Category Archives: Value of A Human Life

Words of Eloquence and Meaning

For the past several weeks I have struggled to come up with the right means of expression to describe how I feel about circumstances in Nicaragua.  In the shadow of killings and abductions and fear, Nicaragua would seem to be quite unlike the country in which Winds of Peace has worked over the past 35 years.  Pictures of massive protests in the places I know, photos of masked shooters in the neighborhoods where I’ve been, blood in the streets where I’ve walked: these are surreal images that choke the words I should say.  I have not traveled to Nicaragua since February, and I feel as though I’ve been away even longer.

The development continues, nonetheless.  Loans are being made:  last week, two women’s cooperatives received small, initial funding for local agriculture.  Grants are being given: despite the vastly reduced attendance in schools over recent months, elementary-age reading initiatives are being redirected through community sites and churches  Repayments are being made: even where full repayment might be delayed, partners are reworking payment plans to honor their obligations as best they can.  There may be few causes of great joy within the current turmoil of Nicaragua, but there are hopeful moments.

Of course, what matters in this crisis time is not the impact upon a small U.S. foundation; Winds of Peace is just fine.  Of importance is the real-life upheaval being lived out daily by Nicaraguans who struggled for daily survival long before the first protests were launched, and who now find themselves threatened with even greater hardships than before.  Most North Americans would have a difficult time fully comprehending Nicaraguan poverty prior to April 18 of this year.  We have even less likelihood of  understanding their realities given the way things are today.  And my words are simply insufficient to the cause.

So I invite readers to shift their attentions to the “Nica Update” entries at this site.  They are frequent updates on the status of the confrontation and the contain the observations and experiences of men and women caught up in current struggle.  They are words of passion.  They are expressions of the most deeply-held beliefs of Nicaraguan people yearning once again for peace and equity.  They are the fluent articulations of a people’s soul, in a time of deep distress.

Over the din of bullets and bulldozers, emerge words of eloquence and meaning….

 

Boys Will Be Boys

We didn’t know their names.  We hadn’t seen their faces.  We really didn’t know much of anything about them, except that there were twelve soccer players altogether, accompanied by their coach.  They had crawled up into the inner reaches of a cave, exploring with the excitement and energy that 12-year old boys seem to have, when outside rains created rising waters inside the cave, submerging the very passages that the boys had used hours before.  They became trapped.

We all know the story by now, as it became a topic of international attention.  News sources from around the world featured daily updates about the fate of the boys; indeed, nine days elapsed before rescuers even discovered the boys still alive, but each and every day we received updates about rescuers’ progress.  It was no less than a miracle that the team survived so long underground.  And then we waited and watched as rescue teams- made up of Thai, U.S. and other international support- completed the meticulous planning and execution of the rescue itself.  In the end, there was a universal sigh of relief from all corners of the globe that these young lives had been saved.  Maybe the world needed a unified success in something, anything, at this time of extreme nationalism and name-calling.

The international interest and support puzzles me.  I readily understand the empathy and emotional attachment that we feel: imagining one’s own children in such dire circumstances is a nightmare that most parents have, and to which even non-parents can relate.  The anguish and outrage expressed in the U.S. on behalf of children separated from their parents at the border with Mexico demonstrated our ability to activate on behalf of kids.  But the capture of the entire international conscience over the fate of 12 boys astounds me.  There have been and continue to be almost daily events which threaten the lives of children, in many cases far more than a dozen young lives, and for which we show almost casual interest at best.  Sometimes the young lives are lost, and the world takes little note.  Middle East violence has destroyed young lives as a matter of policy.  Syrian war has made no distinctions between use of nerve gas on adults or children.  In Nicaragua, young people are being killed or “disappeared” each day during the current political turmoil, and the world barely knows of it.  What made the Thai soccer team so different for us?

Was it the uniforms?  Was there something about the context of a boys’ athletic team?  Perhaps the difference was due to the nature of the threat: not imposed by politics or other man-made conventions, but rather from Nature herself.  Maybe it’s easier to root for people confronting the forces of natural calamity than to be forced to choose sides in a conflict.  Someone suggested to me that we have a limited capacity for empathy in crises, and that we are more capable of emotion for smaller numbers of victims: we can handle our fears and grief for 12, but it’s much more difficult for, say, 1,000.  For whatever the reason, we seem to pick and choose the victims who we will care about.  It baffles me.  And I feel badly for those other victims who wait for the caress of human accompaniment, prayers and support, even when it never comes.

My reflections over this brought to mind a scene from the movie, “Schindler’s List,” where Schindler is in despair over Jews he could not ultimately help away from Nazi danger, despite his urgent desire to save them:

“I could have got more out.  I could have got more.  I don’t know.  If I’d just…  I could have got more….  If I’d made more money.  I threw away so much money.  You have no idea.  If I’d just….

I didn’t do enough!  This car.  Someone would have bought this car.  Why did I keep the car?  Ten people right there.  Ten people.  Ten more people.  This pin.  Two people.  This is gold.  Two more people.  He would have given me two for it, at least one.  One more person.  I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t.  And I… didn’t.” 

Sometimes conscience is too slow, or too selective, and becomes numbed by the happy drama of boys being boys….

 

 

 

Deja Vu

Conditions in the country we serve, Nicaragua, continue to hearken back to a generation ago, when the administration in power faced enormous protests and demands for a new government.  The confrontations continue today, just as they did all those years ago,  leading to violence and deaths, denials, accusations, reprisals and lots of pain.  It’s tough to watch in a country of such charm and character.

Two recent documents, written by The University of Central America and the Episcopal Church, provide both a news update as well as perspectives about how at least part of the population places its support.  The following is a statement provided by the UCA following a Wednesday night demonstration:

The University of Central America (UCA) reports that this Wednesday, May 30, at around 4:30 PM, there was an attack by the “shock troops” against the defenseless population participating in a civic march that had the UCA as its final destination.

The attacks took place in the vicinity of the gate closest to the National University of Engineering (UNI). In support of the people, the UCA security guards opened the gates so that the protesters could take refuge in the campus. Fleeing the attacks, more than 5,000 people managed to enter, while many fled in other directions. Countless injured people were treated by volunteers immediately on campus and ambulances took all of the injured to medical centers.

After 8:30 PM, volunteers and drivers from the UCA had managed to evacuate the majority of the refugees to different parts of the capital and, at the time of publication of this message, continue in this process. Despite the shooting, the refugees did not want to stay on campus because of threats received about attacks on the university.

The UCA, which stands on the side of the people in their struggle for justice, denounces this new criminal attack and demands from the authorities the immediate cessation of the repression that uses shock troops to assassinate with impunity, protected by the current misrule.

We urge human rights organizations, national and foreign, to take note of this situation that seriously affects the lives of citizens and to use mechanisms for the protection of human rights such as the Inter-American Human Rights System and the United Nations.

We urge the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua and to apply mechanisms which can help resolve this crisis, which has reached the level of a massacre against a defenseless population.”

The document quoted below was generated by the Bishops Conference of the Episcopal Church in Nicaragua:

PRESS RELEASE

To the People of God and men and women of good will:

  1. We the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua have experienced with profound pain the violent events carried out last night by armed groups allied with the government against the civilian population. We energetically condemn all these violent acts against the exercise of peaceful free demonstrations and we absolutely reject this organized and systemic aggression against the people, which has left dozens of wounded and some people dead.
  2. We cannot continue allowig this inhumane violence “that destroys the lives of the innocent, that teaches to kill and equally disrupts the lives of those who kill, that leaves behind a trail of resentment and hate, and makes more difficult the just solution of the very problems that caused it” (Centesimus Annus, 52).
  3. We the Bishops of the Episcopal Conference condemn these acts of repression on the part of groups close to the government, and we want to leave clear that the National Dialogue cannot be renewed as long as the people of Nicaragua continue being denied the right to freely demonstrate and continue being repressed and murdered.
  4. At this moment in which the history of our country continues being stained with blood, we cry out to Jesus Crucified, who on resurrecting from the dead conquered evil and death with the strength of his infinite love. “Oh, Cross of Christ, we teach that the dawn of the sun is stronger than the darkness of night. Oh Cross of Christ, we teach that the apparent victory of evil fades in the face of the empty tomb and in the face of the certainty of the Resurrection and the love of God, which nothing can defeat or darken or weaken” (Pope Francis, Holy Friday 2016). That Mary, the grieving Virgin, whose heart was pierced by a sword in the face of the pain of her Son on the Cross (Lk 2:35), consoles so many Nicaraguan mothers who suffer over the murder of their sons and watch over all our people with maternal love.

Issued in the city of Managua on the thirty first day of the month of May of the the two thousand eighteenth year of the Lord.

 Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua

This communique was signed by the ten bishops of the conference.

(For those interested in tracking developments in Nicaragua, one source is La Prensa.  The daily newspaper provides very current coverage of events in Nicaragua, as well as perspective on events elsewhere in the world.)

For those who know and love Nicaragua and the people there, this is a painful and sad time.  It’s made even more so by how little the U.S. news media writes about it.  Their lack of attention does not diminish the anguish and tragedy of what is occurring in the land of our neighbor to the south….

                                                   

 

 

 

My Name Is Char-les

Mark and I had a particularly interesting dinner last month in El Cua.  I mean, our dinners are usually pretty interesting moments in the day, whether because of the agenda we have just experienced, the menu of a small restaurant we have found, conversation about upcoming meetings  for the following day or just in telling each other life stories.  There’s always plenty to observe and discuss in these dinner moments and I truly enjoy them.  (Not to mention the food, which is usually very basic and very good.)  But this night featured a guest, a boy by the name of Char-les.                                                                           

Let’s be clear about one thing right away: the name is Char-les, not Charles, because he does not like the nickname Charlie.  By pronouncing his name with two syllables, there is less chance that one might make the mistake of calling him Charlie.  Acquaintance with another young boy by the name of Charlie- a peer who is apparently not a favorite of our dinner guest- has rendered the nickname lost forever from the monikers Char-les may adopt over his lifetime.

Aside from the same smiles afforded every young person we might encounter during the day, we had issued no invitation or gesture to encourage his attendance.   He simply drifted over to our table and began to talk.  Maybe it was the unusual presence of two gringos in the small cafe.  Perhaps it was the allure of my broad-brimmed hat (sombrero grande) which suggested a cowboy’s presence.  More likely, it was the pure curiosity of a little boy who, it turns out,  was full of questions and observations about almost everything.

Char-les wanted to know everything we could possibly disclose over the course of a meal, and some things that we could not.  Names?  Home country?  Where is that?  Where is China?  Where are you going?  Why are you here?  Do you know about whales?  Where is your hotel?  Do you have kids?

He balanced the inquisition with some facts of his own:  I’m eight years old.  My mom is in a meeting back there (motioning to a back meeting room in the restaurant).  I like football.  I go to the school that is right behind your hotel.  I like to read.  My mom says that I ask a lot of questions.  I have a brother but he has a different dad.  Some day I’m going to go to Mexico.

Between the inquisition and the exposition, Char-les tended to his job for the night: every time a cell phone rang from among the belongings of the meeting participants, he would dash off to find the phone and take it to the proper owner.  It happened three or four times, and on each occasion, Char-les sprang into action, leaving our discussion dangling until his return.  His reaction to the cell phones made it clear that he not only knew every person in attendance at the meeting, but also knew the ringtone of every phone.  The meeting attendees were both amused by and grateful for this service in telecommunication.  Char-les seemed matter-of-fact about  his duty, but more focused on his interrogation.

“I’m very fast.  Do you know about airplanes?  I have never been on an airplane.  What are you eating for dinner?”  The stream of consciousness hardly paused for those intermittent phone calls and, undeterred by such momentary interruptions, Char-les continued to weave his way throughout the entirety of our dinner agenda.  We were fully engaged in discourse with an eight-year-old orator.  “Is Iowa in Mexico?  You are my new friends.”

With that bond being said, Char-les eventually welcomed his mother to our party and introduced his new-found amigos to her.  She hoped that he had not been a bother to us and observed, to no surprise by us, that Char-les had demonstrated this curiosity and outgoing personality for his entire life.  She described his love for learning and inquiry as exhausting and amazing; we could only concur.  Amidst a continuing flurry of his questions, we bid him a good-night and appreciation for his conversation.

I have been around many eight-year-old children, including our own four as they passed through that inquisitive phase.  But I find it hard to recall an eight-year-old with the persistence and aplomb of Char-les.  Mixed in with such admiration, perhaps there was also the sense of promise that such examination and unpretentiousness holds for his years ahead.  In the center of this rural community, in the center of Nicaragua, in the center of the Americas, is a young boy deserving of every opportunity to learn and expand his understanding, his visions. his outlook for the future.  The need is not his alone.  We all have a stake in the critical importance of listening to the voice of Char-les….

 

 

 

Chicken Feed

This Easter has been a sweet deal for candy manufacturers: more than $2 billion was spent on candy alone this season, and the overall spending on all Easter-related purchases figures to be the second-highest in U.S. history.  (I know that I didn’t receive any chocolate bunnies on Easter Sunday, so somebody else has been taking more than their share. ) But it started me thinking about wants and needs and central Easter messages.

That candy cost isn’t exactly chicken feed.  By comparison, the total amount of all U.S. aid to Nicaragua in 2017 was $31.3 million, 15% of all that candy.  I only offer the comparison here for contrast; neither I nor most Nicaraguans would argue for greater aid dependency on the U.S.  But it’s quite a difference in sums when one considers the two categories: resources for basic human living standards in Nica versus Easter candy consumption in the U.S.   Setting aside such notions as national boundaries, something seems inequitable in all of that, no matter to what political or economic perspective one may subscribe.  Let me elaborate.

I spent a week with my colleague Mark in Nicaragua last month, visiting with rural partners, hearing about their struggles with various harvests, understanding the need for late repayments in several cases, and attending a two-day workshop designed to teach information analysis, so that these producers might go about their work on a more data-driven basis.

Our week did not represent some kind of hight-level financial development.  We lunched with them on rice and beans.  We spoke with some, in impromptu huddles, about small loans and the most basic tenets of our partnerships: accompaniment, transparency, functioning bodies of governance, broad-based participation, and collaboration within the coops.  We described the nature of goals and goal-setting.  They asked us about work processes.  We laughed some.  The interactions may have been at their most basic level, but they were important and appreciated.  Basic stuff usually is.

What does any of that have to do with Easter candy sales?  Simply this: the sweet taste in the mouth from a dissolving Peep or jelly bean is both artificial and temporary.  And it can never take away the bad taste in the mouth from the recognition that we spend more on candy than on the very lives of others who are in significant need for their basic survival.  That bad taste comes from recognition that our own lives are made up of moments, moments of priority and precedence, wherein we have the free will to decide how we will spend our time and our money and our spirit.  Those decisions impact the impoverished in profound ways, and as importantly, paint the portrait of who we truly are.   And they do leave a taste in the mouth, one kind or another.

Last month in Nicaragua I heard the observation of a producer who was considering the raising of a few chickens as a supplement to his coffee-growing efforts.  His words of hesitation were like a fist to the gut.  “The corn that my hens eat,” he observed, “could be food for my family.”  He was not speaking about candy corn.

Easter is a season of resurrection and salvation, of new beginnings and new chances.  It is a time of reflection for many about the life and example of Jesus and the basis of those who claim followership of his teaching.  It also gives me pause to think about the price of candy and the value of corn….

 

 

 

We Never Even Know We Hold the Key

“So often times it happens, that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we hold the key.”                            -The Eagles

As the new year has begun its reign, WPF has been thinking about and planning for some of the activities that will consume our time and attention over the coming months.  Our team in Nica has already designed the next major workshop, a two-day session to analyze the land and its use, through the gathering and understanding of data about that land and its use.  The workshops are digging deeper and challenging conventional thought more than ever before.  For the participants, it’s scary and thrilling.

The team works hard to discern what the rural producers need.  They have become intimate partners with many of the coops, cultivating a deep understanding of the challenges faced there.  In turn, the team does its own analysis to identify the tools that they might bring to workshops and on-site sessions so that the farmers might become better equipped to succeed.  The farmers, in turn, are eager to hear new ideas, maybe even to discover a “magic pill” that can make their production and commercialization efforts substantially improved over the past.  In short, the team is determined to deliver and the “students” are avid learners of methodologies.

But as I consider the ideas and tactics that WPF might provide, or that I personally might be able to share, I’m struck by another factor, one that likely receives too little emphasis in development efforts.  (Maybe I’m wrong.  I’ve only been involved in this field for 12 years, a mere blink of the eye over the history of poverty.)  The notion occurred to me as I read a short meditation the other day, one that rekindled thinking that I have cherished myself for many years.  The quote reads as follows:

“The fragrance of flowers spreads only in the direction of the wind.  But the goodness of a person speaks in all directions.”      -Chanakya

It’s a beautiful thought.  But its meaning runs deeper than just a sweet sentiment.  For herein is the truth of the power of the individual, the potential that each human being has for impact on the world around him/her.  Even in the face of incredibly difficult circumstances, whether climate, political, social or economic in nature, we each have the faculty- an enormous capacity- for impacting everything that surrounds us.  For many, it’s a gift that we are reluctant to acknowledge and trust; it seems so much smaller than a new methodology or technology.  It’s too inherent within us to feel credible.  But like our very core understanding of right and wrong, it’s a reality.

What our partner producers may need is something more than a technique.  It’s a message of personal deliverance, the need to remember each and every day the absolute truth that we impact every person around us, either for good or for ill, intended or not, and those impacts shape the success of our endeavors.  How our influences work is not preordained or fated.  It is by choice.  The cooperative’s success, the relationships between members and even success of a single producer are all outcomes over which the individual has tremendous influence, and in ways that most of us do not comprehend well enough.

Like any organization, the cooperative prospers or fades based upon the character of individual leadership, and every member of a cooperative is a co-leader.  Successful cooperatives need transparency, which in turn requires the stewardship of individuals to share information- good or bad- with fellow members.  Collaborative work thrives on honesty, putting the good of all before the individual good of one’s own circumstances.   That’s a tall order when faced with the daily struggle of trying to simply provide for the basic necessities of family life.  But therein lies the irony of success: sometimes the surest way to one’s own well-being is to look out for the well-being of others first.  Even in our so-called developed nations, we are limited in our own well-being by the level of well-being in others.  If you doubt that, see the condition of the world today.  Neither the have’s nor the have-not’s are as well-off as they could be.

The impoverished people of Nicaragua and elsewhere in the world assuredly deserve support, be it financial or the wealth of true accompaniment.  But that accompaniment is most effective when coupled with the truth of self-direction.  When any of us come to understand our impact, our influence and what we are capable to give, we stand at the threshold of making the greatest single contribution to our work that we could ever make.

I know that it’s one thing for someone to speak of these things and another thing to put them into action.  When it comes to advice , Nicaraguans know that it’s cheap, whatever the source, and usually carries with it some kind of “catch” for which they will pay a price.  As a result, they continue searching with healthy skepticism.

And we never even know we hold the key….

 

 

The Giving Trees

With acknowledgement to author Shel Silverstein who gave us the classic children’s book, The Giving Tree, I use the title here to consider two “giving trees” which are  reaching an end of sharing their extraordinary gifts.  And while my musings here are premature- neither of the two are yet completely gone- I cannot help but reflect on their importance, their meaning and their impacts, not only upon me, but on the world in which live.

Northeastern Iowa, where I live, is home to many emblems of rugged survival.  The high river bluffs of the driftless region, the forest cover overlaying the limestone beds of ancient geologic formation, and the burr oak trees of those woodlands, all stand as watchmen against the march of time and evolution.  The oaks, in particular, with their gnarly limbs and diminutive acorns, are omnipresent here,  bookmarks of an earlier age, a time before settlements and agriculture and highways.  I have come to deeply admire them, for both their arboreal beauty as well as their symbolism of a time that was somehow better.

The oak at the north end of the college campus here has enjoyed its own history and prominence.  It has graced a hillside there since the very earliest days of the school, likely gaining no notice in its fledgling years as first a shoot and then little more than a sapling.  But as the burr oaks are wont to do, it  survived.  It  stood by as settlers migrated to this area to farm and as educators traveled here to teach and preach.  It withstood the winds and the winters of the Oneota Valley, and the inexorable march of settlement and development of the territory.  It became a visible boundary of the college, a sentinel to the people and histories that emerged from that place.  And it continued to grow.

Over time, the oak commanded attention, as an imposing tower at the north end.  A  building was built in its shadow.  A road passed under its limbs.  Students sat beneath it, considering the deepest questions of  our lives, while contemplating the directions of their own.   In more recent years, an entire native grass savannah and rain garden became cultivated around it, to show it off, call attention to its prairie heritage and to reclaim a piece of what once was: a prairie oak savannah.  It steadied us, was a visual touchstone to certainty and continuity, and embodied a needed constancy.

Last year, in the bloom of Spring, nearly half of the burr oak failed to leaf out.  Arborists attempted some treatments, but with no effect.  The tree was reaching the end of its service and accompaniment.  Last week, the tree was taken down.

There remains a wide space in the savannah where the tree’s umbrella once shielded deer and fox, birds and learners alike.  A stump remains for now, chronicling the 125 year life of what was a fixture of the prairie.  For now, I can still walk to the base and sit upon what remains.  The world may not notice its absence.  But I do.

Concurrent with the loss of a great tree is the impending departure of a colleague in Nicaragua.  Ligia Gutierrez will end her consulting role with Winds of Peace Foundation in March, not so much in retirement as in opening herself to the next possibilities in a world which she has so richly served already.

Ligia has served as consultant for Winds of Peace, particularly with regard to the circumstances of the Indigenous people of Nicaragua, as well as working with women’s groups in helping them to discover their collective and individual voices.  To state here that she will be missed is an absurdity, because it does not begin to tell the story of this remarkable individual.

She is a child of the revolution, a committed and activist member of the Sandinista vision of a country free of the dictatorship and inequality that had fouled the country’s circumstances for generations.  She is a psychologist by training, a philosopher in practice, a teacher of holistic and cooperative living that extends far beyond social norms and legal statutes.  Her work is defined by the closeness of the relationships she creates: she is a mother to the youth, an intimate friend to the women, a friendly-but-persistent agitator within a still-machismo culture, a persistent prospector for equal rights and respect, both within the law and within the heart.  For me personally, she has been a Nica mentor, providing context and perspective that has helped me better understand the history and culture in which the Foundation works.  She is a student of physical and spiritual health.  She is a friend.

Ligia is also the source of one of my greatest frustrations in my Nica experiences: I have never been able to speak with her without the voice of a translator.  We have never been able to exchange thoughts and ideas directly with one another, thereby greatly reducing the interactions which might have educated me in untold ways.  My regret over this is a palpable wound that does not heal.

Like the burr oak on the prairie, Ligia has given of herself over a lifetime of service to ideas and others beyond herself.  Though small in physical stature, she is a powerhouse.  She is one of those rare individuals of the universe, seeing both the complexity and the beauty of the whole and striving to manifest it.  That personality, that persona, is what draws the rest of us toward her, for our own sakes.

And like the burr oak, the seeds which she has planted- ideas, self-regard, respect, justice- will far outlive her active service.  Hers is a testament that branches across generations and shelters the hopes of those in need of wisdom and  love.  And like a strong oak suddenly gone, her absence will leave both a gaping space and a magnificent legacy.

The removal of the burr oak tree did not elicit notice even in the local newspaper.  Ligia’s retirement will not be the stuff of international news or perhaps even local notice.  Their respective “graduations” are but the latest examples of the ongoing stream of life.  But they are to be missed.  The beauty, the lessons, the lives that they modeled are gifts for which I will be always grateful….

 

 

Do All Lives Matter?

Black lives matter.  Police lives matter.  Latino lives matter.  Gay lives matter.

We live in an age of proclaiming that _______ lives matter.  (Fill in the blank with whatever ethnic, racial, gender, vocational or religious designation is important to you.)  Over the past several years, the U.S. has witnessed countless marches, protests and demonstrations which demand and plead for human mercies in the face of injustice and bias.  These are events which are both troubling and hopeful. Troubling, because they invariably follow an incident of hatred and/or hurt.  Hopeful, because they affirm the expectation that we have for fairness and compassion.

I encountered the following article by writer Nick McDonell, writing for The Los Angeles Times.  It casts a somewhat broader view of whether all lives matter to us.  It invites the question, “Is any life of less value than another?”

Civilian war casualties: Truth is, we value others’ lives less than our own

Iraqi officials report that a U.S. airstrike killed nearly 200 civilians in West Mosul in mid-March. The U.S. military acknowledged that it had carried out a mission in the area and is now investigating this strike as well as another in March, said to have killed dozens of civilians near the Syrian city of Raqqah.

When a missile meets its target, chemicals inside the weapon combine, causing gases to expand and exert pressure on the warhead, which shatters outward, turning it into shrapnel behind a blast wave. This wave, faster than the speed of sound, compresses the surrounding air, pulverizes any nearby concrete, plaster, or bone, and creates a vacuum, sucking debris back to the zero point. The chemical interaction also produces heat, causing fire.

Although the ensuing civilian casualties may seem like unstoppable tragedies, they are not. Civilian casualties are not inevitable. They are a choice.

The U.S. military predicts how many people will die in its airstrikes by surveilling and estimating the population within a proposed blast radius. It also sets a limit on the number of innocent people each command is authorized to kill incidentally. This limit, called the Non-Combatant Cutoff Value, or NCV, is perhaps our starkest rule of engagement, and it varies region-by-region for political reasons.

In Afghanistan, civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes are considered a liability in our relationship with that country’s government. The NCV for Afghanistan is therefore zero.

In Iraq and Syria, the calculus is different. The Pentagon believes the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a greater threat than the Taliban; the Iraqis have been requesting more aggressive support; the fighting is more urban.

Last year in Baghdad, I asked then-U.S. Army spokesman Col. Steve Warren what the NCV was for Iraq. That is: How many innocent Iraqis was his command authorized to kill incidentally in an airstrike?

“There are numbers — we don’t put those numbers out,” he told me, “and here’s why we don’t put ‘em out: Because if the enemy understand, ‘Oh if I have X number of civilians around a thing,’ its gonna be harder for [the U.S. to arrack] right? So that’s a piece of information that we protect.”

The number, however, came out. It was first reported by Buzzfeed, and then the Associated Press, in December, when the Army issued its latest Rules of War Manual.

“According to senior defense officials,” the AP story ran, “military leaders planning operations against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria may authorize strikes where up to 10 civilians may be killed, if it is deemed necessary in order to get a critical military target.” 

That number yields some grim math. Last year, the coalition acknowledged 4,589 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. If the NCV was 10 throughout, then U.S. policy in 2016 was to tolerate the incidental killing of a maximum of 45,890 innocent Iraqis and Syrians in order to destroy ISIS.

The common estimate for ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria is 40,000, and between Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attacks on the Twin Towers, and 2016, foreign terrorists killed a total of 411 American civilians, worldwide.

Our policy for last year, then, was to tolerate the death of 112 Iraqi or Syrian civilians per American civilian.

That’s on paper. In practice, the military does not typically expect civilian casualties, and it engineers strikes to avoid them. I doubt the military anticipated, specifically, those 200 civilians who died in Mosul. We have killed far fewer noncombatant Iraqis than the NCV permits — a minimum of 2,831, according to Airwars, the preeminent independent monitoring group. (The U.S. has confirmed only 220 as of March). And in dozens of interviews with men and women responsible for such strikes, no one expressed a desire to kill civilians or the opinion that it is ever strategically advisable to do so.

Recently embedded in a tactical operations center to observe airstrikes, I met targeteers and commanding officers who were mostly conscientious, within the parameters of their bloody business.

But what’s on paper matters. The math, then, is troubling — especially under a president who, unlike the men and women he leads, has endorsed the intentional, rather than incidental, killing of noncombatants.

“The other thing with terrorists,” then-candidate Donald Trump said on “Fox and Friends” in December 2015, “is that you have to take out their families.”

To do so would be a war crime. Whether or not the Trump administration has relaxed the rules of engagement, as some suspect, Airwars reported in March that we are, for the first time, causing more civilian casualties in the fight against ISIS than our Russian counterparts. 

This monstrous fact will disturb the troops I met in December, who believe that we are always the good guys when it comes to civilian casualties. Or at least the better guys. But there are no good guys in this process. That we have an NCV greater than zero implies something ugly, if unsurprising, about the way we see ourselves in the world, how we value a foreign life against an American one. We value it less.

It is reasonable to care more for countrymen than foreigners. Devotion to family, neighbors and friends defines a life, and one does not love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.

But neither should we be willing to kill that little girl to achieve our aims. Arguably legal, our utilitarian position is neither brave nor morally ambitious for a superpower dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Nick McDonell’s most recent book, “The Civilization of Perpetual Movement,” was published in 2016. He wrote this article for the Los Angeles Times (TNS).

It’s a sobering article.  To know that some human beings are simply counted in the calculation of something called NCV is horrifying, even if nothing really new.  The process begs for examination and reflection.  Maybe we start with the premise that one must “love a stranger, a little girl in Mosul, as much as a daughter.”  For these are our daughters.  And our sons.  Our national global strategies have no place for the notion of “taking out their families,” as our president proclaims.  Life is precious in whatever the context.  To deny that is to deny our very humanity….