We are expected to go along with this plan, in which people lose wars and corporations win themthe missile builders, the mining companies, the oil magnates, and that's just scratching the surfaceand a little person like me should not dare be so insolent as to suggest a moment's time-out to review the monstrous human waste of an endless cycle of violent retaliation. Well, I'm daring. I have read that some of the missiles we are using (on the day of this writing) against our current enemyone of the poorest countries on earthcost a million dollars apiece. Excuse an outrageous suggestion, but has anyone considered just sending the innocent civilians the cash so they can dispatch the wretched tyranny in their midst and save everyone a huge cleanup? Masses of people tend to join cults of anger and vengeance only when they are desperate. History shows that populations with food in their bellies, literacy skills (women included), access to information, and immunization against the major diseases do not long tolerate martyrdom to the likes of the Taliban warlords or Saddam Hussein. And if those citizens were not grateful outright for our help in their liberation, at the very worst they might just forget about uswhereas our present strategy of asserting predominance with bombs is liberating some but starving others, driving millions to seek refuge in snow-covered, stony mountains, and ultimately sowing dragon's teeth of unforgettable enmity across the soil of one more desert.
Arrogance is a dubious weaponan inappropriate side dish, anyway, to serve with a war. In fact, the very word wartime invokes for me a much more modest cultural mind-set, and lately I find myself saying this word quietly, again and again: wartime. It brings a taste to the root of my tongue, and to my inner ear the earnest tone of my parents recalling their teenage years. The word speaks of things I've never known: an era of sacrifice undertaken by rich and poor alike, of gardens planted and warm socks knitted in drab colors, communities working together to conquer fear by giving up comforts so everyone on earth might eventually have better days.
I went looking to see if I was imagining something that never happened. I found a speech delivered by Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 6, 1941, that made me wonder where we have mislaid our sense of global honor. "At no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today," he noted, as he could have done this day. But instead of invoking a fear of outsiders, he embraced their needs as America's own and called for defending, not just at home but on all the earth, what he called the four freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, freedom from want. "Translated into world terms," he said, the last meant "economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peace-time life for its inhabitants." He warned that it was immature and untrue "to brag that America, single-handed and with one hand tied behind its back, can hold off the whole world," and that any such "dictator's peace" could not be capable of inspiring international generosity or returning the world to any true independence: "Such a peace would bring no security for us or for our neighbors. Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
What reassurance I found in those words. I'm not an aberration, after all; I'm a good American, living in an aberrant moment, and I'm not the only one. When I ask around, almost everyone secretly agrees with me that we seem to be contriving a TV-set imitationthe look with no character insidein our new-fab wartime of flags flapping above shopping malls and car-sales lots, these exhortations to purchase, to put down a foot and give not an inch. There's a rush on to squash the essential liberties of others and purchase some temporary safety. The four freedoms are not much in evidence. Faith and speech have taken hard blows, as countless U.S. citizens suffer daily intimidation because their appearance or their mode of belief or both place them outside the mainstream of an angry nation at war. Any spoken suggestion that there might be alternatives to violent retaliation is likely to be called an affront against our country. I have struggled to find some logical path that could lead to this conclusionthat is, the notion that ambivalence about war is un-Americanand have identified as its only possible source a statement made by our president: "Either you're with us, or you are with the terrorists." He was addressing nations of the world, but that "us" keeps getting narrower. If FDR's words were published anonymously today, especially those about force leading only to a "dictator's peace," FDR would get hate mail.
Excerpted from "God's Wives Measuring Spoons" in Small Wonder. Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Kingsolver. HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
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