There are probably an infinite number of circumstances in which we can hear ourselves saying “better late than never” regarding something we did/not do, or something someone we know did/not do, or even something someone we don’t know did/not do. And these range from the trivial to the profound. Off the top of my head it’s better late than never that I started giving my kids sandwiches, or that I gave up wearing high heeled shoes, or stopped smoking, or started speaking to my estranged sister, or started exercising more vigorously, or stopped hoarding old newspapers, or… you get the idea. There is almost no behavior change to which we cannot attach “better late than never” if we want to ascribe to ourselves (or to others) some laudable improvement. But are there circumstances in which our arriving belatedly at this behavioral change destination smacks of something perhaps unworthy, something that’s really just about letting ourselves off the hook?
I began to wrestle with this after thinking about a sermon I’d recently heard in which a rabbi encouraged–even implored–congregants to embrace their obligation toward those suffering in Afghanistan. I found myself at first thinking that this encouragement was laudable, and then found myself wondering if it wasn’t in fact something else.
Now I want to be clear that I admire and respect this rabbi. The congregation is in fact one with a long, distinguished history of active engagement with a range of issues, from homelessness to civil rights, to everything in between. It is in large part what I value about this place and its clergy, viz., active engagement with core issues, and pushing congregants to care, to take action. Not to turn away. But I found myself focusing in this instance on the sermons I haven’t heard. And wondering how many houses of worship from how many faith traditions are also home to the sermons that went undelivered.
What of the years of silence–twenty years, in fact—when we gave almost no thought to Afghanistan, or to Afghans? When we went about our days, entirely content to have a tiny fraction of our fellow citizens serving on the front lines of America’s endless war. What story did we tell ourselves about the ethics of wars fought by the few, while the many paid no mind? Why were we so comfortable with that reality? And what does our sudden awakening say about the functioning of our moral compasses, and of our values as human beings?
I am often reminded that Elie Wiesel told us that silence always, always helps the oppressor. So what do decades of our own silence mean? What does a blindness we chose say about us? What does not hearing the voices of the service members who fought and died say about us? What does choosing not to see those who came home grievously wounded say about us? How does choosing to give no thought to those who, following their service and shadowed by demons we cannot even begin to imagine, took their own lives, give us any right to speak up now? To whom does “better late than never” actually matter?
I count myself no hero in this regard. I have done what I could figure out how to do through the years. This included always reading about fallen service members as my way of honoring their lives. It’s meant responding to petitions and other entreaties from veterans’ groups. It’s meant contacting my Congress members, and openly declaring that if we’re going to go to war, we should have a draft. Period. But I have not done enough. I know that.
Which brings me to the sermons I’ve heard lately. I don’t for a moment doubt the good intentions behind them. I don’t doubt the belief that we are obligated to step up to help those who are the collateral damage of war. That our values, our faith, demand it. BUT. I cannot help wonder what might have been if the sermons of August 2021 had been preceded by twenty years of sermons reminding us that war is being fought in our names, and that others are being injured and dying so we can have the luxury, paradoxically and appallingly, of ignoring their sacrifice.
We have skated, as a nation, through twenty years of war on the backs of the fewest of us. And with that war coming to an abrupt, chaotic conclusion, all of sudden many of us have woken from our slumber, horrified and outraged. Maybe I stand alone in feeling horrified and outraged by the decades of silence and willful ignorance that preceded the war’s end, and by the righteous outrage and disbelief coming from all over America, but especially from those with public platforms, platforms that grew dusty or distracted with other issues, all while a war the vast majority of us had no stake in ground on. And while the caskets came back quietly to Dover, and the burials happened out of sight, and the rehab sessions at Walter Reed went on, and the despair that’s led to the suicides of 30,000 (post 9/11) service members continued, unabated.
We will, I think, still treat war as that thing over there that other people take charge of. And I’m quite sure I’ll be reading about the Harvard scholarships and Oprah interviews granted to members of the Afghan women’s robotics team. Because war is ugly and awful. And deafness and blindness are easier. Until war comes home, literally, and we have no choice but to pay some attention. But it’s not always better late than never. Sometimes it’s just too late to matter for too many.