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In violent world, has peace a chance?

The trip to Iraq described in this issue began with a flight that cut across the Balkans, eerily connecting the hot spots that have erupted in the wake of the Cold War. It is an unsettling irony that the United States, in the absence of the Soviet Union -- its fiercest foe of the last half century -- has begun unleashing the fury of modern warfare around the globe.

It is as if, having convinced ourselves that the nuclear storm clouds have receded, we are now free to seed the heavens with every other form of smart bombs, dumb bombs and guided missiles. And yet most of us are somewhat stymied by the new displays of raw power.

These are different conditions, we say, shaking our heads. Even the peace groups that have traditionally spoken quickly and decisively against armed interventions are admittedly slow to move against the new military order, though it is heartening to hear of a new resolve among those groups.

Through the period of the Cold War, some certainties, even if uneasily held, accompanied the specter of mutually assured destruction. With the fall of the communist empire, one of the poles that held the world of the late 20th century in grim tension disappeared. The globe since then seems to be flopping about, looking for some new grounding.

The blurring of old boundaries has given thugs such as Slobodan Milosevic new freedom to move. No longer do spheres of influence keep us in check as they did when the old Soviet Union rumbled across borders, into Hungary and into Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, rolling the tanks through central squares to put down the uprisings. We didn’t dare send bombers in those days, no matter how brutal the purges and gulags, for fear of bringing on the nuclear nightmare.

So what do we do today?

No one can argue with the instinct that something had to be done to counter Milosevic’s deliberate and brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. The memories of recent genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia were too fresh, some say, to simply sit this one out.

Already, however, the counter violence has escalated well beyond what most expected, and there is no end in sight. Apparently no overture short of absolute and total surrender will bring even a temporary halt to the brutal punishment from the sky.

Once the violence starts, there is little chance to discuss proportionality, whether the good we hope to achieve is greater than the evil being inflicted.

Certainly, as one expert put it, "Iraq is not Vietnam, and Kosovo is not El Salvador." The peace community cannot continue to argue out of the assumptions of a past era, maintaining a kind of "neo-isolationism" where developments are automatically viewed "through the old anti-U.S. intervention prism."

At the same time, the resort to violence by the United States in the post-Cold War era comes with that history of Vietnam and Central America in tow. There is a certain thinking, deriving from our councils of war, that has not changed.

As we reach century’s end, it seems that the most significant leaps of imagination have occurred not in how to avoid war but in how to deliver war with greater power and precision.

How masterfully situations and language can be manipulated to accommodate those military intentions is clear in our involvement in Iraq. Ostensibly, the United States liberated Kuwait and is now keeping that bully, Saddam Hussein, in check. Of course the reality is far more complex and sinister, as the report in this issue details. The United States had much to do with creating Saddam Hussein. The ongoing sanctions are dismantling a culture, killing hundreds of thousands of the most innocent and vulnerable, out of all proportion to any good that might be achieved.

Peace activists might well refocus efforts to call attention to the need for disarmament in the Middle East and a halt to the enormous flow of arms to the region from the United States.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright comes off as a moral crusader when she talks about stopping genocide in the Balkans. But this is the same person who said that the deaths of 500,000 children was a price worth whatever she deemed the United States was achieving in Iraq. It may not be Vietnam, but if that is the logic of our secretary of state, one can only conclude that we have become monstrously more callous in our war calculations.

We can think of no greater good to come out of the current rash of conflicts than a revitalized peace movement, challenged to a new round of thinking. We look forward to the discussion of what role the peace movement perceives for the United States in this new era and to those groups achieving a new sophistication in their analyses of world events.

Any new initiatives, however, should be undertaken with the understanding that peacemakers, no matter how sophisticated and open to the complexities of a situation, will be standing outside of conventional wisdom for some time. For even given the myriad ways it can be modified and shaded, pacifism will always run up against hard-line pragmatists and the deeply rooted presumption that war is the inevitable norm and peace the exception.

The world desperately needs people to continue standing in holy contradiction to that presumption.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 1999