"Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning"--Wilfrid Owen
"War is one of the most evil things to which we sacrificed ourselves"--Franz Marc
"If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children"--Mohandas Gandhi
Today a public park in Allen features the "moving wall", a half-sized replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall which travels from place to place. It's manned twenty four hours a day,with docents and computer information. I approve of this memorial, to neglected veterans of a grisly, sad war. I am thankful for those who served.
This week I heard from a distant friend who survived his latest service in a Marine battalion with only mild scathing. I am glad he came home safely. I look at a globe wracked with wars and rumours of war. I do not believe in the "end times" theology so popular here in Texas, that these are signs of the imminent return of the Messiah. My reading of history notes that wars and rumours of war have flourished since Christ's first time here on earth, and that literal interpretations of these events tends to sell more paperbacks than reveal any truths.
I recognize that each nation's own soldiers do what that nation calls upon those soldiers to do, and I have little use for people in this country who revile rank and file soldiers for the inability of societies to avoid conflict. But as I sit on this serene, rainy Sunday on the day before Memorial Day, I realize that I live in a time before the barbarism of war will be conquered.
It's been apparent in this country since the American Civil War, and in Europe since the First World War, that technology essentially renders war incompatible with civilization. Half a dozen countries possess the ability to annihilate large portions of the globe within weeks. War ceases to be feasible as a solution to problems when one misguided country can ruin a world. But the past few years teach us that war continues unabated, in bull-market fashion.
The First World War generated artists, philosophers, poets, theologians and scientists who were all convinced that a society which produced such horror needed to be re-invented from the ground upward. Unfortunately, within thirty years another major world war, fueled by madness and nationalism, required an even larger war effort to quell.
I view this as an essentially primitive, pre-transformed moment in history. This civilization sees the possibility for a society no longer built upon the stress and conflict of the past. Instead, a society built on an effective democratic order without war intellectually should be within reach. But instead of moving to this just, non-violent society, we seem to be moving away. Reactionary forces, both in this country and abroad, resist peace with a fervor that seems almost supernaturally inspired.
I think it's facile and easy to just say "well, Mr. Bush did this" or "Islamic wahab fundamentalists did that". The end of the Cold War taught me that the conflicts which divide people do not depend on one particular set of political paradigms. As soon as the battle between old-style Marxism and capitalism ended, new conflicts based on ethnicity and an eastern/western clash erupted. I was personally grimly dismayed (indeed, almost amused, with dark, despairing humour) when one of the chief ways in which many citizens of the former eastern bloc states used their new rights to speak more freely was to speak more freely in anti-Semitic and other ethnically divisive statements. I never thought I'd see the day when Marshall Tito's grim Yugoslavia seemed a better alternative than much of what resulted next.
Now we speak of weapons of mass destruction--the poison gas which killed so many in World War One, the nuclear weapon dropped on Nagasaki with which the USA killed roughly 22,000 civilians, or the nuclear weapon dropped on Hiroshima, which killed roughly 45,000 civilians. Many more died in the years which followed from radiation effects. But the real weapon of mass destruction, it seems to me, lies within people.
In such dangerous, futile times, it's tempting to just give up on people. It seems to obvious how wrong-headed and useless they can be, and how far from peace society drifts. I'm quite impressed, however, with the writings of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian, who was imprisoned by the Nazis for his active resistance to the Hitler regime. From prison, in the time before he was executed, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters which try to make sense of the senselessness all about. One thing he wrote cautioned against having contempt for people:
"The one who despises another will never be able to make anything of the other. Nothing that we despise in the other is entirely absent from ourselves…We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others…is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God did not despise humanity, but became human for our sake".
During the Iraq war I was heartened that some who opposed the war fell "outside the lines" of the traditional "peace activist". Previously, peace seemed to have almost a fashion statement quality for a few of its practitioners, at least to my inferior,jaundiced eye. Peace depends on converting people, not merely picketing them. As this country sits almost evenly divided on so many issues, I think that the drive away from war and violence must begin in unity.
I'm not an absolute pacifist. I don't live in a mindset that suggests to me that non-violent responses to hostile acts always work. But I do think that finding peace of one of the great quests left open to our times. A younger Bonhoeffer said in a speech in 1934:
"How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in different countries? Through the big banks, through money? Or through universal peaceful rearmament in order to guarantee peace? Through none of these, for the single reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war…".
In the three decades before World War One, thinkers of virtually every stripe began to realize that the world had the possibility of achieving a maturity which would transcend the violent, difficult problems it had faced in prior centuries. They optimistically believed that war's time had passed. When the First World War began, a few on each side even believed that it was the last great convulsion that would clear up society's flaws. But those dreams all died, among the 300,000 men killed at Verdun, and the fierce battles in little European towns, in Passchendaele, in Ypres, and continuing throughout France and Belgium right on up through the death of my favorite poet, Wilfrid Owen, a week before Armistice in 1918.
I believe that those who serve in our armed forces should be lauded and remembered. I'll spend part of tomorrow thinking about people who served in roles I never wished to take on. But I also want to remember those who fight for an end to war. I think my own adult generation proved in the past decade that it is fettered by war, as surely as Jacob Marley wore chains of greed and miserliness. I hope that the generation who are now children do not fall into the inheritance we embraced so tightly.
A German army chaplain called Paul Tillich, later to be known as a modern theologian, wrote from the battlefield that he had:
"constantly the most immediate and very strong feeling that I am no longer alive. Therefore I don't take life seriously. To find someone, to become joyful, to recognize God, all these things are things of life. But life itself is not dependable ground. It isn't only that I might die any day, but rather that everyone dies, really dies, you too,--and then the suffering of mankind... not that I have childish fantasies of the death of the world, but rather that I am experiencing the actual death of this our time".
I think that this confrontation with the problem of what life means in the face of such things is a very difficult problem. I believe that the solution to this problem requires reactions other than the return to "traditional" ways preached by those at home and abroad. Tradition killed 300,000 at Verdun. Valor and honor killed 23,000 at Antietam. Despite modern agricultural and food distributions, 1 million people died in the mid 1980s in Ethiopia of simple starvation.
I freely confess to starry-eyed optimism. I believe that in the future people will ascend to heights I only dream about today. But I believe that the only way this will happen is after people everywhere are treated with compassion and dignity, and when the scourges of war, poverty and disease are obliterated. I don't believe in formulaic solutions for how this will occur, as I've read my history about the error of systems. I instead believe in individual effort to make it so.
In the disintegration of Europe during the Dark Ages, monasteries arose to preserve and protect things worth saving until a more enlightened age could arrive. I wonder if this is not a quest worth undertaking--to remember the good, and work to preserve it, until a better time comes. So I remember, today and tomorrow, but I also wish to renew my pledge--I want to remember what is beautiful and just and true, and I want to preserve what I can.