Category Archives: Wasting Lives

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….

About Face

The news from Brussels recently has been horrifying and sad.  The ubiquitous photographs of both carnage and heroic acts have filled all forms of the media.  We are saturated with the wanton loss of innocent people, we are appalled at the disregard of human life exhibited by the bombers, and we experience a sense of defiance and strength in vowing justice for those who perished or were maimed.  As we enter a second week of questions, we are coming to terms with yet one more senseless act.

History is full of them, of course.  They are events which at their white-hot moments trigger the full range of our most intense emotions.  They are incidents about which we are inclined to say things like, “Never again” or “We will never forget.”  But we do.  The passage of time or the passing of the generations eventually relegate even the most searing instants to dulled history, to be analyzed instead of felt, assessed rather than cried over.  Perhaps that is a good thing about our species, that we cannot retain the rawness of the moment for very long.

Among the images from Brussels are photographs of the deceased. They appear to be common folk.  There were no kings or world leaders or super-wealthy among the dead; there rarely are when it comes to such events.  The faces are even familiar: they are largely a microcosm of European and Western cultures, an ethnic mix of men and women, young and old, people we might meet on the street or in our neighborhoods.  They are reminiscent of you and me.  Everyman/Woman.  News organizations have come to use the individual photograph as a means of making the event more real to us, trying to personalize an event that otherwise might be too remote to elicit the drama and emotion of an important story.  I appreciate the use of photos, but I wish there would be more of it.

For there are other faces in the news over recent weeks and months and years that we have not seen. They are the countenances of other victims from places that are less familiar to you and me.  Places like Syria and Pakistan and Iraq and other locations.  Bombings and deaths have occurred in these places, too, often without provocation or design, other than the obliteration of whatever sense of civility may exist within our nations.  The losses in these places are no less devastating than those we grieve in Brussels.

In particular, we have learned a great deal about the lives of the four U.S. victims in the Brussels attacks.  It’s appropriate that we have a final opportunity to know even slightly the fellow citizens who will no longer be among us, to catch a glimpse of the lives that are no longer available to solving the important challenges of humanity, to imagining what they might have brought to the world.  It is primarily through such reflection that we might begin to fully internalize the losses we have incurred, and thus the insanity of policies that use indiscriminate death and destruction as supposed solutions to conflict.  In Brussels, we have lost some thirty-five potential “pieces to the puzzle,” souls and creators who we will never regain.

Just like the seventy-  primarily women and children-  who were lost this past weekend in Pakistan.  Or the thirteen in Istanbul before that.  Or the eight in Jakarta.  Thirty in Burkina Faso.  Twenty-nine in Ankara.  And so on.  Perhaps these do not strike us as newsworthy, because there were so many, or the events were so far away, or because there were no U.S. or European victims.  We can be myopic at times, in the same way that we did not acknowledge the destruction of life in Nicaragua during the years of the U.S.-backed Contras.  (Still don’t know about that one?)    The places are easy for us to overlook.


But of course, they shouldn’t be.  For within every statistic mentioned above, there was a face and a story, a hope and purpose, a gift and a potential.  When we are afforded the chance to see the beautiful and happy faces of people who died in Brussels, remember, too, the losses which continue to degrade all of us from all corners of the world….


But We Have Flowers

We have been through this before.  The shock, the stunned disbelief at the inhumanity of humankind.  129 killed in Paris.  20 dead in Mali. The vows from the nations to exact punishing revenge.  The promise from the terrorists to bring more death and heartbreak.  The cycle is one that is very familiar to us by now, but in this case familiarity does not coax any comfort.  Indeed, our familiarity with the events of this week are a big part of the terror that its architects seek to build upon, an undermining of our confidence, of the rhythms of our lives, of the certainties around which we live out our days.

The magnitude of the attacks and the brutality of people attempting to destroy the very fabric of a shared existence casts us all into despair, even if only for a moment.  We are lost in attempting to understand the psychology of mass murder.  We cannot fathom the mindset which prompts a youthful jihadist to forsake his or her own life and possibilities.  And failing to comprehend such convoluted thoughts, we are left empty and seemingly without hope.  How do we come to terms with an adversary whose only objective is to obliterate us and themselves?

Amidst the debris of this deadly week, many in Paris and Mali have offered brave declarations of intended normalcy and defiant standing.  The streets of Paris are once again filled with the living, who intend their presence as a statement of resilience and determination.  Their attempts to console each other and the rest of us are admirable, though perhaps not completely convincing; the backfire of an automobile triggers fears that hide just below the surface of courageous postures.  We applaud the bravado, but we know the anxiety.  We have experience enough to recognize it.

Then, as if in response to our collective need for strength and stability, we were gifted with the interview.  If you have not seen it, give yourself the gift of watching it here.  Much of the world has seen it by now, in this age of social media which facilitates bombings and healings in dispassionate and equal measure.  The reporter’s interview was with a man and his young son, two of the thousands who had come to the spontaneous memorial of flowers and candles, laid in tribute to the victims of this current insanity.  The reporter sought to learn how a father might be talking to his son about something seemingly inexplicable.  What the father and son provided is nothing less than an answer for us all, a touching exchange that, in the end, might be the best and the most that we can do.  And it may be just quite enough.

For in the end, none of us will carry the largest gun.  No one can corner the market on deep-seated hatreds.  There are no borders or boundaries sufficient to assure absolute protection from the weakness of humankind.  If the game being played is “last fool standing,” then we all eventually lose anyway.  But in the playing of it, we have choices both personal and collective.  We  have each other, the chance to know love and empathy and beauty and every other good thing encountered in our lives.  Anne Frank knew the truth of it and wrote about it, until her turn was over.

Who can know our final destiny as a species?  A final fool might eventually, in fact,  rule over whatever blighted remains of earth there may be.  But we will have had flowers….

Somebody Ought to Do Something

Like many, I’ve been reading and watching the news about the plight of the refugees streaming into Europe.  It is heart-wrenching to watch the overloaded boats, the bodies of those who did not survive washed ashore, the streams of humanity marching into central European countries looking for any chance to survive.  I sense that even the news reporters are finding this subject difficult to cover, in part due to their own emotions at this enormous catastrophe which is unfolding before us each day.

The scope of this tragedy is such that I have found myself remembering other times, other stories of similar human disasters.  Of course, the Holocaust is the first to come to mind.  The enormity of it still defies comprehension, even after all the years and books and movies and even personal visits to historic and dreadful sites.  We recall with discomfort the genocides of Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sudan and others.  I have learned all too clearly the evils perpetrated on the people of Nicaragua by my own government during the decade of the 80’s.  Too soon the atrocities have faded from our memories;  outrage has cooled to the extent that globally we allow something like the Syrian debacle unfold today.

I suppose that it is the human condition that we will always have unfinished work before us.  At the close of World War II, the mantra of “never again” filled the world with hope that maybe this time we had sufficiently absorbed the lessons of hatred, demonization of an entire people, war.  But that hope was short-lived at best and the passage of time allowed a dulling of our sensitivities sufficient to permit subsequent abominations.

The sea of refugees seeking survival from war and indiscriminate death is an overwhelming reality threatening to drown Europe in waves of displaced humanity and despair.  Gradually, some countries have stepped forward with offers of asylum and assistance.  The Vatican itself has said that it would accept two families into their midst in a symbolic act of mercy and a call for all nations to serve.  But as some countries continue to build miles of fences and to reject opportunities for providing humanitarian help, the future for hundreds of thousands remains uncertain.

Their plight rekindles thoughts of those other occasions when humanity seemed to be on the brink of simply not caring enough.  In each of those eras, the post-crisis analysis almost always included unanswered questions about why the rest of the world waited to act, allowing so many to perish in the process.  Of course, in the aftermath of such cataclysms such questions are safe to ask since the drama has come to an end.  Retrospective analysis is more comfortable than current actions.  The questions are much more difficult to grapple with when the events are happening now, in real time.  Such is our discomfort with the refugees’ dilemma in Europe.

As is true for any world conflict which begs for intervention by someone, somewhere, governments speak for us in the absence of opportunities for us to speak for ourselves.  As limiting as that arrangement may be, each of us retains a voice, a stance, a position that begs to be heard.  Those voices are ours.  The actions belong to each of us.  Somebody ought to do something before the current humanitarian quandary becomes another history lesson of grief and embarrassment….

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

For Cecil, the suddenly world-famous lion who was illegally shot and killed this week, rest has come suddenly and brutally at the hands of his greatest enemy, man.  Having survived epic battles with major rivals and subsequently establishing his own pride of some 22 members, the lion sleeps tonight, no longer part of this complex environment we call life on earth.

The reaction to this event has been immediate and overwhelming.  People from around the world have expressed outrage and sadness over the death of a lion.  Calls for criminal prosecution, extradition of the shooter, changes in law governing big game hunting and significant fundraising for animal protection have all occurred within days.  The anger and frustration over the death of this lion has been extraordinary.

And so has my perplexity.  I count myself among those who dislike the entire perspective of big game hunting.  I felt the same sadness and revulsion as others upon hearing of the unsportsmanlike slaughter of the lion.  But I am also bewildered at the relative lack of care about the people who share space with other big game of the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe.  As beloved as the lion may have been, there are other magnificent creatures in the area, not the least of which are people.  And despite the dire circumstances in which these human creatures find themselves, we seem to have a hard time generating much outrage or empathy for them.  Certainly, not even close to the tsunami of reaction engendered by the death of a single lion.

What are we to make of that?  Do we somehow harbor feelings of greater admiration and value for lions than fellow humans?  Is there a difference in reaction because the lion was a known subject of research and the masses are faceless and nameless “others?”  What are the factors that permit us to all but ignore the plight of millions of people?

I suspect that those factors have something to do with the anonymity of the populace in need.  Talk to me about the plight of tens of thousands of people and I move away, too overwhelmed by the numbers and the belief that I could never solve problems of such magnitude.  But describe the killing of a single lion, lured from a protected zone, and I can become emotional about that.

Or maybe it has to do with a name.  Most lions don’t have names, but Cecil did.  The lion was personified.  His personality was well-documented.  He was identifiable and we knew something about him as an individual.  Even the name itself contributed to a connection with this lion.  (Older adults may still recall a favorite animated TV series from their childhoods, Beanie and Cecil.  Those of a younger generation might simply see the name Cecil as a sort of antiquated and “nerdy” name deserving of an emotional cuddle.)  A name provides an identity.

Whatever psychological science lies behind the Cecil phenomenon, there’s a greater sadness and tragedy in this story that is too important to miss.  As beautiful and symbolic as Cecil may have been, his loss pales in comparison to the excruciating and largely unnecessary losses of human lives in Zimbabwe (and elsewhere in the world).  Unless we do, in fact, value lions’ lives over those of human beings, there is an absence of both logic and emotion in the needless conditions of Cecil’s human neighbors that we simply do not acknowledge.

Imagine yourself as the parent of a newborn child who lacks for adequate food and water for survival, and wondering how the world’s attention could so dramatically rally at the death of an animal when the life of your precious son or daughter literally hangs in the balance.  For you, the ignominy of being forgotten is further magnified by the world’s outcry on behalf of a slain animal.

As an outdoors aficionado, I will miss Cecil.  His loss diminishes us both actually and symbolically, which perhaps offers yet another explanation for the world’s indignity at the story.  “We need the tonic of the wilderness” wrote Thoreau, and especially the fantastic creatures which inhabit it.  But as we grieve the loss of one such wonder, let’s not lose perspective.  The lion may sleep tonight, but an anxious mother in Zimbabwe lies awake, in wonder and fear about the source of tomorrow’s needs, and worried about her greatest threats, invisibility from you and me….






What Should We Do With the Stranger?

I read many reflections, blogs and printed materials over the course of each week, mostly having to do with Nicaragua and various forms of aid and development work being done there.  Some are very good and others less so, but I came across one a few days ago that I think bears repeating here.  It is taken from the newsletter published by the Center for Development in Central America (CDCA),  which has worked in Nicaragua for the past twenty years as of 2014.  CDCA has worked tirelessly on behalf of impoverished Nicaraguans on many fronts, and Winds of Peace has been able to work with them on several projects over the years.

I have reproduced reflections from their newsletters in the past, and I do so here with an analysis for your consideration which gets straight to the heart of a major U.S./Central American policy issue, the immigration of Central American children.

There are many issues around the response of the government of the United States and many of its people regarding the children crossing the border: immigrants vs. refugees, corrupt Central American governments (and yes they are still propped up by the U.S. government as they have been for 100 years), drug trafficking, gangs, Democrats vs. Republicans.  

So many issues bandied about and yet- in reality- the only issue that exists is: do we welcome the stranger?  The child?  Or do we not?  That’s it.  Simple.  Clean.  Do we or do we not?

People frequently ask us why we like living in Nicaragua.  Well, this is one reason: Nicaragua DOES welcome refugees.  Let’s face it, people fleeing their poor countries have to be mighty desperate to come to Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  But they do come and they are coming and Nicaragua, more than any other Central American country, affords them more access to their social safety nets- such as they are.

What does that say when the second poorest nation is receiving refugees while the richest is turning children away?  What does that say about the soul of the richest nation?

The leaders of the Nicaraguan government, who are not perfect by any means, understand what it means to live under dictators, death squads, terror and horror, and they translate that understanding into action by welcoming others who are living it now.  

Why would you send your children on such a dangerous journey with strangers?  Mine are grown, and the only reason I would send them thousands of miles away, riding on top of trains, would be if I thought…no, if I KNEW…they would die if they stayed.  Do the people in the States who debate this “crisis” and advocate deporting the children really believe in their hearts that Central American families love their children less than they love their own?

Frankly, the only actual crises are the crises in the nations from which the children come… not in the U.S.

In Honduras, the city of San Pedro Sula has more murders per capita than any other place in Honduras, which has more murders per capita than any other country in the world.  During July alone, in this small country, 87 teens and children were murdered, some tortured, and the vast majority of the culprits were not found.  

And this is where the first nine children were deported to… San Pedro Sula.  Depending on accounts, 5 or 7 of the nine were killed soon after landing.  Killed.  We, the U.S., sent children back to be murdered.  Does this mean that the deportation will stop?  No, it does not.

Choosing whether or not to welcome these refugees is easy.  Choosing whether or not to deport these children to die is simple.  This is not a complicated issue… we are not in muddy water here, folks… it is a clean issue, because there is really and truly only one right place to stand… with the kids… we need to stand with the kids.

Who are the strangers we encounter?  And what should we do with the stranger….?

Missing Pieces

For twenty years I’ve worn it, very aware of the message that it carries and the people from whom I received it.  It never comes off (except for this photo), in part due to the eternal message of it.  It’s a hopeful, optimistic, positive message, but one which seems a bit tarnished today, like the silver of the bracelet itself.

IMG_4409When I first received it and began wearing it, this Christmas gift from my children generated more than occasional teasing from friends and colleagues, who seemed to be of the mindset that somehow “real men” didn’t wear bracelets.  In fact, once when a young Mexican boy was admiring the thing, a colleague playfully pulled the boy away, saying that he shouldn’t be looking at “girlie things.”  (Twenty years ago, attitudes about many things were quite different from the present, as evidenced by the endless variety of bracelets, jewelry and other adornments worn by men of all ages and stations today.)  These days, I’m more inclined to be asked where I found such a piece.

Of course, the bracelet is special to me because it was gifted from my kids, and at a time when they still carried around with them an air of innocence and joy.  But it also carries a legend, this bracelet.  Its circular shape represents the earth, the wholeness of the place where we live.  But because the earth is broken- with conflicts and environmental degradation and wildly disparate conditions of life- the circle of the bracelet is not complete.  There are pieces missing.

The four brass segments on the circle represent my kids.  They each have a special place in the world, as do all children, and their duty is to help the earth back to a state of wholeness, to fill in the missing places as best they can, along with every other member of the human race.  The earth will not be whole and healthy until the circle is complete.  They and all of us have our own parts to play in the restoration, and each solitary piece is essential to the integrity and strength of the whole.  It’s a notion of both hope and healthy interdependence.

Today there are sadly more missing pieces to this puzzle of life that we lead.  Following a celebratory Saturday night in Managua, where thousands of people joyfully remembered the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship 35 years ago, hundreds of peasants from the countryside boarded buses for the long and uncomfortable ride back home.  Along the way, two buses were attacked by anti-Sandinista sympathizers.  Gunfire was sprayed at the buses, and five people died.  There was no confrontation.  There were no demands made.  Simply bullets unleashed at innocent peasantry, resulting in the deaths of parents and children who had only sought to remember an important and exciting time in the life of Nicaragua.  There are precious few things to celebrate for many in this country; a populist and public commemoration should not have been too much for them to experience without tragedy.  As a result, there are now 5 new pieces missing from the completion of the circle that is represented by the bracelet.  Among them, perhaps the one who would develop the medicinal properties of a rural Nicaraguan plant that would lead to the cure for prostate cancer.

Meanwhile, other senseless tragedies were being played out on far more “newsworthy” stages.  A commercial airliner from The Netherlands and bound for Kuala Lampur was shot down by anti-Ukraine rebels, with 298 souls lost, and many still not found as of this writing.  Among the perished, several would-be participants at an upcoming AIDS conference who might well have posed the solution to the AIDS epidemic facing our world.  And so still more spaces will not be filled along the lines of the bracelet.

And in the Middle East, hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli lives- hundreds of them children- have been lost to the incessant bombing precipitated by the terrors generated by both sides of the insanity.  Among the dead, perhaps, were the two young women who would have devised the plan of Middle East peace which eventually would have been accepted by all parties.  And the spaces in the bracelet grow wider still.

The week has been a grim one, both in terms of the sheer number of lives lost and families rent apart in anguish, but also in consideration of those pieces of the worldly puzzle that are now lost forever.  As we destroy each other with bombs and bullets, we diminish the planet and its finite capacities to discover the answers to our dilemmas.  It is still true that often we do not fully understand or appreciate what we have within our grasp, until it is gone.

I love the bracelet for its symbolism of my children and their importance to this earthly community.  They are universal children, whether I understood that at the time of their birth or not.  But their solid presence on that broken circle at my wrist also reminds me that they- and each of us- possess a unique and important place in this complex place called earth….