Wednesday, January 29, 2003

What To Do When the War Starts

War may be imminent, it may be delayed, but war is probably coming. If it does not, the growing global peace movement and demonstrations can rightly take the credit. But assuming it does, what then?

For however long it lasts, many people---and all politicians--- will feel that protest must quiet, in deference to the soldiers who are endangering their lives. As a practical matter, protestors risk seeing their message subsumed in a debate over the seemliness as well as the patriotic duty involved in protesting at such a moment.

Of course, if the war goes on for years as Vietnam did, the taboo weakens, though the emotions involved don't.

Apart from protest, there is much that those who oppose this war can do, and should do. Here are a few of my suggestions:

1. Pressure the press to report fully and accurately. The media will be under intense pressure to say what the Pentagon wants them to say. They've gotten fat and lazy with their inbred cynicism and their chirpy personae, and there seem to be fewer correspondents with journalism training, at least in the era that differentiated between reporting news and making commercials. Getting the real news will be hard, since the Pentagon will try to stop them. They will need relentless badgering and counterpressure to even get motivated.

Don't let them off the hook for a minute. They are acutely sensitive to viewer feedback, so get on their case relentlessly. It's your patriotic duty to have the truth, because we actually do care about the welfare of our soldiers, both in what they'll be facing and what damage it does to them for the rest of their lives.

2. Actively support organizations and efforts dedicated to mitigating the suffering of Iraq's people, particularly the children. Millions have already suffered and died because of sanctions. A report by the International Study Team, an organization comprised of academics, researchers and physicians, warns that thousands if not hundreds of thousands of children will be among a war's casualties.

Half a million children in Iraq are malnourished now. Efforts must be made to ensure that supply lines of food and medicines are established and maintained, and that refugees are supplied. The outlook is especially grim because, according to a doctor on the team, "No one is ready for this war. Not the national government [of Iraq], not the United Nations."

3. Pay close attention to the weapons used in this war and make your feelings known about the bombing of civilians and the use of depleted uranium in munitions such as shells, which as called DU weapons. This is low-level nuclear waste used to both pierce armor when used to tip bullets, and to shield against bullets when used in tank or bunker armor.

DU weapons create a burning radioactive cloud. The radioactivity of these weapons stays in the environment for 4.5 billion years. It's likely that DU weapons used in the last Iraq war is among the factors responsible for the marked increase in cancers there, including among children. The U.S. has done the usual Gulf War dance, promoting flawed studies as proof there's no link. American soldiers were also affected, and they will be again.

Summarizing the rationale for using them, a defense analyst said, "This is war, and a destroyed enemy tank is less dangerous than one that's shooting at you, regardless of whatever residual effects DU may have."

That's the logic of war, all right. Someone has to assert the logic of life. That someone is you.

At least some of us who protested in the Vietnam era learned what supporting our boys, our fighting men, really means. I wasn't very charitable towards my contemporaries who voluntarily went to Vietnam to fight, and I thought I had little in common with the veterans who came back. Until one day when I was hitchhiking on an interstate highway near an exit. Down the road I saw a soldier in uniform who was also hitching. I saw him see me, and he walked briskly toward me. I had long hair and was carrying a guitar case. I wasn't expecting this meeting to be friendly. But it was. He was happy to see me. He wanted to tell somebody, "You guys were right."

After 1969 or so, about the time that John Kerry returned from Vietnam to lead Vietnam Veterans Against the War, that kind of encounter was the norm, though it hadn't been before. But the fact that some veterans realized they'd been had is not what I learned. That was just the ice-breaker. I remember watching in horror the kind of treatment wounded vets were getting in veterans hospitals, as depicted in the movie, Fourth of July. I couldn't believe that the people who sent them over there would treat them like that when they came back. But that's the history of war. It happens just about every time.

The Vietnam vets had it the worst. But even the Gulf War vets who came back to official honors, were ignored when they started getting sick.

It's the message of every war poem, novel or film worth the name: the people who pay the price for war are the soldiers. Thanks to the unspeakable immorality of bombing civilian populations, wars of our age have many other victims, almost none of whom have much of a say in the decisions to go to war.

If we want to support our brothers and sons, our grandsons and now granddaughters, we must go to war in our own way, and fight for their health and well-being. If we can't stop the war, we can do our best to help the victims: soldiers on both sides, and the people and the children in harm's way.

A Different Agenda
Last fall, the press and politicians as well as scholars paid considerable attention to the 30th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. We'll see whether they will all take equal note this summer and fall of the 30th anniversary of the chief outcome of that crisis (apart from the continuing presence of human civilizations): the nuclear test ban treaty and the beginning of d├ętente.

President Kennedy had begun pushing for such a treaty some six months before the missiles of October. The immediate focus was ending nuclear bomb tests in the atmosphere, and to encourage the Soviets to stop, Kennedy imposed a unilateral ban on such tests by the U.S. Eventually, not quite a year after the Cuban crisis, the two superpowers took this step.

Kennedy probably selected this step because the U.S. military could be convinced that the ban hurt the Soviets more than America (U.S. technology was suited to underground tests) and because the harm caused by fallout in the atmosphere was a present danger and easy to dramatize. Still, it wasn't an easy sell in the midst of the Cold War.

But clearly Kennedy considered it only a step. In one of his most important (and most ignored) speeches, at American University in June 1963 he made the definitive statement on the subject of peace of his generation.

He asked that we examine our attitude toward peace itself. "Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable, that mankind is doomed, that we are gripped by forces we cannot control."

And in the sentence that sums up Kennedy's core belief better than any other, he asserted: "Our problems are man-made; therefore they can be solved by man."

Kennedy asked for perspective. He called for nations to submit "their disputes to just and peaceful settlement. And history teaches us that enmities between nations do not last forever. However fixed our likes and dislikes may seem, the tide of time and events will often bring surprising changes in the relations between nations and neighbors."

Think of how the world has changed since 1963, particularly the relationship of the U.S. and the Soviet Union: Russia is almost an ally, while other nations in the former Soviet bloc are among the staunchest supporters of the U.S. now.

"So let us persevere," Kennedy said, in something of a reference to his own Inaugural call to action of "Let us begin."
"Peace need not be impracticable, and war need not be inevitable."

But the key statement in this speech for our time, for all time, is this: "There is no single, simple key to this peace, no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process, a way of solving problems."

At a time when we are openly urged to wage war as an instrument of foreign policy, and covertly told it will be to our economic benefit (eight times the current yield of oil from Iraq), it is well to remember that it was once a political judgment of what is best for the American future as well as the moral statement by a President of the United States, that peace, not war, is a way of solving problems.

Peace is a process. It is a matter of choice. It is a hard, sometimes painful commitment. It requires effort, attention and self-knowledge. Marching for peace when war is threatened is a political necessity and part of the process. But marching and protesting alone are not enough.

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