My favorite song. I was eight years old when it was released. It seemed to say something important to me. It still does.
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
Many complicated explanations have been given and will continue to be given for the depth of the grief that people all over the world have felt at the death of John Lennon, but one explanation may be quite simple. Beyond Lennon’s great gifts as a composer, poet, and performer, beyond, and in spite of, his unparalleled and burdensome celebrity, he remained truly a man of the spirit – this humorous and friendly man who held on to his humanity against awesome odds, and who did not lecture us but, rather, spoke to us quietly, and in ways that we all understood. In what he said directly, in what he said in his very beautiful songs, and in the way he tried to live his far too brief life, the message that came through – and how rarely we hear such a message – was: Be peaceful, be loving, be gentle.
Photo: Yoko Ono and John Lennon, Bed-In for Peace, Amsterdam, 1969
Music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney (1967)
Performed on guitar by Göran Söllscher
Here, There and Everywhere – Göran Söllscher Plays the Beatles (1995)