Carol A. Hand
As “Independence Day” approaches, I am reminded of a discussion I had with students in an undergraduate social welfare policy course I was teaching in a prairie-state university. The topic for the day was the Social Security Act. As I thought about the class, I couldn’t tune out the context. The year was 2002. The U.S. was poised to invade Iraq with the flimsiest of excuses.
“In October 2002, the U.S. Congress passed a “Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq“.”
People’s lives and their futures hung in the balance.
Slide – C.A. Hand – American Social Welfare Policy PowerPoint – April 23, 2014
It’s clear that wars have always deflected the attention of the nation from the needs of people, providing an excuse to decimate the grudgingly created and almost always inadequate social safety net in the U.S. How could I follow my syllabus by discussing a topic students always found boring even in the best of times?
The costs of war would certainly affect all of the programs covered by the Social Security Act (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Aid for Families with Dependent Children – now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Supplemental Security Income).
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children…. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron…. Is there no other way the world may live?”
― Dwight D. Eisenhower
The future of vulnerable populations would no doubt be bleaker because of the resources wasted on war, and so would the job prospects for this eager group of 25 undergraduate social work students. I wanted them to think about the context critically. So instead of a lecture, I asked them what they thought about the prospect of their nation invading Iraq. I also took time to have the class as a whole develop a list of ground rules for the discussion before I randomly assigned them into smaller groups to discuss and record their views.
This was something new for them. Although they were social work majors, many were first generation college students from small conservative rural communities. Most were Euro-American, but there were a few Black students as well. The group discussions were animated but respectful. (The ground rules they helped develop really did work!)
We reconvened as a whole class when they were ready. Teams began to share views across the political spectrum. One Black student who shared a particularly critical view of the US invasion of Iraq asked me what I thought. “That’s a legitimate question. I promise to share my views when all of you have had an opportunity to speak,” I replied.
All of the students participated and shared their differing views, and the dialogue that followed was inclusive and respectful. With less than ten minutes of class left, it was my turn to deliver on my promise. But what could I say that would honestly reflect my feelings and beliefs that would not be viewed as judgmental, and perhaps, as treasonous?
Now, as then, I suspect many would not agree with the views I shared that day.
“When I think of independence, I think of history. My Ojibwe ancestors were not liberated at the end of the revolt against England. Our oppression has continued and deepened over the centuries since 1776, as has that of other tribes and people around the globe. And even though I know many Native American people feel a great sense of pride as warriors and defenders of their homeland, I feel no allegiance to any national government. I feel no need to fight to defend territory demarcated by imaginary lines that separate neighboring peoples or to risk my life to defend the sardonic mythology of “freedom and liberty for all.” In fact it makes me very angry to know that generations of Native American children were forced to celebrate holidays that symbolized their defeat and oppression at the hands of the U.S. army. A disproportionate number of Native Americans have proudly served the U.S. and still do, even though the same government has done little to address the many legacies of genocide, land theft, and deliberate destruction of cultures that tribal communities still experience today.”
So then as now I would say that the U.S. has no right to invade another sovereign nation to impose its will on other cultures and peoples. In 2003, as in the 1700s and 1800s in the U.S., the invasion was really about gaining power as a nation and establishing control over resources.
I ended by saying that I respect and honor those whose views are different than mine, but I feel it is my ethical responsibility to speak the truth as I see it from my perspective today.
The class was thoughtfully silent. Many came up after class to thank me for sharing another perspective, including the young woman who asked me to share my views.
The midway outcome for the Iraq invasion? Journalist Christian Parenti (2004) reports his observations when he visited the children’s hospital in Iraq during late April, 2004.
“I had seen several children in Baghdad with enlarged heads and huge veins bulging from their skulls and been told that this condition and other bizarre cancers and childhood diseases are linked to roughly 1,700 tons of depleted uranium-tipped weaponry that the United States used on Iraq during both wars” (p. 57).
Photo: Microsoft WORD Clipart
“… the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there …”
I know that as you watch “Independence Day” parades and fireworks, you will think about what freedom really means not only to you but also for others here and around the globe. Real social security means addressing the suffering of others, not with bombs but with peace, equality and compassion.
Christian Parenti (2004) The freedom: Shadows and hallucinations in occupied Iraq. New York, NY: The New Press.