“Made Love, Got War” is the title of Norman Solomon’s latest book, an autobiographical account of the peace and disarmament movements in the United States over the past half century. Better than his other books, I think, this one achieves the level of artistic composition found in Solomon’s brilliant and frequent columns on the media, war, and peace. But the value of “Made Love, Not War” lies in the lessons it provides for current and future activism, the accounts of pitfalls and seductive detours encountered in the past, the insights gained, and the analysis of how one can push on without hope or optimism or the desire for them, all as told by one of the most morally decent people we are privileged to live alongside today.
“I was born in 1931,” Daniel Ellsberg writes in the foreword, “and my generation had to reorient itself to the unprecedented threat of planetary nuclear suicide-murder. Norman Solomon was born twenty years later, and his generation has never lived under any other circumstance.” Yes, but few in that generation have remained constantly aware of the fact and devoted to changing it. Human beings have always been able to put the fact of their fast approaching personal demise out of their minds, often aided by the pretense of an “afterlife.” Solomon’s and later generations have usually managed to put the possibility of our collective nuclear end out of our thoughts, often aided by the pretenses of the news and entertainment industry.
Solomon has refused his entire life to forget that we are dangerously close to nuclear oblivion, and wishing others would also stop forgetting, he inevitably became something that most peace activists do not: a media critic. In a section toward the end of the book dated July 7, 2006, Solomon writes:
“Today is my fifty-fifth birthday, and the feeling that despite all the changes so little has changed really torments me. Turn on a television and there’s the president, giving hypocrisy a bad name, and this is normal. Always has been in my lifetime. Turn on the TV when I was fifteen and there’s the president, some kind of perverse fount of lies. That was when I started to get it and not get over it. If I’d been born ten years earlier, it would have started with Ike instead of LBJ.”
Or it could have started earlier, with Truman. “[F]rom one president to another,” Solomon writes, “one commander in chief to another: . . . they’ve all been ready to demolish us in an instant. That fact, alone, from Harry S Truman to George W. Bush and whoever comes next, is so ghastly that we can’t really look at it . . . .”
Solomon’s recent book “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” which has also been made into a movie, documents the similar lies all recent presidents have told about wars. This new book touches on that theme, with Truman (discussed by Ellsberg) pretending Hiroshima was a military base, Kennedy pretending the Soviet Union had more missiles, Johnson pretending he was for peace and restraint, and so forth. But here we learn not just what Solomon thinks of these lies today, but what he thought of Kennedy as a young man growing up in the suburbs, what he thought of Johnson as a teenager in full rebellion, and how he viewed the world as an activist through turbulent decades.
Solomon’s early sins read more like the confessions of St. Augustine than the confessions of an economic hit man. He failed to fully appreciate the racism of his society or the horrors of war by the time he was 17. If that were the worst anyone had done in life, we would have utopia now. From the time Solomon was 17, he was on the path to try to better the world. The story he tells is of his own activism but also of trends in the movement. One point of frustration is reached around 1970, with unsuccessful saviors of the world beginning to advocate self-absorbed dedication to personal liberation rather than structural political change. “The idea that ‘consciousness’ – or, for that matter, culture – can fundamentally change as swiftly as hats,” Solomon writes, “was to cause enormous confusion, shallow posturing, and bitter disappointment in the 1970s and beyond.” Later, Solomon describes the efforts of various people in 2006 to save the world by growing organic crops.
In the meantime, the Vietnam war was being declared officially on the way out. Air strikes were replacing ground fighting, meaning fewer U.S. casualties, but more Vietnamese. And a pundit, whom Solomon quotes, commented: “The American majority is against the war. To oppose it involves no risk: the only risk is in trying to stop it.” The summer of 2007 has witnessed endless “anti-war” rallies outside the offices of Republican congress members, and TV advertisements to the same effect have funneled progressive dollars into the media war machine. No similarly funded effort has urged the Democratic leadership to actually end the occupation.
“Despite all the changes, so little has changed.”
Solomon quotes James Baldwin: “They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
Solomon quotes these lines approvingly, but his goal is not just to make us aware of what the U.S. military state is doing, but to stop it. He offers no hope that we can, instead arguing that the demand that we be ever optimistic is another assumption imposed on us by the media, and something we can get along without. That may be, but clearly optimism breeds activism which in turn increases both the grounds for optimism and the likelihood of success. The fact that Solomon has done what he’s done, seen what he’s seen, and continues to insist on sanity and disarmament, should provide us at least with inspiration. That’s a good enough substitute for optimism in my mind, so who am I to say it won’t do for others as well?