America’s Shame & Our Blame

| March 3, 2014 | 0 Comments

Last week I spoke at Congregation Beth Israel on the title that leads this column.

It was a major speech. At least that was my intent. Whether that was the audience’s reaction, I have no certainty of knowing; but at the end, during Q & A, a man said, with considerable emotion, my speech had changed his life. He said it not once but twice.

I know with reasonable assurance I am an effective public speaker. Which is immodest to say, but has the advantage of being true; besides, as John Kenneth Galbraith said, “modesty is a vastly overrated virtue.”

But back to Beth Israel.

There were four points to my speech: The Failure of War, The Failure of Government, The Failure of Capitalism, and The Failure of Politics. But there is space here to address only two, the failures of war and capitalism.

As to the Failure of War, I said that during the seven years and nine months of the Iraq War, 4,486 Americans died. The “official” count of the wounded, 32,021 (some estimates place it higher than 100,000). The dollar cost, according to a Brown University study, $757.8 billion.

We went into Iraq because the president of the United States said Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”; echoed by the vice president and the president’s national security advisor. Based upon their assurances, Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the UN and said, with ostensible photographic proof, Iraq had such weapons. (Secretary Powell will go his grave knowing the White House mislead him, and, in turn, he mislead the world.)

There were no weapons of mass destruction.

Because of Iraq the U.S. diverted its attention from the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, which became a huge strategic error. And, in consequence, a war that was winnable continues – with 2,216 dead American soldiers.

The total body count for Iraq and Afghanistan, 6,601. Number of Americans wounded in battle, 49,182, plus an additional 54,592 who required medical evacuation out of combat theaters (reports The Peace & Justice Resource Center).

The Brown University study says the total direct cost of the two wars will eventually exceed $6 trillion (which includes long term costs of caring for wounded soldiers through 2050).

To what end?

In our hubris we learned nothing from the British or Russians. We knew their failures but repeated their mistakes.

It’s too bad neither Bush 43 nor Obama 44 never read Rudyard Kipling’s “Young British Soldier”:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were being fought by one percent of our people, we, the other 99 percent, were at home otherwise disengaged.

The moral duplicity of this has been unaddressed. If you believe wars can be fought by your neighbor’s children but not by your own, you are morally bankrupt – which means we have a nation of largely bankrupt people.

People who have sat on their derrieres and did nothing – never wrote a letter to the Congress or to the White House, never made a phone call, never signed a petition, never expressed an opinion to friends or family for fear of disagreement, and certainly never marched in protest. Why? Because it’s their neighbor’s kids dying, not their own.

To end the moral madness of having one percent of our people fighting our wars, I call for national subscription with no exemptions. Every American mandated to give 18 months in public service – military, Peace Corps, VISTA, or in a new Works Progress Administration program (WPA) to help rebuild the broken infrastructure of the United States.

Because what we’re doing ain’t working.

Finally, on the failure of war, I quoted from the “Ascent of Man” and the words of Jacob Bronowski, who wrote of Auschwitz and Dachau:

Into its pond were flushed the ashes of some 4 million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

Before embarking on these overseas ventures, we might remember President Kennedy’s warning, given during a speech at the University of Washington in 1961:

And we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient – that we are only six percent of the world’s population – that we cannot impose our will upon the other ninety-four percent of mankind – that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity – and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.

On my second point, The Failure of Capitalism, I said of Adam Smith’s “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” it’s the most celebrated book ever written on economics and serves as the foundation upon which modern conservative economic theory is based.

But I also noted, what is often forgotten, Adam Smith was a moral philosopher, and before he wrote “Wealth of Nations,” he wrote An Inquiry into the “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” writing:

This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and powerful, and to despise or, at least, neglect persons of poor and mean conditions… is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

When I was growing up the ratio of executive to workers’ pay was 14-1. Today, some studies show it exceeds 500-1. Any democratic society is gravely threatened when so great a wealth divide exist. To believe otherwise is senseless. (Perhaps you think the “Arab Spring” or now Ukraine, representing fundamental revolts against power, privilege, and wealth, have no relevance for America; conveniently forgetting our own violent beginnings as a nation.)

When President Obama said in his State of the Union address that he would raise the minimum wage for those employed by defense contractors to $10.10 an hour, the Republicans immediately began to push back, decrying this “outrageous abuse” of presidential power.

Annoyed by the GOP’s reaction, I asked Google to tell me the annual average income of the top five defense contractors’ CEOs; the answer, $21.5 million a year.

When you point out such immoral income discrepancies of $21.5 million vs. $10.10 an hour, Republicans and conservative, in unison with Fox News, will accuse you of “class warfare.” Well, we’ve had “class warfare” and the war is over – Wall Street won and Main Street lost. But for reasons that escape me Democrats, starting at the White House and including Capitol Hill, have let Republicans get away with this outrageous lie about class warfare (senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, being notable exceptions).

Or, if you dare cite the five Walton family members possessing more wealth than 150 million of the rest of us, you will be charged with being “un-American” by the followers of Milton Friedman.

To become great again, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio told Chris Hayes of MSNBC, “We have to fight inequality.” Yes we do. And any candidate for public office that ducks this critical issue is unworthy of your support.

Charles Morris, writing in Commonweal, the Catholic lay publication, wrote:

If the government could divert half the income now flowing to the top one percent and channel it either to public purposes, like infrastructure and education and health care. Or directly to the middle classes as added income, American might once again start to live up to its historic promise.

Perhaps then we may fulfill President Frank D. Roosevelt’s expectations, as expressed in his Thanksgiving Day address, 1934:

Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality… We can truly say, ‘What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world and lose its own soul.

You know my answer. What’s yours?
George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He may be reached at,

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