The children cried: ‘Mummy!’
‘I have been good!’
‘Why is it dark! Dark!’
You can see them
you can see the marks
of small feet here and there
Their pockets full
of string and pebbles
and little horses made of wire
The great plain closed
like a geometric figure
one tree of black smoke
a dead tree
starless its crown
Massacre of the innocents
If we have the same tastes and like the same things, surely we are bound to get along. But what will happen when we share the same desires?
Photo by Andrew Testa: Bloody footprints in the snow, Kosovo, 1999
His voice had strengthened. He tipped his chin up, facing these inquisitors. We like, it occurred to me, being challenged. That little adrenal rush washes away a lot of problematics and puts our life on the line, where it wants to be. Better see red than be dead. We like a fight because it shoves aside doubt.
Americans need to remember that war is the worst thing in the world. War is hell. War is this blood-spattered little girl screaming because her parents have just been shot dead by mistake at a checkpoint. War represents the complete defeat of the human spirit. Wars must never be fought unless absolutely necessary. Never. Never.
We need to remember this. For America’s wars have become weightless. They are fought by other people’s children, or by mercenaries, or by functionaries sitting inside mountains pushing buttons that launch missiles. They are no longer real. The way the Iraq War is ending, not with a bang but a barely audible whimper, is the way we make war now. The line between war and peace has disappeared. We are in a permanent state of quasi-war.
This is spiritually deadening. It is also dangerous. The unbearable lightness of war allows ideologues and fools to kill casually in our national name, without anyone paying attention. Since Iraq never happened, another Iraq is possible. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Photo by Chris Hondros (1970-2011): TAL AFAR, IRAQ – JANUARY 18, 2005: An Iraqi girl screams after her parents were killed when U.S. Soldiers with the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division out of Ft. Lewis, Washington, fired on their car when it failed to stop and came toward soldiers, despite warning shots, during a dusk patrol January 18, 2005 in Tal Afar, Iraq. The car held an Iraqi family of which the mother and father were killed. According to the U.S. Army, six children in the in the car survived, one with a non-life threatening flesh wound. U.S. military said they are is investigating the incident.
In March 1944, with thousands of Jews still living who were not destined to survive, the War Resisters League published an updated demand that the Allies call a peace conference, stipulating Jewish deliverance. “The fortunes of war have turned, and with them the responsibility for war. The guilt is upon our heads until we offer our enemies an honorable alternative to bitter-end slaughter. Are we fighting for mere victory, or, as enlightened adults, for humanity and civilization?”
We were fighting, it seems, for mere victory. So the Holocaust continued, and the firebombing continued: two parallel, incommensurable, war-born leviathans of pointless malice that fed each other and could each have been stopped long before they were. The mills of God ground the cities of Europe to powder – very slowly – and then the top Nazis chewed their cyanide pills or were executed at Nuremberg. Sixty million people died all over the world so that Hitler, Himmler, and Goering could commit suicide? How utterly ridiculous and tragic.
At a Jewish Peace Fellowship meeting in Cincinnati some years after the war, Rabbi Cronbach was asked how any pacifist could justify opposition to World War II. “War was the sustenance of Hitler,” Cronbach answered. “When the Allies began killing Germans, Hitler threatened that, for every German slain, ten Jews would be slain, and that threat was carried out. We in America are not without some responsibility for that Jewish catastrophe.”
If we don’t take seriously pacifists like Cronbach, Hughan, Kaufman, Day, and Brittain – these people who thought as earnestly about wars and their consequences as did politicians or generals or think-tankers – we’ll be forever suspended in a kind of immobilizing sticky goo of euphemism and self-deception. We’ll talk about intervention and preemption and no-fly zones, and we’ll steer drones around distant countries on murder sorties. We’ll arm the world with weaponry, and every so often we’ll feel justified in taxiing out a few of our stealth airplanes from their air-conditioned hangars and dropping some expensive bombs. Iran? Pakistan? North Korea? What if we “crater the airports,” as Senator Kerry suggested, to slow down Qaddafi ? As I write, the United States has begun a new war against Libya, dropping more things on people’s heads in the name of humanitarian intervention.
When are we going to grasp the essential truth? War never works. It never has worked. It makes everything worse. Wars must be, as Jessie Hughan wrote in 1944, renounced, rejected, declared against, over and over, “as an ineffective and inhuman means to any end, however just.” That, I would suggest, is the lesson that the pacifists of the Second World War have to teach us.
Why I’m a Pacificst: The Dangerous Myth of the Good War
Harper’s Magazine, May 2011
Music: Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Written by John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1971)
Performed by John & Yoko/the Plastic Ono Band with the Harlem Community Choir
Power to the People – The Hits
Related: The Trouble with Religion