As progressives, I’m certain most all of you have heard the expression and seen the bumper sticker: You Cannot Simultaneously Prepare for War and Plan for Peace.” It’s an adaptation of a 1946 statement by Albert Einstein, who called himself a “convinced pacifist.”
It’s a very nice sentiment that certainly contains some nuggets of truth. But as someone who holds peace and pacifism as ideals yet am also a hardcore realist, I must also disagree with it. We live in a dangerous world and have since the dawn of mankind. Peace doesn’t come if you ignore the very common tragic human fact of war.
Einstein also said, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” I’m with him there. That’s one reason why I happen to favor watching documentaries about war.
There are others, among them how war can bring out the best in people even while it can epitomize the human race at its worst. I discovered a stellar example of that when I came across an episode of the Time Machine TV series on the Bielski Brothers – four Jewish brothers in what was at the time, World War II, the Soviet Union. When the Nazi armies overran their town in 1941, the brothers escaped to the woods and formed a community of some 1,200 Jews that survived the war and escaped the Holocaust. At the same time about 150 of them also acted as an armed resistance and rescued other Jews.
Einstein believed that “to kill in war is not a whit better than to commit ordinary murder.” Again, noble sentiment, but the Bielski partisans story certainly present quite a moral challenge to that. (The Bielskis were also the subject of a 2008 major motion picture, “Defiance.” that I have not seen that only gets a 57% rating and very mixed reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes film criticism aggregation website.)
War also advances technology with a rapidity unlike that found in peacetime. This can result in the law of unintended consequences coming into play as with the development of nuclear weapons during World War II. Yet a Lost Worlds series episode on “Secret Cities of the A-Bomb” I recently watched is fascinating viewing. And the excellent “The Royal Navy” series on the Military History channel traces advancements of ship design as a result of war that also yields peacetime benefits.
War can also lead to social and cultural progress. Two prime examples of that are the History Channel’s A Distant Shore: African-Americans of D-Day and History Uncovered: The Real Flying Tigers. The achievements and dedication to the war effort within the context of segregation and discrimination by Black Americans in World War II led directly to the first major contribution to the Civil Rights movement when President Truman integrated the US armed forces by executive order in 1948.
As a kid I was a dedicated viewer of the documentary series The Silent Service. A new episode, “The Captains of WWII,” spotlights the bravery, boldness and sacrifice made by submarine commanders and their crews in the Pacific Theater. I was delighted to see that one of its main interview contributors was the father of my college girlfriend, naval captain Murray B. Frazee Jr. (Ret), whose silent films were made while on duty were used in the original series. As a second officer on a number of submarines during the war, he was a dedicated warrior. Yet I am challenged to think of a kinder and warmer gentleman that I have met in my life (especially in the context of dating his daughter), and he serves as an exemplar of the “Greatest Generation” that fought what is called “The Last Great War.” We must keep in mind how the military is not all aggressive fighters but also can bring out in war the best from truly good men.
Yes, we must always remember and heed the horrific human toll of war, and there are very few better examples of that than the American Experience episode “Death and the Civil War.” Back in the 1990s there was a popular bumper sticker that read “Visualize World Peace.” As much as the sentiment is beautiful, it’s stated in such a hopelessly naïve way that I had another one on my car that said “Visualize Whirled Peas.”
Einstein echoes my feelings in his statement: “The very prevention of war requires more faith, courage and resolution than are needed to prepare for war. We must all do our share, that we may be equal to the task of peace.” And to do so, we must also understand the complexities, nuance and seeming contradictions of war.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2012
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