The Cost of War, Accountability, and Soap

According to a recent article from the AP, Democrats place the final cost of these wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) at $1.6 trillion—roughly twice what the White House has requested thus far. This is upsetting and of itself, but while mulling it over, I found a copy of a new book, The Victory Gardens of Brooklyn, in the Lilith offices. The book itself is a novel, but it reminded me how much I’ve always loved the story of Brooklyn’s victory gardens—palpable reminders that during World War II, civilians were actively engaged in the war, doing all they could. But what role do ordinary Americans play in our current wars, other than bear the brunt of the debt we’ll be saddled with? Sure, federal funds are being cut for everything from education to environmental protection to the arts, but citizens don’t have a chance to feel that they can sacrifice for the war effort. CNN has referred to the Iraq war as “The Forgotten War”, a term formally reserved for the Korean police action. Not to sound alarmist, but where is our participation in this war? Where are our civilian sacrifices? Our ways of contributing that don’t involve putting yellow ribbons on our gas-guzzling SUVs? And for the love of all that is holy, where are our oil rations?!

It’s enough to get a girl pretty down. But then I found something that cheered me up: Sarah Chayes has an article in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Now, I have to confess that I adore Sarah Chayes. I was totally hooked on her New York Times blog, which ran in the summer of ’06, and when I heard her speak at a book signing, I was blown away. She speaks with the calm, matter-of-fact straightforwardness that befits a former reporter, and she manages to sound entirely knowledgeable without sounding terribly bleak—frankly, an accomplishment. This current article is no exception. Chayes delights in breaking down for her readers the insane bureaucracies she’s dealt with (almost entirely American) since quitting her reporting job for NPR to form several collectives in Afghanistan, most recently and importantly Arghand, a soap-making collective. That’s right. Sarah Chayes, grasping that Afghani fruit is the most vital local economic product, and that fruit is not easy to transport or keep fresh, knowing that if the Afghani economy is not fostered, people will logically return to Taliban-run poppy fields, did what anyone would do: she started making soap. And she started doing it with locally, with local labor (men and women, in a particularly bold move) and local crops in combination with a global economy and globalized digital means of communication. The results include jobs, legal and politically unaffiliated, stability and hope. Not bad, for soap.

Sarah Chayes is a brilliant role model for those of us who are prepared to change our lives this way—which nearly no one is. And she knows this. And she writes about this. And she doesn’t judge anyone. But her message is clear, if only through her deeds: becoming involved in healing the world—the most essential tikkun olam—is vital. We have to engage. And if you’re looking for a way to start, she’s got a wish list for you. Because it’s not just $1.6 trillion we’re looking at—it’s day to day life for an unbelievable number of people all over the world. Accountability is not really big in Washington right now, and nobody’s going to force Americans to contribute to this war that we are still involved in. So we’ve got to force ourselves. I wish you luck.

–Mel Weiss