Saturday, January 24, 2015

Midpoint on My Pacifist Journey

I thought about peace a lot, there in 1961 and 62, living in Kengtung in the middle of the Shan rebellion. After Burma expelled all the foreigners, and my family and I moved to Thailand to start the medical work at Mae Sariang, I thought still more. The Chinese Communists had a news broadcast in English each night and we would listen once in a while. They boasted about the coming liberation of Thailand. Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been anyone’s colony, and I wondered whom the Chinese wanted to liberate Thailand from.
The Vietnam War was also starting up about the same time. Vietnam had been partitioned, and the Communist North was beginning to invade the non-Communist South and were behaving there much like I had seen the Shan insurgents behave. And I decided that there were times when the pacifist position is not enough.
It was not that I feared for my family. In Burma my three-year-old son used to crawl into bed with Lois and me for reassurance when the rebels set off dynamite to destroy bridges, as they sometimes did, but the explosives were not directed at us. And in Thailand we kept a bag packed in case we had to walk out across the border but we trusted God for our safety then as we do now. But although I still saw a need for pacifism in the world, I realized that in the immediate situation, people in the villages sometimes had to defend themselves.
And so, after I came from Asia and lived in Idaho, I often sided against those who protested the war in Vietnam. At the Baptist Convention in Seattle in 1969, some delegates organized a public demonstration for peace in Vietnam. I asked if anyone could carry a sign. Sure, the demonstration leader said, everyone has the right to free speech. So I made a sign that said, “Peace will come to Southeast Asia when North Vietnam gets out of South Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos” and I got into the line of marchers circulating around the Seattle Center grounds. Nobody read the signs, they just saw the marchers. Two soldiers walking by criticized me for marching. I asked them, “Hey, have you even read my sign?” They looked at it a moment, said, “Oh. Okay,” and walked off. At that, a fellow peace marcher amiably peered over to see what I had written, uttered a shocked expletive, and moved as far away from me as he could get.
And that’s kind of where I stood, for a couple of decades, gaining a prickly reputation during twelve years on the American Baptist General Board. I and another Board member who was an Air Force colonel were the Board’s token hawks in those years. It was during that time that I went back to work in Thailand for another four-year term. That time included a spell giving emergency medical aid to the refugees coming out of Pol Pot’s Cambodia in 1979, tens of thousands of refugees, eleven hundred in the hospital tents of our camp, with up to forty deaths per day following their months of starvation and disease. More about that later.
But in the nineties, I thought some more. By that time, we had seen the Gulf War, the Rwandan genocide, Somalia, and of course the Irish civil war had been going on a long time. The fighting in Burma, which had begun in 1947, was still going on fifty years later, with neither side winning, and the nation in a long slide into economic and political chaos. And I began to wonder: not only, ‘Is peace worth the price’ but ‘Is war worth the price?’ Is there not some third alternative, besides battle and surrender?
A possible answer showed up in 1996, when Lois and I were invited back into Burma after thirty-five years’ absence. A Seattle-based volunteer group named World Concern had a project training village health workers up in the Kachin State. The Kachins used to be an American Baptist mission field from around 1890 to 1965, and even after all the foreigners were expelled from Burma, the Kachin church kept on growing rapidly. For thirty years, the Kachin Independence Army had been fighting the Burmese government. They are good fighters, these Kachin Christians, but in thirty years neither side could gain victory. Travel and trade were almost impossible, and most of the men had fled from their farms to escape the Burmese. Many people did not have enough to eat.
Finally, the Kachin leaders said, “This is not the way God wants it to be.” In 1994, working with other Christian groups in Asia and Europe, and consulting with the Carter Center in Atlanta, they finally reached an armed truce with the Burma government. According to the truce terms, neither army may enter the other’s territory, but postal workers, medical workers, and other unarmed people may go back and forth. Our medical training teams, in fact, were approved by both the Kachins and the Burma Government as part of the truce agreement. Snipers no longer fired upon trains and river boats. Farmers began working their fields again and bringing their crops to market.
Present-day Burma has certainly not solved all its problems. The government is still a dictatorship; the legally elected parliament still cannot meet, and dissenters still go to jail. And just lately, the Burma army has started moving hill tribespeople out of their villages and setting up free-fire zones. If anyone returns home to harvest his crops or to get something he forgot, the soldiers shoot to kill without further warning. (Where do you suppose the Burmese learned to do that?) But the Kachins have decided they are going to get on with their lives again. Many still privately disagree with the way the country is being run, but they have decided that killing is not the solution. I admire them for that.

2003: The more I read, the more I am uncertain that I have anything to say that other people need to hear. Granted, there are a vast number of books on subjects more trivial than mine, and even authors who can't write as well as I think I can. But who am I, to be telling others the way to peace? Any particular nation, including Burma, has a great many authors more experienced and more involved than I. But no one has had the same experiences that I have had (except maybe my wife), and some of mine are probably interesting, but may not be of earth-shaking importance.
The peace theory behind my writing the novel Flame Tree has been that the Kachins chose to get on with their lives despite a dictatorial and corrupt government, and that this decision could have wide application in other troubled countries. So far, the Burmese dictatorship has shown little sign of changing the destructive path they have been on for forty-one years. And some of the ethnic groups, Karen, Shan, and others see no alternative to armed defense except extinction. Economic and political sanctions have not had much effect on those in power. There are neighboring nations—China, India, Thailand, Singapore—who are still quite happy to sell weapons and other supplies to the Burma army.
Faced with all this, what can I say? Pray? Yes, certainly, for only God can have the ultimate answer to this impasse. But while waiting for God's answer, what? Stand idly by while families and whole towns are "ethnically cleansed" to the cheers (perhaps orchestrated) of the group in power?
Some people say why get so upset about people who have warred with each other for hundreds of years? What about Sudan, what about Congo, what about Burma, Ireland, Afghanistan, Liberia, what about injustices here at home?
The more such hot spots, the less effectively any nation or alliance can remedy them by military means. We must acknowledge that we can't fight them all. But I am reminded of the motorist who was pulled over for speeding who complained, "Officer, what about all the cars that were passing me?"
The officer continued to write out the ticket as he said, "Buddy, if we could catch them all, we would. This time, I caught you."
Police action alone is not enough, of course. There must be more or less consensus that speeding has bad consequences, there must be education of the public about the needless deaths, good design of highways, general acceptance of the dangers of drinking and driving, and of road rage, and of running stoplights, and many other facets of the problem before the mayhem is assuaged.
More to the point, the spirit of the law must be within the hearts of the citizens, before anything is really accomplished.
In this era of the worship of power, pride, and economic force, we have a long way to go before the spirit of peace is in our hearts.

So back to writing about peace. The Kachins say, "We don't care who governs the country down in Yangon; the weaker their governing is, the better."
That can sound a lot like, "**** you, Jack; I'm all right." But I don't think that is what they mean. What they are saying is more like, "For thirty years we fought the Burma army, and we had a land where no travel was possible, villages were depopulated of men, fields untended, the women and children hungry and sick. This is not what God intended for us. If the Kachin Independence Army standing by in the hills is enough to allow us to live at peace with the government, we will cooperate and get on with life, despite the government corruption."
  It took faith to say that, and restraint, diplomacy, and self-control. Not every group is ready for that. It takes faith to write about it.
Peace is not the primary work of the church or any other group; peace is a by-product. Peace involves laying aside ego and power trips. If a peace advocate is too busy with protest movements and politics to pay attention to those who are spiritually lost, or if the peace advocate is too preoccupied to participate in the church family, then his or her spiritual foundations are likely to be unstable.
             I myself really know very little about war. I have seen the edges of it. I have seen hungry children; I have watched soldiers burn a village. I have seen thousands of people in a refugee hospital, too weak to make any sound except a cough, and I have watched some of them die. I can’t tell you if peace is worth the price, or if war is worth its price; that’s something each person must decide. But I can say that something is badly wrong when there are hundreds of thousands of refugees. Something is badly wrong when people are driven from their homes so that free-fire zones can be set up. And I felt a dull anger mix with my fatigue at that refugee camp as I watched the Cambodian people silently die, nameless, with no friend or family nearby, slipping away so quietly that the only sign of death at first was the lice leaving the cooling corpse.
Something is badly wrong with us when our daily concerns are for higher income, more amusement, a more patriotic America, while we dismiss the deaths we have brought about in Afghanistan, and Iraq as mere “collateral damage.”
Is the struggle against overwhelming greed, pride, and violence worth the price? Jesus said so, and I know no greater authority. He said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer, I have overcome the World.”
Faith means acting on one’s belief, even when no peace is in sight. Even when “the other side” shows no inclination to change. Peace begins in one’s own heart, giving up the demand for vengeance. Vengeance only leads to escalation. How many more suicide bombers and fanatics will be needed to convince us?
There has been a saying, “Don’t get mad, get even.” But getting even is only another term for vengeance.
A better concept is, “Get rid of the enmity, not the enemy.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ten Pork Chops On The Platter

President Obama's State of the Union address last night struck a responsive cord in me. Predictably, many Republicans objected to the President's plan to finance upgrading the nation's infrastructure, educational system, etc. by increasing the taxes on the richest of the rich. Or by imposing federal taxes on those Americans who move their business offshore and pay no taxes at all.

Such objections bring to memory certain of my fellow Idahoans a decade ago, who insisted on driving their cars on public roads without paying to register those cars. Some even designed their own unique license plates to proclaim their freedom. The roads are there, they reasoned, free for everyone to drive. Whoever built them or maintains them is irrelevant to the present moment.

The claim has been made that the richest 80 individuals in America own as much as the whole lower financial half of the American population combined. Seems pretty wild. Be that accurate or not, there are quite a few billionaires, increasing their wealth by several million dollars per year, while millions of working Americans do not earn enough to feed their children adequately or pay the rent. Let alone those in many foreign nations who subsist on less than two dollars per day.

Many business higher-ups explain that they are worth what they receive because of all the jobs they create, or the charitable foundations they fund. And in some cases they really have enabled whole nations to be free of, say, river blindness or guinea worm, or have funded better education or small business start-ups.

I think that the basic conundrum such explanations ignore is best illustrated by a problem brought to light in the Wisconsin summer resort where I worked in my student days. We served two sittings each meal, about 300 people at a sitting. The view over Green Lake was spectacular, the cooking was good, the people congenial, ten at each table, served family style.
A conference speaker once noted that each table was served a platter of ten pork chops, (or whatever was on the menu), passed from person to person. If one person helped himself to four of the chops, that meant three other people got none, despite his assurance that he gave a lot to charity. Or management's promise to order more pork chops next time.

I think that's what, in Bible times, was called a parable.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Sleeping Watchman

Making hospital rounds late one night, I happened to find the night watchman lying on a bench, his eyes closed. My first impulse was to wake him up and fire him for sleeping on the job. I spoke with the night-duty nurse, asking how long he had been lying there. She said about an hour; he had complained of a stomach ache earlier, and she had given him some aspirin. We woke him up, I talked with him and checked his abdomen. Two hours later he was in a hospital bed minus his severely inflamed appendix. I was glad I had not given in to my first impulse. I was doubly glad, many years later after I had moved on to other work, to hear from a reliable source that he was now the pastor of the town's church and had increased its membership ten-fold to about one thousand.

I reflected on that incident last night (January 11, 2015) after watching TV's Sixty Minutes presentation about  the ongoing conundrum of how to fix the Affordable Care Act. One interviewee said the good news is that ten million more people now have medical insurance. The bad news is that there's no way to pay for the increasing cost of medicine. I thought at first that the man merely had a knee-jerk Tea Party reaction to increased taxes, but no.

But he went on to enumerate what both parties in Congress have failed to do in the past six (or more) years. No price controls on pharmaceuticals, in order to placate the pharmaceutical lobbyists. No ceiling on lawsuit punitive damages except in Texas and a couple other states, where it has worked very well to keep down cost of medical malpractice insurance. That was to please the lawyers. Hospital overcharges, usually summed up in a few lines on your bill. All three of my own daughters are RN's with executive hospital experience, and they give me long lists of ways to cut hospital charges, from the price of a single pain pill, to the cost of "spare no expense, doctor!" in prolonging the life of an obviously terminal patient in the critical care unit. Read your hospital bill, and ask for an itemization. Question the necessity of multiple tests.

Is there any logical reason why a medicine manufactured in USA should be twice as expensive as it is across  the border in Canada (or anywhere else)? Is there any reason why the VA or any other government agency should be forbidden from seeking mass discounts on purchases of drugs or medical equipment?

Americans do not have "the best medical care in the world." By and large it's good care, but not the best. Congress often behaves like I almost did with my "sleeping watchman." More often they act like sleeping watchmen themselves, be they Republican or Democrat .

These topics and others are expanded in my 2008 book Access to Medical Care, available on line and on Kindle.
Your comments are welcomed.  Keith Dahlberg MD