Friday, November 19, 2010

True Friendship: Unquestioning Support or the Painful Truth?

In recent years, the U.S. military and paramilitary agencies such as the CIA have increasingly engaged in questionable levels of human rights abuses, such as torture and unlawful detainment. This has been authorized by the former administration of President George W. Bush, and in some respects has been upheld by the Obama administration, either by not recognizing the existence of, and abolishing, CIA black prison sites, or by refusing to prosecute various officials of the previous administration who were complicit or originators of these unholy doctrines.

I have heard it said that we must support our military in whatever they do, that they are the ones making the sacrifices, that to criticize anything they do is to undermine them. This, my friends, is the road to tyranny. To blindly support everything that the military does, regardless of its righteousness, is not to support it, but to support the erosion of its morality and to bring about its eventual downfall. Many world powers throughout history have effectively become a military junta, because of its armies going unchecked and out of control.

It is easy to appear as a hero when one is surrounded by other well-armed men of war. It is easy to go along with the crowd and to commit injustices in the name of might. It is easy to be swept up by a mob mentality and to commit atrocities. True heroism lies in the ability to stand apart and do what is right, regardless of whether you are supported by the mob or not. As Mark Twain once said, “It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” It has often been wisely said that the best friend is the one who points out your faults. This is indeed the hardest of things to do. Very few have ever done this, in all of history.

But among those few may be counted some of the finest and most well-decorated military leaders of all time. First of all, I speak of Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, who wrote a book called War is a Racket, citing the greed and misconduct of the military industrial complex that were behind the inception of World War I, and other countless wars prior to that. One can even read the text of his book online nowadays: One of the most decorated Marines of all time, let alone any U.S. military figure, he was mocked for his beliefs and his words fell upon deaf ears during his lifetime, passing from this world just prior to WWII, perhaps the “last good war”, a rare exception to his theory, proving the norm.

I speak also of Major General Antonio Taguba, a retired U.S. Army general officer whose 34 years of faithful service were cut short when Pentagon officials asked him to retire, giving no reason but the hint that it was due to his 2004 report, which was highly critical of the Bush administration’s support of torture. Shortly before his dismissal, the general learned that his report was being investigated, and he stated "I’d been in the Army thirty-two years by then, and it was the first time that I thought I was in the Mafia." (The New Yorker, June 25, 2007) Maj. Gen. Taguba continues to stand up for the rights of the oppressed, having been critical of the regimes that sought to silence him so that they may continue to profit from their sadism. His more recent report to Physicians for Human Rights is here:

I speak also of former Commandant of the Marine Corps, Retired General Paul X. Kelley, who served as the highest ranking Marine and commanding general of that body from 1983-87. In 2007, he co-authored an op-ed article for the Washington Post in which he sharply criticized the Bush Administration’s use and endorsement of torture as something that not only harmed our moral ground as Americans but in pragmatic terms put the U.S. servicemen at risk of retaliation for generations to come. General Kelley is someone with vast military experience and must be considered a voice of political and tactical reason, one who cannot be accused of antiquated idealism unfit for our modern times of global terrorism. He has seen the world and is no unrealistic naïf. And he is to be commended for his vociferous defense of democracy, in the face of villains wrapping themselves in the flag.

All three of these, and others whom I do not have room here to mention, are the true heroes, fighting for freedom, justice, and democracy. It is they who deserve medals to acknowledge their valor and bravery. Not bravery against an enemy with a gun, but an unseen enemy that strikes from within, an invisible spirit of disgrace and cruelty, the very enemy that our forefathers sought to safeguard against when they wrote our Constitution and gave our nation its first living breaths. It is they who are the true moral beacons, calling our military to remain an example to other nations, each person an ambassador of their nation to the rest of humanity. It is they who insist that we can and must do better.

The admonitions that I proffer here can also be said of any other force or entity that we support, be it those in our own police forces, or those in other allied nations, such as Israel. We have heard of police brutality and corruption in various departments around the nation, throughout the years. One always hopes that it is kept at a minimal level, but often it is kept hushed by cover-ups, as if to snitch on a fellow officer were more of a crime than to harbor corruption in one’s conduct, one’s precinct, and in one’s heart. To “rat out” one’s fellow officer who has done wrong is considered to be a greater betrayal than taking graft, “throwing down” a weapon or other falsely planted evidence upon a suspect, or to commit other forms of brutality and iniquity. Major General Taguba’s statement quoted above, about feeling as if he were serving not in the Army but in the Mafia, seems apropos here, when a code of silence – omerta – is more important than “to protect and serve”.

Internationally, we see many pro-Israel partisans stating that to criticize anything that the State of Israel does is tantamount to a betrayal of Israel. But I say that to support unjust actions, illegal or immoral, just because one is your friend or ally, is not to be much of a friend, but rather an enabler and an accomplice. The true friend tells his addict compatriot that he will no longer help him buy drugs or cover for his thievery to support a deadly habit. A true friend tells their pal that they will not cover for him beating his wife or molesting his children. A true friend rebukes you when you are wrong, but helps you rebuild your life when you are in prison for those crimes.

That is what we must be, as a nation, as a culture. If we are to remain the true moral authority that we claim to be, and that we rightly called ourselves long ago, we must refrain from doing wrong ourselves, and must remain beyond reproach. We must hold our law enforcement to the highest standards of the law. We must hold our military to the highest levels of conduct whether in combat or in recreation (which means no shooting civilians for sport!). And we must hold our allies to the same high moral standard. If Israel sins, then we as a supposedly “Christian” nation must not foster the ill behavior that had frequently plagued Israel in her ancient existence, the very iniquity that the Hebrew scriptures tell us were the source of Israel’s periodic punishments and falling out of favor with God. As Israel’s supporters, we must be her most honest, and at times sharply critical, friends. Israel’s importance to us is surely rooted in our corporate and national belief in her Biblical right to exist and in her mandate as God’s chosen people. If this is in fact our belief, then attendant to this is our responsibility to help Israel to abide by God’s laws, namely those of justice to sojourners and neighbors, fairness to the oppressed, and compassion for her cousins, the Palestinians.

As a Jew, the child of many generations of oppressed people, I must strive to prove myself among the righteous, the ones who hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior. And that includes being truthful to my friends, even if it is dangerous to tell them the truth.