Monday, May 15, 2017

Is America addicted to war?

Only rarely in its history has the United States of America not fought a war, and sometimes more than one at the same time. America was born in war and seemingly that has become its legacy. No wonder that many are asking the question: Is America addicted to war?

Graph 1 and 2 record all the wars the U.S. has been involved in from the American Revolution to the present. Look closely at the two graphs and it is readily apparent that there have been very few years when the U.S. has not been at war. It is remarkable that the U.S. has not become sick of war, but the explanation lies in part in its violent birth. Revolution breeds further revolution.

If we examine only the 12 major wars that the U.S. has fought, there is already enough evidence to prove this addiction. I cannot think of any other country that has been involved in so many wars for so long during its relatively short history. There cannot be any doubt that the U.S. is addicted to war.

Graph 1: American Wars 1775-1900

Graph 2: American Wars 1900-Present

The twelve wars in chronological order are (with the size of American involvement, death, and the reason for the war):

1. Revolutionary War (1775-83). U.S. troops engaged: 217,000. American battle deaths: 4,435. The 13 American colonies fought for independence from British rule to become the United States.

2. The War of 1812 (1812-15). U.S. troops engaged: 286,730. American battle deaths: 2,260.
The U.S. declared war on Great Britain during its war with France.

3. Mexican War (1846-48). U.S. troops engaged: 78,718. American battle deaths: 1,733. The U.S. fought against Mexico over Texas and California, in the name of "manifest destiny."

4. American Civil War (1861-1865). U.S. troops engaged: 2,213,363. Battle deaths: 140,414. The northern states and the southern states fought over slavery and states' rights.

5. Spanish-American War (1898). U.S. troops engaged: 306,760. American battle deaths: 385. Spain declared war on the U.S. because the U.S. supported Cuba's wish to be independent of Spanish rule.

6. WWI (1914-1918). U.S. troops engaged: 4,734,991. American casualties: 53,402. The U.S. joined the Allies (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and Japan), who were at war with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey). The U.S. declared war on Germany April 6, 1917.

7. World War II (1939-45 -- U.S. involved, 1941-46). U.S. troops engaged: 16,112,566. American casualties: 291,557. The U.S. joined the Allies (Britain, France, and the USSR) to fight the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) after the U.S. forces were attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

8. Korean War (1950-53). U.S. troops engaged: 5,720,000. American battle deaths: 33,741.
North Korea's Communist forces fought against South Korea's non-Communist forces supported by U.N. forces, principally made up of U.S. troops. The Korean War was the first armed conflict in the global struggle between democracy and communism, called the “cold war.”

9. Vietnam War (1954-75 -- U.S. involved, 1961-75). U.S. troops engaged: 8,744,000. American battle deaths: 47,410. The U.S. helped non-Communist South Vietnam fight invasion by Communist North Vietnam.

10. Persian Gulf War (1991). U.S. troops engaged: 2,183,000. Allied casualties: 147. U.S., Britain, France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Italy went to war with Iraq.

11. Afghanistan War (2002). Cause: Afghanistan’s Taliban government harbored Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorist group responsible for Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Outcome: The Taliban government was ousted and many terrorist camps in Afghanistan were destroyed.

12. Iraq War (2003). Cause: Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of illegal weapons of mass destruction and Iraq’s suspected ties to terrorism prompted the U.S. and Britain to invade and topple his government. Outcome: Iraq was defeated and Saddam Hussein removed from power.

These are just the biggest mountains. If you look at the charts, you will notice how many more mountains there are. The U.S. has won many wars, but by no means all; some wars were inconclusive and others were lost. Experts conclude that the U.S. might win a war against the rest of the world combined, but victory is not certain.

The Cold War, the longest war in U.S. history, involved not just weapons and warfare but especially words and ideas. I began in 1945 and was a struggle between the U.S. and the USSR. The U.S. wanted to contain the spread of communism. The Cold War ended in 1990 with the collapse of the USSR. Even this war cost the U.S. enormous funds and contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union.

This almost constant warfare has led to the U.S. as a source for production of weapons.  Warfare has utterly transformed the U.S. economy. Today that is labeled the military-industrial-congressional complex, a three-sided relationship, which results in the largest military spending budget in the world.  The U.S. now spends more than the next ten countries combined.

In 2015 the spending on the military alone consumed 54% of the budget of the U.S.  Aside from the question of the wisdom of spending so much on the military, this measures the cost of the American addiction to war. Not only has the U.S. waged war almost continuously since its inception it also spends more money on the military than any other country and the largest portion of the budget is devoted to defense.

The Defense Department is a misnomer. It should be called the Department of War. When presidents need to boost their popularity, they turn to the military, since such spending and the military itself are immensely popular.  President Trump is no exception.

Via an executive memorandum, Trump detailed plans to fulfill his campaign promises to invest in a bigger military -- including more troops, warships and a modernized nuclear arsenal. He declared he was beginning "a great rebuilding of the armed services of the United States." Later he added:
Developing a plan for new planes, new ships, new resources and new tools for our men and women in uniform-- and I’m very proud to be doing that, As we prepare our budget request for Congress --and I think Congress is going to be very happy to see it -- our military strength will be questioned by no one, but neither will our dedication to peace.
Trump's comments are hypocritical and false. His proposed military buildup is a major departure from the Obama administration on national security issues. It is an ominous development in a nation that is already addicted to war. This is not what the U.S. needs at the moment. 

What the U.S. needs is a large-scale reduction in its military and its defense budget. It does not need almost two million men and women bearing arms and a budget that exceeds a trillion dollars a year. A country that is addicted to war is not ready to listen to the biblical message of Isaiah (2:4, New Living Translation):
The LORD will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.

Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich 
in the United Nations Art Collection

Yet this is the message that the U.S. must listen to and take to heart. The humongous defense budget can be put to better use that to support a bloated military.  If there is ever to be peace on earth, then non-stop war must end. A nation that fancies itself a Christian nation must turn its swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and overcome its addiction to war. Then and only then shall peace reign on a war-weary world. May there be peace on earth!


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

What is a good death?

I have decided to begin blogging again on a regular basis. Now in this Easter season I can write with new energy and conviction. I will, however, refrain from discussing politics, especially the American variety, as much as possible. But my resolution may not be enough to deter me from such a discussion if the situation in the world continues to develop the way it has. Clearly the world is becoming more and more divided. 

Today, I want to discuss a topic that affects all of no matter who we are: death. Benjamin Franklin famously observed that nothing is certain in life, except death and taxes. (This saying is now attributed to Daniel Defoe or Christopher Bullock.) I would add that the rich can avoid taxes, but no one escapes death. 

What is a good death? This question is motivated by an article in The Economist on the topic of death. As the magazine explains, "death is inevitable, but a bad death is not." How does it define a good death? How would you and I define such a death?

Recently, I commemorated the death of my mother which occurred three years ago. It has been more than a decade since my father died. Both of them has led what many would describe as good -- even if difficult -- lives, but had they also experienced good deaths? I think not.

Death used to come by stealth, but that is no longer the case. Now, three-fifths of deaths come slowly and involve a slow, progressive deterioration of function. According to the article, people in wealthy countries can spend eight to ten years seriously ill at the end of life. Yet few of the 56m or so people who die each year receive good end-of-life care. 

In Britain, where the hospice movement which is dedicated to providing high-quality care to dying patients arose, only about a fifth of that country’s hospitals provide access to palliative care on a regular basis.That may change through the Conversation Project in which share stories of the "good deaths" and "bad deaths" experienced by their loved ones. 

Most people dread the experience of contemplating their own mortality. When death is hidden away in hospitals and nursing homes, it becomes less familiar and harder to talk about. I have lived in many countries where death is an everyday event. There it cannot be hidden; it is discussed daily. 

But honest and open conversations with the dying should be as much a part of modern medicine as prescribing drugs or fixing broken bones. The article concludes:"A better death means a better life, right until the end."

As part of such a conversation, I want to share the story of my parents. Neither of them experienced what I would term a "good death," one where they in their last days were treated with the dignity they deserved and without unnecessary pain, although my father's death occurred more quickly than that of my mother and it was relatively painless. Even then, his death was not the "good death" he might have wished.

My father died as the result of a fall, yet he should have been allowed to die at home rather than in a hospital where I saw him yet in bed for a few weeks. What kept him alive, I think, was his desire to celebrate his 87th birthday, which he did the day before he died. I had to rush back from Nigeria where I was working only a month after returning there. I arrived just in time for his funeral. 

Some principles of a good death

My mother suffered unnecessary pain for many years in a nursing home before she died. I say unnecessary because she was deprived of the pain killers that could have made her last days more bearable. Only in the last week of her life was she allowed to receive as much morphine as she needed. Why? Were her doctors afraid that she would become addicted?

For a long time she also suffered the indignity of witnessing cancer eating away her face and limbs. Pain and a loss of dignity caused her to ask God to end her suffering and take her "home." She was a woman of deep faith, and yet she was not afraid to ask her children to pray that God would hasten her death. I confess that I prayed that with her on more than one occasion. 

The day before her death I took a final photo of her, but I deleted it the next day because I could not bear this memento of a once proud woman. A shell was all that was left of my mother. I did not want to dishonor my memory of someone who had borne me and my siblings and had raised us with love. She prayed every day for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and not just for God to take her home.

In spite of her prayers for relief from her suffering, she enjoyed what was left in her life. Eating was one of her little remaining pleasures. Another was a little drink once in a while. Why not? She could have stopped eating and ended her life that way, but that was not her style. Only in the last week, when she could no longer eat, did that hasten her death. How sad in a way! How wonderful in another. Finally, release from her suffering.

My father holding my mother's hand the day before he died

God granted her 93 and a half years of life, 63 years of marriage, and six children, as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She loved all of them, sometimes too much so, perhaps, in a smothering way. And all who knew her loved her. Her's was a good life but not a good death. 

Her zest for life -- at least the limited one that still remained -- did not permit her to contemplate suicide. While some of my siblings might dispute some of my claims about her, I want to retain my own memories of our mother. She was not perfect -- after all, who of us is? 

But she did have a strong faith, as did my father. That was what led them to emigrate to Canada in 1951. Their emigration allowed my siblings and I to get an education. But most important, they passed on their faith. Parents sharing their faith with their children. There can no greater gift than that!

Even though she wanted God to end her suffering swiftly, my mother did not contemplate suicide, unlike Hamlet whose long soliloquy is focused, as is often claimed, on the thought of taking his own life. He is struggling with the issue of life and death -- the same issue we all must deal with. My mother struggled with that issue as well.

Listen to Hamlet as he poignantly voices the issues involved: 

To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep—
No more—and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished! To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

In brief, for Hamlet death is something he earnestly desires -- it is devoutly to be wished. In his opinion, it nothing more than a sleep. However, there’s a catch, a rub or obstacle, as he calls it. The problem is that life after death is unknown and could be even worse than life. It’s a frightening thought for him. 

This obstacle has a religious dimension: it is a sin to take one’s life. For this reason, the fear of the unknown, of what will happen after death, is intensified. He realizes too that death will deprive him of the action he must take: to revenge his father's death. Hence his doubts.

For my mother there was never such existential doubt. Her faith is evident in the text she chose for her funeral was Ephesians 5:18b-20:
Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Singing and praising God was her joy in life and that is what she saw herself doing too after her death. For her, "death has been swallowed up in victory," as the Apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 15. That is why she wanted to give thanks to God for the victory over death we all enjoy through our Lord Jesus Christ.

There was no real doubt in her mind of this victory even if the all too human fears that we all have did arise at times; fears that Hamlet too expressed in this famous soliloquy. Therefore it is so sad that she had to suffer the way she did for so many years.

Why was she denied a good death? The answer lies not so much in an investigation of God's will, but it lies more in the way our society deals with death through refusing to provide the proper palliative care that all of us deserve. People should not have to die in hospitals, like my father did, nor in nursing homes, like my mother.

People should be allowed to die at home surrounded by loved ones. They should not die alone or only in the company of strangers. The Economist has provided an excellent survey of the problem that all of us will face some day: how can we experience a good death?

A good death is one in which suffering is reduced as much as possible and in the presence of loved ones. The reality of death is already terrifying enough without the suffering that too often accompanies it. My parents deserved better; all of us deserve better.

Let's begin by openly and honest addressing the question of death. As the article concludes, "Death will remain terrifying for many people. Unless the way health care is organised changes, most people will continue to suffer unnecessarily at the end."