Hardening Ourselves into Weapons

Something happened on Tuesday, as I began researching this column — I wound up having to give myself a COVID test.

A good friend had just tested positive and, well, we had recently gotten together. I needed to see if I was OK. I note this not because there was bad news — I tested negative — but because . . . well, I’m not quite sure. I had never self-administered a COVID test before, or had any such test at all in several years. I felt fine. I didn’t feel sick. Of course I’m OK, I had whispered to myself as I inserted the swab into my nostril. But the test results could be a shock — that’s the whole point of taking it.

Even though there was no shock, I still felt as though something had grabbed my soul. I was unable, in the aftermath, to calmly push forward as an intellectual and delve into my chosen column topic: the narrowly averted government shutdown (and whatever it might have meant). My emotional space felt hollow. The column simply wasn’t there. Now what?

This was stunningly strange and basically incomprehensible. Then it occurred to me that writing is an emotional process, and my emotions need to be in sync with my chosen topic or I can’t move forward — except abstractly, in a state of emotional disconnect. I didn’t want to do that. So I began scanning my data in what seemed like naïve wonderment.

What would shut down if Congress choked off funding? The Department of Defense informed the nation: “During a government shutdown, DOD still must continue to defend and protect the United States and conduct on-going military operations.”

The superficial certainty of these words jolted me. This was cliché writ large: “continue to defend and protect the United States.” The words took American vulnerability for granted, summoning a basic national lie. Nations are always in conflict. The need for armed defense — “ongoing military operations” — is a basic truth and must not be questioned.

Pentagon spokesman assured us that “the U.S. military is going to continue to do its job and protect our national security interests.”

What “interests” are being referenced? The untouched cliché is the fact of an ever-hostile world. National interests are things like, you know: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The larger world hates this! The Defense Department’s assurances have the depth of a third-grade coloring book.

And an NPR story noted that a shutdown would strategically “play into the hands of U.S. competitors” — China, Russia, etc. — and, uh oh, we can’t let that happen, right?

In my unprotected emotional state, the shallowness of such “warnings” was almost too much to bear. Global warming, the threat of nuclear war — that’s stuff for another story. This story is about national defense, which requires a seriously limited understanding of our enemies and competitors. This is about winning and losing — abstractly, of course. Don’t think about the corpses that are piling up.

Why, oh why, I found myself quietly screaming, does militarism and national “defense” always get a free pass or a quick shrug? Why is killing for peace so easily taken for granted? As we approach the sixtieth anniversary of the JFK assassination, I found myself reaching out to the words he spoke in his inaugural address: “So let us begin anew — remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Kennedy, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, also said, in defiance of the defense establishment:

“So, 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.”

I quoted these words recently in a column but they are too valuable to let go, especially in this criminally simplified world of “global competition.” We know the world is far more complex than that — unless we’re talking about U.S. militarism. Then our awareness returns to the third grade, or earlier. After my COVID test, this was just too much. A while back I wrote a poem called “Can’t We All Just . . . Oh, Forget It.” Here’s part of it:

The cynics

play with their sticks

and knives, mocking

the merciful, the naïve, the pregnant girls,

the cheek turners.

Can’t we all just . . .

oh, forget it.

But maybe the answer

is yes,

if we undo the language,

the easy smirkwords

that belittle

our evolving

and if we undo one another

down to our

childhoods . . .

Oh heart, oh torn soul, little boy who

wets his bed and sinks

into his badness and becomes

a writer.

I offer this small


to peace.

If we give answers

without honesty

we harden ourselves

into weapons.

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.