Warlight and secrecy

I’ve been bothered lately by war. I feel closer to it than I’d like, through my location amid the bland-yet-menacing military-industrial office parks of Washington suburbia, and due to my job. And like a borderline conspiracy theorist, I begin to see trappings of ubiquitous war everywhere in our politics and society.

Annoyed and anxious, I look forward to a world wherein war is not always simmering at a low level, forgettable, stable, unpopular and yet generally uncontested.

Is this my desire to bury my head in the sand, to pretend the world is a different place than it can ever be? Am I simply naive? Or is my peace-seeking a virtue?

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War forever

We were lined up, robed, on the risers, facing the congregation. I was always the one who insisted on the robes: even in shades of medicinal pink and purple, they made church choir feel gloriously dramatic.

And this is how it goes in my memory: our song is interrupted by the assistant pastor, stepping up somberly to say that we, the United States, have just now on a Sunday morning dropped a clutch of bombs in Afghanistan. He leads us in prayer about it.

I don’t remember if we started singing again after that.

That was 2001. A lot of things have happened since then, both martially (for us) and personally (for me). One thing (really, the only thing) uniting both of those columns: a massive chunk of the taxes withheld from every paycheck in my first six jobs went to the wars.

But otherwise, nothing else happened, for me. For millions of people in various countries thousands of miles from here, and for many thousands of my fellow Americans? Everything happened, or stopped happening.


19 years and most of my life after that day in church, just a week ago, I was having a night at home pruning my houseplants, doing the laundry, and meditating. A real evening, you know? Then I looked at the internet and it appeared that a whole new war was starting. Or the unending one was metastasizing. It’s sort of hard to tell the difference. My stomach made a few flips. I took a few capsules of valerian root and tried to sleep.


And what do I do?

I drive around Northern Virginia when I’m unable to avoid it. There are apparently no zoning laws and people live cheek-by-jowl with the sharp-topped office towers bearing proud names of companies whose advertisements on the metro make little sense and are almost always for drones.

I read Silk Roads. I learn: this is what those who desire to be world powers do. They bite down hard, and don’t let go, of the area between the Mediterranean and China. They are happier to let it dissolve in their mouths than to open their jaws. They always have and they always will, from Rome to Britain to the USSR to us. These days, they are required to find timely, heart-rending excuses for this behavior, but these excuses are superfluous, neither necessary nor sufficient to explain it.

I continue to be disappointed about my government from without and within. I learn more about the massive portion of it that is completely unaccountable to us, by design, and proudly so. I find it hard to stomach this.

I come to believe that abuse of power begets conspiracy theories about the abuse of power. Belief in those conspiracy theories enables those who would abuse their power to do so in the open, with a smile, on a grand scale.

This is not a surprise.

And even as I write these words, weary and in a sense heartbroken and enraged, I look up from the keyboard to laugh with my boyfriend. I take breaks to write notes thanking family and friends for Christmas gifts. I stretch my legs on the floor.

We were happy during the war.

A brief, loud noise.

On Thursday night, I was having a very normal one: sitting on the couch with my boyfriend, (re)watching “The Crown.” Because the weather is in its glorious early-fall phase (the swampiness has dried out a bit), we had the windows wide open.

At some point, there came a very loud noise. It only lasted for a second or two, but it was a big rumble, or maybe a clatter, hard to characterize in hindsight. We looked at each other in confusion. “Probably an engine,” he said, and we heard nothing else.

The next morning, the news: a shooting, blocks away. Two “males armed with AK style rifle,” the police say, shot six people (killing one) in the courtyard of an apartment complex. They drove away.

Across town, three other people had been shot less than a half hour later. Likely unrelated.

These things barely even make the news. Body count far too low. Probably gang-related, and in that troubled housing project. It belongs to other people.

It was very loud, and very fast, and very common.

More or less without comment…

The Lectionary is the daily set of Bible readings many Christian churches use: each day there’s a passage from the Old Testament, one from a Psalm, and one from the Gospels. On Sundays, there’s a reading from the epistles.

I read it most days, because it fascinates and inspires me. It also so often speaks directly to something I or the collective “we” are going through. Uncannily, sometimes.

Today, the Old Testament reading is from Judges. Speaking the first parable of the Bible, Jotham cries out on the mountaintop against the kingship of Abimelech:

All the citizens of Shechem and all Beth-millo came together and proceeded to make Abimelech king by the terebinth at the memorial pillar in Shechem.

When this was reported to him, Jotham went to the top of Mount Gerizim and, standing there, cried out to them in a loud voice:
“Hear me, citizens of Shechem, that God may then hear you!
Once the trees went to anoint a king over themselves.
So they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us.’
But the olive tree answered them, ‘Must I give up my rich oil,
whereby men and gods are honored,
and go to wave over the trees?’
Then the trees said to the fig tree, ‘Come; you reign over us!’
But the fig tree answered them,
‘Must I give up my sweetness and my good fruit,
and go to wave over the trees?’
Then the trees said to the vine, ‘Come you, and reign over us.’
But the vine answered them,
‘Must I give up my wine that cheers gods and men,
and go to wave over the trees?’
Then all the trees said to the buckthorn, ‘Come; you reign over us!’
But the buckthorn replied to the trees,
‘If you wish to anoint me king over you in good faith,
come and take refuge in my shadow.
Otherwise, let fire come from the buckthorn
and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’

For context, Abimelech was a power-hungry would-be king of Shechem, a city in Israel. He killed all of his brothers but one, Jotham, to seize the throne.

Stan Patterson writes:

A dominance orientation is always rooted in an exaggerated opinion of self and a marginalization of others. It opens the door for coercive behavior that engenders fear and force limited only in terms of what the character of the person will allow. In his bid for dominance, Abimelech’s character allowed the most extreme coercion–deception and murder. The reward was his coronation beside the “oak of the pillar which is at Shechem” and the title of king.

Does this remind you of anyone yet?

Jotham’s parable of the buckthorn (or “bramble”), which he shouted from the mountaintop, criticizes the people (the mighty Cedar of Lebanon) for choosing a scheming, parasitic bramble of a man to crawl all over them and declare himself king. How can a bramble, which is not even a tree, but which may constrict and suck the life from a tree, be king of the trees, by the trees’ own choosing? Woe to the trees. Woe to any of us who let ourselves be ruled by a bramble man.

And then…this happened:

Never say the lectionary isn’t relevant, kids.

The upside of conflict

I hate conflict.

This is one of those things that comes with being a 9, and in my case it goes so deep that I wasn’t even conscious of it until shockingly recently. All I knew is that I basically wanted to wither and vanish when anyone was angry or oppositional. I couldn’t imagine why anyone else felt differently. Facing down someone who was saying or even declaring what they felt was utterly incomprehensible, just as it would be incomprehensible to see someone burn all the cash in their wallet or something. Why on earth would you do such a thing? Why would you want to ruin everyone’s day like that?

(You see, if I were to do the same, it would ruin everyone’s day. No question.)

But part of learning about myself has been learning that not everyone is wired the same way. Most people are far more comfortable with conflict than I am. What’s more, there is so much to be gained from conflict deployed well. You can ask for what you want. You can confront an important issue. You can highlight what’s not working, and have a chance to change it. Amazing. (Am I there yet? No. But closer than before.) And best of all, it’s generally not a day-ruining kind of situation.

Copyright 2019

Thinking a lot about conflict in my own life has gotten me to think more about conflict in the political news. Specifically, how it’s basically a win-win for those who engage in it. This has been blowing my mind to realize, having thought for so long that conflict was basically a glitch in the Matrix.

Let’s first consider the case of Nancy and the Squad. It’s from a few weeks ago, which is basically decades in 2019 time, so I’ll recap: Nancy Pelosi, often a subject of critique from the left wing of her party, made some dismissive comments about four progressive Congresswomen, suggesting that they should be more pragmatic. Those Congresswomen’s supporters got fired up against the moderate part of the party, represented by Pelosi. (I assume the moderates also got fired up at some point, but that wasn’t evident from my Twitter feed at the time. [I disclaim, now and forever, any claims of responsible research on this site.])

Then, Trump started tweeting racistly about the Congresswomen, saying they should go back to their countries (even though they’re all American citizens, and three of four were born here.) Pelosi and all the Democrats came to their defense. Pelosi and Rep. Omar are good now.

On a large scale, what happened? Everyone benefited. “The Squad’s” stars rose. Pelosi maintained her credibility with the older and more moderate Democrats. Trump made racists happy, which is his thing. Pelosi came in to defend the congresswomen against the racist attacks. If you were conspiracy-minded, you might even say that that was her plan all along.

But the point here is: through this conflict, everyone made happy those they sought to make happy, and isn’t that sort of what politics is, as distinguished from actual policy- and law-making? You’d have to call it a success, start to finish.

This is what blows my mind. But I’m seeing it all over the place now. Adam Scott vs. Mitch-McConnell-being-Darth-Vader (which, I surmise, is what Republicans like about him: at least he’s their Darth Vader?). Democratic candidates for President strategically seeking conflict to stay in the race longer. Trump “feuding” with Rep. Elijah Cummings (again: making racists happy is his jam. They find it hilarious when he’s monstrous. Meanwhile, everyone else can rally around an embattled Democrat.) These are win-win situations for the parties. There’s no evident downside to participating, even if you didn’t “start it” in Kindergarten terms.

This may all seem obvious to people with less broken relationships to conflict in their own lives, but it’s all new to me.

And I’m left wondering if this conflict is a win-win all around, including for those of us on the outside. It does help clarify and crystallize our positions. It can show people’s true colors, even if we’ve already seen them many times too many. It can bring issues to the fore that would otherwise fester unspoken.

But in the long run, I’m worried that we’re stuck. The incentives all point toward increasing conflict in an increasingly politically polarized (or ideological) environment. The more polarized the public is, the more it benefits the parties to a conflict to engage in it, and to even prolong or heighten it. The further apart one is from one’s enemy, the more upside and less downside there is to opposing the enemy publicly. After all, everyone loves seeing the other guy get owned, even if no one is ever quite as owned as the owner expects. So there is no end in sight, and I’m not sure that the outcomes of clarified positions and increased transparency are worth it.

Basically, the incentives for public figures are to engage in conflict to satisfy the people who agree with them already. Everyone enjoys the spectacle. No one’s mind is changed. Don’t get me wrong: this is not a “let’s understand Rust Belt America” essay. This is not centrist sighing. I’m not even much of a centrist. I’m trying to get more comfortable with healthy conflict, but all of this just makes me sleepy.