All we are saying is give peace a chance
– John Lennon
Whether war or cooperation is the more dominant trait of humanity is one of the oldest questions in human discourse. There are no satisfying answers for either side exclusively, which seems to suggest the answer is in the eternal nature of the debate itself.
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist. In an op-ed in The New York Times called “Are We Hard-Wired For War?” he tells a powerful story from Cherokee legend. A girl goes to her grandfather and tells him of a dream she had of two wolves viciously fighting. He tells her that her dream represents the “two forces within each of us struggling for supremacy, one embodying peace and the other war.”
But, grandfather, she asks, who wins?
His answer: “The one you feed.”
I’m a Vietnam veteran and have been a member of Veterans For Peace for 28 years. In the 1990s, the organization took up the theme Abolish War!
I could never quite absorb what that meant. I always wanted to know who was going to hold the gun to the heads of the war-mongers of the world? Now, c’mon you guys, just stop that! The idea is still alive in the peace movement, as in the new book by David Swanson called War No More: The Case For Abolition.
I enthusiastically share the sentiments of the Abolish War! movement but doubt its effectiveness. Non-violence, in Gandhi’s sense as a “truth force,” is a powerful political tool to oppose unjust power, but how does anyone abolish war and make it just go away? War, by definition, would seem to trump such good-intentioned legislation. War isn’t something that can be ordered out of existence; it has to be wooed and coaxed into submission by forces working for peace. Fears have to be allayed. Furies have to be soothed.
It seems to me the answer lies in plain sight — in Lennon’s so simple lyric about giving peace a chance. It lies in taking the time to question the necessity to bomb someone. It lies in counting to ten to reflect on unanticipated consequences. It lies in being aware of the demonization process everyone is susceptible to that makes enemies of people who live or worship differently. It lies in granting the other equal human status, by pausing to realize maybe those odd lumps on their heads really aren’t horns — and that maybe they’re even the result of head wounds inflicted by us. It lies in fighting off the insecurity and fear of losing an immense advantage gained from history. It lies in recalling the lessons from Sandbox 101 to share your stuff. It lies in understanding how miraculous life is and how small-minded humans can be. It lies in encouraging humility over arrogance.
Many of us, myself included, have given President Obama a rough time for failing to come up to our hopes as he transitioned from candidate to president in 2009. Like any US president no doubt must succumb to, he’s been corrupted by the office he willfully sought in such a militarized, corporate, imperial culture. It was naive to think it could be otherwise.
By 2010, with a Democratic House and Senate behind him and a number of legislative successes, the right-wing propaganda machine went on the attack. A wonderful example of this propaganda drive is a book by David Freddoso titled Gangster Government: Barack Obama and the New Washington Thugocracy. Obama was employing Chicago-style “gangster” tactics (with a bit of hip-hop black thuggery tossed in) to destroy America. That was Freddoso’s thesis, which went on, blah blah blah, for 250 pages. Republicans won the House of Representatives, and legislation virtually ceased. Now the “gangster government” has been shut down.
Andrew Bacevich is a retired army colonel and historian whose son was killed in Iraq. His analysis of US militarism is moderate but as trenchant as it gets. When asked in 2011 whether he was disappointed in Barack Obama in the foreign policy and militarism realms, he said he was. But he hoped Obama would show a reformist, progressive side in a second term.
With Obama’s decision to forego the bombing of Syria and, then, his choice to make a warm phone call to a western-friendly, reform-minded president of Iran stuck in New York traffic, one has to ask whether Bacevich’s hope could be unfolding. Is President Obama actually feeding the peace-loving wolf? As Lennon pleaded so sincerely, is Obama giving peace a chance?
First off, there’s the militarist right in America all too ready to damn and undermine anything that smacks of giving peace a chance. Then there’s the tragically predictable behavior of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations. Netanyahu‘s political career seems rooted in a security-obsessed instinct to squash any and all peace feelers as if they were bugs. Over in Iran, of course, President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” is fully in the sights of that nation’s right wing militarists. Everywhere, the war-mongers are readying their torpedoes.
The US peace movement has its own torpedoes ready to launch out of its understandable reluctance to accept the idea a President of the United States of America — a nation with much international blood on its hands — is even capable of giving peace a chance. In this view, anything Obama does must be evil.
Last Saturday I was part of a protest at the newly established Horsham Drone Base in Montgomery County outside Philadelphia. I mentioned the drift of this opinion piece to another protester. He immediately expressed disgust at the idea and assured me President Obama was a “sociopath” and beyond hope.
Given I feel Obama’s drone war is immoral and given where I was standing, I had to ask myself: Was I a fraudulent peace activist tossing in the towel after decades of frustration? It was all wrapped up with questions of power and corruption. On one side, there’s absolute moral rectitude, and on the other there’s the power to make good things happen? I really began to wonder whether corruption was a necessary byproduct to getting things done?
In the TV series The Bridge, which deals with police and corruption on both sides of the US-Mexican border, a ruthless Juarez drug gangster gives a Juarez cop one million dollars in cash to pay the ransom for a kidnapped young Mexican woman. North American FBI agents have repeatedly balked at providing the cash. The gangster gives his blood money to save an innocent Mexican’s life because the US agents care more about themselves and nailing their target than they do about the young woman’s life. There are no good guys in such a transaction — only good and bad acts. Everything is gray. And it doesn’t take a black and white photographer like me to appreciate all the many tones of gray that exist between the absolutes of black and white.
Few in the US government, the Iranian government or the Israeli government qualify for moral purity in their respective pursuits of self-serving power. The war parties in all three political cultures are alive and well and loading their torpedoes to shoot down acts that give peace a chance. Calling them “charm campaigns” to diminish them is an act of desperation. The point for peace-loving people is to cut off food to the war wolves and make sure the peace wolves are fat and sassy.
There are no good guys or bad guys here. That’s a childish, entertainment-based way to look at the problem of war and peace; such a dichotomy is one of the necessities for war-making. If the man sitting in the White House — call him a sociopath or a gangster if you like — is ready and willing to feed the peace wolf and give peace a chance, we in the peace movement should encourage him. We don’t have to like him.
Israeli novelist David Grossman is a major voice in this realm of feeding the peace wolf to give peace a chance. Like Bacevich, Grossman also lost a son to war. No one is more eloquent in expressing the paradox and political tragedy that is the modern Israeli condition. It may take a powerful novelist like Grossman to delve into this kind of murky, moral grayness. This is from his book of essays called Writing In The Dark:
“If we do not remind ourselves of the possible faces of peace, if we do not continuously endeavor to imagine it as a realistic option, as an alternative to the existing condition, we will remain with nothing but the desperation caused by war and occupation and terror — the desperation that causes war and occupation and terror.”