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“3 Trillion?” Church Visit #15

By Nora Freeman


On Sunday, June 15, 2008, Nick Mottern and I visited the Church of the Transfiguration in Tarrytown, NY at its 10 a.m. service, as part of the bannering campaign to encourage clergy in Westchester County to speak out against the war. 


Transfiguration Parish is “a community of Christian believers faithful to our Catholic tradition and a pilgrim people entrusted to the Carmelite Fathers,” as described in the church newsletter.  Although on a main road, Route 9, the large, circular stone church is set back from the street and shielded by trees for a more bucolic or rustic appearance.


Inside the church, pews are arranged around the altar in a wide semi-circle.  Above the altar, where the rafters radiating from the outside walls meet in a peak, is a large skylight, giving the place a light and airy feeling.  On the walls behind the altar are two embroidered banners devoted to two European Carmelites, one of them a Jewish convert, who died in concentration camps after speaking out against the Nazis. 


The congregation of approximately 200 people was overwhelmingly white, with a small group of Asians, perhaps 20, and one African-American, a woman in the choir.  There were many young children, but no adolescents that we noticed.


A young woman began the service by singing, I think in Latin, accompanied by a piano.  The service continued, with lay people reading scripture.   The theme of the service and the homily (sermon), delivered by the pastor, Father Lucian W. Beltzner was celebration of Fathers’ Day with an expression of thanks to men who, Father Beltzner said, have “modeled” their lives on the image of God the Father.  He gave thanks for fathers as “men who provide for our basic needs” and “bear us as on eagles’ wings until we can fly on our own.” 


We waited through the service for the place when announcements are made, the point at which our banner is usually raised.  However, this is the first service in 15 church visits in which there was no announcement period.  So the service ended without our lifting the banner.


Nick was tempted to let it go and just go home, perhaps discouraged by a previous visit in which, having raised the banner outside a church after the service, he and his fellow banner-holders were simply ignored.  However, this being my first church visit, I was not prepared for such an anti-climax and gently insisted on holding the banner up in the parking lot as people exited the church.   Nick agreed, being the wonderfully accommodating individual that he is, and we arrived at a strategic location at the parking lot entrance in advance of most of the congregation, holding up our banner reading:


                 4,099 + U.S. Soldiers Killed – Tens of Thousands Wounded

                  One Million Iraqis Killed – Millions Displaced

 Much of Iraq and Its Culture Have Been Destroyed

               The U.S.A. Has Spent $3 Trillion – $4 Billion from Westchester

                            What Will You Tell Your Children You Did

                                   During the U.S. Invasion of Iraq?


As expected, many of the congregants did ignore us.  A few showed some fleeting interest.  One man said angrily “you’re fools” as he walked by but did not stop to talk.


However, a boy of about 10 years old looked intently at the banner from across the driveway and repeated several times, incredulously, “3 trillion??  3 trillion?????”  He and his father soon came over to talk to us.  His father, an Army lieutenant colonel and Iraq War veteran, now in civilian life, was anxious to persuade us of the error of our ways.  His main points were:



In discussing the point that certain things had to be kept secret from the American public about Iraq, the lieutenant colonel gave a long discourse focused on the capture of the Nazi “Enigma” code machine during World War II.  The first message broken by the Allies after the machine was captured, he said, involved a German bombing slated for Birmingham, England. But Birmingham was not alerted he said, so that the Nazi would not know their code had been broken. (There was a theory, now largely debunked, that Coventry, England was not evacuated in advance of an extraordinarily deadly Nazi air raid in 1940 because Winston Churchill did not want to give any hint that the Allies had broken the Enigma code; this was a concern throughout World War II.  Breaking of Enigma began as early as 1931 by Polish cryptographers, with the British and French being given key information in 1939.  The Allies were able to keep ahead of Enigma code changes over the course of the war, aided in part by capture of Enigma code wheels, machines and codebooks.)


The lieutenant colonel also maintained that the surge is “working.”


All in all, this man seemed rather mechanical in presenting his ideas and impervious to facts that contradict his worldview, most of which were provided by Nick.  I knew that if I were to engage with him I would get too emotional and blow the whole thing.  Nick, however, listened calmly and asked some questions before bringing up his own service in Vietnam, describing how when he went there he supported the war 100% but later found that the government had told him about Viet Nam did not comport with reality.  Then he came home and found that media and the government were lying to us all, hand over fist.  That was the beginning of his critical attitude toward information that comes from the powers that be, and he continues to apply it now in the case of Iraq. 


While the lieutenant colonel was talking to us, we were approached by another parishioner who supported us “100%”, as he put it.  In responding to the lieutenant colonel’s claim that there were weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, our supporter said that a friend of his, a Maronite Christian Lebanese, also a parishioner, had been on the weapons inspection team of Hans Blix and that the team had found no WMD.  At this point, the lieutenant colonel made the remark about the “mole” in that team.


The man who had joined us, in his late 60s or early 70s, who sang in the choir, continued to engage the lieutenant colonel, and they moved away from us as they talked.  The colonel’s son, who had been so curious about the banner, however, remained near us.  We talked with him, learning that his favorite subject in school is mathematics.  He asked again, “3 trillion dollars?  Really?”  I assured him that that indeed was estimated cost of the Iraq War so far, and that he and the rest of his generation would be paying for it.  He wanted to know how much it would cost him!  That was a rather tough moment, as I didn’t have the per-capita figure easily accessible in my head, but hazarded a guess that so far the cost to each individual of Westchester has been around $4,000. (The National Priorities Project reports that the Iraq War is costing, nationwide: $4,681 per household; $1,721 per person and $341.4 million per day.)


A note-worthy exchange about the cost of the war took place between the boy and his father: the child asked if $3 trillion as that is how much we are giving for the war; his father insisted that no, that is what it costs, which seemed to be intended to reduce any individual responsibility and involvement.  The boy was very bright; we encouraged him to stay in school, pursue his interest in math, and get a good education [hoping that might keep him out of the military!]. 


When it seemed that everyone had left, Nick and I walked back to the Stop and Shop parking lot where we had left our cars.  Standing in front of my car, we were surprised to see the choir member who had talked to us at the church rushing over to us so that he could introduce the man with him, his Lebanese friend who had been on the U.N. weapons inspection team.  As we talked about war, the Lebanese, who appeared to be in his late 50s or early 60s, and teaches at New York University, mentioned that he has been in this country since the 1970’s and that this is the first time he really remembers noticing the national obsession that seems to exist with the presidential role of “commander-in-chief,” speaking to what he sees as a rising national fixation on militarism.