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opinion | Jeffrey D. Sachs

America, unrepentant still

Daniel Berrigan is seen in a photo from Feb. 16, 1981.Associated Press

In its obituary coverage of Jesuit anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan, the New York Times recalled its story of Berrigan’s 80th birthday in 2001, entitled “A Jesuit Lion of Protest Turns 80, Unrepentant.” Why, the newspaper implied, had Berrigan not yet repented for his deeds, even at age 80? The implicit question was and is absurd. Berrigan’s death — and his astoundingly worthy life — begs us to ask why America still has not repented for its sins of arrogance and violence.

Berrigan’s “sins” were to protest the Vietnam War and the subsequent wars of the current generation — Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya. He did so creatively and bravely, and always peacefully vis-à-vis other human beings. Yes, he deployed homemade napalm — to burn files of a Selective Service draft office in Catonsville, Md., in May, 1968. Yes, he brandished hammers — to bang symbolically on nuclear missiles under construction in GE plants in Prussia, Penn.,, in September 1980. His mission was never violence; it was awareness, most of all moral awareness.


America is quick to ask other countries to repent their sins and to remember their evil deeds. It is quick to haul other leaders to the International Criminal Court. But it is chronically incapable of looking inward. It is not Berrigan who should have stood repentant, but America’s foreign policy establishment, the one still very much in power and at war in many countries where we do not belong.

Yes, the Vietnam War is remembered as a debacle and a defeat, but not as the moral sin it was and that Berrigan bravely protested. The war is described as misguided and by the right wing as poorly led and even prematurely ended. But it was profoundly immoral, an act of prolonged violence stoked by unconscionable arrogance, ignorance, lies and manipulation by political leaders. Phony theories of “falling dominoes” and of a unified and insatiable world communist movement were kept alive mainly because of electoral politics, especially the fears held by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon of hardliners who could not countenance losing a war, despite the fact that the war was without merit and should never have been fought.


Berrigan was of course profoundly right, and right from the earliest days of the military escalation in the mid-1960s. In the end, US war-making killed more than one million Vietnamese. Yes, more than 1 million Vietnamese. Fifty-five thousand American soldiers died. Millions of Americans had their lives disrupted, and countless ruined. A trillion dollars or more (in today’s prices) were wasted for absolutely nothing other than wanton destruction. Less than a generation after Vietnam’s “fall” to communism, the United States ended its unilateral trade embargo and soon afterward signed a Bilateral Trade Agreement (2001). The United States has invested more than $1 billion in Vietnam’s factories, and happily imports Vietnamese fabrics, coffee, and other products. Today, “communist Vietnam” is a US partner in the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership and a major voice against China’s potential encroachments in the South China Sea.

The more recent wars, in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere (in covert operations) are just as fruitless and immoral as in Vietnam. They wreak havoc and deaths, with no positive results. A half-century ago, Berrigan protested against a war driven by the politicians’ fears of “losing to the communists.” More recently, he protested against wars driven by the politicians’ fears of “losing to the terrorists.”


Yet in all of these wars we have continually failed to recognize the core truth: we have been our own worst enemy. Our failing is a moral one because it reflects our society’s collective unwillingness to look deeply into our motives despite their harrowing life-and-death implications. Even after Barack Obama acknowledged that the NATO-led war in Libya led to a colossal debacle, we have yet to have a serious national debate about it, much less even a second look.

Hillary Clinton is an oddity and a serious worry. Despite the fact that she entered politics as a student activist against the Vietnam War, she has morphed into one of the leading hawks of our time. While Obama has clearly agonized over the Middle East wars, Clinton has consistently and blithely called for their escalation. During the past 20 years she has shown no hesitation in launching wars, no repentance when they have become disasters, and no evident learning from one war to the next. Americans remain unaware of how these wars have directly unleashed the demons of radical jihadists and terrorism, indeed some of it directly financed by the US (as in Afghanistan), and others financed by America’s ostensible allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Father Berrigan was therefore a special gift to America, a remarkably brave moral voice who persistently tried to warn America about the high costs of arrogance. His was the kind of voice that the American establishment reproaches and jails, the kind that puzzles the New York Times because he stood “unrepentant.” Berrigan raised moral issues about the United States that are as urgent and pressing today as they were almost a half-century ago he set alight the draft files in Catonsville.


Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.’’

Correction: An earlier version of this column had an incorrect spelling of Catonsville.