Despite the obvious problems and the temptation to despair, he highlights the possibility of hope for people and what some people are doing to help people who suffer from addiction. Frequently, people addicted to drugs can be moved to the margins of society. However, as Christians, we are challenged to follow Jesus who ministered to those who lived on society's margins.

One of the most disturbing things we have experienced living here is the evidence of drug abuse. Illegal, dangerous drugs are all around us here.

We see it in the drug trade carried on “hidden in clear sight” everywhere, at intersections and in the middle of blocks. In fact, for our first year here, until about a month ago, a house directly across the street from the front door of our grade school was a busy drug house. Teenage boys and young men manned the front porch and sidewalk as buyers visited in car or on foot beginning late morning and continuing late into the night. All this occurred with mother and extended family-sisters, cousins, babies-coming and going as well.

We see it in people we meet who are clearly high: either hyper-energetic or just out of it. We see it in people young and old who are wasted away physically: skinny with vacant, distracted eyes. We feel it in conversations that have no energy of commitment: no one is home. This is most shocking and depressing when we see people in their teens or early twenties who clearly just arrived here from their middle class lives. Seeing the look of people caught in this subculture is depressing in everyone, but seeing young people who are not yet wasted away, whose skin in not yet scribbled on with tattoos that are on everyone on the street, often just makes me angry. They have to have other options, I think to myself.

The third evidence of drug use is discarded syringes that can be seen all over in the neighborhood. Every alley or shadowy corner seems to be the place to shoot up. An alley near our house, between us and our grade school, is where we see needles the most. This alley is a disaster, with junk everywhere. For a couple months in the summer the alley even featured chairs, a discarded cooler, and two plastic milk crates with a canopy rigged above it set up for shooting up.

We have to ask how anyone gets to the point in their lives where they are willing to sit in a place like that, for any purpose. And who likes needles, even in a safe and sanitary medical environment? I suppose people get so caught in addiction that they end up here. I suppose some see so few options for themselves that the escape that alcohol and drugs offer seems like a viable option, one that is within reach.

This chilly morning I looked out my office window to the night shelter of a man we see here every day. Sometimes he sleeps with friends or in abandoned buildings, but when he sleeps in our parking lot, he gathers cardboard to construct a box for himself to sleep. He chooses a somewhat sheltered spot against the wall of a tall brick building. He never seems high; he says he has been free of drugs for years. Yet looking at his circumstances, I think that the temptation to simply numb his awareness must haunt him as an appealing option against the cold, loneliness and lack of direction.

I met another man a couple weeks ago here to get a sandwich. He is a young guy, clean-cut, not wasted away, without tattoos. We talked, and he told me he is a vet. He served in Iraq. He is in the reserves (if I got the terminology correct) and is waiting to be deployed overseas again. He can’t be more than 24. His family situation is scattered and chaotic, so he is on his own, living in Camden’s “tent city.” He said he spent much of his downtime during his deployment high, with earphones plugged into loud music just to get through the constant stress of war. So he is here trying to keep things together until his unit re-gathers for training for a deployment in Afghanistan in the spring. I suggested he use the resources of the Veterans’ Administration to treat his drug dependence and the effects of combat. He feels that doing that would jeopardize his career. The only option he sees is holding out until training begins.

That weekend members of the student government of DeSales University were here for a service retreat, and they took on the alley. Graduates of Holy Name grade school joined them, and together they cleared away old tires, mattresses, carpet, weeds: junk and more junk. They filled a construction dumpster with the debris. The pavement still looks like it belongs in a developing country, but clearing the alley has made a huge difference.

These students are aware of a wide horizon of options for their lives. Thank God that service and concern for those with constricted options is on that horizon; our community benefits from that generous vision.