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These thoughts come on March 19, the day of the war deadline. Even in the middle of the country, people are jittery. By the time this reaches you, we’ll all know much more about the war plans and how they go. Will it be a relatively easy walk to Baghdad? Will there be street fighting? If the planned bombing is to be several times more intense than it was in the first Gulf War, how much of Baghdad will be destroyed? What will be the extent of civilian deaths?


The air is full of them, so are the op-ed pages, the grocery stores, the post offices, the schools. We all know that something momentous is about to happen.

CNN drones on. Retired generals, security experts, military analysts are everywhere. We are “flown into” the weather in the Kuwaiti desert, given regular updates on the night skies.

Questions and waiting.

I had calls from some friends, most lamenting that war seemed inevitable now, the 48 hours ticking off easily in some places, more nervously in others. One spoke of how the North Jersey hospitals in her area were said to be among the best prepared in the country to handle cases from a terrorist chemical or biological attack. It was small comfort.

A call came from Mary K. Meyer, who runs a Catholic Worker house for migrant men in one of the poorer sections of Kansas City, Kan. Mary K. is in her 70s, a deeply prayerful woman and deeply involved in justice issues. She’s been to Iraq twice in the past five years. She knows about people who are desperate and who have already suffered immeasurably under dictatorship, sanctions and persistent U.S./British bombing for the past 12 years. This day, her voice has tears in it.

Odd what comes to mind at times like these. On the night before the deadline day, I recalled a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem I had read several nights before in Poetry as Prayer, part of a series by Pauline Books & Media. The poem, “God’s Grandeur,” is the kind of lament searching out hope that can provide solace in troubled times. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” it begins. But the grand notion gets ground down in the next verse:

Generations have trod, have
trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade;
bleared, smeared
with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and
shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel,
being shod.

Maria Lichtmann, expert on the spirituality and poetics of Hopkins, writes that he is describing what he saw as the ruin of Earth through the lens of the Industrial Revolution of 19th century England. The sense of mourning for the Earth is what struck me. I couldn’t help but wonder how much deeper the lament might be today, not only in the face of environmental degradation that has come at the hands of progress, but at the utter violence to nature and to life that is about to be unleashed.

In recent months some have written to question why NCR has run so many stories that question the war and so many opinion pieces opposing the military option. Why not more of those who would find justification in the use of violence against a bloody and oppressive dictator who has been one of the thorns in the world’s side for more than a decade?

It is a fair question and one that certainly gets consideration in editorial meetings here. If there is a quick answer, it would lie in what we believe is the mission of NCR, in the conviction here that compassion and forgiveness are central to the gospel message and to working out the demands of justice.

The cultural machinery at the service of military might, the vast proportion of our treasury devoted to maintaining and developing that might, the industries, the academics, the thinkers and planners, the lobbyists, the endless line of young lives poured into the effort is staggering. The current military budget is $382.2 billion. More than a billion dollars a day. More than any other nation in the world. If President Bush gets his way next year, the budget will jump to $399 billion. The increase alone since 2001 is nearly double or more than double the military budgets for such countries as Japan, Great Britain, Russia, Germany and China.

Look at your local press, local television stations, the national and international networks. They have become megaphones for the Pentagon. War as ratings. Retired generals parade across floor-size maps discussing strategies. The latest weapons systems are extolled and celebrated. One has to watch long and listen hard to catch a tough question. The gods of war clearly have center stage.

From our little corner of the world, we look out and see that things, indeed, are out of balance. The arguments and justifications for war are everywhere. The administration needs no help in getting that message across. There is reason to raise questions about the legitimate use of force and how to respond to evil in the world, but our investment in military solutions is so out of balance to any other approach that any serious discussion of alternatives to war is left languishing on the sidelines.

So, given the economy of our pages and the limits of staff and energy and resources, NCR turns to those who might raise a question, even in the atmosphere of overheated nationalism that has prevailed since 9/11. We will hardly begin to budge the balance, so much is arrayed against options to war.

When so much money and brainpower is poured into pursuits of war, little is left with which to imagine a different approach to the world. President Dwight Eisenhower knew that and expressed it eloquently in his famous 1961 speech warning of the effects of an uncontrolled military-industrial complex. “Every gun that is made, every war ship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

No longer is this world in arms just spending the hopes of its children, it is increasingly reaching deeper into their childhood to turn them toward military pursuits. That is why, although we had a second cover prepared for the outbreak of war, we decided to stay with the cover you see on this issue. Six months ago we asked Claire Schaeffer-Duffy to begin working on a series on military recruiting. While the numbers may not be huge by Defense Department standards, the steady and remarkable growth of the presence of the military in our youngsters’ classrooms should be a point of deep concern, not pride.

That military training should become the easy solution to lousy schools is reflective of the fatal lack of imagination that begins with a bloated defense budget and easy resort to war. It filters on down to kids desperate to get on with their lives.

It is obvious that the children in these schools are willing to subject themselves to a rigorous regimen as a way to bring order into chaotic circumstances. Too bad all we have to offer is a doorway, ultimately, to more violence.

The war has started. And still we wait. For “shock and awe,” for the most horrific part, for some resolution. We are left to pray and to hope for our youngsters in the field, for their quick and safe return. How many are in the deserts of Iraq and Kuwait because they needed money for school? Our thoughts also envelope the Iraqis, the women and children who will face the awesome bombardments with little but their homes to shield them.

Hopkins turns toward hope:

And for all this, nature is never
There lives the dearest freshness
deep down things;
And though the last lights off the
black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink
eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the
World broods with warm breast
and with ah!
bright wings.

Such hope seems distant at the moment. For this is a time of deep sadness, so overwhelming is the evidence of deep human failure, to use the words of Pope John Paul II. Our politicians regularly seek God’s blessing on America, particularly in times of war. Perhaps it would be appropriate also to beg God’s mercy.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 2003