In the World War II film The Thin Red Line, based on James Jones’ novel, Sean Penn’s war weary 1st Sergeant Welsh listens to a soldier describe what the war is about and then says, “No it’s not. It’s about real estate.” I doubt that many World War II vets would have taken that cynical view, but the brutal nature of war often provokes harsh assessments. Yet because war is obscenely high in its cost of life and limb and treasure, it is incumbent on those for whom war is fought to be both keenly aware of that price and sensitive and correct in their every reference to the sacrifice of others.
Last week, when current President Bush appeared to be completely unaware of the price of gasoline, I for one found it insulting to America’s fighting men and women. Was Bush even momentarily unaware of the role oil played in his invasion of Iraq? Would Dick Cheney, the Halliburton representative who gets to work out of the White House, have made the same thoughtless blunder? Does our Secretary of State have no idea that there is a relationship between oil and the dead in Iraq?
We no longer have to struggle with our vitriol for Bush since his days are literally numbered by novelty calendars. But perhaps the departing President’s gaffe can be used to focus positive energy on an important question: How can we best honor those who have sacrificed and those who continue to sacrifice in Afghanistan and Iraq if in our hearts we suspect that oil was at the center of the outgoing administration’s “war on terror”?
We could all contribute to a lasting honor by means of changed living here at home; a dramatic turnaround in our relationship to energy that would demand the courage of conviction just as they exhibited courage in battle. And that’s even if you chose to disregard – and I would understand that you might – that the resources of oil in Iraq and the desire to build an oil pipeline through Afghanistan were key elements in our incursions into those areas.
Wouldn’t true energy independence and the end of our reliance on oil be a fitting memorial to those who have given so much? After every war, there are many who promise “never again.” And then we fight another war. Yet while there may be no certain way to temper the recurrence of warfare or our proclivity for it, we can easily envision energy independence. The hurdles are daunting, but so were the challenges when America reached for civil rights and footsteps on the moon. Wouldn’t energy independence rank with those accomplishments?
While current methods of processing ethanol from corn are less than efficient, there’s no argument that the technology of realizing fuel from domestic agricultural resources exists and it works. What is needed now is the will to solve the processing problems and the desire to loosen the shackles of the oil companies so that we can fully integrate alternatives toward a goal of independence. Ultimately, Americans would have to accept the degree to which oil companies control the economy and the way we live. That’s something most of us have been resisting all our adult lives.
As recently as two weeks ago, CNN reported in blunt terms that ethanol production was directing corn inventories away from other industries needing corn, and quoted multiple sources in firmly establishing that corn-derived ethanol currently required inefficient amounts of energy to produce. At a time when use of oil and gasoline is known to impact global warming and we are still losing lives in Iraq, who would want to pour cold water on a national commitment to ethanol with this kind of negative, downbeat assessment? Ask yourself that when gas hits four bucks for reasons you and your neighbors are unable to fathom.
Because it profits them, many may argue that American energy independence would be a retreat from the global economy and even border on isolationism. But if we’re not going to lead the planet in manufacturing, auto-making, electronics, education – you know this list – then in what area are we going to positively influence the 21st century?
After the giddy rapture of the elections dies down, it will be time for new commitments. There will always be beautiful and heartfelt words for those who have sacrificed for this country. But don’t we owe it to them to build on that sacrifice and show evidence of having learned from our experience? Statues and displays of flags are the least we can do, but let’s not do the least this time. They ask us to remember and never forget. In that way, they also say, “Now, it’s your turn.”