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August 17, 2005

The Definition of A Noble Cause
Posted by David Adesnik

Luke_stricklin_1 There's about a forty mile stretch of US-29 that runs from Opal to Ruckersville in central Virginia.  In my mind, those forty miles are the graveyard of rock 'n roll.  From Washington DC down to Opal, you can listen to DC101.  One you make it down to Ruckersville, you can pick up 91.9 WNRN coming out of Charlottesville.

The only station I've found that comes in clearly from Opal down to Ruckersville is 93.3 WFLS, "Virginia's Best Country".  Living in a red state for the past twelve months, I've often thought that I should try my best to develop an appreciation for red state music.  To be honest, it hasn't worked out that well.  Often, I just turn off the radio and enjoy the scenery from Opal down to Ruckersville.

But this time I was driving after dark and really needed some music to keep my energy levels up.  And what I heard blew my mind.  First I heard Trace Adkins sing Arlington.  It's a wonderful song.  It's a story told by a soldier killed in Iraq who discovers that he is being buried in Arlington National Cemetery.  He tells us not to cry for him because:

I'm proud to be on this peaceful piece of property,
I'm on sacred ground and I'm in the best of company,
I'm thankful for those things I've done,
I can rest in peace, I'm one of the chosen ones, I made it to Arlington.

I often wonder about the Red States' support for the war in Iraq.  Conservatives have always distinguished themselves by their readiness to use force in order to protect the United States from those who threaten it. 

But now that Saddam's cache of chemical and biological has been exposed as a phantom, why do Red State voters support the war?  Is it because they support the president, full stop?  Is it because they support the soliders, full stop?  Or have a good number of them actually converted to George Bush's crusading democratic faith, which has so little in common with conservatives' traditional definition of the national interest?

In the second verse of Arlington, the narrator recalls that:

I remember Daddy brought me here when I was eight,
We searched all day to find out where my Granddad lay,
And when we finally found that cross,
He said, "Son this is what it cost to keep us free".

The narrator this implies that Iraq is also a war "to keep us free".  But how many Americans buy that?  Although I adamantly support the war on the grounds that only the democratization of the Middle East can ensure our ultimate victory in the War on Terror, there is only a distant and complex relationship between my personal freedom and the war in Iraq.  If conservatives' support for the war derives its strength from a sense of America being threatened, how long can that support truly last?

And then I heard Luke Stricklin sing American By God's Amazing Grace.  Luke Stricklin (photo above) is a National Guardsman who returned this past March from a twelve month tour of duty in Iraq.  There is no description that can do justice to his song, so I will simply reprint the lyrics, which even without the music are compelling and inspirational:

Bottom of my boots sure are gettin' worn
There's a lot of holes in this faded uniform
My hands are black with dirt and so is my face
I ain't never been to hell
But it couldn't be any worse than this place.
Tell my wife don't worry 'cause I know what to do
It makes you feel better sometimes, but don't know if it's true.
I know if I die it's just my time to go
But I pray to God every day that I may get back home.

Chorus: Well when you've seen what I've seen
Things don't seem so bad
Quit worrying 'bout what you ain't got, thank God for what you have
'Cause I could be raising my family in this place
But I was born an American
By God's Amazing Grace.

For the last twelve months I've had a new address
The neighborhood smells like sewage and the streets are lined with trash.
You never know what's gonna be the next thing to explode
But unlike these people, I have another home.
It breaks my heart to see these kids out on the streets
Walking barefoot through the trash, diggin' for something to eat.
I give them what I got, just to let them know I care
And I thank God it's not my son that's standing there.

(Chorus)

You want to talk about it, you better keep it short
'Cause I got a lot of lost time I gotta make up for.
Really don't care why Bush went in to Iraq
I know what I done there and I'm damn sure proud of that.

You got somethin' bad to say about the USA
You better save it for different ears 'less you want to crawl away.
And I laugh in your face when you say you've got it bad
Until you've spent some time on the streets of Baghdad.

(Chorus)

After recovering from my initial shock, I began to wonder if Karl Rove had written that song.  (You can listen to some of it here.) How could an actual Guardsman from Arksanas, just 23 years old, who suffered through twelve months in Iraq, feel that way about the war? Of course, I feel that way about the war.  But it isn't my life on the line.  I haven't had to test my ideology against the actual experience of democracy promotion.

I seriously did wonder if the song was some sort of hoax.  But for what it's worth, the Associated Press did a story on Luke Stricklin, so I'm going to assume that he really is the real thing.  It turns out that Stricklin first recorded the song in Iraq using a $25 guitar that an Iraqi boy found for him at a street market.  With the help of laptop and microphone, he went to work.  Once again, it's a story almost impossible to believe.

This is the definition of a noble cause.  This is the answer to Cindy Sheehan's question.  Luke Stricklin doesn't have a team of speechwriters or a degree in international relations.  Nor does he describe America as threatened, like Trace Adkins does.  He is simply proud of what he and his country have been able to do on behalf of others.

In contrast to Bush, Stricklin openly acknowledges that there are serious questions to be asked about why the United States invaded Iraq.  But now our mission is clear.  (See boldface above.  Emphasis added.)  Surely it is noble to defend one's homeland from foreign attack.  But how much more noble is it to risk one's life in order to protect a nation of strangers from deprivation and terrorism?

Perhaps it is not wise for the United States to commit so much blood and treasure to the struggle for democracy in Iraq.  Perhaps.  But it most certainly is noble.

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Comments

Thanks, David, for a moving post. Your reflections pose the question once again as to when and where our actions should be dictated by sheer political expedience.

Less than is usually the case, I submit, if we take the example of Luke Stricklin and countless other American soldiers out there, seriously.

There are many very noble and valiant American soldiers in Iraq, performing heroic sacrifices. Along the way, on any given day, they they may indeed be faced with a small, localized noble cause right in from of them, and they may fight for that cause. They may protect a police station from sabotage, save a family from crossfire, draw fire on themselves so other innocent people can escape.

But the fact that a war is made up of thousands of noble soldiers doing thousands of noble things is not enough to say the whole war effort is a noble cause. We have to consider the possibility that it is the war itself that is largely responsible for the dangerous predicaments of many of these Iraqi civilians. The war sparked the insurgency, after all. Before the war, there were no police stations and police officers being blown up, and no streets to be secured from raging gunfire, and no IED's to be dug up and disarmed.

And although it must be painful for Mr. Stricklin to acknowledge it, since I'm sure he and his comrades did their best to avoid it, the invasion itself and the onslaught of military technology it carried along with it brought a tremendous amount of pain to innocent Iraqis.

We should also consider the possibility that the current aim of the war, to establish and secure a governmental regime that is actively resisted by a substantial portion of the country, and has only the half-hearted and ultimately transient support of most of the rest, is very likely a futile one. Continuing with that aim may be making matters worse than they have to be.

During the American Revolution, of course, some American rebels engaged in sabotage and terroristic reprisals against Tory civilians, when they weren't fighting those soldiers themselves. I'm sure many good British soldiers had occasion to save and protect many an innocent person from violence. And of course they were attempting to secure the country and support what they regarded as its legitimate government. Many Americans still supported that government, whether openly or covertly and quietly. There were a lot of good, noble people fighting for their country.

If you don't like that example, I'm sure you can think of another. There have been many evil wars. But that doesn't necessarily make the soldiers who fought in them evil. Many were quite noble, I'm sure, and occupied themselves with small causes that were equally noble. The fact is, many good soldiers do many good things in some very bad wars. Evaluating the nobility of a war cannot be a matter of compiling moving anecdotes from noble soldiers performing deeds of valor and personal sacrifice, and selflessly protecting the innocent. Those things occur on both sides - but surely both causes can't be equally noble or just, can they?

It is always comforting to say: Yes... mistakes were made in the past; but now our mission now is clear!" But it really isn't clear in this case. There are several very weighty options to be considered. And the outcomes of these options are by no means obvious. Our capacity to control the forces that are at work is limited, and our ability to predict the future is weak. Some choices lead to disaster; some hopefully do not. But it is hard to know which is which.

I think the "red state" patriotism you describe is ultimately even simpler than you paint it, and is not really just a red state phenomenon. You see it in small towns across America. I know I encounter it up here in New England. It goes something like this: "Your county calls; you answer the call; you fight. That's just what citizens and soldiers do. You have some faith that the country is good, and that the cause is just; and you hope the fight is for the best. But who knows? That's not the essence of the citizen's duty. The fact that I am fighting for my country is all the nobility that my cause needs."

No matter what the war, it will produce its share of tragic losses, bittersweet songs, and moving expressions of sacrifice and devotion.

But how much more noble is it to risk one's life in order to protect a nation of strangers from deprivation and terrorism?


Yes, I just wish the wogs could be made to understand this. Maybe they’ve gotten the wrong idea because – in our passionate love of democracy – we stuffed ballot boxes for our Baathist candidate.

Perhaps it’s because our soldiers casually shoot civilians, and somehow kill more innocents than the insurgents do themselves.

Or maybe the Iraqis are upset by the fact that we can’t account for almost $9 billion of their money, and – through no fault of our own – the rebuilding we promised them hasn't achieved very much.

Or perhaps the Iraqis don’t recognize the nobility of our intentions because they’ve been liberated before, and (I hesitate to suggest this) may not care for the Anglo-Saxons’ noblesse oblige.

Whatever the case, one must admit that these are mere realities, while the idea is truly noble, and greatly to be respected.


The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea -- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to...

-- Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

...tres jejune.

"Although I adamantly support the war on the grounds that only the democratization of the Middle East can ensure our ultimate victory in the War on Terror."

Great.

1-800-GOARMY

Have you called yet? Or are you just another Chickenhawk?

"Of course, I feel that way about the war. But it isn't my life on the line."


Oh, you've already answered my question.

Chickenhawk.

Good writing. I wish every American could read this.

Thanks for the great post! And I couldn't agree more with your description of that stretch between Opal and Ruckersville. Maybe next time I'll just let the radio play.

Great link, thanks for sharing.

Angryman,

Be careful about throwing around that "chickenhawk" stuff. Did you put on a police uniform before you asked them to put themselves in harm's way for you? Or are you a chickencop?

"We have to consider the possibility that it is the war itself that is largely responsible for the dangerous predicaments of many of these Iraqi civilians. The war sparked the insurgency, after all. Before the war, there were no police stations and police officers being blown up, and no streets to be secured from raging gunfire, and no IED's to be dug up and disarmed."

This is the real world, where there are no absolutes: you cannot compare the situation in Iraq to the platonic ideal; you have to compare it to what went before. Has the invasion and insurgency caused pain? Absolutely. However, the level of pain is significantly less than it was before the invasion. Instead of some 100/100,000 people dying per year, as it was under Saddam, Iraq is now down to about 45/100,000 people dying per year. And there are no longer rape rooms, or torture chambers, or children's prisons. People no longer have their tongues cut out for telling jokes about Saddam, or their ears cut off for speaking against the government. The Sunni's plight is worse, because they were the favored minority under Saddam; everyone else's plight is better.

You hear about areas without electricity sometimes (not so much any more, as reconstruction proceeds) without realizing, perhaps, that there are large areas of Iraq - even some urban areas - that never had electricity before the war. Same with clean water. Same with security from crimes, and in fact it is unusual now in Iraq that the majority of crimes seem not to be committed with the complicity of the police - or by the police.

So, yeah, it's bad in Iraq, but it is not as bad as it was, and it is worse than it will be; the trends are all in the right direction. Even with the insurgency, Iraq is reaching the level of Jordan for safety and government efficacy. Who knows where they will end up.

Oh, and "Angryman", the "chickenhawk" insult is about the most juvenile and badly thought-out piece of tripe around. If you want to be taken seriously, try reasoning your way out of your belligerent and defensive little corner long enough to figure out something meaningful to say.

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