COMMENT: The justification of massacre and the elusive goal of peace
Today we consider the great terror of war; Remembrance Day swells each of our chests differently, but the same. Emotions are strong, or should be. Whether we know it or not, both as individuals and societies, our past and present are infused with war. That should terrify us.
Wars build in a wave of motives and he-said-she-saids that crest and crash with a madness and fury that drives people to each others’ throats. At the level of individuals, something magical can also happen in the heat of conflict amongst the blood, bone and mud: otherwise ordinary people display valour and selfless altruism in the face of terrible fear.
Most of us know or knew veterans. I immediately think of my two grandfathers. Both served Canada in World War Two and both suffered psychologically from the experience. Grandpa also suffered debilitating injuries from two motorcycle accidents and being blown off a ship on D-Day. Nana—who Grandpa fell head-over-heels in love with while stationed in England—also blames rugby.
It was only many years later that Nana found out he’d been trapped for a day under the rubble of a bombed house in London. She also found he’d been ambushed by two men, boys he thought, maybe only 16 years old, and killed them. He suffered agonizing sorrow and terrible dreams for the rest of his life, even as he was genuinely cheerful and full of fun for us.
I think of my aunt whose childhood memories include the day-and-night bombing of Germany and extreme food shortages. She wouldn’t see her father again, a doctor accompanying wounded soldiers back from the front in the war’s final days. They took refuge in a Polish barn only to be discovered and gunned down by Russians. One young soldier lay there as if dead, but lived to bring the story home.
Today we recall veterans of more recent conflicts, often with an American flavour like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I have several high school friends who saw active duty in Iraq and I do not envy their experiences.
Many of Canada’s veterans were deployed on more obscure but still terrifying peacekeeping missions. Just ask ski patrollin’ Lyle for his tales of Turks and Cypriots, among others.
Even if you know no soldiers, the world is full of war, and the economy is full of the products of war. History overflows with violent death. War has grown in scale and sophistication since the dawn of great civilizations 10,000 years ago, but battles probably reach back beyond the first “wise humans” 200,000 years ago. Even chimpanzees go to war.
Since the Old Testament and before, empires have waged wars of conquest. The U.S. domination over Central America and the Soviet domination of the Eastern Bloc are recent textbook examples that join entries on the British in India, the Dutch in Indonesia, or the sickening heart of darkness revealed by Belgian overlords in the Congo.
Leaders outwardly appeal to causes of freedom and human dignity, but the final analysis often finds powerful interests using war to secure markets. It has ever been the case that men went to war for money.
As media commentators begin to predict the demise of the Occupy movement, Remembrance Day is a good time to move the conversation beyond bank bailouts. The mega-financed one percent get us into wars that are paid for with the limbs and lives of the 99 per cent, and also their taxes.
People fall in battle not just by bullets and bombs. Poverty, disease, and deprivation take far more lives under the siege of cruel sanctions. People fall under the mind games of interrogation, torture, and inhuman imprisonment. Each day these battles fill new hearts with black vengeance and passionate hatred, renewing the cycle of war.
What can justify massacre?
Take the American Civil War, for example. Waged from 1861 to 1865, it defined their nation, but the emotional rift between North and South on the Dixie Line persists today. 600,000 men died, two-thirds from disease. For comparison, roughly 50,000 American troops (and 1.3 million Vietnamese) died in more than a decade of fighting in Vietnam. Fewer than 5000 American troops have died in Iraq.
The Civil War is often justified as a fight over slavery. When the war started, however, Southerners thought it was over states’ rights—and indeed, the United States became a singular noun thereafter. Northerners fought to prevent the Southern secession. Slavery was part of the dispute, but union came first and emancipation came as an afterthought.
From another perspective, I’m sure the headlong rush into civil war would have been averted by cooler diplomacy had both sides understood the calamitous waste to which the Feds and Rebs would lay the country.
World War Two appears justified, especially as it freed conquered nations and ended a horrific genocide. Once that war got going, I’m glad the good guys won. But framing the war as a fight against genocide is as chronologically impossible as justifying the Civil War by the South’s criminal treatment of many Northern prisoners of war, a fact that was only discovered in the final days of fighting.
Moreover, the Second War was not inevitable. After World War One, the League of Nations was meant to take the role of global arbitration to fulfill the war’s promise “to end all wars.” But the League didn’t have the guts. Nations remained strongly imbalanced and weakly bonded to the League.
The vengeful Treaty of Versaille, furthermore, allowed the victors to sow the seeds of revenge across the losers’ lands, degrading them with economic burdens and national humiliation. Between racist sentiments and profiteering in the West’s upper echelons, our nations appeased Hitler while he swept to power and gave us a second war.
Even though the good guys won 66 years ago, wars have raged around the world as elites continue to use the same old tools—violence, finance, media domination and jingoism under banners of hatred—to maintain power.
Our recent peace on this continent is the exception to the rule. Certainly we will face war again unless social systems are firmly in place for dialogue, diplomacy, and mediation. The U.N. has some serious structural flaws, beginning with the exclusive and unequal power of the Security Council, but diplomats must talk if future wars are to be averted.
I can only sigh as powerful lobbies like AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) pressure the United States to pass laws that actively prevent a diplomatic solution to the stand-off with Iran. Meanwhile, we attempt to skewer them with economic burdens and national humiliation. It’s an old story.
Respect to the dead. Respect to those who live, haunted by memories. Respect to the sacrifices made for peace. We respect them with our remembrance: no massacre is justified, every peace is a compromise.