My Turn: We are affected by the distance of war

Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2003

When I turn off the news of air raid sirens and flashing guns I hear only the sound of quiet waves and see a full moon slipping between the clouds. War, for those fortunate few living in the tranquility of Alaska, is a tragedy belonging to a different place. We will all sleep tonight in beds unthreatened, for now, by the blind reach of bombs.

I wonder how things might change if the killing were not so distant, if the dying were not strangers. Like virtually all Americans, I have never been to Iraqi. I have never sat around a dining table in a Baghdad apartment and tasted Iraqi food, heard their laughter, seen the flash of their smiles, played a game with their children. Though I have never met them I am guessing those people are not so different than we are. I imagine they pause, like we do, to watch the sun set. I imagine they like a good joke. I imagine they love their children.

We have decided, as a nation, the turning of world events has left us no choice but to kill some, perhaps thousands, of Iraqi people. This is not an easy choice. We are a decent and honorable people. Most everyone, including our president, must harbor some regrets about the loss of life.

Tuesday's paper showed a picture of Sgt. Lui Fenumia'i. As Lui travels across the Iraqi sands in the coming days, I imagine he will think often of the peace and comfort of his home. I am humbled by generosity and courage it took for Lui to leave his wife and child and risk his life in warfare. Killing other humans is a serious request to make of anyone.

"We are fighting for peace," says our president with unwavering conviction. I do not share the strength of his conviction. Perhaps he knows something I do not. Perhaps I would feel differently if the peace of my home was threatened. But, from what I have heard, the inspectors found no weapons capable of reaching U.S. soil. There are no links between Saddam's regime and the tumbling of the World Trade Center towers. Inspections were working.

We have now abandoned diplomacy for "smart" bombs. Killing, in high tech warfare, has become both logistically and emotionally easier. The lines between video games and the reality of death on the far side of a button are too easily blurred. Our suped up modes of warfare demand an increasing need for moral introspection.

How do we decide, as individuals, the time has come to take another human's life? For myself I play the following mental game: I imagine an Iraqi soldier, or his wife, or his child before me. I imagine the weight of a club in my hands, the arc of the swing, the yielding of bone, the passing of life. I could not, given any of the justifications I have heard, do it. I cannot, therefore, ask Lui or anyone else to do it for me.

And what about the vocal supporters of this war? Could President Bush or Colin Powell look an Iraqi in the eye and swing the club? Could they do it twice? A thousand times? Or can they send Lui and others off to war only from the sealed safety of briefing rooms?

I am not a pacifist. Threaten my wife and I doubt I would remain peaceful. Yet, I believe violence only invites more violence. It must be a last resort. Like millions of others around the planet I believe the violence currently raining down on Baghdad was avoidable. Diplomacy failed because the U.S. did not give it a chance. The greatest threat to the peacefulness of my home is the predictable response to the unjustified violence of our own country.

Hank Lentfer lives and writes in Gustavus.

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