by Jean Stimmell
In 2002, Vernon Klinkenborg, known for his odes to country living, wrote The Rural Life, assigning a chapter to each month of the year. In his November entry, he veers off subject, observing that World War I veterans “are impossibly old by now.” He appears to be making reference to what we now call Veterans Day, celebrated on November 11—but first observed in 1919 on the first anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.
Rather than dismissing these old-timers, Klinkenborg argues, we should bring them front and center to remind us of “the intractable knowledge that comes from a place like the battlefields of WW I,” where every faith “especially the faith in moral and technical advancement seems to totter.” 1
Now, twenty years later, it is us Vietnam veterans who have grown old. Like our WW I forebears, we fought another protracted, brutal conflict that achieved neither peace nor victory. Again, like the architects of the first World War, America has continued to be deluded, blundering ahead into more debacles rather than learning a lesson. Most egregious were our Iraq and Afghanistan wars, attempting to install democracy through the barrel of a gun, but leaving behind a legacy of chaos, charred bodies, and civil war.
Now we are fighting again in eastern Europe, the birthplace of WW I. While we haven’t sent troops, it’s still a proxy war between Russia and the United States. Suddenly the Cold War era has returned and gets hotter by the day. Pulverizing artillery and missile barrages shake Eastern Europe, triggering traumatic memories of WW I as described by Klinkenborg:
“The clouds have the texture of steel wool. Winter could come the next minute or the next month. But what November has ever been like November in the embattled salience of the Great War, where the earth itself was dismembered, its flesh, confused with the flesh of soldiers, horses, and mules?” 2
This November in Ukraine, history is repeating itself. The sheer inhumanity of it is too much to bear. The shriek of chainsaws, echoing over our New Hampshire hills from folks cutting their firewood, now brings to mind the plaintive cries of Ukrainian civilians, mourning the smoldering ruins of their lives.
Why has war been our constant companion throughout history, despite its malevolent nature? According to the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, when we are in the throes of war’s passion, we are aroused into a frenzy that’s not rational. “It is a human accomplishment and an inhuman horror, and a love that no other love has been able to overcome.” 3
However, because war may stir our passions doesn’t make it acceptable. Just as cultures around the world reinforce rules against rape and incest, so it must do the same for war because it has no redeeming qualities. As Chris Hedges states in his new book, War is the Greatest Evil: “War destroys all systems that sustain and nurture life—familial, economic, cultural, political, environmental, and social.” 4
No matter how obsessed we are with war, it is not normal. War is a cancer: a bad gene within us, a destructive force that must be excised before it kills us. The way to stop a war is not by upping the ante but by declaring a ceasefire followed by negotiations to de-escalate the situation.
Time is not on our side.
Rather than prioritizing peaceful alternatives, Congress steams full speed ahead, doubling down on war: Each year, we significantly expand the military budget, continually granting more than the Pentagon requests. Who are we competing with?
We already have 750 bases worldwide and spend more money on war than the next nine countries combined. We spend 12 times what Russia spends. Yet, rather than more peace and safety, we become ever more embroiled in forever wars.
Perhaps that’s the problem: because we have the world’s biggest military hammer, the whole rest of the world looks like a nail.
We have an immense war establishment, now deceptively called the U.S. Department of Defense, seamlessly connected to major corporations that make money for its shareholders through war—the military-industrial complex. We have myriad think tanks, bought-off politicians, and lobbying outfits that thrive off this immense beast like pilot fish prospering by eating the parasites on a great white shark, feasting on leftovers the beast does not have room to eat.
It defies the imagination that we have no Department of Peace to offset the military’s institutional juggernaut. Instead, we have only small grassroots organizations, like Veterans for Peace, to which I belong. We must support our local peace-seeking places of worship and dedicated nonprofits like New Hampshire Peace Action and AFSC.
They may well be our saviors. War will never be.
1 The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Little, Brown and Company: 2002. p. 183
2 Ibid p. 184
3 A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman. P. 214