Monday, May 25, 2015

Industry of death

When I was in college, I showed my dad an op-ed column in the L.A. Times. Our cardinal, Timothy Manning, whom I had shaken hands with and exchanged cordialities at my high school graduation, was a soft-spoken emigrant from County Cork. But his editorial castigated, in Reagan's first term, the "industry of death" (or terms like that) which profited off of a Cold or hot war, and which employed hundreds of thousands in the "defense industry" that in that time still dominated much of the regional economy in aerospace and in manufacturing.

My blue-collar, Reagan Democrat dad responded evenly but with a touch of bitterness: those priests never had to support a family with a job. He reminded me, the know-it-all at the Jesuit university that, although full of working-class undergrads (and many middle-class, true), we were removed from the realities of the economy. My dad had worked at many tool-and-die machine shops, many factories, for decades in this industry.

So, when I share such citations from a clergy with whom I otherwise often disagree, what's the point? I have been convinced that war is not the answer since my teens. Somehow, exposure to St. Francis, to Thomas Merton, to a hint of the Catholic Worker movement, drew me away from my childhood fascination with conflict, one so strong it unsettled a second-grade teacher. At the height of the Vietnam War, I kept changing every creative writing opportunity into a little guy's fiery combat tale.

I was the first year to have to register for the Selective Service imposed by Jimmy Carter late in his term. Those males turning 18 had to sign up at the Post Office on a small card, I recall. The Persian Gulf Doctrine mandated a ready force of young men on call. Protecting oil, as we have seen for decades since, became in the wake of OPEC and the embargoes of the Seventies today's key priority.

So, I also sent a letter to Pax Christi in Boston. I went on record as a conscientious objector to such war. Back then, at least then I could admit some use in serving to help people even in the military in a non-combat capacity, but my preference, not that the government cared, was to not support the service, but to do whatever duty I had to do if required in a domestic role, not furthering conflict.

Now I am not sure about that. Finding out in '07 about my murdered Fenian great-grandfather threw me for a loop, given my seemingly inherited bent against the Butcher's Apron and the Crown. It made me wonder if I, the boy with the crayons drawing tanks and fire and soldiers, revealed a violent gene. Or maybe I carry an idealistic one, romantic and impractical, that ordinary people deserve control.

The War of Independence left Ireland a partitioned nation and sparked civil war, and long decades of hatred and political rancor. The guerrillas in the Six Counties did not wrench that province away from Britain. Thousands died, many more wounded in the soul or in the body. Still, as with some revolutions, I can't tell if a peaceful Irish movement against the Empire might have succeeded.

If asked now by my nation, with the anarchist leanings I have discovered I had formulated without knowing earlier in my life those definitions, I'd opt out from aiding war. I have written about J.F. Powers, who was sent to prison for refusing to buy war bonds in WWII, and I have learned recently about those who turned away from even the "good war"; my father mused one day to me--perhaps after reflecting on the Gold Star flag hung in my mother's house for the death of her only sibling, my namesake Uncle Jack, on the shores of Saipan--that nobody really ever won a war. I turn away more than ever from slogans, jingoism, and ribbons. So, I post this with another Jesuit's chastisement, on another Memorial Day. My students from Iraq and Afghanistan still return, still wounded, if hidden.


Unknown said...

Fascinating piece, John. The reality is, as you point out, that for many industries and individuals worldwide, it is their interests for war to continue in whatever guise.

To say No to joining up or contributing in anyway to War takes an awful lot of courage, when the easiest thing is to say Yea.

It's not directly related, but it is to do with war: I read - with increasing anger, age by page- a book by an Irish journalist called Ann Cadwallader: "Lethal ALlies" about the collusion of the police and so-called security forces in the north of Ireland in the mid '70s. If you have an opportunity to read it, it would be interesting to have your views on it.

Take care, John b

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Thanks, John B., for your support. I have "Lethal Allies" and it's been praised since it appeared--I do need to read it, still! I appreciate the reminder, and best wishes. John M.