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Afghanistan: Speak Truth to Power

August 12, 2009

Wednesdays are my Quote Days

To see where we are today in Afghanistan, we might look back at where we were during the Cold War.  Today I’ll go back to the March 1955 “Speak Truth to Power:  A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence,” a study of international conflict prepared for the American Friends Service Committee by a study group.

My dear late friend Steve Cary chaired that study group, and I remember teasing him about the title.  We liked to tease each other.  “Steve, does that title imply that Truth is without power and that Power is without Truth?”  “Oh,” he said, “I don’t know what to say to you about that.  You’re missing the whole point!”

What the point of “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence” was seems to me to be as relevant to today’s world as it was to that of the old Cold War world.  Here’s the quote:

“The Basic Assumption of Present Policy

The basic reason for our failure lies in the nature of our present commitment to violence.  The basic assumption upon which United States foreign policy rests is that our national interest can best be served by military preparedness against a Soviet threat on the one hand, and by constructive and world-wide economic, political, and social programs on the other.  The most common image used to suggest an adequate American policy is that of a wall of military power as a shield against communism, behind which the work of democracy, in raising the level of life and educating the minds of men, can be carried on.  Our material strength must provide the basis of security so that men may have a chance to grow and develop.

This is an appealing image, reflecting both our peaceful intentions and our high aspirations, but we believe it is false and illusory.”  (STP, p. 14, II The Price of Power)

Applicable to so many situations, I think this passage is especially pertinent today to the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.  We could just reword it a bit, like this:

‘… The most common image used to suggest an adequate American policy is that of a wall of military power as a shield against the terrorism of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, behind which the work of democracy, in raising the level of life and education the minds of men, can be carried on. …’

That is exactly the message of yesterday’s two NPR interviews on Afghanistan and U.S. military strategy there.  All we need, they say, is a sufficient military shield behind which good things can happen.  Speaking Truth to Power might break us free of that powerful illusion.

— JV

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