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War is not how McCain describes it



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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October 28, 2008

LONDON - John McCain, we all know, after being shot out of the sky, was captured by the North Vietnamese, imprisoned and tortured. We know too that few of us would have had the guts or the tenacity to put up for so long with his trials of pain and sorrows.

But do we know - for the journalists have failed to ask and he has omitted to mention - who he killed from the sky, how many, and how does he feel about that deep inside when he has to reflect alone and make his peace with God? Or does he think, rather than allowing God to choose which side, if any, He is on, that America itself can make that decision?

These conundrums don't seem to weigh a tenth of an ounce in the American election. But they should. How we treat other lives, especially the lives of the innocent young children who are simply executed by thousands of bombs from the sky, is surely the supreme test of a civilization - whether there is humanity deep in its soul or just stuck on round its periphery.

Tolstoy's Prince Andrew, one of the central characters of "War and Peace", thought he had the answer. "Drain all the blood out of men's veins and fill them up with water, and then there'll be no more war. Women's talk. Women's talk".

But the real issue, as Tolstoy posed later in his magnificent book, is this: "It is beyond our comprehension that millions of Christian men and women should have killed and tortured each other just because Napoleon was a megalomaniac, Alexander (the Russian Tsar) was obstinate, the English were devious and the Duke of Oldenburg was badly done by.... War is the vilest thing in human life and we aught to understand that and not play at war. ...Otherwise war will be a nice hobby for idle people and butterfly minds...... The military class get all the honors. It's still the highest class, universally respected. The biggest rewards go to the man who killed the most people. ...How can God look down from heaven and listen to it all?"

When Tolstoy writes about "the elastic of historical argument is stretched to breaking point", I think of Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan, or McCain up in the sky over Vietnam. "When an action flagrantly infringes anything humanity can agree to call by the name of goodness and justice, the historians take refuge in the concept of greatness. 'Greatness' seems to exclude quantification of right and wrong. A great man knows no wrong. There is no atrocity that can be lain at the door of a great man."

One of the jewels of Hebrew literature is the poem by Samuel Halevi, who in 1037 was appointed Grand Vizier of Granada. He wrote:

"War at the start is like a beautiful girl,
any live man's delight,
And by the end? A disaster, a hag,
regret, repulsion - and flight."

I would like to ask McCain if, like the navigator of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, he ever came off a mission 'had a bite and a few beers, and hit the sack, and had not lost a night's sleep over the bomb in 40 years.'

But why should I single out John McCain? Sometime or other, perhaps most of us have bought a cinema ticket to see artfully performed, urgently fascinating, grisly and gruesome carnage.

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For the more cerebral there is the tingling sense of shared heroism as we read the poems of Wilfrid Owen, Sigfried Sassoon and Edmund Blunden. As Joanna Bourke has written, they are "high diction with its stock phrases- 'baptism of fire', 'transfigured youth' and 'gallant warriors'."

In the hands of talented film makers, poets and writers - and journalists too - war comes to resemble sport, the most exciting game in existence which, by pushing men to their physical and emotional limits, provides deep satisfaction for onlookers and survivors. War can seem to resemble spiritual enlightenment or sexual eroticism. For many soldiers caught up in the emotions of war, killing, and even looting and rape, they become an orgasmic, charismatic experience when normal emotions, values and religious teaching are suspended, ignored and degraded, only encouraged, by the chaplaincy and the command, to return at war's end.

I don't know Barack Obama's deeply held convictions on the matter of war - and he has said some stupid things, like being prepared to bomb Pakistan - but I get the sense from his books and his tone that in most cases it is a horror to be avoided.

He has had the chance to study McCain close up. On this issue of mass killing I hope he has drawn the only lesson a questioning and moral man can.


Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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