We are all mortal

There’s a telling moment of decision-making in Thirteen Days– the film chronicling the events by President Kennedy and his administration during the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a private exchange with his friend and advisor, Kenny O’Donnell, Kennedy reflects on the unthinkable – a nuclear holocaust with Russia – and declares, “We’re going to do whatever we have to do to make things come out right.”

Before addressing the nation about the crisis, O’Donnell assures his friend, “You’re going to make the best call you can.  You know [Congress is] going to second-guess you.  So what, we’re just going to have to take our beatings as we go.”

Kennedy understood the true weight of the crisis before him.  This was not a time for political bluster or military bravado.  This was a time to do the right thing, no matter the political cost.

I was thinking about that moment in reviewing President Obama’s speech in Oslo after receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace.  Considering discussions of war and peace, it’s interesting to compare and contrast both presidents.

Both men believed in and spoke publically of peace.  Both faced moments of crisis.  Kennedy stood on the brink of nuclear war with Russia. He deliberated long and hard over how best to resolve the situation.  Obama inherited two wars – Iraq and Afghanistan.  He has deliberated long and hard over the mission in Afghanistan and how best to resolve that situation.  Both men were called on to make difficult, complex decisions that required them to do the right thing, no matter the personal cost.

“…as the world grows smaller,” Mr. Obama declared in his Inaugural Address, “our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

Those words can be difficult to reconcile with Mr. Obama’s words in Oslo.

“…perhaps the most profound issue surrounding my receipt of this prize is the fact that I am the Commander-in-Chief of a nation in the midst of two wars. One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek…

“Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill. Some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.”

In his own Inaugural Address referencing the threat from Communist Russia, Kennedy made clear, “…let both sides join in creating a new endeavor — not a new balance of power, but a new world of law — where the strong are just, and the weak secure, and the peace preserved.”

However, inspite of his talk of peace, in October 1962 President Kennedy informed an anxious nation that, “…any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere [will be seen] as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”

At the time, Kennedy faced enormous pressure from both the military and Congress to “take out” the missiles, followed by a full-on invasion of Cuba.  President Obama continues to face enormous political pressure from groups that, on the one hand, want him to keep his promise to remove troops from the Middle East, and the other urging him to “achieve victory” in a conflict he inherited.

Kennedy acts to avoid war through negotiation inspite of considerable pressure to do otherwise.  President Obama, facing pressure from both sides, chooses to increase troops in Afghanistan with the caveat that he will begin to transfer responsibility back to that country’s leadership in two years. Obama carries the weight of that decision to Oslo to explain his actions in accepting a Peace Prize.

However, there is one notable difference between the two crises: we no longer live in an age where the threat of nuclear war is between two superpowers.  The Nuclear Club – as it is euphemistically called – the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea are allknown to possess nuclear warheads. (The list of countries that possess biological, chemical and radiological weapons is even longer.)  What remains unknown are those countries, and terrorist organizations who either have or could soon possess such weapons.

I don’t pretend to have any ethically conclusive answer with respect to President Obama’s strategy on increasing troops in Afghanistan. The opinions that appear on this site should not be considered absolute and final answers to any ethical issue.  Rather, they are intended to be a discussion of the questions and concerns we find ourselves living through from an ethical perspective.

However, it seems clear to me that any path to peace must take into consideration the fact that eloquent speeches on peacealone do not bring about peace.  Sadly, world history has proven that fact too many times at a terrible cost.

What I do believe is that we must never give up the hard and unending work to achieve peace; the kind of peace that leaders like Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu and many others including Mr. Obama continue to work towards.

Eight months after the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy offered another call to peace with words that remain just as compelling today as they were in 1963, five months before he would be assassinated.

“…let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

2 comments… add one
  • Leslie, California December 16, 2009, 9:43 am

    I read David’s piece. I am so conflicted about all of this. It’s hard to know what the moral path is when it comes to war and peace. I’m glad there are purists/idealists like David around. We also need realists/pragmatists.

    With a heavy heart I listened to Obama’s Nobel speech. It was something to behold.. He is obviously conflicted as well.

  • John, California December 16, 2009, 9:47 am

    I read carefully, your reply. There is not much disagreement, except to say that in reading Kennedy’s words with which you close the commentary, I would simply say – The people leading Iran, Syria and the AlQaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan do not cherish the planet, do not care about even their own children’s future and have a warped but virginal view of mortality.

    Suicide bombers, once adult men, now women and children are not to be negotiated with, and once equipped with atomic weapons, will use them immediately.

    There will come a time that for the Western democracies – Christian and Jew alike – survival will require massive death of others, unless of course, they strike first.

    Once again, “I, as Commander in Chief” does not cut it with me when it comes to sending men and women into battle.

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