Where have all the soldiers gone? Long time ago…
Where have all the soldiers gone? Gone to graveyards everyone…
When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn? (Pete Seeger, 1961)
Much of the world paused on June 6 to honor the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The eulogies offered by national leaders, soldiers and common people touched my heart but troubled my mind. While that day in June 1944 was a prelude to a great victory for the Allied Forces in World War II––and those who fought there deserve our gratitude––celebrating war as a solution to global strife is certain to lead to more war.
Today’s news tells of continuing warfare across the globe, despite the proven futility of trying to bring peace through bombs and guns. Iraq is proving to be the prime example. The United States invested around two trillion dollars and the lives of 4,400 Americans and more than 100,000 Iraqis in a war that was supposed to bring peace to the Middle East. Yet the war rages on as Sunni militias attack Shiite strongholds. All of the money spent and all of the lives given have gone to the same graveyards that hold war dead from across the centuries.
The political response is to seek blame for failure, with the president’s decision to wind down the Iraq war being attacked as the cause for today’s violence in that country. But the failure is not in losing the war; it is in the belief that war is a solution. British commentator and author H.G. Wells thought that it was a solution when he wrote World War I would be “the war to end war.” It wasn’t.
The renewed cry for the United States to reenter the conflict in Iraq took my mind back to the Tyne Cot Cemetery in Flanders, the final resting place for the tens of thousands of men who were killed in the battle of Passchendaele in 1917. I visited this sight during my 2010 international trip and posted the following reflection to peoplesvisionusa.com.
This World War I battle raged between the British and the Germans for 100 days, and when it ended British soldiers had moved forward less than five miles… all of which was later reclaimed by the Germans. Between the two sides, 500,000 soldiers lay dead or injured. More than 140,000 Allied soldiers were killed, reflecting a gain of mere inches for each life lost.
I learned a lot during my travels around the world, and one lesson is burned indelibly into my consciousness: war is senseless. It was senseless in 1914 when the world stumbled into combat after the Serbian Kingdom’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. It is senseless today.
It is relatively easy to whip up war fever among the populace— as they did in Austria, Russia, France, England, and Germany in 1914— playing on both fear and false patriotism. It is much more difficult to put national pride and politics aside in the interest of peace and seek common ground with those whose world view is different from ours.
But that is what we must do: respect cultural differences and seek common ground rather than trying to turn every adversary into a little America. As I walked among the 12,000 graves at Tyne Cot Cemetery I felt a solemn awe, and wondered at the absurdity of thinking that long-term peace can come from killing and being killed. There are 35,000 names inscribed on Tyne Cot’s Memorial to the Missing. I don’t want my grandchildren, or anybody’s children and grandchildren to be names on a memorial wall.
The world is too small for violence, and it is time for this generation to say: “No more!”
It is time to take the risk of being peacemakers rather than warmongers. It is time to recognize that military might does not guarantee peace. If it did, America would not have been at war off and on during my entire life… from World War II through Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Iraq again, Afghanistan, and assorted other skirmishes across the globe.
As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Perhaps, Benjamin Franklin was more to the point: “The definition of insanity is doing over and over again things that can kill you.”
(This was originally posted for Memorial Day 2010)
Many men of my generation pause during the last weekend in May to remember our Viet Nam-era friends and colleagues who lost their lives in the war of our youth. My memory today and every Memorial Day is of my friend Jim Masters, an intelligence officer in the Navy who died when his plane was shot down near De Nang.
Jim and I reported for duty at the Atsugi Naval Air Station in Japan on the same day in December of 1967. He was married but his wife Becky wouldn’t arrive for a few weeks, and my quarters would not be vacant for a couple of months, so we were assigned temporary accommodations in adjoining rooms. We became good friends as we explored the surrounding community together, a friendship that continued after Becky arrived and they moved into married housing. Jim’s squadron alternated between the war zone and our base in Japan, while I was safely ensconced as a member of the air station’s staff. Jim was killed in 1970, shortly after I left the Navy.
In those days I was a 24-year old militarist, believing that America’s war-making power was the world’s only guarantor of peace. While I now believe that there are no winners in war, I continue to hold a deep respect for the military men and women who put their lives on the line each day. I understand the necessity of maintaining a strong military, even while deploring the necessity of its use.
The following is a quotation from a Franklin Roosevelt speech at Arlington Cemetery in November of 1941 to commemorate those who died in World War I. His words, which were delivered two years before my birth, speak to me today.
“We are able today as we were not always able in the past to measure our indebtedness to those who died. A few years ago, even a few months, we questioned, some of us, the sacrifice they had made…. We know now why these men fought to keep our freedom— and why wars that save a people’s liberties are wars worth fighting and winning…
“They did not fight and die to make the world safe for decency and self-respect for five years or ten or maybe twenty. They died to make it safe. And if, by some fault of ours who lived beyond the war, its safety has again been threatened, then the obligation and duty are ours…
“It is our charge now to see to it that the dead shall not have died in vain…this duty we owe, not to ourselves alone, but to the many dead who died to gain our freedom for us and to make the world a place where freedom can live and grow into the ages.”
I eventually came to see the Viet Nam war as wrongheaded, and I opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq from the beginning. It is my belief that war is almost never a solution, but in the face of violent threats and inherent evil it is sometimes necessary. And while I question the legitimacy and necessity of the two wars that we are now fighting, I do not doubt for a minute that our men and women in uniform are there because they believe fervently that they are fighting for the cause of freedom for their country and for the world. I have always, and always will, honor their bravery, commitment and service.
So today, in memory of Jim Masters, I say a prayer for all those who have served and died for what they believed. And, to borrow from President Roosevelt, it is our charge now to see to it that they didn’t die in vain. Violence as a solution to international differences will not go away because we wish it to, just as it won’t go away because we confront it with violence. And it will not go away because those of us seeking a different path march with protest signs.
Instead of spending our energy and passion on opposing war by marching in the streets, let’s turn our attention to those ingredients that lead to war: poverty, lack of education, hopelessness. Then let’s fight the political fight to ensure that all people in the world have access to adequate food and shelter, decent medical care, a high quality education, and opportunities to earn a living wage. Only then will we adequately honor the lives of those who have served the cause of freedom.
I am one of those strange people who is infused with energy simply by the act of traveling. I enjoy airplanes and airports and my campervan. I enjoy sitting in parks and watching and meeting people. I enjoy conversations with strangers in coffee houses and pubs.
I enjoy walking the streets of cities with my eyes open and my ears tuned in so that I can soak up the sights and sounds of new places. I enjoy surprises and spontaneity, wandering and exploring.
I particularly treasure traveling with my grandchildren and watching them experience places, people, sounds, sights, smells and food that are entirely new to them. They seem to quickly migrate from apprehensive observation to eager engagement.
An enduring memory from last summer is of watching my son-in-law Rich play cricket with his boys in Hyde Park, and my daughter paddle boating with them in Regent Park while we sipped wine in the Boat House Café.
I have had the joy of watching my granddaughter Hunter dance with tribesmen and women in Kenya, and greet children in the Nairobi slum of Kibera and at an orphanage in the Rift Valley.
I was with her when she grieved over a sick baby seal in the Galapagos, measured herself against a giant turtle, and drank icy-cold coconut milk from a straw stuck through the shell while we sat in the shade on a Galapagos island. While she enjoyed her coconut and I sipped a beer we watched an amazing show put on by acrobatic birds as they dived, tumbled and climbed in unison over the water’s edge.
I was with her when she sampled a thick orange soup in Quito, Ecuador, sat on an Inca-era rock wall at the base of Ecuador’s Cotopaxi Volcano, and when she quizzed a ranger about the formation of a new volcanic island in Hawaii’s Volcano National Park. I snapped her picture when she posed like a fashion model in Paris, and watched her enjoy food that is foreign to her in the five countries we have visited together.
Later this week my grandsons will join me, my wife Kennon and daughter Suzanne in San Francisco for a run in the Bay to Breakers and time to explore the city I cherish. We will also journey down to San Luis Obispo and work our way back up the coast through Big Sur.
Later this summer grandson Smith and I will do a campervan trip across the USA to take in baseball games, and in late fall Kennon and I will be in Australia and New Zealand. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, my destination doesn’t matter to me as much as engaging the journey, particularly when I can do it with the people I love.
Marco Rubio is a United States Senator from Florida. He is a Republican who demonstrated independent courage by helping push a comprehensive immigration bill through the Senate— but later backtracked when it became apparent that the conservative wing of his party was unhappy with his statesmanship.
He expanded his backsliding in an interview with ABC’s This Week by denying that human activity is a cause of climate change. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, Rubio played to the anti-science crowd of his party when he said “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes in our climate the way these scientists are portraying it…I do not believe that the laws they propose we pass will do anything about it except destroy our economy.”
Scientific and economic evidence to the contrary, human-caused global warming may be up for debate in his right-wing circles. But one thing is not debatable: Climate change is already having a profound effect on Rubio’s constituents. Some of “these scientists” he refers to issued a National Climate Assessment through the White House last week.
A nugget of information from the report that ought to interest the senator from Florida is the assessment that his state is one of the most vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased storm intensity. Is that merely liberal nonsense from pointy-headed academics? Read what a Florida small businessman had to say last week in a New York Times story about rising tides in Miami:
“The sunny-day flooding was happening again. During high tide one recent afternoon Eliseo Toussaint looked out the window of his Alton Road laundromat and watched bottle-green seawater seep from the gutters, fill the street and block the entrance to his front door.” Toussaint said that he had done business in the same location for eight years and that this flooding “never used to happen…and now it is all the time.”
On a different environmental front, the Senate scuttled a bi-partisan bill that would have encouraged increased energy efficiency in federal buildings. Why? The bill did not include Republican amendments to push forward the Keystone Pipeline, nor did it include an amendment to limit President Obama’s ability to issue new environmental regulations unless he first received congressional approval. What is the motivation for refusing to enact legislation to combat climate change, and for attacking an overwhelming scientific consensus, even in the face of events that prove the scientists’ case?
My gut tells me it is the millions of dollars invested by large polluters like Koch Industries to oppose any attempts to regulate the waste they spew into our sky, land and water. For more on this point see my previous article on the politics of climate change. Let me know if you have a different opinion.