War: The Hideous Constant

It was a walk on a spring morning that brought me face to face with the issue of war. The day had dawned with the kind of beauty that writers of fiction love. Fields were turning green and buds were thick on beech, maple, and oak. Clouds were the wispy masses that children dream about days when there are mostly good dreams. The foothills of the Appalachians had taken on the unmistakable mantle of spring, having just lost their snow cover at their highest peaks.

This natural beauty was so evident that I forgot the constant drumbeat of war coming out of Eastern Europe and Ukraine, from Syria, from Yemen and elsewhere. I let the issues of the laws of war and civilian deaths and aggression and imperialism and NATO and the chance of nuclear war take a rear seat for a little while.

And then my wife Jan and I met Sarah on a country road. Sarah walked her two dogs, both great and beautiful dogs, and I crossed the street to greet them and we began a conversation as Sarah crossed the street.

Sarah lives a few hundred yards away on the country road where we met. Our conversation was warm and personal in a way that is not the usual, and impersonality had no place on this magnificent day. Then the issue of war and its insanity literally came home in a way that seemed at odds with the beauty of our natural surroundings. Sarah mentioned how she liked the peace of the countryside. But her life came in stark contrast to the peace of this day nearly 21 years ago in a way most can’t imagine.

Sarah’s husband was killed when the first jet hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on September 11, 2001. The company he worked for suffered what was likely a direct hit, or close to a direct hit, from the first jet manned by those who wanted to even the score for war and imperialism in the Middle East. How placing innocent civilians in the so-called line of fire, including children, for any reason escapes me, as it has over the entire course of my life.

I did not know what to say to Sarah besides the simple and inadequate words “I’m sorry.”

I had forgotten so many of the details of the attacks until I read her husband Mitch’s obituary in the New York Times. Besides the sorrow and shock, the pages of the Times brought back some of the mayhem of the attacks and the days that followed. The horror of the attacks and the familiar drumbeat of the march toward war was a constant. For those who had dealt with war in the past, we knew what was coming, but could hardly anticipate a decades-long war along with other wars and always the rumors of war.

When I first heard the news of the attacks, innocent people were already dead, victims of all of the insanity. All of the horror and loathing seemed almost distant, as I had gone to a seaside park along the Rhode Island coast that morning to watch surfers ply waves on the Atlantic Ocean with the endless blue sky as a backdrop.

Within a day or two, I sat at a public meeting on the campus of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island where people tried to sort out the issues and possible responses to the attacks. One person sitting across the aisle from me at that meeting said that the US got what it deserved and those awful words came cascading back to me on the country road on my walk and meeting a person who had suffered because of the grotesqueness of war. No, it would be the innocent who suffered, ordinary people who lived lives in all kinds of ways and would suffer and civilians who never had a stake in war.

In Providence, a person wearing items of clothing associated with his religion would be taken off of an Amtrak train because some passengers feared that he was a danger to them, a feeling that would become common for many in the days, months, and years of war that followed.

Our efforts at establishing a voice for peace in response to the aggression of the attacks and the war that followed failed miserably and we gave up several months later after organizers felt, perhaps rightly, that our efforts were getting nowhere. I don’t know if the latter was true.

Again, the present and the constant drumbeat of war in Ukraine, the uncertain response of those against war, the aggression of world powers much like the lead-up to World War I when mass killing by those nations of great wealth and power, capitalist and imperial (The Soviet Union could not be counted as all-powerful at that point… that would come later), would add up to the mounds of bodies totaling 20 million people, that a generation later would appear as a warmup for World War II with its mass atrocities against civilians and a death toll of 70 to 85 million.

The chance meeting with Sarah on a beautiful spring day seemed so incongruous with the falling towers of New York City and all of these wars.

And then there was the trench warfare of World War I to consider, the mass murder and genocide of World War II ending with mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the endless wars that followed of ethnic, religious, and national hatreds, and the lust of greed and murderous viciousness of superpowers and the realignment that came with the shift of national and international power after the fall of the Soviet Union. There were the killing fields of Southeast Asia that I resisted… The cauldron of war in the Middle East and elsewhere.

How can it be that the human species so capable of creating beautiful art and music and dance and writing and great advances in science can also be so murderous?

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).