From the first generation that came over on the boat to America, every generation of my family has served in war. Many died, especially in the Civil War, including a great-grandfather and several of his sons. Their extraordinary hardship and sacrifice live within me.
As a child, in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day, I would follow my father, who served in WWII, and the men from the local American Legion post in Tipp City, Ohio, as they visited cemeteries and cleaned, cleared, and marked the graves of fallen soldiers.
Flags, parades, 21-gun salutes, and sobbing hulks of men pausing at the foot of graves fill my childhood memory. Honoring the fallen, I seek out the opportunity each year for my children to experience it with me.
The graves I marked as a boy with brass military placards and crisp flags were often inscribed with Christian crosses or Jewish Stars of David. Those fallen soldiers must have pondered the question, "What is worth dying for?"
Both my country's call to service and my own Christian faith compel me to ask this same question. For my faith that is so because the central act of Christianity is God's self-sacrifice through Jesus' crucifixion. No doubt many who have given their life for country were also influenced by a faith that has such sacrifice at the core of its story, or by the many faiths, like mine, that instruct that there are sometimes greater purposes to serve than oneself.
We live in an era of voluntary rather than conscripted military service. That has spared me from being required to serve my country in the same fashion as my forebears. I pray that my children will also enjoy the same privilege, because wars are of a different stripe today.
Wars used to be about territory and tyrants. The stakes and tasks were more obvious. But today, the main issues are terrorism, trade, and technology. Non-state actors are a more menacing and elusive threat.
Territories can be conquered and despots defeated, but knocking down an ideology or a diffuse movement is another thing altogether, as we have discovered.
The world has become smaller, even as it has grown more complicated and the population has grown larger. That is to say, modern technology, travel, and communications now make it more difficult to divide the world into a simple "us" vs. "them."
My father and grandfather would have never imagined the countries that I have traveled to, the languages I have learned, and the diverse network of friends that I enjoy. My world is far more interrelated. I am proud to be an American, but I enjoy the privilege of feeling like a citizen of the world, as well. That simply was not a possibility for my forebears. And my children's world looks even more interrelated than mine.
Further, distinct from my forebears, I chose the path of Christian ministry. Over the past decade I have worked in interfaith relations, where I have come to learn from people of many faiths. From the perspective of my faith and my experience, poverty and oppression are the real core of conflicts in our world today. They are the real enemy of humanity. They are the Petri dish of terrorism and insurgencies.
Our challenges are different from those of previous generations, and our tactics now must be different, as well. President Obama repeatedly acknowledged as much in his speech to the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point last weekend. He said our future cannot rest on "our soldiers ... or American shoulders alone."
According to the Stockholm International Peace Institute, military spending has reached an all-time high of almost $1.5 trillion in 2009. The U.S. accounts for nearly half of that total expenditure. We must soberly admit that this is not sustainable, and that it is counter-productive to our end goal of peace.
It is in the best interest of our shared security to invest more in eradicating extreme poverty and oppression through development efforts. We are at the two-thirds point in the implementation of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. And which goal is lagging far behind the others in progress? The first one: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.
We have to develop the will to address this problem of poverty more concertedly. It is a greater challenge than any we have faced militarily. And it is our greatest security threat, as well. The World Bank estimates that one in five people on the planet live in extreme poverty. To paraphrase and extend the idea expressed by President Obama, we need a new 'army' of many, including especially development experts and agencies prepared to work in partnership across sectors.
Of course, the American military has already retooled to some degree to more frequently provide humanitarian assistance instead of simply military engagement. However, a more radical realignment of our resources will be necessary to attack our real enemies: poverty and oppression. Al-Qaeda and other terrorist movements would simply not be as successful in espousing their violent and separatist ideologies if our world were not so rife with angry, disaffected, and unemployed young people vulnerable to persuasion of joining their ranks.
I see one sign of hope. The Global Youth Network associated with Religions for Peace, where I work, is forwarding a modest disarmament proposal to governments around the world under a campaign called Arms Down! In just a few months, they have collected more than three million signatures on a petition to direct a mere one percent of reduced military spending per year to development work for the next 10 years. This small gesture would fully fund efforts to eliminate extreme poverty. We need more efforts like Arms Down!
The possibility for resource redirection is immediately before us. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently conceded in America's heartland that the "gusher of defense spending" that ensued after 9/11 would have to be capped.
As you stand over the graves of fallen loved ones this Memorial Day Weekend, ask yourself, "What did they die for?" What was most important to them? Freedom? Peace? Their faith? Their family?
Our world has changed. In the end, we want the same things as our forefathers and mothers: freedom and a world of peace. In an interrelated world in which your security is my security, we must see the clear link between security and development.
We have to start addressing together our core challenges, such as poverty, from multiple angles in order to achieve our shared goal of peace. To truly honor the fallen, we have to adjust to this new kind of 'enemy' and see that we are all part of the struggle for peace.
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