avatar
After This War


The war against Iraq, the assault on its people, the occupation of its cities, will come to an end, sooner or later. The process has already begun. The first signs of mutiny are appearing in Congress The first editorials calling from withdrawal from Iraq are beginning to appear in the press. The anti-war movement has been growing, slowly but persistently, all over the country.

Public opinion polls now show the country decisively against the war and the Bush administration. The harsh realities have become visible. The troops will have to come home.

And while we work with increased determination to make this happen, should we not think beyond this war? Should we begin to think, even before this shameful war is over, about ending our addiction to massive violence, and using the enormous wealth of our country for human needs? That is, should we begin to speak about ending war – not just this war or that war – but war itself? Perhaps the time has come to bring an end to war, and turn the human race onto a path of health and healing.

A group of internationally known figures, celebrated both for their talent and their dedication to human rights – Gino Strada, Paul Farmer, Kurt Vonnegut, Nadine Gordimer, Eduardo Galeano and others – will soon launch a world-wide campaign to enlist tens of millions of people in a movement for the renunciation of war, hoping to reach the point where governments, facing popular resistance, will find it difficult or impossible to wage war. It may be an idea whose time has come.

There is a persistent argument against such a possibility, which I have heard from people on all parts of the political spectrum: we will never do away with war because it comes out of human nature. The most compelling counter to that claim is in history: we don’t find people spontaneously rushing to make war on others. What we find instead is that governments must make the most strenuous efforts to mobilize populations for war. They must entice soldiers with promises of money, education, must hold out to young people whose chances in life look very poor that here is an opportunity to attain respect and status. And if those enticements don’t work, governments must use coercion – they must conscript young people, force them into military service, threaten them with prison if they do not comply.

Furthermore, the government must persuade young people and their families that though the soldier may die, though he or she may lose arms or legs, or become blind, that it is all for a noble cause, for God, for country. When you look at the endless series of wars of this century you do not find a public demanding war, but rather resisting it, until they are bombarded with exhortations that appeal, not to a killer instinct, but to a desire to do good, to spread democracy or liberty or overthrow a tyrant.

Woodrow Wilson found a citizenry so reluctant to enter the slaughterhouse of the first World War that in his presidential campaign of 1916 he promised to stay out: “There is such a thing as a nation being too proud to fight.” But after he was elected, he asked for, and received from Congress a declaration of war. The onslaught of patriotic slogans began, laws were passed to imprison dissenters, and the United States joined the slaughter going on in Europe..

In the second World War, there was indeed a strong moral imperative which still resonates among most people in this country and which maintains the reputation of World War II as “the good war”. There was a need to defeat the monstrosity of Fascism. It was that belief that drove me to enlist in the Air Force and fly bombing missions over Europe.

Only after the war did I begin to question the purity of the moral crusade. Dropping bombs from five miles high, I had seen no human beings, heard no screams, seen no children dismembered, But now I had to think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the fire bombings of Tokyo, and Dresden, the deaths of 600,000 civilians in Japan, and a similar number in Germany.

I came to a conclusion about the psychology of myself and other warriors: once we decided, at the start, that our side was the good side and the other side was evil, once we had made that simple and simplistic calculation, we did not have to think any more. Then we could commit unspeakable crimes and it was all right.

I began to think about the motives of the Western powers and Stalinist Russia and wondered if they cared as much about Fascism as about retaining their own empires, their own power, and if that was why they had military priorities higher than bombing the rail lines leading to Auschwitz. Of the six million Jews killed in the death camps (allowed to be killed?) 60,000 were saved by the war – one percent. A gunner on another crew, a reader of history with whom I had become friends, had said to me one day: “You know this is an imperialist war. The Fascists are evil. But our side is not much better.” I could not accept his statement at the time, but it stuck with me.

War, I decided, creates, insidiously, a common morality for all sides. . It poisons everyone who is engaged in it, however different they are in many ways, turns them into killers and torturers, as we are seeing now. It pretends to be concerned with toppling tyrants, and may in fact do so, but the people it kills are the victims of the tyrants. It appears to cleanse the world of evil, but that does not last, because its very nature spawns more evil. War, like violence in general, I concluded, is a drug. It gives a quick high, the thrill of victory, but that wears off and then comes despair.

Whatever can be said about World War II, understanding its complexity, the situations that followed – Korea, Vietnam – were so far from the kind of threat that Germany and Japan had posed to the world that those wars could only be justified by drawing on the glow of “the good war.” A hysteria about Communism led to McCarthyism at home and military interventions in Asia and Latin America – overt and covert – justified by a “Soviet threat” which was exaggerated just enough to mobilize the people for war.

Vietnam however, proved to be a sobering experience, in which the American public, over a period of several years, began to see through the lies that had been told to justify all that bloodshed. The United States was forced to withdraw from Vietnam, and the world didn’t come to an end. One half of one tiny country in Southeast Asia was now joined to its Communist other half, and 58,000 American lives and millions of Vietnamese lives had been expended to prevent that. A majority of Americans had come to oppose that war, which had provoked the largest anti-war movement in the nations’ history. The war in Vietnam ended with a public fed up with war. I believe that the American people, once the fog of propaganda had dissipated, had come back to a more natural state. Public opinion polls showed that people in the United States were opposed to send troops anywhere in the world, for any reason. The Establishment was alarmed. The government set out deliberately to overcome what it called “the Vietnam syndrome”. Opposition to military interventions abroad was a sickness, to be cured. And so they would wean the American public away from its unhealthy attitude, by tighter control of information, by avoiding a draft, and by engaging in short, swift wars over weak opponents (Grenada, Panama, Iraq) not giving the public time to develop an anti-war movement.

I would argue that the end of the Vietnam war enabled the people of the United States to shake the “war syndrome”, a disease not natural to the human body. They could be infected once again, and September 11 gave the government that opportunity. Terrorism became the justification for war. Terrorism remains a frightening phenomenon all over the world. But war cannot stop terrorism, because war is itself terrorism, breeding rage and hate, as we are seeing now. War is a substitute for getting at the roots of terrorism, and the United States has turned to it, because to deal with fundamentals rather than symptoms would require radical changes in policy.

The war in Iraq has exposed the hypocrisy of the “war on terrorism”. I don’t believe that our government will be able to do once more what it did, after Vietnam — prepare the population for still another plunge into violence and dishonor. It seems to me that when the war in Iraq ends, and the war syndrome healed, that there will be a great opportunity to make that healing permanent, My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can also understand.

We may be on the verge of a world-wide understanding, that war, defined as the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people (acknowledging the possibility of humanitarian intervention to prevent atrocities) can no longer be accepted, for whatever reason, because the technology of war has reached the point where inevitably, 90% of its victims are civilians, and many of those are children, so that any war, whatever words are used to justify it, is a war against children.

The government of the United States, indeed governments everywhere, are becoming exposed as untrustworthy, that is, not to be entrusted with the safety of human beings, or the safety of the planet, or the guarding of its air, its water, its natural wealth, or the curing of the poverty, the sickness, the alarming growth of natural disasters that plague so many of the six billion people on earth.

True, it is the governments that have the power, that monopolize the wealth, that control the information. But this power, overwhelming as it can be, is also fragile. It depends on the subservience, the obedience of the people. When that obedience is withdrawn the most powerful entities, armed governments, wealthy corporations, cannot carry on their wars or their business. Strikes, boycotts, non-cooperation can make the most arrogant of institutions helpless.

The most powerful government on earth, the United States, had to withdraw from Vietnam when it could no longer count on the loyalty of its military or the support of its citizens. There is a power greater than guns and wealth. Occasionally, in history, it has come into view to stop wars, to overthrow tyrannies. Perhaps the time has come to bring an end to war, and turn the human race onto a path of health and healing.

I have quoted Einstein, who, reacting to attempts to “humanize” the rules of war, said: “War cannot be humanized, it can only be abolished.” Powerful truths must be reiterated, until they fasten ineradicably in our minds, until the words spread to others, until they become a mantra repeated all over the world, until the sound of those words become deafening, until they finally drown out the noise of guns, rockets, planes.

Leave a comment