“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
“If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” —ibid.
When I was a little kid, I wanted to be Superman. There are photos of me, maybe three years old: I am wearing a red cape and tights, and the “S” is on my chest. It is a serious business, saving the world: my fiercely determined eyebrows declare it, as do my yellow moon boots.
Of course, I was too small to actually rescue anyone. My parents told me that I used to cry about this, about how I wanted to save the world but that there was no way to do it.
It remains this way today.
For the past several months (years? decades?) we’ve been tiptoeing back and forth from the brink of war. And I’m not talking about the nebulous War on Terror we’ve been mired in for 18 years—the longest conflict in our nation’s history, and no end to it in sight—but a new war with Iran. Still, it’s all felt so familiar, and it’s been impossible not to be reminded of Iraq, and of the days leading up to that tragic misstep—a kind of slow-motion inevitability, as if in a car crash: you can see this terrible thing about to happen, but you can’t do anything about it.
Actually, the greatest difference between then and now—and perhaps the strangest difference—is that back in 2003, people tried to do something about it. There were demonstrations in the street, and across the world—the largest anti-war protests ever—millions of souls crying out for peace. In New York, somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 Americans marched on the United Nations in frigid February weather. And yet it didn’t seem to make a difference. The invasion of Iraq happened anyway.
Is this the reason the voice of the anti-war movement seems so relatively hushed right now—because we get the sense that, no matter what we do, it won’t make a difference?
It feels like that, sometimes—like all our efforts will undoubtedly be in vain. Every night at the zendo, we chant the Four Bodhisattva Vows, also known as the Four Impossible Vows, the first of which is, “Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.” It seems the work of the bodhisattva and the superhero—saving the world—is the same, and it’s no easy task. Because whether it’s freeing an infinite number of beings or stopping an apparently inevitable march to war—what’s the point? When faced with such massive undertakings, paralysis is understandable.
The odd thing is that when it comes to current activism, Americans seem far from apathetic. Faced with all our other broken policies on immigration, gun control, climate change, and so on, people are as outraged—and engaged—as ever. Why, when it comes to war, are we so strangely silent?
“There are so many front-runner crises that are bringing people out into the streets, that the possibility of war sort of gets lost in the mix,” says Stephen Miles, executive director of the Washington, DC-based advocacy group Win Without War. “When you’re being outraged about children in cages, corruption, gun violence—all these things that are happening right now—it can be hard to get people to think about the thing that might happen in the future.”
Of course, the other contributing factor is that war isn’t just a future possibility, but a current reality—it has been happening for 18 years now, and Americans have simply become desensitized, lulled into ambivalence. “You certainly have seen a normalization of the reality of the United States being at war,” explains Miles. “It’s been non-stop since September 11.”
I have to believe that this cavalier acceptance of war must stem from a kind of obliviousness—from not realizing what war really is, and what it really costs. After all, for the vast majority of Americans, war happens across a great sea, in distant deserts; we see it, if at all, on a screen, as if it were a movie. But it is not so distant for the men and women of our armed forces, whom we send so casually into the great heat and sorrow of it—and it is not so distant for our “enemies,” who despite our rhetoric, are, after all, just human beings like us.
There is a Zen koan: Stop the fighting across the river. Please know: it is not “someone else” across the river.
On Win Without War’s website, a running ticker shows the “Total Cost of Wars Since 2001” as closing in on $5 trillion—but of course, that’s not the real cost. There are varying tallies of how many lives have been lost in the War on Terror, but a November 2018 paper by Brown University’s Watson Institute, “Human Cost of the Post 9/11 Wars: Lethality and the Need for Transparency,” provides what seems to be a reliable and unexaggerated count. Even underestimated, and including only the conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, the numbers are staggering: As a direct result of the nearly 3,000 Americans who lost their lives on September 11, some 500,000 more human beings are now dead. The combat in Iraq alone accounts for almost 300,000 of those deaths. The United States has lost nearly 7,000 soldiers and sailors, and more than 53,700 have been wounded. Perhaps most heartbreaking, 265,000 civilians have been killed in these wars—completely innocent men, women, and children—200,000 of whom were torn from life in the senseless war in Iraq.
By all accounts, a conflict with Iran would be far worse than it was in Iraq—an “all-out war” with a nation that has some 865,000 soldiers, as well as proxy armies and sleeper cells throughout the region, and beyond. A battle with Iran might not stay “across the river,” in the end—here at home, soft targets could be struck, and American civilians could die, too. Some estimate that before all is said and done, a war with Iran could cost more than a million human beings their lives.
And yet, in the face of the very real possibility of another catastrophic, needless war, we remain far too quiet.
As John Tirman, executive director at MIT’s Center for International Studies and author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, reminds us, the American public’s odd lack of a response when it comes to war is nothing new: “Even at the height of the war, in 2005-07, when the violence was ripping Iraqi society apart, the American public’s reaction was somewhat muted—widespread concern, but not much activism…. The indifference I encountered was striking,” he wrote to me via email. Some reasons Tirman points to for the muted reaction of then and now: the lack of a military draft, the internet and social media as diversions, vicarious activism, and perhaps most disturbing, systemic racism in various manifestations: “Both the victims abroad, the civilian populations that are bludgeoned by US wars, and those who actually fight the wars for the United States are non-white.” Sadly, Tirman believes the anti-war protests we’ve seen—from Vietnam to the 2003 demonstrations—were the exceptions: “My best guess is that indifference is the norm.”
I am in the city on the eleventh of September. From the roof of my apartment building I look downtown and can see the smoke pouring across the river.
The day after it happens, the wind shifts north and the whole city smells of burnt rubber.
On the street, an African man is selling little American flags. “God Bless America,” he says. “How much?” I ask. “Three dollars, two for five.” I buy one. They are cheap and plastic and say Made in China.
Later, scrawled in purple chalk on the sidewalk pavement, I read the words, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
On the fifth day, a Saturday, on the subway downtown, I find myself seated next to a black man in a trench-coat who sits on a Muslim cushion. I am ashamed that I am afraid.
That night, my girlfriend dreams she is trapped in a dark alley and throws a hotdog at a terrorist: a truly American response.
Of course, another truly American response is to go to war, which we do within a month. Everyone is united behind it—Democrats, Republicans, the public—and anyone who disagrees is labeled a traitor. On September 14, when Congress votes 420–1 to approve the Authorization for Use of Military Force, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) is the lone dissenting vote: “Let us not become the evil we deplore,” she says, standing up on the floor of Congress, completely alone, and making her voice heard: perhaps the truest American act. Yet for voicing her opposition, Lee is called anti-American and receives death threats.
And then, for the vast majority of the next 18 years, I do the next truly American thing: nothing. I am extremely practiced at this paralysis. I go to work, eat food, watch TV. For a while there, I smoke a lot of pot.
(It should be noted that this is different than Taoist non-action, or wuwei, in which the sage seeks to emulate the great Tao—“doing nothing, yet leaving nothing undone.” The ancient Chinese philosophy does indeed critique our strange propensity for making things worse by trying to fix them, but this does not mean that the height of Taoist practice is to simply sit around on the couch.)
Oh, I do what I can, I suppose. I walk in the Climate March, my wife at my side and my little son up on my shoulders; I participate in the March for Our Lives to protest gun violence, as well. I sign online petitions to save the bees, to ban assault weapons, to make sure President Donald Trump can’t involve us in another war without congressional approval. I receive about 27 emails a day from various organizations asking me to support one noble cause or another, and when it’s feasible, I do. But for the most part, I do nothing.
Sometimes I try to write about it, but usually my musings go unfinished, and unread. I have a folder on my computer desktop entitled WAR, and in it are the beginnings of essays on topics ranging from whether Americans are safer because of our War on Terror (short answer: no) to whether the US should begin a new branch of the military devoted entirely to creation rather than destruction—a substantial force that can be deployed anywhere in the world to respond to natural disasters, and so forth—(short answer: yes, it should). I manage to finish a few anti-war op-eds, send some out, but none are accepted. The topic doesn’t interest people, I guess, which is something that interests me. Why? Why doesn’t anyone seem to care?
Tirman explains that American indifference to war is not necessarily your typical brand of American sloth but instead a kind of defense mechanism, “a way of dealing with a world that is unjust, but shouldn’t be. When wars are first started, the public backs it enthusiastically. When the war goes awry, the public tends not to ‘oppose’ it in the sense of anti-war activism, but regards it as ‘a mess,’ something now to ignore.”
I wonder, too, if the reason we so instinctively avert our gaze from the reality of war is because we’re unable—or unwilling—to come to terms with our own role in it. We live in a democracy, after all—we vote into office the people who make these decisions; our tax dollars pay for our vast military expenditures. We are Americans, and this an American war. In other words, there’s a very real sense that the mass devastation and death caused by the War on Terror—the crushing, gut-sucking weight of those half-million lives lost—it’s on each and every one of us. It’s on your shoulders, and it’s on mine. And so to protest war is to be somehow brave enough to own this fact—that the world is unjust, and that we are a part of this injustice—even if the only thing we ever did was to never say a word.
I should admit that it’s not just saving the world or stopping a war that I seem incapable of: it’s everything. When it comes to accomplishing even the smallest tasks—simple, everyday things that I know would be good for me—I am seized by a similar paralysis. Writing. Meditating. Doing the dishes. (There are times I can’t even muster the motivation to change a light bulb—how could I possibly change the world?)
If I were a superhero, things would be different, though. My laundry—dirty tights, mucked up cape—I’d do it in a flash. And saving the world, that’d be a cinch, too—I’d simply swoop in and tell everyone to get their fucking shit together: “Look, Donald, that’s enough.”
Actually, if I were a superhero, I have a strange feeling I would be my own kryptonite. No matter what super-move I’d plan to super-do, there I’d be, super-standing in my way—sapping my powers and inducing paralysis, lethargy, and indifference.
I have always been my own greatest foe. No other super-villains need apply.
I read something the other day that referred to Trump as a super-villain. I believe it was in reference to his desire to bomb cultural and civilian sites in Iran. I couldn’t help but to be horrified and amused all at once, and I turned to a coworker and asked if she’d ever heard him called that. She hadn’t, though she wasn’t surprised: “So much of what Trump and his cronies are committed to is just so blatantly evil,” she said. Children in cages, the wanton pillage of our environment, gutting services for the poor, supporting the gun lobby, racism, war: it is indeed so fiendish a list it could come straight out of a comic book. “I grew up believing that being American, we were the good guys,” she continued. “But now I’m not so sure.”
War has always been the arena in which Trump as president scared me the most. After all, you can rewrite bad laws; you can retighten environmental regulations. But you cannot bring people back to life. You cannot undo war.
And yet as belligerent as Trump’s been—striking a combative tone on nuclear weapons (“Why can’t we use them?”), exiting the Iran nuclear agreement, surrounding himself with war-bent advisers—Trump has also signaled his unwillingness to enmesh America in more foreign conflict. Until recently, there were moments he seemed the strangest and most unlikely advocate for peace—pulling us back from the precipice when we could have easily gone over. “I think the strong person’s approach and the thing that does show strength would be showing a little restraint,” the president said in reference to the June attack on the Saudi oil facility, and it may be one of the wisest things he’s ever said. (It’s interesting how on the global scale, on the level of nations, leaders, armies, it’s often what we don’t do—that Taoist choice of non-action over action—that marks the greatest wisdom. How many hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved if America had chosen not to act after 9/11? If instead of trying to fix the world, we’d been sage enough to fix ourselves?)
Of course, with the president’s recent airstrikes on Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, and then, most brazenly and shortsightedly, on Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, Trump has reversed course, and shown that he’s not just willing to end endless wars, but to begin them. The silver lining, if such a thing can exist on the black cloud of conflict, is that maybe this will finally spark real protest. With Trump as the face of war, maybe the American people will finally demand peace. Maybe.
But there’s no guarantee. Because, in the end, this really isn’t about Trump. It’s about us. If we the people truly oppose war—and this is heartbreakingly debatable—then we need to stand up and make our voices heard. And so far, we simply haven’t.
While this strange silence does indeed speak volumes, what we haven’t said or done so far is less important than what we choose to say and do right now. Whether that means taking to the streets in greater numbers—such as the demonstrations planned in cities around the world for this Saturday, January 25, as part of the “No War with Iran” international day of action—or calling our members of Congress, or joining anti-war organizations, I can’t say. But one way or another, we all have to make it known that we do indeed care. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to policy-makers,” says Win Without War’s Stephen Miles. “They think the American public just doesn’t care, and unless and until we show them we do, they’re not going to take the time to work on these issues.”
And it’s true. We can no longer be so complacent, which is of course the same thing as being complicit. Until we refuse to treat war as an accepted—and acceptable—fact of American life, that’s precisely what it will remain.
I care. I really do. It’s just that every way I try to show it—joining the anti-war march in Times Square last week, calling my representatives, writing these words—none of it feels like enough. None of it seems to make a difference.
Of course, everything makes a difference. I believe that. Every single one of our actions reverberates out into the universe, endlessly affecting everything else—which is why, in a certain sense, everything is our responsibility. This is also why we have to be so careful, so gentle. What we do—or don’t do—matters. From the smallest scale on up.
My grandfather saved the world once, or so the story goes. Francis T.P. Plimpton was a delegate to the United Nations, second in command under Adlai Stevenson. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world was on the brink of nuclear war. At the height of the crisis, the US received a communication from Nikita Khrushchev in which the Soviet premier seemed to want to back down, and move toward resolution. Not long after, the US received another message, a far more belligerent one that negated the first, made unreasonable demands, and remained committed to escalation. It was obvious the Soviet hardliners had put their stamp on it. Apparently, the two countries were back to square one: no one was budging, and World War III seemed inevitable. Which was when my grandfather came up with an idea: ignore the second message, and simply respond to the first. It worked. The two nuclear superpowers began the process of edging away from the abyss.
I wonder sometimes if beneath our Clark Kent veneers, we are all superheroes. You can see this on the subway—how people’s natural instinct is to reach out our hands when the train lurches and someone begins to fall. We all yearn to help our fellow human beings. I wonder what stands in our way?
Me, I am no savior. I have managed to change no lives—not even, sadly enough, my own. Still, I remain stubbornly convinced that I am meant for something bigger. These delusions of grandeur are somewhat ironic, considering there are times I can hardly seem to do anything at all, much less anything of particular greatness.
But perhaps you cannot save the world in one fell swoop. You can’t do everything. You can, however, do the next thing. You take the dog for a walk. You play football with your son. You write the next sentence. It won’t solve all the world’s problems. Perhaps nothing ever will.
But at least you’ll be a hero to your son, and to your dog.