The Current War and the Old North End of Burlington, Vermont

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(Author’s Note: I currently reside in Burlington, Vermont-a town of approximately 43,000 with an area population of around 100,000. The neighborhood I live in is known as the Old North End and is one of Burlington’s oldest, most densely populated, and most diverse in terms of its residents’ ethnic and cultural origins. Indeed, one could safely argue that it is the most diverse neighborhood in Vermont-a state that is overwhelmingly populated by descendants of central and northern Europe. Economically speaking, the Old North End is a working-class section of Burlington, with a sprinkling of college students and professionals, as well as a substantial number of recipients of various forms of government assistance (Aid to Families, Social Security, Veteran’s Benefits, etc.). In short, it is a pretty standard US low-income neighborhood and what is true for its residents is also true for many, if not most, US residents.)

On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered one of the most controversial speeches of his career. After several months of silence on the issue of the US role in Vietnam, he finally stated his complete opposition to the American involvement in that war and called for an immediate withdrawal of all US troops. One year later to the day, he was killed.

I mention this speech for a reason. Dr. King opposed the war in Vietnam for reasons that are as relevant today in Washington’s so-called war on terrorism as they were in 1967. Since my words cannot match Dr. King’s, I will quote him directly as regards his first and foremost reason (when you read this, try substituting the phrase “war on terrorism” for “Vietnam”):

There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

The second reason was his realization that the folks doing a disproportionate amount of the killing and dying in Vietnam were the poor young men (especially poor young African-Americans) of our country. His third reason came from his commitment to nonviolence. At the time, the American blacks’ struggle for civil rights was turning more and more towards violence as their frustration at non-violent means led more young activists to adopt the Molotov cocktail and the gun as their means towards equality and freedom. When Dr. King would challenge these activists, they would reply that they were just doing what the US was doing in Vietnam and elsewhere around the world-using violence to force others to go along with their desires. (In today’s world, youths see the use of guns as a means to achieve more selfish ends, but the reasoning at work is essentially the same.) In his speech that night, Dr. King acknowledged this argument and labeled the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” This assessment was not done off-the-cuff. Indeed, it hurt Dr. King to make such a statement. He believed, like many Americans, that the United States truly is a chosen land. However, its obsession with war as a legitimate means to resolve its quarrels was rendering such a perception moot.

This dependence on war has not ceased. In fact, the only things that US warmakers seemed to have learned from their experience in Vietnam are more secrecy, deception and deadlier weaponry. Although these lessons appear to have worked in the US wars since then, recent reports from Afghanistan suggest that they, too, may no longer be effective strategies. As for their morality, there is none, unless a strategy that depends on fewer dead on “our” side means more deaths on “their” side (including civilians who may or may not be on either “side) can be called moral. If previous wars are any indication, the longer this war lasts the less the US military will differentiate between fighters and non-combatants until eventually they all become targets. Such a perception requires the portrayal of the enemy as something less than human or, as GW would have us believe, something more than human-as in “evil” itself. I, myself, can not buy into this portrayal, since it is war that is evil, no matter who the perpetrators are.

Regular Folks in the US and the War on Terrorism

After the planes flew into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, many Americans were ready for revenge, no matter what the cost. Since that time, one could reasonably argue that that lust for revenge has been fulfilled. Thousands of Taliban and Al-Qaida fighters are dead and, if we are to believe John Ashcroft, several terrorist attacks have been thwarted.

Unfortunately, several thousand innocent Afghanis are also dead, hundreds of thousands more homeless and hungry, our civil liberties have been trashed, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict threatens to bring the world into full-scale war, thanks to Israel’s virtual declaration of war on the residents of the territories it illegally occupies (with the generous moral and economic assistance of the United States government). If Washington’s war was supposed to make us feel more secure, it has failed, despite its proclamations to the contrary. The only way their strategy could possibly work would be to kill every single person in the world who harbors anger towards the United States’ foreign policy. This is not only impossible, it is immoral. (not to mention impractical–has Israel’s policy of exterminating “terrorists” made Israel more secure?) Instead, what we are likely to see is the continuation of their “war” on terrorism, an expansion of the US military presence around the globe, more battle deaths on all sides of the conflicts engaged in under this wars auspices, further abridgement of the rights we take for granted here in America, and more and more dollars siphoned from domestic programs to pay for it all.

This is why I quoted Dr. King’s speech. As this war continues, it is bound to expand. As it expands, the social programs that remain (after they were ravaged under Reagan, Papa Bush, and Clinton) will see further dismantling as the Congress searches for ways to pay for the manpower and weaponry it will require. Already, the war budget has been increased more than $48 billion dollars over last year with no end in sight. That’s more than $130 million a day! This money has to come from somewhere. One can be pretty certain that Social Security will be raided and education funds will suffer. Add to this sum, the immeasurable emotional costs of those whose family members die in this war, those whose family members come home with physical and psychological wounds, and the suffering of those whose lifeline will be cut as those funds are diverted to pay for war, and one can begin to see the actual costs of Washington’s war on terrorism.

This list does not even touch on the economic and emotional toll of those who have lost (or will lose) their jobs thanks to the changes in the economy related to the war. Not only will the newly unemployed have less money to spend, tax revenues will also decrease, thereby adding to the burden on those who still have jobs. As if to verify our fears, Merrill Lynch analysts are on record as of March 9, 2002 as saying that despite recent small improvements in the economic indicators, any such improvements are most likely short-lived, even for war-related industries. Like all wars, the “war on terrorism” will ultimately create more terror in the lives of those affected than the terror it is supposedly fighting.

What does that mean for us here in the Old North End and other communities with similar demographics? As a community of people whose incomes tend towards the lower end of the US economic scale, whether we are currently working or not, it is safe to say that many families in our neighborhoods will be severely affected. According to figures released on March 8, 2002, the state’s general fund is already $2.9 million less than anticipated. Already, the economic downturn has caused legislators and others in Montpelier to call for changes in Dr. Dynasaur and other health insurance programs designed to help Vermont’s lower and middle-income families.

The proposed changes would further increase premiums paid by families and individuals enrolled in said programs, restrict further those who are eligible by lowering income eligibility rates and other mechanisms, and limit procedures that these programs will pay for. This is just the beginning. Various legislators and officials have called for reductions in state education funding, and have gone on record stating that service will be cut and only essential services will remain. Only time will tell exactly what this means. In addition to cuts, tax increases are being called for on items ranging from cigarettes to sodas to gasoline. So, in addition to getting less while paying more for services, we may also be faced with paying more for certain items some of us feel we pay too much for already. As for those of us who do not fit into the current poverty levels but are definitely not rich (the so-called middle class), the squeeze will be even greater as we attempt to pay medical costs, taxes, and feed and shelter our families with less government support (obvious and not so obvious). With the exception of the rich and super-rich, the rest of America will be forfeiting some of its dreams and hopes, and perhaps even its sons if this war doesn’t go as planned.

Should this war get out of hand, Donald Rumsfeld and his generals will begin sending troops to the front who aren’t in the Special Forces. This means that men and women who joined the Reserves or the National Guard to get some extra money may well be called on. Although it is unlikely that they would fight (at least at first), they would be away from their homes and jobs as long as the logistical needs of the war required, since their role would be to fill in for the regular army troops who were reassigned to the front. Once again, this would mean that lower-income working people would be the ones paying a higher cost in this adventure. Why? Because it is mostly these folks who make up the Reserves and National Guard. If these troops are not enough, look out for a military draft. As history tells us, the draft always takes more young men from poor and working class neighborhoods than from any other segment of the population.

So the next time you curse the extra money you are paying for your kid’s medicine or wonder why you are having trouble making ends meet, think of this war and whom it benefits. Ask yourself if you really feel more secure or, better yet, ask yourself how much of your tax dollars are going towards the weapons manufacturers who supply the military and how much of that money used to go towards your family’s medical care or your vacation. Chances are, if you take the time to follow the money, you’ll find a path from your paycheck to their bank account. It might not be a direct one, but it exists.

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