Rob Parsons

The War Within

Memorial Day reflections focus on moving forward

by Rob Parsons

May 28, 2009

"Basically, the Earth needs a new operating system. You are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades."  -Paul Hawken

Sitting on a friend's open porch on Memorial Day, I gazed out on the bucolic, pastoral view of upper Haiku. A stifling volcanic haze hung in the air, putting a soft focus lens on the fields of molasses grass beyond his vegetable gardens and banana trees. Out past wild coffee trees and newly planted green tea saplings, a dozen or so goats gathered in a holiday hui, a sort of pasture picnic.

The scene held a timeless quality, far from traffic and technology, shopping malls and subdivisions, and the economic and ecological system collapses prevalent in the larger world. In my temporary exile, it offered a dreamy backdrop for reflection.

In our household, Memorial Day had morphed into D-Day, with the "D" standing for "Displacement." It was a day to move beyond smaller skirmishes, to take drastic action, and to drop the big bomb. Yes, D-Day was flea-day, and we set off two chemical foggers before high-tailing it out of the house for the day.

It started innocently enough, with an occasional sighting of the tiny, hopping blood-suckers. Our two cats had often taken refuge inside during our colder-than-anyone-could-remember winter, though now they were back to spending daytime hours out on our covered lanai. In particular, Kulolo, our big white kitty, made my office his frequent feline napping zone. 

The long awaited return of warm, dry conditions produced an explosion of thrip-less gardenias on a neighbor's hedge; the hundreds of bursting blossoms looked like a Fourth of July fireworks display. But the seasonal change also brought on a bumper crop of the uninvited hitchhiking insects. In a few short days, my office became infested to the point that, upon entering, it looked as though some rogue waiter with his pepper grinder had mistaken my ankles for a Caesar salad—only the pepper flakes were moving.

So we resigned to do one of the things modern man has learned to do best: apply toxic chemicals to alter the natural environment. 

The cavalier disregard exhibited by governments, corporations and profiteers means that, collectively, humans must "figure out what it means to be a human being on Earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of the decline is accelerating."

So says Paul Hawken, author, environmentalist and visionary entrepreneur, in a much-forwarded e-mail containing his recent commencement address to the University of Portland's graduating class. In the same eloquently inspirational tones contained in his recent book, Blessed Unrest, Hawken explicated the enormous challenges and unequaled opportunities we face.

"This planet came with a set of operating instructions," Hawken told the graduates, "but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules, like don't poison the water, soil or air and don't let the Earth get overcrowded and don't touch the thermostat, have been broken."

Hawken dismissed the cynics, casting his lot instead with the dreamers and those caring people working on the most pressing issues of the day.

"When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future," he said, "my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on Earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this Earth and the lives of the poor and you aren't optimistic, you haven't got a pulse."

Blessed Unrest elaborates on the worldwide movement that, according to Jane Goodall, emanates from "the inherent goodness at the heart of our humanity." Hawken contends that "humanity is coalescing…reconstituting the world." And it is happening within organizations working to address "climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights and more."

And so I found myself, far from the beaches and barbecues, reflecting on Hawken's message, a sermon of sorts to the servants of Mother Earth. I also pondered the juxtaposition of a holiday set aside to honor those who served their country in past and present wars, lest we forget the heartbreaking toll exacted by such conflict.

Memorial Day has its roots in efforts by Civil War wives to establish a day of remembrance, originally observed as Decoration Day in 1868. After World War I, the May 30 commemoration was expanded to include those who died or served in any war or military action.

In 1971, near the end of the Vietnam War, an act of Congress made Memorial Day a legal holiday, adjusting the date to the last Monday in May. Some felt that establishing a three-day holiday weekend detracted from the solemnity of the observance, encouraging instead picnics, parties and sporting events. Senator Daniel Inouye, a World War II Medal of Honor veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat team, has repeatedly introduced measures intended to return Memorial Day to its original May 30 date.

It is exasperating to witness the resources poured into military preparedness, with 54 percent of the national budget allocated for national defense (and offense), compared to 30 percent for human resources (according to a pie chart found on warresisters.org). The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 is $861 billion and counting.

The National Priorities Project database breaks down state and local funding for education, housing, social services, energy and other vital needs, and contrasts that against bloated military spending.

The oft-quoted words of George Santayana remind us that, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In that light, the ongoing bellicose practices of man are distressing. 

Waging war represents a fundamental failing that has spanned the ages and continues to infect the present. For all the technological cleverness of our species, we have not found a vaccine for our malicious and murderous propensities, nor manufactured "weapons" of peace capable of transmitting love and healing, rather than death and destruction.

There has never been a war which brought about a lasting peace, so why, oh why, are we still in attack mode? Surely we are misappropriating our resources, energy and tax dollars. Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, twice a presidential hopeful, has proposed creating a Department of Peace to help set us on course. While the idea met with passing popular interest, others, including members of the mainstream media, regarded Kucinich and his ideas as pie-in-the sky and deemed his campaign to be merely a fringe faction. In response, Kucinich quipped, "I don't know why people say I'm unelectable—all they have to do is vote for me."

President Obama's recent supplemental spending request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan brings the 2009 total to just under $145 billion, 22 percent less than the $186 billion spent in 2008 and $15 billion more than $130 billion sought for 2010. By then, the overall costs will have exceeded a trillion dollars.

It is expected that an additional 17,000 troops may be heading to Afghanistan, perhaps in knee-jerk response to the rocky political climate in neighboring Pakistan, a country with 172 million people, shrinking resources and nuclear weapons capabilities. About $65 billion, or half of the 2010 war budget, is directed towards Afghanistan.

Concurrently, there are efforts to draw down the 136,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, witnesses to an ongoing occupation that has left a million Iraqis dead and created four times as many as refugees.

(In that context, my one-day displacement from my comfortable home during fumigation hardly qualifies as a hardship—except, of course, to the many deceased fleas.)

In an Orion magazine article titled "World at Gunpoint," Derrick Jensen proposes that we should ask the question, "How shall I live my life right now?" As we look down the barrel of environmental catastrophe, he invites us to ponder, "How do I disarm or dispatch these psychopaths? How do I stop them using any means necessary?"

It's not just that we are killing each other; the Earth itself has long been under siege. "Nothing matters," Jensen writes, "but that we stop this culture from killing the planet. It's embarrassing even to have to say this. The land is the source of everything. If you have no planet, you have no economic system, you have no spirituality."

The world is unfolding every day, and we are part of that great evolution. We are well advised to follow Hawken's prescription to look to the stars with wonder, rather than to our television sets.

"This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years," contends Hawken. "Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn't ask for a better boss. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it."