Of Health and War

Last Monday was Memorial Day, the day that extends a weekend to three days, celebrates the beginning of summer and commemorates those who have died in wars with ceremonies, parades and poppies sold at grocery stores.  In my small town USA village of Piermont, New York, there was the annual parade through our little town to the Veterans Monument.  I had played tennis early in the morning and was returning just as our Piermont Police Department was starting to close the main street with saw horse barricades diverting cars through the pier parking lot.  After a quick handshake through my car window with my favorite Piermont cop, I took the detour, arrived up the hill at my house and grabbed my bicycle (oh, yes, got out of my sweaty tennis clothes and slipped into biking shorts.)  I cycled down to the Veteran’s Monument and got a good spot for the parade which consisted of the Fire Department volunteers in their uniforms, the very impressive Piermont (“on-the-Hudson”) fire trucks, our Mayor, and the Yonkers Pipe and Drums Band wearing kilts.  And, there were several veterans of wars marching, elderly gentleman who I would guess had been in WWII.  There were a few speeches and prayers, the band played “God Bless America,” it was over, and the crowd dispersed.

There was also another Memorial Day event that was taking place out at the end of the pier.  Every year on Memorial Day a huge bonfire constructed with enormous tree trunks is built right on the river.  It is lit at midnight and burns through Memorial Day until midnight and then is bulldozed into the river.  It’s a pretty impressive site for our little town.  It’s called a Watchfire, a homecoming fire.  It is a blazing light in the dark night to welcome back all of the souls lost far away and to bring them back home.

While all this was going on, and people were stoking their barbeques, I was thinking about all of those wars, all of the lost and damaged lives.  In fact I Googled “US in Wars” and opened up a chart that you can access on Wikipedia.  There was much more information than I expected.   In the meantime I couldn’t help thinking about other “wars.”  The war on poverty…who and what are we exactly fighting?  Was there a beginning?  Will we win or will poverty win?  The war on drugs.  The war on crime.

The war on cancer was declared 40 years ago by Richard Nixon.   Here is an interesting commentary. http://odewire.com/52324/the-end-of-the-war-against-cancer.html

And in an updated report from 2010:

Declaring a “war on cancer,” President Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act on Dec. 23, 1971, in a White House room full of happy scientists and proud politicians. The bellicose metaphor implied that cancer was one enemy and that victory was possible. Nobody believes that anymore. It would have been no less naive if Nixon had declared a “war on bad government” that day, ignoring the fact that there are a hundred ways to govern poorly and no single way to do it right.   For the full article: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2010/04/26/AR2010042603361.html

There of course has been a war on AIDS: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/14/opinion/14fri2.html

Brian Lehrer on WNYC has been conducting a survey called “End of War” asking the question “Is War Inevitable?”   http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/series/end-war/

Many responses indicated that if more women were in power that more wars would be prevented because women are more inclined to negotiation, conflict resolution, and a focus on health and well-being for themselves and their families.

Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, the first Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, discussed the role of women and war–and the importance of having more women in power to lessen conflicts around the world.

An interesting connection, or perhaps it is the disconnection, of war and health is in the little Central American country of Costa Rica.  In 1991, after having researched the substantial decrease in infant and maternal mortality and increased health and well being of children and families based on the Costa Rican home visiting program, I traveled to San Jose and had a meeting with Dr. Lenin Saenz, one of the architects of the government-funded health care program.  The program included visits to every family in Costa Rica four times a year to assure that all children had their vaccinations, that pregnant women were receiving prenatal care, that the family had clean running water and everyone was in good health.  The visits were done by community health workers who had been soldiers in the war against mosquitoes.  Yes, the war against mosquitoes was mounted by a collaboration between the United Fruit Company and the Costa Rican government.  So many farm workers were dying of malaria that the fruit export business was suffering.  Literally armies of mosquito eradicators were employed in the joint effort.  By the late 1960’s, the mosquito was defeated and Costa Rica was free of the tyranny of malaria.  But now what to do with all of these people who had visited every part of the country spraying and removing breeding areas?  Dr. Saenz and his colleagues in the Costa Rican government decided to fight on…this time against infant mortality, maternal mortality, water borne diseases, and just for good measure, illiteracy.  They retained the army of workers and re-educated them to be home health visitors.  Within 10 years between 1970 and 1980, the health status of Costa Rica dramatically improved as indicated by the drop infant mortality by 69 percent from 61.5/1,000 to 18.6/1,000. How did they finance this one might ask?  All those health workers fighting disease.  Well, they used money that other countries use to pay for their military.  Costa Rica in 1948 had decided not to fight their own people or other countries; they disbanded their army.  Since the mid 1980’s there have been financial challenges that have impacted the success of the Costa Rican war against disease, but there is still no military and the health status far exceeds that of most countries in the world.

So Is War Inevitable?

This post does not have neat clever ending or political message or even health prescription.  I just find myself wondering if the question needs to be shifted from “Is War Inevitable?” to “Who or What Are We Fighting?” or more importantly,  “Who Are We Fighting For?”

As for Memorial Day, I continue to think about the Watchfires bringing everyone home.

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