WHAT HAS NOT MADE AMERICA GREAT

In my last blog entry I pointed to several characteristics of some Americans that I think reflect true greatness. I’m quite sure the people I described would not call themselves “great.” They are simply acting out of human compassion. My wife and I have had several discussions about how unfortunate it is that many people who have never been to the United States know nothing of the humility and kindess that I wrote about in my previous blog. Most here are more aware of the material wealth or high standard of living in America. My family and I do not really miss the standard of living or the material advantages of America. We think of those Americans I wrote about last time who are always ready to help out in times of crisis, disaster, or basic need.

Then why is America not regarded as a great nation by many? What are those things that that are not great? What have I come to see more clearly by living in Russia about how many in the world see us? I call attention to Dwight Eisenhower’s “Farewell Address” to America, given on January 17, 1961. He had served as Commander of Allied forces before serving two terms as President of the United States. In his last addess as President, he warned of dangers that America was facing. He mentioned the global threat, obviously meaning Communism although he never used that word. The focus of his warning, however, was the new threat posed as the flourishing Armament Industry was joined to the Military Establishment. He called it the Military Industrial Complex. America had never built a lot of arms. Now, after WWII, however, it was truly an industry. He feared the political, social, and moral dangers this new Industry would bring to America.

While Eisenhower clearly saw global dangers, and in WWII had witnessed war and evil first hand, remarkably his final speech still sets forth the hope of a world at peace. He said, “The world, ever growing smaller, must avoid becoming a community of fear and hate.” The nations of the world must become a confederation of “mutual trust and respect.” Further, it must be a confederation of equals. The weakest country must come to the table with a confidence equal to that of America. There was no talk of “American exceptionalism.” Rather than an exploding industry of arms production he said, “Disarmament is a continuing imperative.” Clearly, his successors did not heed his advice or share his vision. What happened? What went wrong?

I’ve mentioned Vietnam in my blog on more than one occasion. I regret repeating myself, but Vietnam had such a profound impact on me and my country. The Vietnam “war” offcially began in 1955, the year after I was born. Yet it was after Eisenhower that America began expanding the war. Kennedy started the escalation in 1961, clearly as a “proxy war” with the USSR, and it grew for years. More and more troops and armaments were sent, and more and more bombs were dropped, many of a very incendiary nature. Eisenhower had warned the day was coming when, “A government contract would become a substitute for intellectual curiosity” in research.

For those of us old enough to remember, as the years went by the war ripped our country apart. As I grew into my teen years hippies, yippies, the drug culture, anti-war protests, Woodstock, the 1968 Democratic Convention became the foci of the evening news. These movements and events displayed the divisiveness in our country that Eisenhower feared. “Hawks” and “Doves” arguing in Washington over it were the dominant features of our political culture.

I remember in high school we asked our history teacher to explain why we were there. She gave us the “standard” line: if we allow the Commnists in the North to take over South Vietnam, then the Communists will have a “foothold” in southeast Asia. With China, just to the north and already Communist, and the Soviet Union being such a huge and powerful Communist country, this could lead to the whole eastern hemisphere and possibly the world falling to Communism. Made sense to me–at the time anyway. So a few months after graduating from high school, I joined the Marine Corps. I was never sent to Vietnam, as I planned, however. Shortly after I signed up, they started reducing the number of troops.

HAL THE MARINE

America eventually pulled out altogether, and Saigon fell in the Spring of 1975. I recall two things: scenes of the people begging for the helocopters to take them or at least their children away. Weeping women were holding babies up for them to be taken. The country had been ravaged by war. There was nothing left. The whole country was decimated and violent, and they believed the only hope for their babies was to get them out of the country. Second, I felt a hollowness for my fellow Marines at Lejeune who had been injured or lost dear comrades in battle. Why? We just pulled out?

Today Vietnam is a “socialist republic” with one political party—the Communist party, although its economy is a “mixed economy.” There were great problems and a lot of suffering, as I understand, after the Americans left. Today, however, it is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Of course, while Communism did take over Vietnam, Communism did not take over anything else. China, immediately to the north is still Communist (sort of), but the U.S. trades freely with them (and owes them a LOT of money). The USSR no longer exists, and neither Russia nor any of the old Republics is Communist. It took me a long time to realize and admit that our national interests never were at stake in Vietnam. Vietnam never attacked America or jeopardized any of its interests. We were fighting a proxy war with the USSR, and thousands of Vietnamese lost their lives and others lost their land and their futures because of it. So much for Eisenhower’s dream of us working for the “betterment” of all nations.

Fast forward to the present: Today, unfortunately, we have not given up on our interventionist policies—no matter the cost to any particular country. It seems we have continued to send troops and fights battles somewhere for most of my life. The seed of doubt, first sown in my mind after Vietnam, that our goals were not always “altruistic” have now sadly flourished. For example, I have heard horror stories about Bashar Al-Assad in Syria for as long as I remember. We have been told, and I believed, that he is an awful person who sometimes slaughtered his own people. After moving to Russia I had access to reports I did not even know of in America. For example, now that I’m an Orthodox Christian I subscribe to several Orthodox Christian sites that provide various kinds of information and inspiration from this part of the world. Not long after getting settled in I saw an interview with an Orthodox priest in Syria. It was during the battle for Aleppo. The Syrian priest was pleading with anyone who would listen for the Americans and others to please stop opposing Assad. If Assad were removed there would be no protection for the Christians from the radical and violent ISIS jihadists. He recounted how ISIS soldiers had slaughtered even Christian children. He stated that Assad had protected the Christian groups there, and no Christian group in Syria opposed him because he allowed them the freedom to practice their Christianity. This man wasn’t a politician trying to curry favor from the powers that be. He was a priest longing for the safety of his people. Not long after that I saw clearly the fraudulant reports of the “White Helmets.” I saw them save that same little girl from various locations. And then they did the same with a little boy. Clearly this group was not who the West proclaimed it to be.

I also found an independent British reporter, Tom Duggan, on Facebook. I know little about his past. I’m not sure how he came to Syria. He ended up marrying a Syrian lady, settling down and learning the language and culture. He made his life there. I appreciate a guy like that! There were no Western reporters on the ground in Aleppo from mainstream networks. Our news networks got their information second hand, as I said, mostly from the “White Helmets” or from the UK based Syrian Observatory, which has few if any contacts in Syria. Duggan lives there. His small film crew films the fighting, and he explains what is going on. Rifle rounds have barely missed him on several occasions. He also explained the the truth about the sarin gas attack supposedly carried out by Assad on his own people. Clearly it could not have come from the Syrian troops. Of course, anyone following the fighting realized that the official story put forth by the U.S. Government made no sense anyway. The Syrian Army was winning the battle for Aleppo. The terrorists were on the run. Why would Assad do it? Duggan’s explanations and videos, along with the refusal of the U.S. to submit to an international team of investigaters going in convinced me there was dishonesty coming from my homeland. We contined to supply weapons and enter Syria uninvited. We have the explicit and mutually exclusive goals of removing Assad from office and defeating ISIS. Assad had won election by 88% of the vote. Of course, we claim the elections were fradulent. After our own last election and the cries that went up from both sides about fraud, do we really think our condemnations of the elections in other countries carry any moral force? We continue to reserve for ourselves the right to decide who should rule in other countries. We are willing to kill and destroy in those countries to preserve that right.

If our goal is to remove Assad because of the supposed horrors he has done to his people, why are we so inconsistent in applying this policy. The criterion for intervention is ostensibly that the leader, Assad, is a bad person. What about the President of Chad, Idriss Deby? He’s been in power since 1990, and the U.S. has condemned his murderous and vicious reign. No one, including the U.S., questions the fact that this man has been ruling his people with constant and violent abuses of their human rights. Yet, we’ve never attempted to oust him, and, in fact, continue to buy oil and other petroleum products from him. When Assad spoke out against the “petrodollar,” then we looked more carefully at how evil he was.

My point in my previous blog entry was that I have come to believe that the greatness of America lies in the boundless efforts to which its citizens go to help others. They desire neither fame nor fortune—or votes. I think these people are the real great Americans. Since writing it my wife and I have thought of other wonderful aspects of greatness we saw while living in America. I am convinced this greatness lies in the fact people are “moved with compassion.” They don’t want to control over who they help and don’t ask about political affinities.

I have also become convinced that our military interventions which disallow the right of citizens of other countries to elect leaders we don’t like will ultimately lead to our disaster. It took me a long time and a lot of research to reach the horrible conclusion that there are people in power in America who will send the sons and daughters of others off to fight prolonged and fruitless wars simply to enhance their financial or political stature. It was a conclusion I reached painfully.

One frustrating aspect of this is that all this hypocritical intervention blinds the world to the great things about the American people about which I wrote and of which I am proud. It isn’t our financial resources or our standard of living that make us great. It is that willingness to help others even when we’ve never met them personally. There are two military men who set forth two very different “visions” to which America should aspire. We can follow the vision of Dwight Eisenhower or, on the other hand, we can follow John McCain. Eisenhower foresaw a nation with a strong and ready military which should be used only in cases when our national security was threatened or there was a genuine international crisis. All nations should come to the proverbial table as equals. The rights and responsibilities of all nations would be respected. Above all, the people of all nations would be treasured. McCain has a very different view. The United States of America is called to lead the world. Leading the world means reserving for ourselves the right to make decisions and draw conclusions on policies and leadership for any country. This kind of vision has nothing to do with the greatness Americans demonstrate in caring for people and their crises regardless of what kind of people they are or even if they even knew them. I obviously see Eisenhower’s vision more consistent with what is truly great about America. It’s more honest. I hope we do make America great again. I believe, however, we need to be very discerning as to how we define greatness.

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GREAT THINGS ABOUT AMERICA

Donald Trump’s slogan “Making America Great Again” has triggered some thoughts on America and “greatness” while I’m living far away. The extreme, and often contentious, divide between my two “worlds”–small town Russia and small town America—has caused me think more about what is really good, if not great, in both of them. Somehow living outside America has caused me to think more deeply about what I perceive are both its virtues and vices. My wife and I have had several discussions about the great things about America that just get missed somehow. This entry will focus on the virtues of America. My next entry will be about the vices I believe keep the rest of the world from seeing the great things about America. Obviously, these observations are based on my life there in America and here in Russia. So what is so great about America?

I’ve mentioned several times in my blog about how pleased we are with both the quality and cost of health care here in Russia. Our experience in America was, frankly, becoming a nightmare. I think that blinded me to one facet of American care that I had learned to appreciate long ago. When I was a teenager, our little town got a “Rescue Squad.” It was not funded primarily by any health insurance company or any government agency that I know of. I’m sure it got some money from some outside agencies, but I recall the many local people who would give generously to support it. They had bake sales, car washes, etc. to raise money. It acquired emergency vehicles and sufficient personel at the small building who waited ready to take off at a moments notice to wherever people were in medical distress. It wasn’t adjacent to the hospital, and I’m not sure of the actual connection to the medical community. Many of the people there volunteered and even paid for their own training. Later, the 911 system developed, and to this day I am impressed by the way people in my community respond to medical emergencies. I know from experience that “first responders” keep on their scanners, and if they hear of distress nearby they come immediately. I was present one night when a first responder came. It wasn’t a job for him. This guy had a “day job” and got paid nothing for his emergency response. But he wanted to help. They are people who have learned how to administer emergency care like CPR, mouth-to-mouth, stopping arteries from bleeding, etc. Then the emergency vehicles would be there pronto, and I have seen firemen show up within minutes even when there was no fire. There was a crisis, and they wanted to assist. These people are not the highly paid health insurance executives or specialists who demand high salaries. They do this because they love helping people. Where we live here in Russia it is difficult if not impossible to get an emergency vehicle quickly. Most people just call a taxi or try to get a friend to transport them to the hospital if they need to go for immediate care. I guess I took such care for granted in America until we moved away.

The second, and somewhat related area, is disaster relief in America. As I’ve mentioned before, my late father was a Southern Baptist pastor. These churches had “Baptist Men’s Groups.” I was dragged to their once-a-month Saturday breakfasts. It was mostly retired fellows sitting around eating too much bacon and talking about football, fishing, and some “church stuff” too. I was unimpressed–until there was a hurricaine that hit in the lower part of our state. Dad took me to the church when they were getting ready to go. They had their chain saws, shovels, hammers and off they went. They cleared, they cleaned, they repaired. They stayed gone for days! When the hurricaines hit last month in the States I saw posts of various groups like this headed out to help. These men and women may be from various churches, community or civic groups. Again, they don’t get paid. Their leaders are not like the head of Red Cross or whatever who bring in six figure incomes. They are just common folk who freely devote their time, energy, and expertise to people in need. And I’ve seen them go to other countries as well! They don’t get noticed or applauded on the news or anywhere else. They don’t do it for noteriety. People are hurting. They go to do what they can for these people they don’t even know.

Another area is not the emergency or disaster kind of situations. I have seen greatness in the way people respond to the events of life. Before Marina Grace was born Oksana was invited to two “showers.” For the uninformed it refers to a gathering of women who “shower” the mother-to-be with gifts for the baby. We got pink outfits of various sorts as well as a good supply of Pampers. After she had the baby the “troops” started arriving. We were in a small group at North Hills Community Church, and they had scheduled when each member of the group would bring us food. Then there were neighbors and family members who also brought things. Oksana did not have to cook a meal for two weeks. Folks came in briefly, brought food, doted over the baby, and then were on their way. We didn’t have to cook or buy diapers! And it is not just births. When my dad died, the same thing happened. People came with food and offered to help in any way possible. Since I’ve seen this kind of thing done all my life, I think I forgot what a wonderful and great thing it is about the small town culture in which I was raised. I realize other cultures do similar things. I’m not saying America alone does this kind of thing. I’m saying it is a great thing for anyone to do, and I’m proud it is done in my country.

The final “great” thing I’ll mention is how Americans often receive people who are—for lack of a better term–“different.” The first time I came to Russia was in 2002. I came with a group of Americans who worked with churches and orphanages here. We brought financial and other kinds of support for needs we learned of. We visited the orphanage here in Luga. which focuses on “special needs” children with Downs Syndrome, autism, or various physical disabilities. On my first visit there, we were given a “tour.” During that time the Director called me and my interpreter aside and led me away to a quiet room with the shades pulled down. There were about 10 cribs with sleeping babies there. She explained that these were Downs Syndrome babies who no one would ever adopt. She and my interpreter slipped out of the room. I quietly went to each crib. I had a very strong urge just to sit down and weep. I thought to myself that if there was some way I could get these “unadoptable” children to America I could find every one of them a loving home in two days. Now, I will add that Russia has come a long way in this area since then, and there is a changing attitude for which I am grateful. And I know it is not always easy for special needs children in America. But my experiences out of America have shown me how great America is when it comes to acceptance of those who are “different,” and how their contributions to life and society are encouraged, trained, and appreciated.

 

001I realize that not all of American culture is like what I have described. My hope is that when the talk of “Making America Great Again” gets down to specifics it will be to honor and cultivate the really great things about America. These great things about America are often the things from daily life that go completely unnoticed because they seem, well, small to some people. They aren’t small. Individuals going to help someone having a heart attack in the middle of the night; taking a bus for miles to get to where the homes of folks you don’t know have been destroyed; taking food and clothing to care for a new baby or to help those whose loved one is now gone from this life; caring about and teaching an autistic child how to communicate. This is greatness.

BATTLES AND BLESSINGS

Battles and Blessings” again describe life here in Russia. This past month the battles have seemed bigger than before. Homesick! For the first time since we moved here well over a year ago I have felt homesick. I don’t mean I haven’t missed family and friends in America or things we did there before now. Of course we have missed aspects of our lives there and the relationships with folks we love. The shooting in Las Vegas, however, triggered a deeper sense of emptiness. Everyone felt it to some degree I’m sure, but for me it triggered a real sense of wanting to be in my homeland. The news of the horrors there were on the news here, and the Russian people were genuinely sympathetic. Somehow, however, I really needed to talk about it with other countrymen, and that was just not possible. Often in times of catastrophy I think we’ve all seen people pull together. For example, after 09/11 I remember the tremendous sense of unity and patriotism in the U.S. as we lived out our shock and grief together. I don’t know if it was like that this time in America or not. But I know I needed it, and when you live thousands of miles away it can’t happen. I noted in a post a few months ago that over time after you move from a country, you hear less and less from old friends. Life goes on there without you obviously. Now, I know that when we return to visit America we’ll pick right back up where we left off. It is just that when this happened I felt the presence of the silence more deeply.

Of course, there were other factors surrounding the deaths and injuries themselves that seem to intensify the sick feeling in my gut. The lack of any reason, motive or explanation for this violent attack left me more confused and distraught. It wasn’t on the news here 24/7, of course, so I had to pick up what reports I could. As the news kept coming and more information was available, however, things became even more confusing. I’m not a weapons expert, but I did have to go through a good bit of training with various weapons when I was in the Marine Corps. I can’t really fathom how one man could do that much firing in such a relatively small amount of time from 390 yards away even with the modifications of the weapons they described. The first reports I heard said he was “across the street” from the concert. He was four football fields away! That is difficult firing regardless of the weapons used. I think that I, like some others I heard, felt like there is more to this story than what we were first led to believe, and we fear we’ll never hear the full story. It was my hardest week since we’ve been here.

Another factor is my little daughter and I have had a cold and cough for almost three weeks. The fatigue and weakness just won’t go away. Nothing serious, but not being able to sleep without coughing worked on my already frayed emotions. Then the Fall here has not been nearly as pretty and sunny as last year. We have had a LOT of rain. The leaves are changing now, but last year we had many beautiful sunny walks together as a family. This year it has been too wet to walk.

The other “battle” is one I’ve written about many times, and that is the unceasing “Russiagate” chatter by politicians and news pundits in America. Several news organizations continue to run story after story on it without any real evidence. As a matter of fact, evidence isn’t mentioned much anymore. For the most part, the MSM have quit asking the folks they bring on about the evidence. They simply ask for opinions—that is, they bring in people who agree with them and then “lob” easy questions about their opinions. For example I saw one summary of an extensive set of interviews on CNN that went something like this with guest after guest: “Do you and others in the ‘intelligence community’ think the Russians were involved in hacking into our democratic process and impacting the outcome of our democratic elections?” They all said yes, and the conclusion was it has to be true, because I gather they meant truth is always determined by the majority opinion, right? A question like, “What evidence do you have or do you know of that clearly shows a Russia connection with our election?” just doesn’t get asked anymore.

I live here; I talk to people; I see interviews and press reports. Contrary to what one would assume from watching CNN or MSNBC, Russians are not in love with Donald Trump. Most Russians agree with Putin’s assertion that no matter who is President in America the foreign policy never seems to change. Obama sounded different from George W. Bush and promised to close Guantanamo and then after his election sent his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “reset” relations with Russia. He didn’t close Guantanamo, and in 2014 he called Russia “a regional power that doesn’t make anything.” His criticisms of Russia were just as bad as any president in a long time. News flash: Russia, like a lot of American citizens, doesn’t trust what any of our Presidential candidates say when running for office. Putin speaks for many when he says the president doesn’t actually set the agenda for foreign relations in America.

So the national tragedy, my own health, and the continuing barrage on Russia by people who really don’t know ANYTHING about Russia have been my battles of late. There are blessings as well, however. Our kids are doing well. Roman is in college. He has it tough academically, but he perseveres and likes his school. Clearly he is getting a good education. Gabriel, our nine year old, is also doing well. His teacher told Oksana that she must have really worked with him on his Russian this summer, because he both speaks and understands it much better. The teacher said there are very few times when he just does not understand. The truth is we really did not spend a lot of time on it, but he stayed with his grandparents more over the summer, and has picked up a lot from them. He also attended a summer camp here in Luga, and I think playing with kids all day helped his Russian immensely. He has his struggles in school just like any kid, but we continue to be pleased. Our three year old Marina Grace goes to a class a couple of days a week, and loves being around her teacher and the other students. It is funny to hear her try to say those long Russian words! When your children are happy, you can survive a lot of other batttles.

Despite the setback from my illness, I’m enjoying retirement more now. Oksana has been pretty busy because the class she teaches at the private school is much larger and has students of different levels in it. My big contribution has been to spend more time keeping Marina Grace. I love it. She’s old enough now to occupy herself some, so I can study Russian, read my Greek and do a bit of reading on other topics I enjoy. My current “project” is analyzing a Russian translation of the Greek text of the Gospel of John. Challenging, but I am thoroughly enjoying it. But my favorite thing is still daughter-daddy times every day with Marina Grace. Also, I decided to teach only one class at school, and it is mostly students I had last year. They are much more accustomed to my “native English” voice, and they are really doing well. I think the fact that they’ve now been in my classes for over a year and have discovered they really can converse with someone whose native tongue is English has motivated most of them in their studies.

Since Marina and I have been sick we’ve missed church for the last couple of weeks, but we are glad to continue our relationship with the folks at the Orthodox church we’ve already grown to appreciate. So national events and news reports and coughs and colds can make life tough sometimes. The good news is despite this being the toughest time yet for this American in Russia, I can still say I’m glad we came. I hurt for my home country. It wasn’t just the one tragic event. It is the arguing, and the political and social in-fighting that seems constant as well. Russia, by comparison, is much more stable socially and politically right now. Don’t get me wrong. It is not ideal. Politicians and locals disagree, but on the whole, there is decorum in their disagreements. I know of only one national politician (Zhirinovsky) who stoops to the level that seems to be common now in American political and social discourse. There is crime, violence, and terrorists still try to wreak havoc in Russia as they do everywhere. On the whole, however, life is stable here, and there is a feeling of security and a greater sense of shared beliefs and values even among those who disagree on specifics issues.

On the political front, Russia is greatly concerned about global terrorism and seeks common ground with other countries that share the belief that terrorism—not computer hacks—is the real “global enemy.” No one knows for sure, but there are estimates the U.S. has anywhere from 800 to 950 military bases outside its borders. Russia has six, plus the troops that were invited by Syria to come there. Russia also has a military storage facility in Vietnam. Russia has been able to build a stronger military with a defense budget of less than one tenth the military budget of America because it does not try to have a “presence” everywhere in the world. Despite what Western hawks say, the real evidence shows Russia is very reluctant to take up arms with other nations. Russia, like most every other country, thinks the leader of North Korea is someone of whom the world should be very wary. Most here think he’s not only dangerous, he’s just plain weird. They believe, however, the wisest course is for an array of countries to present a united front based on solid diplomacy rather than the U.S. resorting to threats on its own. I struggle with the fact almost none of this is reported in the MSM in America. So I have decided to use this little blog to pass on what information I can about perspectives many Americans never hear. I could curse the darkness, but I’ve decided to turn on what little light I can.

So after a time of emotional turmoil I took a deep breath and thanked God for what we have. We have great medical care that is not expensive; we eat healthy, natural food that cost far less than in America. We are not burdened by debt and the high cost of living we shouldered in America. The people at our kid’s school, the colleagues and students at the school where we teach and at the medical clinic we go to, go out of their way to be helpful and gracious to all of us. They really try to take care of me.

Battles” in this world—whatever your country of residence—cannot be avoided. Mine are teaching me to evaluate and change my priorities. I have learned to appreciate my time with family here and also to confront and confess my own sins and failures. Seeing the great evil in the world ought not make me forget Solzhenitsyn’s warning after his awful suffering:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.”

Both the battles and the blessings are teaching me more about humility and gratitude. I’m thankful for what we have here.

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