Archive » November 30, 2007
We should be riding that white horse
By Ken McCalip, Contributing Writer
Growing up in the 1950s next to the small rural California oil town of Orcutt was idyllic. It was a period of simplicity and certainty, both in the local area and in America. I can remember my first day of school, bouncing along in the vintage school bus after it had turned around in our driveway to head to school on a virtually vacant country road. America, at that time, had a strong sense of right and wrong that seems to be missing in today’s world, and in its place we see extremism.
Schools then had a clear mission — to teach the three R’s and inculcate students to be patriotic Americans. After World War II, most of the male teachers, including our school principal and superintendent, Mr. Nightingale, were veterans. To this day I can remember his large, looming figure at school assemblies extolling the virtues of public education and how fortunate we were to live in this country.
Movies of the time also had a strong patriotic theme that portrayed Americans as the ones who always played by the rules. No matter what happened, Americans did the correct thing, and they were out to make the world a better place. Listening to the national anthem, pledging allegiance to the flag, attending school assemblies and watching patriotic movies always brought a lump to my throat. In the eyes of a schoolchild, we were the one on a white horse; always fighting for what was right and good.
The ’60s, however, were a time that challenged America’s moral compass. Life was no longer simple. In my senior year in high school, even before the war started, our gym teachers began preparing us boys for war with insane exercise routines. I am sure their efforts helped save some of us. In no time at all, my friends were being killed in the jungles of Vietnam, and the nation was immersed in the quagmire that the war in Indochina became. The nature of the war made it impossible to tell friend from foe, and Americans were killing innocent civilians. It was hard for the nation to tell who was riding that white horse.
A tragic event did more to bring the war to a close than the extraordinary number of American war dead. In the rage and frustration of war, a young lieutenant ordered the massacre and destruction of an entire village. America, after this glaring event, was, finally, once again able to determine what was right and wrong, to regain its moral compass; then a vast majority of the American people demanded an end to the war.
For a long time, our presidents and our nation remembered what we learned from that war, and we stayed out of entanglements in Lebanon, Africa and other hot spots in the world — and the world and the U.S. were better off because we remembered. For many years, we insisted that our leaders have an exit strategy, but that has long been forgotten. Today, polls show that the rest of the world views us as a greater threat to world peace than terrorists.
Just as in the ’60s, America is facing another moral dilemma. Having misled the American people to invade the wrong country for invalid reasons, this administration is unable to admit a mistake and is unable to understand the cultural differences between America and Iraq. Revenge and tribalism are an integral part of the culture of the Iraqi people, and these factors make almost any move by U.S. forces the wrong move.
It is again hard to tell friend from foe and a sweep through a town or village in Iraq is likely to create three or more new terrorists for each insurgent or terrorist captured or killed. Revenge is a traditional and sacred response against those who harm a tribal or family member in that part of the world. Each and every day that this war continues, revenge and tribalism make America less secure. Why, despite the fact that about 75 percent of the American people are against this war, does it continue? The short answer is: politics — in both political parties.
In addition to misunderstanding cultural differences in the Middle East, extremists inside the Bush administration, in conservative think tanks, and even in many small towns, try to tell us it is all right to use terror to fight terror; that it’s all right to torture prisoners; that it’s all right to kidnap suspects and whisk them off to a country that will really do a good job of torture; that it’s all right to not abide by and respect the Geneva Convention. All of these ideas are un-American, and they are not all right. They drag us down to the level of those we are fighting, and they open the door to the same treatment when Americans are captured.
What has emerged from two recently leaked memos and from the recent strident speech by the president in which he defended torture is a picture of behavior that is reminiscent of the most tyrannical kings of old Europe and of recent dictators. The memos show that in 2005, while publicly supporting and signing the Detainee Treatment Act, which again banned the cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners, President Bush’s justice department secretly issued opinions that allowed brutal interrogation to continue in defiance of the new law and of existing prohibitions in U.S. law and international law.
And to what purpose this backdoor malfeasance? What does it do for America? Army Col. Stuart Herrington, who conducted interrogations in Vietnam, points out that torture simply is not a good way to get information. Nine out of 10 people can be persuaded to talk without any stress methods, he says. If you beat people up, they’ll tell you anything they think you want to hear just to get you to stop.
Our nation needs to reject extremism in all its forms, take the high moral ground, and make sure we are the ones riding those white horses, and following over 200 years of laws and traditions.
Ken McCalip is a North Santa Barbara county native and a former principal/superintendent who holds bachelor and doctorate degrees in history, cultural geography and law from various California universities. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org