Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand

December 1, 2005
   Vol. 3, No. 23

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Joan Chittister

"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.

* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.

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By Joan Chittister, OSB

That this country is divided over the situation in Iraq is not new news. But why the country is divided is new indeed. The rift is a serious one.

Polling results are clear: The U.S. population has lost its commitment to the war in Iraq. People, in general, are sorry it began or doubt its value or want it over. But that is not what's at issue.

When and how U.S. troops are removed from Iraq, after almost three years of bombing, fighting, destroying, dying, are now the basic issues. The answer to those questions may expose some fissures in our own country as well as in Iraq.

Some people think U.S. troops will need to stay in place there until the country is both reunited and reconstructed. After all, this group argues, we ruined the place, we need to put it back together. The control question here has become, "What kind of country are we going to leave for the Iraqi people?"

If the question seems to lack meaning, think Hurricane Katrina -- the damage it did, the money it is costing, the social insecurity it has spawned, the dispersion of peoples it has generated, the years of recovery it presages, the change it implies for the rest of the country as well as for New Orleans itself.

Economically, politically, socially, Iraq has become a desert in the desert. Water is undrinkable. Whole neighborhoods are decimated. Refugees are everywhere. Medical services are scant. The number of wounded, the number of widows, the number of orphans rises every day. Insurgent attacks, Representative John Murtha tells us, have increased from 150 to more than 700 a week in the past year.

Point: Three years later and things are not better there.

The only problem is that this time a hurricane didn't do it. War did it. What Saddam Hussein didn't manage to ruin in Iraq, we did.

The writing of a constitution is no substitute for the reconstruction of the country. What good is a new constitution if the seeds of civil war -- or worse -- are embedded in the social environment in which it is meant to function.

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Other elements of the U.S. population, on the other hand, want U.S. troops brought home now. They argue that the war has been a mistake from the beginning. The reasons for which we invaded Iraq never existed -- no weapons of mass destruction, no alliance with Al-Quaeda, no relationship to the toppling of the Twin Towers on 9/11/01. However, now that we are in Iraq, there is no definition of "victory," they tell us, and no plan for getting out. Worse, the war itself has made Iraq a training ground for terrorists and the United States the prime target. Every day, that part of the world sees the United States as more enemy than friend.

From this perspective, we are creating what we say we are resisting.

No wonder we're confounded. No wonder we're divided. Both arguments are cogent. Each argument has its point, its truth, its valor -- whatever a person's personal reaction to war in general or this war in particular.

But that mental disarray is precisely what may finally bring us to the real question. The White House may have been wrong from the very start of this debacle but where was the Congress?

Everything in the country is being investigated these days: campaign finances, public security, immigration policies, the intelligence community, violations of confidentiality at the highest levels of the government. Maybe it is time to investigate whatever has happened to the whole concept of "checks and balances," of congressional debate, of political perspective.

While millions of people around the globe marched in the streets against the invasion of Iraq -- millions in the United States itself, while the British Parliament split over the decision to declare war on Iraq and two cabinet members resigned over the decision, while France and Germany, the United Nations and most of the rest of the world asked for more time, more involvement, more assurance, more proof to justify an assault on a sovereign nation, the Congress of the United States steadfastly saluted in front of TV cameras and hummed "Hail to the Chief." No cautions given. No conditions defined. No real debate mounted.

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But the American people don't elect Boy Scouts, they elect Senators and Representatives to scrutinize national legislation, to examine national policies, to consider national alternatives, to declare wars.

"Patriotism" is no substitute for Congressional responsibility. Loyalty does not supercede accountability. We do not elect senators and representatives to "get behind the president in times of war." We elect them to get behind the Constitution, to get behind the country, to get behind the arguments, to get behind the administration spin on whether we should be in a war or not. And when. And how. And for what real purposes.

"Victory will be achieved," the president said again at the Naval Academy and on national TV this week. "We will not cut and run." But we still don't know how anyone in Washington is defining "victory" in a situation where what we said we were going to war about does not exist. Nor do we know whether "we will not cut and run" may not simply be jargon for "we will not admit we were wrong."

Heaven forbid. If it is "unpatriotic," "political," "un-American" to even suggest that war is not a proper course of action when a president suggests a full-scale invasion of another country, it must surely be treasonous to suggest it four years, billions of dollars, thousands of dead, and hundreds of thousands of wounded and displaced later.

It is now clear that George Bush wanted a war with Iraq. But it is equally clear that the Congress that is supposed to be the voice of the American people simply rolled over and let it happen -- and all in the name of patriotism, Americanism and political unity. What is not clear at this point of the debacle is whether or not either Bush or Congress really want peace even now.

Where is the Congress now?

Someone, somewhere ought surely to investigate why it is that our vaunted "system of checks and balances" did not work in this case, in fact does not even seem to attempt to work even now.

From where I stand, it looks as if the millions of citizens who stood in the streets in an attempt to stop this war simply went home far too soon.

Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.
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