Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Bible as Metaphor: Taking it Seriously, Not Literally


[H]uman beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value. – Karen Armstrong
In the mid-1970s, during my junior year in high school, a friend from concert band invited me to attend a small bible study he had recently joined with some other band members. As the son of a Lutheran minister, I was not anxious to add to my religious obligations, having reached my fill of regular church attendance, youth group outings, and confirmation classes. Sensing my hesitation, my friend noted that Julie, a sophomore flute player with wavy blond hair to which I had formed a recent attraction, would also be there. Hey, no one ever said religious people don’t play dirty. Always one to consider my options, I weighed the prospect of two hours of potential annoyance and piety against the chance to become better acquainted with Julie.  Hmm. What would Jesus do? “Julie was going to be there, you say?” I decided to attend.

It did not turn out very well. As it happens, this particular group, I soon discovered, did not share my mainline Protestant perspective of the Bible as historical-metaphor, but instead took the Bible literally. It was one of my early experiences with fundamentalism, or biblical literalism, which I later learned was far more prevalent than I had realized. The leader of this particular bible study was a man – Julie’s uncle I seem to recall – with no particular theological training; not an ordained minister or priest, but a self-proclaimed student of the Bible. He was determined to establish that the Bible was the authoritative word of God, factually and historically accurate, and not to be questioned. Thus, he contended, the creation story in Genesis is literally true – the world really was created in six days; Adam and Eve really were the first humans; Noah really did build an ark and gathered the animals two-by-two before it rained for 40 days and 40 nights.

I tried my best that evening to correct these mis-impressions, to explain that most of the stories in the Bible were never intended to be understood literally, but were instead to be read in their proper historical context. “The stories have meanings,” I said, “but they should be read symbolically, not literally.” Tension suddenly filled the room as the adult leader became visibly annoyed with me. As for Julie? Well, let’s just say we never dated. Although I held my ground, I was completely outnumbered, and the evening ended with no praises of kumbaya or songs of peace around the camp fire.

Somewhat discouraged, I went home and explained the evening’s events to my father, who listened carefully and, somewhat to my surprise, laughed out loud. He then explained that this was unfortunately a common misunderstanding with which he had contended his entire career. I should understand, he said, that there are a lot of simplistic, erroneous notions of biblical scholarship out there, for which reason, science, and history have little appeal. But damn if that girl wasn’t cute. Oh, well.

*     *     *     *

Over the years, I have had other experiences and run-ins with Christian literalists, born-again proselytizers, and fundamentalist science deniers. Typically friendly, polite and non-threatening, they have approached me in grocery store parking lots, on street corners, and even near a Florida beach during college spring break. It usually goes something like this:

“Are you saved?” asks a friendly young man with short hair and a wide smile. Standing beside him is a pleasant looking young woman with a wholesome glow and an equally friendly air. The first few times this happens to me, I am caught a little off guard.

“Excuse me?” 

“Are you saved?”

“Uh, I’m good, thanks.” I lower my head to avert their intense stares and casually wave them off.

“Do you accept Christ as your savior?”

“Really, I’m good.” I attempt to side-step them.

“Have you been born again?”

Geez, these guys don’t let up! A touch exasperated, I proclaim finally my credentials. “Look, I am the son of a Lutheran minister! I have attended church all my life.”

But such a response simply provides fuel for the fire. These guys are zealous, after all, and prepared, with answers and bible verses for everything you throw at them. For the born again evangelical and proselytizing fundamentalist, “I grew up as a Lutheran” only confirms that I am a misguided soul, lost in the wilderness. I have not really seen the light. They continue to press for more specificity.

“If you died today, would you be prepared to face the Day of Judgment?”

“Listen....but...uh, really....” I give up and walk away, suddenly sensing that I am headed straight for eternal damnation.  

For some evangelical Christians, that I never had a “born again” experience rendered me insufficiently Christian and, thus, “unsaved.” That I had been raised from infancy in the Lutheran tradition was considered irrelevant and, for some, heretical. This is also true for most people raised in mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox traditions. If one has not had a conversion experience, a grand vision from God in which you fall on your knees and accept Christ into your life, you are neither “saved” nor, in their eyes, a true Christian. It is but another form of biblical literalism, based on a passage in John 3:3, in which Jesus says to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 

A major problem with biblical literalism is that it gets the Bible wrong, distorts what the bible, religion, and faith are all about, and emphasizes only “what the bible says” divorced from history and the nuanced meanings of its original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words. Literalism obscures and distorts the Bible’s meaning and renders faith impossible for millions of thoughtful people otherwise open to religious and philosophical reflection.

*     *     *     *

According to a 2011 poll reported in The Huffington Post, one in three Americans believe that the Bible is literally true. Although many are likely quite selective with their literalism, it is an astonishing figure nonetheless. No wonder so many thoughtful people are turned off by religion and consider American Christianity in particular to be dominated by anti-intellectualism and unthinking dogma.

As Marcus Borg, formerly Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University, explains in Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most (Harper One, 2014), much of the Bible consists of metaphorical narratives and parables through which a variety of authors, writing two to three thousand years ago, attempted to set forth their understanding of God, the universe, and humankind. "Our biblical ancestors told the stories they told, not for the sake of providing a reliable factual account of what happened, as if their concern were like that of modern newspaper reporters or historians. Rather, they told the stories they told because of the meanings they saw in them.” 

Although biblical literalism and Christian fundamentalism have been dominant forces in American society throughout my lifetime, both concepts are relatively new in origin. Neither movement developed any traction until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and both run counter to what the early Christians believed and what nearly all mainline Protestant and Catholic theologians have recognized from the very beginnings of their respective traditions. As Borg explains, the Bible "was not written for us. Rather, it was written in the historical contexts of our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel and early Christianity.” The ancient Israelites and early Christians were confessing faith, not recording history. They simply did not believe that for something to be true it had to be factually and literally true. They were a generation of story tellers. 

I have found that, for many fundamentalist Christians, biblical literalists, and evangelicals, to suggest there is a non-literal way to read the Bible is to threaten long-held belief systems and cherished “truths.” But this is stubborn, simplistic thinking, and it is wrong. People of faith are not required to throw away common sense and disregard all knowledge of archeology, geology, astronomy, biology, and history to claim a belief in God. The appropriate question is not “Is the bible true?” Instead, a better framework is: “What truths does the Bible reveal?” and “What meanings can be ascribed to the wide variety of narratives and passages contained in the Bible?”

Consider the creation story found at the beginning of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening and there was morning – the first day.”

The story continues in symmetrical fashion. On the second day, God separates the sky from the oceans; on the third day, God creates land and vegetation; the sun, moon, and stars appear on the fourth day, birds and sea creatures on the fifth day. Then God created human beings in his own image. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning – the sixth day. Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array.” On the seventh day, satisfied with his creation, God rested.

Did the authors of Genesis really intend for us to believe that God created the world in six days? That God created land and vegetation before there existed the sun, moon, and stars? That the universe is only six thousand years old? Read as historical fact, the Genesis creation story is simply bad science. Read as metaphor, it takes on a beautiful, more profound and enriching meaning – that all of creation comes from God and that the created world is good. It presents in poetic language one writer’s attempt to understand the most fundamental questions of creation and humankind. Why do we exist? For what purpose are we blessed with the gift of creation? What is our essential purpose and meaning in life? Read and understood in this manner, the creation story enriches the Bible’s significance and allows us to take it seriously.

Consider as well the second chapter of Genesis, the story of Adam and Eve. As Borg notes, the word adam is the Hebrew noun for humankind. From the rib of adam the first woman is created. She is called Eve, which means “mother of all living.” Together they live in the Garden of Eden, or “Garden of Delights,” which includes “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and “the tree of life” – metaphors all. It was not intended to be a factual account of the world’s first human beings, but a metaphorical story of all humankind. This story in Genesis, full of symbolism, writes Borg, is “about what went wrong in paradise. In a world created by God and declared by God to be good and very good, why is there so much pain, suffering, and misery?” Reading Genesis parabolically eliminates the conflicts created by the book’s literal reading and greatly enhances its meaning. It allows us to affirm the spiritual themes of our biblical ancestors without rejecting the theory of evolution or believing in the impossible.

Similarly, when Jesus spoke of “the kingdom of God,” he was, according to Borg, talking about God’s vision of a just world, not of the afterlife. Early Christianity was an anti-imperialist movement with strong political and social undercurrents. It is why Jesus was publicly crucified, a form of execution reserved for enemies of the state. When he spoke of being “born again,” he was speaking not of eternal salvation, but of a personal transformation that comes from casting aside convention and becoming transformed into a new way of life grounded in this world. “Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the trinity or original sin or the incarnation, which have preoccupied later Christians,” writes the noted historian Karen Armstrong. “He went around doing good and being compassionate.” 

Faith and belief in God is a difficult struggle for some people, a journey of constant doubt and skepticism. I understand why people lose faith and question God’s existence. But those are internal struggles that should not be influenced by misguided and incorrect biblical scholarship. Whether or not one believes in God or assents to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or some other faith tradition, or merely seeks answers to life’s deepest questions, the journey should not be distorted or rendered impossible by a fundamentally flawed view of religion and the Bible. Faith, religion, philosophy, and biblical scholarship are hard work, but to confuse the Bible with literal-factual truth is to create an impossible, unnecessary and incorrect dilemma.

The Bible is a fascinating book, written by ordinary, fallible human beings in ancient Israel and the early Christian era. It spans nearly a thousand years and contains differing visions and perspectives of God and humankind. It presents a multiplicity of human voices, from storytellers and prophets to evangelists, apostles and teachers. It includes voices of vision and wisdom; voices of convention and prejudice; voices of clarity and ambiguity. To be a person of faith does not require that one “believe in the Bible” or the literal-factual truth of the narratives and parables told throughout. It does not require setting aside all knowledge and thought and believing in impossible things. As Borg contends, faith does not require acceptance and belief in things we know not to be true. Faith is instead “about something far more important. It is about our relationship with God – about centering in God, being . . . faithful to God, and about trusting in God.”  It is a journey of the self and the soul for which the Bible is but a resource from which to draw in the constant search for meaning, purpose, and understanding.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Great Conciliator: Howard Baker 1925 - 2014


If we cannot be civil to one another, and if we stop dealing with those with whom we disagree, or that we don't like, we would soon stop functioning altogether. – Former Senator Howard H. Baker, Jr. (R-TN)
In the fall of 1980, I had the good fortune to participate with 100 or so college students from around the country in the Washington Semester program at American University. A presidential election year, Washington was abuzz with excitement and activity; the campus frequented by dignitaries and speakers of varied political perspectives. I attended talks and speeches by a wide assortment of personalities, from Abbie Hoffman to Henry Kissinger. I listened to Senators and Congressmen, journalists and presidential contenders, and other politically oriented, opinionated speakers who challenged, provoked and, at times, upset me. But always, the talks were interesting and thought provoking.

One speech in particular I remember that Fall was by then Senate Minority Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee. As he stood behind a podium at an outdoor amphitheater in front of a large crowd on a warm September evening, Baker exemplified Establishment grace and charm. I could see why my Republican friends had wanted me to hear him and why he was known as “The Great Conciliator” during his years in the U.S. Senate. A soft-spoken Tennessee lawyer, he possessed an inherent reasonableness and seemed to get along with everyone.

Baker died last week at the age of 88. The country will miss his serious intellect, courteous demeanor, and reasoned approach to politics and problem solving. A self-described “moderate to moderate conservative,” Baker was a centrist Republican who combined fiscal prudence with social and foreign policy moderation. He was also, according to a New York Times obituary, “[f]riendly and unfailingly courteous . . . popular with lawmakers in both parties, a kind of figure almost unrecognizable on Capitol Hill today.”

Born into a modest Presbyterian family, Baker was the son of a lawyer and Congressman. After serving in the Navy during World War II and studying law at the University of Tennessee, he was eventually schooled in the art of politics by his father-in-law, Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Dirksen exemplified the centrist Republican tradition of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism and played a crucial role in securing passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by delivering 27 Republican votes to help Lyndon Johnson defeat a Southern filibuster that threatened to permanently block that historic bill. In 1967, Baker joined Dirksen in the Senate, becoming the first Republican senator from Tennessee since Reconstruction. For the next 18 years, Baker served with professionalism and integrity and won the respect and admiration of the press, the public, and members of both political parties.

Baker had conservative instincts and strong opinions, but he believed in the common good. He put the needs of the country first, over party affiliation and ideological purity. As a member of the public works committee, Baker worked closely with liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans in drafting the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Water Pollution Control Act amendments of 1972. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, fair housing and voting rights legislation, and willingly promoted bipartisan efforts to enact laws that he believed benefited all Americans, even if opposed by the more conservative elements of his party.

I can still remember Baker’s calm, lawyerly manner during the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, which impressed me even as a young teenager. It was Baker who asked the famous question, “What did the president know, and when did he know it?” When Nixon’s role in the cover-up became clear, Baker did not hesitate in elevating the interests of the nation ahead of partisanship. He presided over the hearings with patience and equanimity under intense political pressure from many diverse factions, and he ensured the bipartisan nature of the Committee’s investigation

In 1978, Baker supported the Panama Canal Treaty over the vociferous opposition of veterans groups, conservatives, and many others who felt that relinquishing the canal represented a decline in American power and a weakening of our strategic assets. Baker recognized that maintaining American hegemony over the 48-mile canal was akin to colonialism and that ceding the property back to Panama was the right thing to do. He worked with an unpopular Democratic president and helped secure the support of enough Republican senators to achieve the 67 votes needed to ratify the treaty. It was an act of political courage when the easy thing to do would have been to appease the ideological loyalists of his party.

Although he regularly appeared on the morning talk shows to advocate Republican causes with which I passionately disagreed, I found it hard to dislike Baker. Despite his Establishment pedigree, he reminded me of some of my friends at Wittenberg University in southern Ohio. He played tennis and golf and was an avid photographer. He was professional and courteous and rarely displayed anger or bitterness. He understood that there were two sides to an argument and did not personally attack or demonize his opponents.

Baker was an “eloquent listener,” wrote the National Journal, “open to what others said – a trait he lamented as lacking in today’s polarized capital.” Concerned by the growing political divide in the United States, in recent years he was troubled by the forces of ideological extremism so prevalent in political life today. In 2007, Baker co-founded the Bipartisan Policy Center with former Senators Bob Dole (R-KS), George Mitchell (D-ME), and Tom Daschle (D-SD). Together they promoted bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems, the kinds of compromises skillfully forged in their own careers.

Baker believed in the concept of the citizen-legislator; he understood the value of conviction, but also of taking counsel, listening to one’s constituents and adversaries, and allowing for thoughtful consideration. "What really makes the Senate work,” said Baker, “is an understanding of human nature, an appreciation of the hearts as well as the minds, the frailties as well as the strengths, of one's colleagues and one's constituents."

I often wonder lately if the present lack of reasoned political dialogue and compromise is a reflection of a broader change in American society, a historic shifting in the manner in which we obtain information and form opinions. Baker served at a time when most Americans operated under the same set of facts and got their news from essentially the same sources. From around 1950 to 1990, most Americans watched one of three television networks, read the same newspapers and weekly news magazines, and listened to the same radio programs. We argued then, like we do now, over the proper direction of our country, but not over basic facts. We debated the amounts we should spend on certain government programs, on defense and social programs, how much we should regulate businesses, tax rates and budgets, and the proper level of welfare and redistribution. But our arguments seemed more civil and were premised on the fundamental belief that liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, while differing widely on how to solve the nation’s problems, did not question the good faith of the other side’s intentions. Such is not the case today and Baker was saddened by this. He tried to correct it until the day he died.

I am confident that someday we will look back at this time in history and recognize that the extreme ideological battles over national health care, climate change, and the minimum wage, and the right-wing obstructionism that seeks to block even routine presidential appointments to the federal bench and regulatory agencies and fights everything the president does, will be considered an anomaly, a dark point in American political history, when reason and compromise lost out to ideological extremism.

“All government,” wrote Edmund Burke, “indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter.” Like Burke, Baker understood that we live in a nation of diverse peoples and beliefs with competing interests. He knew that politics by necessity involved a certain amount of bargaining and that, at the end of the day, we are all Americans; and that it served no purpose to hate your opponents or to reject the good faith of their intentions.

Howard Baker was a kind and gracious man who loved his country and worked until the end to make it better. He was indeed a citizen-legislator, an eloquent listener, and a great conciliator. He will be sorely missed.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Lessons of War and Limits of Force in the 21st Century


Peace cannot be kept by force. It can only be achieved by understanding. – Albert Einstein
I was born in 1959, when a five-star general was president and American prosperity and military might were unrivaled anywhere in the world. Only fourteen years earlier, America had defeated fascism in Europe and Imperial Japan’s aggression in the Pacific. When the war ended, we were the world’s dominant power and stood ready to preside over the “American Century,” as Time magazine called it in 1941. Most Americans accepted that the United States was uniquely capable of creating a better world and shaping the international scene in its own image. We were prepared, as John Kennedy said on a cold January day in 1961, to “bear any burden” and “oppose any foe . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

For my entire life, America has been the most powerful nation on Earth. As a young boy, I glorified military service; I admired the uniforms of our servicemen, and the stars and stripes that adorned them. Like others of my generation, my early impressions of U.S. military force were influenced almost entirely by the history of World War II, when our country was united in aid of friends and allies whose freedoms and way of life were under attack by a brutal, power-hungry despot. The stakes were real, freedom and liberty in jeopardy, the necessity of our involvement clear.

For the first thirty years of my life, American military superiority was balanced only by the military and nuclear capabilities of the former Soviet Union. We were then engaged in a Cold War against the forces of Communism, in which every action, every regional conflict, was seen through the lenses of the East-West rivalry. Although world events would later temper his views, as a presidential candidate in 1960, John F. Kennedy articulated what many Americans then believed, and what the American Establishment propagandized. “The enemy is the Communist system itself – implacable, insatiable, increasing in its drive for world domination,” said Kennedy. We were in a struggle of “two conflicting ideologies: freedom under God versus ruthless, godless tyranny.”

American political leaders, I have since come to learn, have a tendency to heighten their rhetoric and elevate our sense of responsibility as a world power in response to perceived existential threats. Although I admire flowery prose and grandiose statements in service to country as much as anyone, when combined with the arrogance of power, we risk misguided actions and tragic consequences. When we ignore lessons learned from past conflicts and fail ever to accept the practical and moral limits of force, we risk making and repeating grave mistakes.

Grand visions attenuated from historical reality are abundantly evident in a provocative essay first published in the June 9th issue of The New Republic, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire: What Our Tired Country Still Owes the World” by Robert Kagan, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution who advised John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008. “Almost 70 years ago,” Kagan writes, “a new world order was born from the rubble of World War II, built by and around the power of the United States.” Until recently, America acted with a “sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world.” We were “vigilant and ready to act with force, anywhere in the world” to protect freedom, spread democracy and expand and deepen the international trading system. During the Cold War, the West’s economic and political success spread throughout Europe and much of Asia. None of this would have been possible, says Kagan, had the United States not been "willing and able to play the abnormal and unusual role of preserver and defender of a liberal world order.”

But today, contends Kagan, the liberal world order is showing “signs of cracking, and perhaps even collapsing.” This is not “because America’s power is declining” or “the world has become more complex and intractable;” it is, instead, due to “an intellectual problem, a question of identity and purpose.” If only the weak-willed Barack Obama would let America be great again, he implies, the problems the world confronts in Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq, among others, would be solved. “A liberal world order, like any world order, is something that is imposed, and as much as we in the West might wish it to be imposed by superior virtue, it is generally imposed by superior power.”

There are several problems with Kagan’s thesis, and with many of the critical voices calling for more aggressive U.S. military intervention in the world’s various trouble spots. First, the so-called “world order” that existed in the decades following World War II based on American willingness to “oppose any foe” is a figment of Kagan’s imagination. As Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate with 23 years of military service and a professor of history at Boston University, noted in a rebuttal to Kagan’s essay in Commonweal, Kagan overlooks that throughout the Cold War, when faced with Soviet aggression, ethnic conflict, and genocide, the United States time and again acted with “prudent self-restraint.” Thus, when Soviet tanks rolled into East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968, our nation’s “commitment to freedom and democracy took a backseat to its preference for avoiding a potentially climactic East-West showdown.” Similarly, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, rather than invade Cuba and attempt to liberate its people from Communism, President Kennedy cut a deal with his Communist adversaries. In exchange for removing Soviet missiles from Cuba, we agreed to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey. In each instance, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Cuba remained unliberated, but the world remained intact.

Second, contrary to Kagan’s lofty rhetoric, the United States has repeatedly helped to overthrow regimes not to its liking, with little concern expressed for the ideals of American democracy. One need only examine U.S. actions in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, South Vietnam in 1963, and Chile in the early 1970s. And the despots we have supported over the years, including Batista in Cuba and Somoza in Nicaragua, Musharraf in Pakistan and Mubarak in Egypt, have seldom adhered to American ideals of freedom, justice, and the rule of law. Moreover, according to Bacevich, "[o]ther disruptions to a ‘world order’ ostensibly founded on the principle of American ‘global responsibility’” which resulted in no U.S. military response, included:
the 1947 partition of India (estimated 500,000 to one million dead); the 1948 displacement of Palestinians (700,000 refugees); the exodus of Vietnamese from north to south in 1954 (between 600,000 and one million fled); the flight of the pied noir from Algeria (800,000 exiled); the deaths resulting directly from Mao Tse Tung’s quest for utopia (between 2 million and 5 million); the mass murder of Indonesians during the anti-Communist purges of the mid-1960s (500,000 slaughtered); the partition of Pakistan in 1971 (up to 3 million killed; millions more displaced); genocide in Cambodia (1.7 million dead); and war between Iran and Iraq (at least more 400,000 killed). Did I mention civil wars in Nigeria, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, Congo, Liberia, and Sierra Leone that killed millions? The list goes on.
In The New Republic essay, Kagan fails to note any of these events, although all occurred during the Cold War when America was, in Kagan’s words, “vigilant and ready to act, with force, anywhere in the world.” In fact, as most past presidents learn once in office, the historical reality is that the United States wields limited power and influence. We have not, and never have been, “ready to act with force, anywhere in the world.” And all too often, when we have attempted ambitious military excursions in conflicts lacking the clear-cut moral and political dimensions of World War II, we have come to regret it.

I only first began to understand the limits of force when I was ten years old. In 1969, Phillip Seel, the 22 year-old son of my dad’s secretary and close family friend, arrived home in a body bag, a victim of North Vietnamese mortar and artillery fire. Phillip died while doing his job as a Navy Hospital Corpsman stationed at First Support Base Neville in Quang Tri Province. On February 25, 1969, he was administering first aid to a wounded Marine lying on the ground in an area dangerously exposed to hostile fire. According to his Presidential citation, Seel, “[u]ndaunted by the enemy grenades and satchel charges impacting near him, he resolutely continued his valiant efforts until he was mortally wounded.” Universally recognized as a kind and gentle young man, he volunteered for the hospital corps because he wanted to serve others rather than fight and kill. In the end, he received a Silver Medal and Purple Heart, and died a hero’s death.

A few months earlier, I had sent Phillip a collection of baseball articles and photographs to raise his spirits, as I knew he was serving our country in Vietnam in a war I knew little about. I can still remember meticulously cutting out articles and photographs from The Sporting News and Sport magazine, pasting them onto lined notebook paper and writing a letter to Phillip explaining my selections and updating him on the latest baseball results from the United States. Sadly, the mailing never reached him; it had arrived too late, only to be dispassionately and impersonally “returned to sender.” I grew up a little the day I learned of Phillip’s death and witnessed the heartbreak inflicted on his mother and family members. It was then that I realized America’s actions abroad had risks and consequences.

I started to pay attention more, and to question accepted wisdom, on America’s role in the world. I now understood why moral and religious leaders were questioning America’s involvement in Vietnam and why thousands of protestors had taken to the streets. I came to see that hundreds of thousands of young American men were leaving for Vietnam thinking they were defending freedom only to find their country embroiled in a messy civil war, fighting to help prop up a corrupt leader who lacked the support of his own people; and that the people of South Vietnam were indistinguishable from the people of North Vietnam and enemies could not be distinguished from friends. It did not take long for those on the ground to realize that the American military was ill-equipped to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia, and to question what on earth they were fighting for.

But back home, the forces and voices supporting war were powerful men – presidents and cabinet members, senators and generals – who convinced themselves that America was uniquely capable of winning the fight for freedom and democracy over the dark cloud of Communism. Only America, these voices proclaimed, stood between freedom at home and tyranny abroad. How could they be so wrong? How could these distinguished authority figures be so certain and yet be so wrong?

The Voices of War are once again calling upon the United States to re-engage in the latest eruption in Iraq. The Sunni extremists that have made inroads in recent weeks, seizing Fallujah, Mosul, and a string of other Iraqi cities, and provoking a revival of the Sunni-versus-Shiite civil war that left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead between 2005 and 2008, threaten to undue the Shiite-led government of Iraq. But American military involvement would be the wrong response, morally and strategically, to what is essentially a proxy war between the Saudi-backed Sunnis and the Iranian-backed Shiites. Our involvement, whether through troops on the ground or limited air strikes, would serve only to further inflame Iraq’s sectarian divisions. There are no good options in Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki is corrupt and mostly to blame for the latest round of Sunni revolts. Maliki has excluded Sunnis from power and made a mockery of whatever semblance of democracy we had hoped, unsuccessfully, to instill during the drawn out debacle of the past decade.

Ever since American forces departed Iraq in 2011, President Obama has been attacked by the same hawks and neoconservatives – McCain, Graham, Cheney, Wolfowitz and company – that previously led us into one of the worst foreign policy blunders in American history. The “Obama lost Iraq” mantra is not simply wrong, but misses the entire lesson of the war in Iraq. While it could be argued in a very narrow sense that the United States “won” the war militarily, we never came close to winning the war politically; and that is where the true battle lay. The American invasion and subsequent occupation not only destroyed Iraq’s central institutions, including the army, police, and Baath party, but it resulted in a power vacuum that separated Iraqis into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish camps. Iraq is a forced country, an artificial boundary that has attempted to unite three rival factions against their will. The disputes and rivalries that exist in that region of the world are deep-rooted, complex, and not understood by American policymakers. To shed further American blood, and to have American forces be the cause of Iraqi blood and suffering, would be a huge wrong, a mistake of immense proportions.

As President Obama said last week, “We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq. Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.” The best thing Obama can do at this juncture is provide humanitarian relief – food, clothing, shelter, and medicine – for the estimated half-million Iraqi refugees and three million Syrian refugees who have fled the civil wars in those countries. Rather than compound the suffering with more U.S. missiles, the administration should work with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Turkey in search of a regional political solution.

Rightly or wrongly, the American experience in Vietnam has greatly influenced my modern view of U.S. military force. I am less enamored of calls for war whenever they arise in the halls of Congress or the op-ed pages of our major newspapers. I am admittedly neither a foreign policy expert nor military strategist, but I have enough sense to know that the use of American force in that part of the world has been a disaster. Continued use of American firepower will only inflame the sectarian divisions in the region and once again focus the wrath of extremists on America. I am all for finding creative ways to help defeat ISIS while pressuring Maliki to cease enforcing anti-Sunni policies that only empower the extremists. But to simplistically call for American military force and believe that we have ceded our global responsibility to impose a new world order – democracy and freedom in a part of the world that has historically experienced neither – is to repeat the mistakes of the recent past.

Calls for war are cheap, especially when made from the cheap seats in Washington, in front of microphones and television cameras. Glorifying the past also costs little and, worse, encourages a false sense of mission and responsibility. Time and again – in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq – blinded by false assumptions and visions of America as an all-powerful savior of the world, we became enmeshed in historically complex civil wars in far-off lands we neither knew nor understood. The voices in favor of war were always the same, the propaganda of war always powerful – freedom from tyranny, freedom from communism, freedom from some bad thing the stated mission. But articulating a grand vision and sense of purpose, demonizing the enemy and convincing yourself and your people that you are engaged in a battle of good versus evil, neither wins the conflict nor addresses the underlying roots of conflict, especially where we fail – as we so often do – to understand the cultural, religious and political implications of our actions; and when we consistently misinterpret the actions of others or misunderstand what truly motivates their actions.

A few weeks before he died, President Kennedy spoke with a revised humility and introspection about the use of military force. Speaking at Amherst College on October 26, 1963, Kennedy publicly acknowledged that power and might are not without limits and must be exercised with great care. “The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness,” he said on that cool New England day, “but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when the questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.”

As we venture forth into the deeper reaches of the 21st century, will we dare heed the lessons of the past and use our power, wealth, and resources for the good of humanity? Or will we continue to listen to the false prophets who have led us into stupid wars on false and mistaken pretenses, and once again let power use us?