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Chicago Survived NATO Even if Iraq and Afghanistan Did Not

The NATO Summit has come and gone in Chicago and with it went any serious opportunity for public dialogue about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Based on my own survey of mainstream media reports, here were the headlines:

  • The Chicago Police Department’s massive display of force did a great job protecting the “imperiled” city from the 5,000 to 10,000 mostly peaceful demonstrators who tried to provide a counter voice during the three day event.  And the police effectively sealed off high end Chicago north of the river to ensure that NATO dignitaries could dine and shop on the Magnificent Mile without having to encounter awkward questions about the last decade of bloodshed.
  • Huge traffic and public transportation snarls didn’t happen, largely because advance reports of endless delays and security checks scared most commuters into staying at home.
  • The economic boost to the city remains a yet to be fulfilled promise.  Most merchants in the city reported significant losses because few people ventured downtown for three days.
  • A few irresponsible, self-acclaimed anarchists got most of the attention by provoking modest skirmishes with the police that delighted the bored TV reporters.
  • Chicago successfully hosted an international non-event that was hermetically sealed in McCormick Place where even the 2,000 accredited reporters had to watch the proceedings on video streaming.
  • It’s not quite clear who’s paying for Mayor Emanuel’s and President Obama’s grand Chicago party.  Most of us assume that, one way or another, we are.
  • The White Sox swept the hapless Cubs beginning a week long losing streak for the north-siders.

President Obama dismissed the protests as less disruptive than the annual “Taste of Chicago” food festival, a disappointing and demeaning backhand to those not persuaded of the virtue or value of these U.S. wars attempting to gain international legitimacy by sewing NATO emblems on the mostly American uniforms.

Of course, Obama is probably right.  There were only 5,000 to 10,000 protesters.  The anti-war message was often unfocused and unclear, mixed in with Occupy’s rage at Wall Street.  The fact is, most Americans are just plain tired of the wars and resigned to the fact that they will reach their depressing end with little regard for what most people think about them.  There is little rage after ten years, and limited passion. Only a tiny minority of the population has any direct contact with those who have been deployed, let alone died or been injured.  Sadly the churches rendered themselves virtually invisible over the weekend, with only a few notable exceptions.  I bumped into a number of church folk, pastors, and seminarians on Sunday during the march.  But no one had bothered to organize a public, religious voice, and no bishop, Cardinal, district superintendent, executive presybter, or conference minister joined the march (or were visible if they did) or, as far as I know encouraged members to do so.  Sad.  Perhaps even scandalous.  And students?  A University of Chicago graduate student I know in the Public Policy School didn’t even know a protest march had occurred.

The most moving statement of the protest was made by veterans who spoke of their own lament at having participated in these wars.  They wept for the dead, the injured, the damaged – American, Afghan, Iraqi.  They returned their medals, tossing them toward the heavily guarded convention center.  Needless to say, no NATO representative was there to receive them.  Some confessed and asked forgiveness for the harm they believe they have caused.  Their witness stirred many, though apparently not the media which was far more excited by a few undisciplined protesters who provoked a brief melee shortly after, garnering all the TV coverage and hoarding front page newspaper columns across the country the next day.  We want spectacle, I guess, not serious and sober reflection on the horror that these wars have unleashed.

A week later we observed Memorial Day.  The New York Times front page photograph of a beautiful field of poppies evoked for some the haunting World War I poem Flanders Field where the flowers grow “beneath the crosses, row on row.”  Unfortunately, these poppies were in Helmand Province and the story described the failing efforts to stem the heroin trade that fuels corruption in Afghanistan.  Meanwhile, at West Point members of the faculty debate the wars.  Colonel Gian Gentile, director of the military history program and a combat battalion commander in Baghdad in 2006, was asked what ten years of war have accomplished. “Not much,” he replied.  “Certainly not worth the effort.  In my view.”  One of his colleagues, Colonel Michael Meese, countered,  “Counterinsurgency was broadly successful in being able to have the Iraqis govern themselves.”  Of course, Iraq did govern itself before the Americans and their NATO allies arrived, and the jury is still out as to whether the new crop of Iraqi leaders are, in fact, much better than the last.

We get the leadership we deserve.  As the NATO protests demonstrated last week, not to mention Chicagoans’ reaction to the Summit, our leaders have had a green light for whatever blood and money they want to spend in our foreign adventures.  Meanwhile, plans are underway for the “Taste of Chicago” and one week after the Summit ended the Cubs finally broke their twelve game losing streak.  It’s encouraging, I suppose, to know that some bad things do, in fact, come to an end.

John H. Thomas

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