by Berry Friesen
What prompts people to get ready to make war? I mean common people like you and me and our neighbors.
Since I was a boy raised by a Mennonite family, I have heard stories of people getting ready to make war. In those stories, we Mennonites stand apart from our neighbors. They are eager to get ready, we are not. They insist we stop using German hymn books, start buying war bonds and send our grandfathers and uncles off to training on how to fight. When we politely decline, our neighbors get angry. They heap ridicule on us, burn our German hymnbooks, and tar and feather our pastors.
It was my final year of high school when I personally experienced people getting ready to make war. The venue was Vietnam. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my experience was different from the stories referenced above. Some in my community were eager to get behind the war in Vietnam, but many were baffled by it. Lots of explaining was needed and so we heard lots of talk about “falling dominoes,” Communism coming to California and an attack by the Vietnamese on a U.S. navy boat in the Gulf of Tonkin. Some were convinced and others not. Being Mennonite wasn’t the factor that accounted for the difference.
Then came the ‘80s and U.S. support for the wars in Central America. Again, the stories of my childhood didn’t explain much. Roman Catholics often led the opposition and being Mennonite didn’t seem to matter much.
August 1990 brought the next war. Soviet communism was gone by then, thank God, but Saddam Hussein was invading little Kuwait. Public opinion was divided. Some said America must “defend international norms” while others said it all about oil and making money. Only after we heard of Saddam’s soldiers taking newborn infants out of their incubators and throwing them to the floor, massing on the border of Saudi Arabia and preparing to invade another helpless neighbor, did people climb aboard the war train.
Then came 9/11 and men with box-cutters who brought a mighty nation to a standstill. Law enforcement across our homeland made arrests to disrupt local terror cells and prevent additional attacks. Anthrax killed innocent civilians in Florida and New York and nearly reached Congress itself. The President, a god-fearing man, told us that Saddam again was responsible. Mennonite pastors preached earnest sermons about our heritage of peace, but in private conversations Mennonites readily acknowledged the justice of going to war. The distinction between us and our neighbors seemed to have disappeared.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Gaza, Yemen, Libya, Syria – it’s been a blur ever since. The details are fuzzy, but the images vivid and unforgettable: airliners crashed into skyscrapers, anthrax inhaled from newly-opened letters, plane passengers with bombs in their shoes and in their underwear, Libyan women raped en masse, rows of Syrian children lying dead on the concrete asphyxiated by sarin gas, the head of an American reporter severed by a knife held in the hand of a hooded figure with a British accent. Behind each image stood a radical Muslim eager to die for a twisted notion of paradise.
It’s like we’re living in a Hollywood movie, the images are that vivid. Something inside us flips when we see them on our screens. Inside, something says a silent “yes” to war.
Obviously, this kind of “getting ready for war” is very different from what our grandparents experienced.
But I want to make a different point. When you read the history of their times and focus not on what Mennonites experienced but on what their neighbors experienced, we find that most opposed going to war, often fiercely so. They had to be persuaded to put aside their best judgments and get on the war train. It was only after they had been persuaded that they turned to the Mennonites and demanded we also get on board.
And what persuaded those neighbors were emotional events not so different from the ones that pull so powerfully on us. In 1915 it was the sinking of the Lusitania causing the death of 1,198 passengers and a leaked diplomatic cable from Germany to Mexico. In 1941 it was Pearl Harbor. Look at old newspaper headlines or old newsreels and you begin to get in touch with the feelings they experienced.
Those events are now distant enough that historians feel safe in evaluating them critically. What they tell us is that U.S. leaders anticipated and used those events to prepare people for war. The Lusitania and Pearl Harbor were scripted to turn stubbornly peaceful people into supporters of war.
In short, imagery that pulls powerfully on our emotions has long been part of getting people ready to fight. The images emerge much more quickly in our time and we have less time to process them, but the dynamic isn’t new.
And just as past events have often proved with time not to be as they seemed, so the events we see on our screens will with time be understood differently than now.
The story about Kuwaiti babies being killed by Iraqi soldiers was a lie, as was the story of Iraqi soldiers massing on the Saudi border. The nations America attacked after 9/11 (Afghanistan and Iraq) had nothing to do with it, but the nation that did (Saudi Arabia) has become a close ally. Gaddafi’s troops did not commit mass rape and Assad’s troops did not gas those children. Those were deceptions designed to win our support for war.
In contrast to the stories of my boyhood, which suggested my non-Mennonite neighbors lusted for war, we have learned that the wickedness lies elsewhere – in the hearts of those who want war because it is immensely profitable and carefully plan how to make us want it too. As we shudder at the video of the decapitated American reporter, let us remember how often in the past we have been deceived. And let us refuse to get ready for war by withholding the one thing those who want war want from us: our credulity and trust.