FRAMESHOP:FRAMESHOP: AMERICAN 'SACRIFICE'

In response to America’s growing anger about Iraq, President Bush has been repeating the word ‘sacrifice’ in most of his speeches. In his latest radio address, for example, the President told us that “Our efforts in Iraq and the broader...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 08/29/2005

In response to America’s growing anger about Iraq, President Bush has been repeating the word ‘sacrifice’ in most of his speeches.  In his latest radio address, for example, the President told us that “Our efforts in Iraq and the broader Middle East will require more time, more sacrifice and continued resolve.”

But is it right--is it American--to call for ‘sacrifice’ in this way?  How, in other words,  are Americans to respond when President Bush speaks to us of 'sacrifice'?

Sometimes, the best way to make sense of President Bush’s words is to compare his speeches to those of other Presidents.

Perhaps the most powerful use of the word ‘sacrifice’ by a U.S. President can be found in Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address.  In this speech, Roosevelt explained what it meant for America to use its vast resources to aid those nations fighting the war against conquering dictatorships in Europe and Asia:

“We must all prepare to make the sacrifices that the emergency-almost as serious as war itself-demands. Whatever stands in the way of speed and efficiency in defense preparations must give way to the national need.”

He then linked this idea of ‘sacrifice’ to his idea of ‘Four Freedoms,’ a concept so powerful that it continues to inspire us 65 years later:

“I have called for personal sacrifice. I am assured of the willingness of almost all Americans to respond to that call.

A part of the sacrifice means the payment of more money in taxes. In my Budget Message I shall recommend that a greater portion of this great defense program be paid for from taxation than we are paying today. No person should try, or be allowed, to get rich out of this program; and the principle of tax payments in accordance with ability to pay should be constantly before our eyes to guide our legislation.

If the Congress maintains these principles, the voters, putting patriotism ahead of pocketbooks, will give you their applause.

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression-everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way-everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want-which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear-which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor-anywhere in the world.” (download this speech to your iPod or read the full text here)

In this speech, FDR told Americans that ‘sacrifice’ meant paying higher taxes in order to spread the cost of a mounting war effort among all U.S. citizens. The idea was simple, but it was profound.  ‘Sacrifice’ was not the act of only those who were directly involved in war, but was a national condition that involved every person or it involved none.  FDR did not just ask for people’s patience as more and more sacrifice mounted, but explained that the war effort required common or shared sacrifice for every American and in every corner of the nation. 

In basic American terms, when FDR talked about sacrifice it was as if he was saying, “I understand that the memory of the Great Depression is still close at hand.  I understand that when we as Americans work, we do so to make money to take care of our families.  But listen up!  There is a great threat facing the world and until that threat is defeated, we as Americans must give up our individual goals for the greater good.”

In the face mounting danger facing the nation, FDR wanted no less than a change in the short term goals of every American.  He wanted every American to wake up in the morning with a new sense of purpose, newly focused on a vision and project that demanded shared and common sacrifice.

Journalist Mark Shields has noted repeatedly that this idea of a shared or common sacrifice has been noticeably absent from the President’s speeches to America about the Iraq:

The current war in Iraq is the first since the war with Mexico in 1846 that the United States has waged without a draft or tax increases...Moral logic tells us that when the nation legally goes to war, it is everybody's war and it must be everybody's risk. But the elite of the country seeks to make war little more than a spectator sport.

Citizens on the home front who do not have loved ones in the service are asked to pay no price, to bear no burden. The Bush administration does not even ask us to pick up the cost of the war, already in the hundreds of billions. That burden will be borne instead by our children. We, patriots, will keep our tax cuts. Do our leaders think so little of us that they are afraid to ask us to make any real sacrifice? (Read the full article here)

Mark Shields reminds us that when Americans thinking and talk about ‘sacrifice’ during war, what they have in mind is ‘shared responsibility’ and ‘common cause.’  Strangely, when President Bush talks about ‘sacrifice’ he is saying something very different.  When  President Bush asks Americans for more ‘sacrifice,’ he is asking more of us to step up and die.

Whereas President Roosevelt called for national sacrifice as a form of dedication to realizing a common national vision, President Bush has called for blind sacrifice as a sign of faith in his policy. 

In President Bush’s estimation, Americans who die on the front lines are ‘sacrifices,’ as opposed to ‘sacrifice’ being an ongoing process.   If we accept this logic that President Bush presents America, we would believe that success in Iraq will come only at the price of a certain number of sacrifices on the altar of war.

This logic of ‘sacrifice’ is so different from the idea put forth by President Roosevelt--so foreign to the idea of ‘sacrifice’ that inspired Americans to join together and turn back the global menace of fascism during World War II.

Indeed, rather than speaking to an American idea of ‘sacrifice,’ President Bush is voicing another idea that is more common to the Bible. 

Consider, for example, the following passage from Genesis 22:

“God tested Abraham, saying to him, "Abraham!" And Abraham replied, "Here I am."

And so God said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori'ah, and offer him there as a sacrifice upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you."

In this Biblical notion of sacrifice, we learn that to be a person of faith means to follow the will of God without question.  On occasion, God asks us to make the ultimate sacrifice, exemplified by his asking Abraham to put his own son to death as if Isaac were no different than a sacrificial goat or lamb. 

The crucial point in Genesis 22 is that Abraham never knows exactly why God has asked him to kill Isaac.  Over the years, scholars have explained that God was testing Abraham’s faith, but this is in many ways an interpretation that cheapens both Abraham and the idea of God put forward here.  The truth in the episode about the sacrifice of Isaac is that we can never know the truth.  True people of faith are those who sacrifice when called upon.

Curiously, in response to the anguish of America’s families over the deaths of their sons, President Bush seems to have invoked this Biblical notion of ‘sacrifice.’  Rather than calling for collective sacrifice, President Bush has spoken to Americans the way God spoke to Abraham.  President Bush has called on us to sacrifice our children, our only children, whom we love, on a mountain of his choosing.

Now, as a moral guide to our lives, I find the story of Abraham to be haunting and meaningful.  I have heard it thousands of times in my life and I expect to talk about it with my children and with my grandchildren. 

But despite the inspiration that Americans may find in Genesis 22, the fact that President Bush has invoked this kind of ‘sacrifice’ in his speeches about Iraq has left the nation shocked and horrified.

In simple terms, the idea of ‘sacrifice’ as ‘blind faith,’ is not only foreign to American patriotism, it is the very idea of ‘sacrifice’ that is the core of the danger that currently threatens the world.

Each day, more and more of our soldiers die at the hands of people willing to sacrifice themselves on the altar of faith.

‘Sacrifice’ that is based on blind faith rather than shared responsibility does not bring a nation together, but instead seduces young people to become zealots.

Whereas a theme of shared responsibility inspires people to find new ways to work together, the theme of blind sacrifice triggers young fantasies of glorious death.

What President Bush has forgotten, but what Americans feel so deeply that they cannot even express it in words, is this:   America wins wars by working together for a common purpose, not by heroic death on the battlefield. 

What is most disturbing in these final days of summer is that President Bush does not seem to understand why Americans are turning against his policy in Iraq and his Presidency.

He believes that Americans have lost their resolve to win the war, that we want to bring our soldiers home from Iraq because we are afraid of dying.  Certainly, we never wanted our children to die in war and we do not want that now.

But the message America is sending to President Bush is much, much different than a fear of death.  Through our frustration with the war, we are telling President Bush that he has not yet issued a call for common sacrifice, he has not yet enjoined us with a vision of shared responsibility. 

And so, while Americans are angry with President Bush’s stubborn reluctance to either explain or improve our mission in Iraq, they are also not wholly sold on the idea of “bringing the troops home” right away.  This is an idea that many Americans are voicing out of true concern for their children, but it is a idea that for many still rings hollow.

This is because our  pride in our soldiers is not the product of death in battle, but of the way that they embody the truly American ideal of ‘sacrifice.’  To serve in the military is not to be fearless of death or willing to die for the President, but to be on the front lines of the common cause.

It is through their lives, not their deaths, that our soldiers honor America.  By bringing our soldiers home before we have articulated that common cause, is to risk squandering that most vital resource of idealism.   We must bring them home, but not out of anger for our President.  We must bring our soldiers home to allow them to rededicate themselves to that sense of shared responsibility that inspired them to enlist in the first place.

And so what are Americans to do at this critical moment? Should we continue to demand that our troops be brought home or should we stop?

Inevitably, we must press the White House to stop leading our children to their deaths with false notions of blind sacrifice for the President.  To this extent, it is the moral obligation of every American to demand that our soldiers be pulled out of Iraq.

But at the same time, we must demand of our leaders that they articulate a new vision of shared responsibility.   For if we demand that our soldiers be returned home without first articulating a new purpose for them, then we risk responding to the failed policies of President Bush with failures of our own.

Indeed, the challenge Americans face is not only to find a way to stop the death in Iraq, but also to find a way to articulate a new vision of shared purpose and shared sacrifice.

We must not only agitate against the war in Iraq, but also elaborate a new vision and a new common purpose that will inspire Americans everywhere to join together again--to work together again.

In the past month, Americans have been given the gift of a powerful new voice that has spoken to the need to stop the killing in Iraq for the sake of our children, and we are grateful.  But we still lack a strong voice that will issue a new call for truly American sacrifice--the call to put our individual goals aside, momentarily, for the common good. In rare moments in history, the President is also the person best suited to be that voice, but we not at this time.  We need a new voice.

President Bush, for his part, will continue to talk about blind sacrifice in a Biblical idiom so long as he has the resources of the White House.  And as he does so, more and more Americans will kick the President’s war message like a cheap, tin can. 

But who will be the new voice, with a new vision, who will inspire us with a renewed sense of shared responsibility? 

Young and old, military and civilian, Democrat and Republican--Americans are ready and willing.

©  2005 Jeffrey Feldman

© Jeffrey Feldman 2005, Frameshop

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