Posted by Richard Chrisman
"Houston, we have a problem." Everybody knows that line. Two-thirds of the way to the moon the three-man crew of Apollo 13 experienced a mission-ending explosion in one of the lunar module oxygen tanks. Their craft had already entered the moon's gravitational field, so turning around at that point was impossible. They certainly did have a problem. How would they ever get home again safely?
I bring up this event because it seems like the U.S. hadn't been in a pickle like that since then, until the Afghanistan war. We went in. Disasters struck. Now the mission can't be attained but, being two-thirds of the way there, we can't turn back. If our troops are to return safely, it's going to take some very ingenious maneuvering.
The analogy is far from perfect because our present situation is already an advanced tragedy. Vastly more than a small space crew has been mortally involved, and vastly more money. Not to mention the fate of another entire nation and its people, particularly the women who are vulnerable to reprisal. But the analogy makes the point well enough. We might as well be almost 200,000 miles from home. And since the original goal is clearly unattainable according to all professional and popular accounts, people across the country unhelpfully call for some kind of strategy that goes both forward and back.
The geniuses at the Houston Space Center devised a strategy for escape using simple physics and 1st generation computers — plus immense personal fortitude on the part of the crew and support personnel. I don't think that's in the cards for America now. For one thing, the disasters in Afghanistan have translated themselves to the homeland where explosions have ripped apart Wall Street and Main Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. This time our decision-making centers have been disabled — that didn't happen in Houston.
Let's not spend any time debating the merits of the war policy and how we got into it. Worthy or not, the war effort is nevertheless the root of our financial crises today. What we need is a national consciousness and effort that is the "moral equivalent of war." When William James coined this phrase, he was inciting us to challenge the universally accepted assumption that "War is, in short, a permanent human obligation." Do we just want to cave in to this assumption? If we do, war will remain our default position for lack of a voluble critique. So where is the critique? Where are the voices calling out, "By the bowels of Christ, bethink yourselves that ye might be WRONG?" That was Oliver Cromwell's plea when Charles I was about to be beheaded in 1649.
Let's inventory the voices questioning war. Notice that the subject has not come up once in the Republican presidential candidates' four debates (nor did it in the 2010 elections). Notice that there is no discussion about it in Congress or at the White House. And, apart from Ralph Nader, Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and a few signs at the Occupy Wall Street protest saying, "Stop the War," the silence is deafening. The religious communities are silent on this as well. But, you know, it is pretty silent around campus, too. Most people think there is nothing to discuss and leave it to our proxies on MSNBC, CNN and FOX News to do what talking there is. How uncharacteristic of the academy that will study and talk about almost anything!
Shouldn't we be worried that, as we go from one crisis to another, the country might completely forget we are running a war this week? It's like leaving the house and forgetting to put the screen over the fireplace!
I once learned from Thomas Hardy that, "If a way to the better there be, it requires a full look at the worst." We need an on-going, spiritual acknowledgement of the very reality faced by Apollo 13 — they had enough consumables (electricity, power, oxygen) for two men for two days, but they were three men who had to go four days with their lives on the line. Would they get back at all? Will our troops? Will they be coming back to the same country they left? They will only do so if the costs of war become present to our spirits, by some emotional or symbolic means, through art, or dialogue or (even) prayer.
What commitment can we at Skidmore make to keep this subject before us, lest we forget that death is ordered every day in our name while we sift through the the playlists on our iPods?
Richard Chrisman is the Director of Religious and Spiritual Life on campus. He enjoys looking out at Skidmore through his office window.