I’ve been struggling with the question of war once again in response to The Game of War, a recent post on the Writer’s Treehut blog. Then this morning I found Ain’t Gonna Study War No More in my email, sent by a friend in memory of Pete Seeger who died two days ago. I’ve been listening to folk songs from the 60’s and 70’s all day.
I was not prepared for the depth of feeling aroused by a return to this time in my life. I remembered again how strongly I felt about war, about racial discrimination, about the poor. And I thought again that we were right.
Oh yes, we were naive, and innocent, and simple. But we were right about war. We were right about loving each other. We were right that we needed to care about each other. And we were willing to go out there and fight for what we thought was right. We were not all just sitting around in communes smoking pot and passing flowers to each other in a land of complete sexual liberty. People literally died in the firing lines of the fight.
But we had no idea then just how unclear and how long the road for peace, for civil rights, for justice, and against poverty was. I think we thought that the world could be turned around in a generation — our generation, in fact. Now I look at the continued and increasing horrors of war and floods of refugees, at the environmental degradation, at the increasing difference between the rich and poor, and I never dreamed in those days that it could possibly become so bad.
We had no idea the problems we thought we could solve were so complex. I think we still don’t. Actually, we don’t need to “study war no more,” but to study war and poverty and the environment and our impulse to kill each other a lot more. We need to understand ourselves, our motivations, the conditions which bring out the best and the worst much better than we do.
Is there something about war, for instance, that we do truly find glorious and heroic? The BBC is showing a surprisingly good documentary on World War I right now. I learned last night that the prime minister, and at different times, members of the cabinet broke down in tears, several men even resigned their posts, as they contemplated the oncoming war. What they saw was Germany set on control of the entire European continent. So they saw no alternative to war. Was there? Were there alternatives that would have been better than those four ghastly years that killed 8 million troops and almost as many civilians? Was there an alternative to what was basically a continuation of this war in World War II during which 66 million people died?
This very day, negotiators are gathered in Geneva struggle to find an alternative to the continuing civil war in Syria. Northern Ireland has still not fully resolved its conflict, and Africa today is seeing the daily carnage of war.
I’m old now, and there is little I can see that I might contribute to the solutions we humans have created for ourselves.
But the truth is, young or old, none of us can do it alone. In fact, each of us can do so little by ourselves that the great temptation is to despair. We can touch the lives of only a very small number of people. Our kindness can reach only a very small circle. Our individual problem-solving must be focused or we won’t answer any questions at all. We each must be satisfied to do our small bit, and hope that others do too.
We’re all in this together. Even the most powerful, the most gifted, the most sainted need others.