I assume I am not alone when I say that the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, brought to us in real time, has horrified me in ways I should have expected. But the fact of the matter is, I did not really expect it would happen.
I also assume I am not alone when I say that I have been mesmerized by the news coverage, the actual coverage by mainstream media from both the U.S. and Europe. But I am also embarrassed by that, for what I see and hear is a far cry from being in the midst of what is going there, where it is a multisensory, full-body, all-emotions-in-play experience. We are not feeling the blasts, having shells hit near us, running to escape, or running toward the action, losing sleep, nor seeing bodies and casualties. On television and in the press, it all seems a bit surreal.
I know I am not alone when I say that I have been utterly inspired by the response of Ukrainians. They have come together — responded to the calls to take up arms, make Molotov cocktails, help those fighting, walk in front of tanks, berate Russian soldiers for being there and Lord knows what else. Their courage and willingness to sacrifice for the whole makes the calls here in the United States to take up arms against our government look so petty and selfish in contrast.
No doubt I join millions of people in thinking the Europeans and the United States should have reacted more strongly to Putin in the past, but I have also been inspired by the leadership shown by the U.S. in making totally public the build-up to the invasion and our months of work reinvigorating the NATO alliance. We are deeply connected to the rest of the world whether we want to be or not. It would have been immoral for us to be “America first” bystanders to this atrocity. To assert that Trump would have been stronger in response would be to refuse to see and hear everything he has said and done for the past five years.
So, I can be and am proud of President Joe Biden. But I am also embarrassed. Embarrassed in that in his speech to the nation he had to take time and focus to explain that the government will be trying everything it can do to keep the price of gasoline from going up. Sanctions may in fact hurt us as well, but are we the kind of people who cannot do what we can, with just a little sacrifice, for the sake of the people of Ukraine?
Sen. Ted Cruz has been railing against the new pipeline to Germany for a long time, but he has not had to face the financial costs of much higher heating bills in Europe. Now that it is on hold, he still demurs when it comes to criticizing Russia or its ally Donald Trump. Our motto seems to be, “Others should sacrifice for what we want.” Even worse, so we make more money as Texas sells more natural gas to Europe.
American men and women have been courageous after being sent into conflicts, but we as a people have not been asked to sacrifice or pay for anything. After 9/11, George Bush could have justly said, “Let’s rescind the tax cuts we just passed, so we can pay for the just response to Osama bin Laden.” But he did not.
Nor were we asked to buckle up and empty parts of our pockets for the disastrous war in Iraq. While defense budgets went up, we paid by going into greater debt as a country with, it seemed, the biggest priority being more tax cuts.
We can pretend the wars have not cost us anything — except the toll in American lives, both those killed and those wounded physically or psychologically — just like we pretend we can deal with COVID-19 amid a wide reluctance to mask up and vaccinate for the sake of our American brothers, sisters and children, if not for our own selves. We have refused to do as much as other countries to be free from the virus by refusing to use our freedom to make the choices and sacrifices that would save lives. That casualty count includes people we know directly. That’s embarrassing.
If fighting for freedom has come to mean “Don’t ask me to give up anything I want to do or have for the sake of others and our life together,” then we are in real trouble. These days, fighting for freedom also seems to mean, “Don’t ask me to give up my right to denigrate or hate the other side.” In an insidious and evil way, strength has come to mean, “Don’t compromise for the greater whole.”
So many Americans have the wonderful quality of responding to natural disasters and neighbors in need because of some calamity. So many of us will jump in to help in all kinds of ways. That’s inspiring.
But when we refuse to sacrifice for the sake of our country as a whole, or for the sake of others fighting for the right to pursue life, liberty and equality for all, that’s embarrassing. If countries in Europe can sacrifice in multiple ways to help the Ukrainians stand up to the bully, then we can, too. Paying a little more at the pump is the least we can do.
We can do better.
Former Wacoan Bill Gaventa is a clergyman and educator living in Austin.
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