Sunday, April 29, 2007

Support the Troops

"That was one of my first choices, just to fire the big guns and see (stuff) blow up," said the grinning Small, whose thick Newfoundland accent confirms his origins in Main Brook, N.L., a tiny community of 350 on the island's northeastern tip.

"It was pretty cool, so I said, 'Oh yeah, let's do that.' It's a big rush to fire the big guns. That's why I like it."

(Canadian soldier, 19 year-old Mitcheal Small quoted in a Canadian Press release and appearing in Yahoo! Canada News on April 29th, 2007)

A lot of cars in the USA have a sticker attached in the rear that's in the form of a yellow ribbon with "Support the Troops" as its text. That sentiment is also expressed here in Canada as a nod to the "brave boys" fighting over there "to make the world a better place for the people of Afghanistan." As is usually the case, especially in time of war, the soldiering career is held up as a noble and brave profession, and its practitioners as the best of the best of citizens, to whom we all owe a great debt.

In the case of Mitcheal Small--quoted above--I'm not so sure that such accolades are in order. If he was speaking seriously, he was telling us that he chose to enlist and go to Afghanistan because it would give him an opportunity to wreak massive destruction, to "see (stuff) blow up." I would be interested in knowing which kind of soldier--the brave and noble citizen or the young man with a fetish for big guns and explosions--predominates in the Canadian military. My experience is limited in this area, but one young man who went from a high school in which I was teaching to the Canadian Armed Forces came back to the staff room full of the piss and vinegar of Mitcheal Small.

I don't support our troops, but I would support any effort to get them out of Afghanistan for retraining. It's not right that our young men and women should be rewarded for nurturing a "patience, hell . . . I'm gonna kill something!" attitude toward the world. I like a good explosion as much as the next guy, but I'm restrained from giving it rein. War removes the restraints and says that the love of the big guns and the havoc that can be created through their use is a good thing. I wonder if Small has already discovered that while he's blowing up "stuff," he may well be scattering the entrails of Taliban and civilians alike across the Afghan wasteland.

I believe that the NATO effort in Afghanistan is futile. Forces like the Taliban may well be suppressed for a time, but if our troops come home in, say, five years, they will most certainly creep out of the woodwork to continue where they left off. What I resent is the corollary to "support our troops," which says that expressing a negative opinion about our soldiers efforts in Afghanistan undermines their effort there and gives aid and comfort to the enemy. I'm being unpatriotic to boot, I'm told.

I can live with that. But let's stop kidding ourselves about the nobility of our cause in Afghanistan. We're sending boys and girls over there who know little about the culture and its history, and who are in the armed forces for a variety of reasons, including the opportunity--apparently--to blow stuff up.

One way or another, Afghans will have to shape the kind of country they want. No one can do that for them. The longer NATO troops carry on their project to stabilize the country and bring about order, the longer it will take for Afghanis to take the bull by the horns themselves.

Meanwhile, all the stuff Small and his colleagues have blown up, will have to be rebuilt.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Theists, deists, agnostics and atheists

Along with the members of a book club to which Agnes and I belong, I'm reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Although I'm not that far into it yet, I'm already finding it a bit of a challenge to chew, let alone swallow. It's been wisely said that there's not much point in debating the points for and against the existence of God, and I'm already feeling a vast gap between Dawkins' perceptions of the world and my own. Dawkins is, of course, a scientist, and consequently (but not inevitably) a materialist. He denies the existence of the supernatural out of hand and has warned me in the first chapter already that he will be providing plenty of evidence to make me understand that the probability of the existence of God is very, very low.

Not unexpectedly, Dawkins takes a full-bore run at fundamentalist concepts and the people who promote them. In my view, starting off with ridicule when a debate is desired, is an error. And Dawkins' caustic aspersions on the sanity of believers tells me that it's not a discussion or debate he's after at all. He sounds as dogmatic as any TV evangelist.

I'm sure there are a lot of rebuttals to Dawkins out there, and I'm sure Google would help me find reams of material refuting Dawkins. I'm determined, however, to postpone that kind of reading until I've done my own review, and I think it's probably a good idea to finish reading the book first. There are plenty of Christians condemning stuff they've never even looked at, including Harry Potter.

Dawkins starts out with a story about his wife who apparently hated school and wished she could leave. When she told her parents about this years later, they asked her why she hadn't told them about this at the time. "I didn't know I could," she said. Dawkins goes on to use this analogy to support his supposition that "there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don't believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name . . . but just don't realize that leaving is an option."

Dawkins writes hyperbolically (and in my view, inaccurately) about the death, bloodshed and mayhem that religion has caused throughout the ages. Certainly, wars have been fought on the basis of the defense of religion, but more often than not, there have also been contributing ethnic, territorial or economic factors involved. For instance, he labels the "troubles" in Ireland as a religious conflict when, if fact, religious differences there are peripheral factors in a conflict that is largely territorial and ethnic.

When I'm done, I'll follow this up. 'Til then, God bless you.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Through my window today

A SOOP Reflection

Being back after an extended time away always gives me the eerie feeling of having one foot on the dock and the other in a boat that's come untied. Maybe that's not a great metaphor, but a part of me is still in Carlsbad, and another part is trying valiantly to adjust to Rosthern. For one thing, spring is approaching very reluctantly here, and the mounds of snow and cold temperatures after living in a summer place are hard to adjust to. Furthermore, Carlsbad was so easy going as regards responsibilities; for a while, we had some volunteer work, some housekeeping and not much else in that vein. Here there are responsibilities of many kinds: church, library, Writers Group, conference, social, etc. etc. on top of the odd bit of voluntary work and a great deal more housekeeping. Many of you are travelers too, and you probably know first hand what I'm talking about.
A friend at coffee row flew down to Alabama to work for 7 days on a Mennonite Disaster Service assignment. These people work a lot harder for the time they're there than we did in Carlsbad. Either way, it's a long way to go to do - not very much. In 7 days, a crew of 4 could probably strip damaged gyproc from one house and replace it, and maybe shingle the roof. It took a crew of four in Carlsbad about 6 days to side one house and storage shed. One sometimes wonders if locals couldn't have finished that house; they had done everything up to the siding, after all. As I said, it's a long way to go to accomplish relatively little.
But there's another side to it. What are my choices of things to do with my time? How can I budget my energies in order to do the most good in this world? I've concluded that it's not so much what's achieved by volunteerism that matters, it's more important that people are outgoing and active, both for their physical and their mental/spiritual well-being. A lot of volunteers are retired, and the worst thing to do when you retire is to shut down, say no to physical and mental work. Most of our volunteering is done for our good, and some benefit occasionally accrues to the recipients.
There remains, of course, that old conundrum surrounding the measuring of the "good" in an act. Most of us would applaud the act of giving as in, for instance, a church group giving Christmas cheer baskets to welfare recipients. Social Darwinists and die hard Capitalists would say that these acts do more harm than good. Our economic structures in North America assume that people will participate in the marketplace where supply and demand set a price that is fair, and everyone exchanges goods and services in this environment. Social Darwinists might say that feeding the weak perpetuates weakness, even rewards it, like interfering in the deer population to ensure that even the spindliest buck is allowed to breed. Both the Capitalists and the Socialists would probably agree that if you do things for a needy person, you remove his need to strive for it and thereby deny him the right to grow through that struggle.
I'm not naive enough to believe that what I did, for instance, to help a couple in Carlsbad renovate their house did any significant amount of "good." The time I spent with fantastic people working on that, however, did me considerable good, I think.
As a Christian, I can't sidestep Christ's admonitions to love my neighbour, and I don't know of a better way to do this than to do what I can to relieve his stress and help him supply his basic needs. However, I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Handing over a meal without any expectations or replacing the shingles on a roof at no cost to the occupant don't necessarily fall into the category of "loving my neighbour." It might be far more loving to help my neighbour cook his own meal, might even be better to let him deal with a leaky roof for a time until he can afford to hire a workman. It's a question of discernment, good judgment. My impulse, I fear, is to roll up my sleeves, say "Step aside; I'm here to do this for you." I don't think I even know how to do the necessary work to evaluate "the good in an act" and to proceed on the basis of such an evaluation. We need to be better at that.
Meanwhile, it appears I've volunteered to edit a periodical of the Conference of Mennonites in Saskatchewan called News 'n Notes. I've also volunteered to put together an anthology of local writing and get it printed in two weeks, and I voluntarily act as historian for the Eigenheim Mennonite Church. I think all of these are "good acts" of volunteering, but I could be wrong. What do you think?