Rusty Nelson on Peace and War: “Making History”

Rusty Nelson

Rusty Nelson

For years, I have railed against the wholesale use and abuse of certain inescapable terms in the popular lexicon of American discourse. Along with certain obscenities that continue to nibble away at my own vocabulary, “The Economy” is one that stands out. Pundits, politicians and pedagogues seem to agree that the term has the same meaning for me that it does for Matt Shea, Bill Gates, and Domantas Sabonis. “The Economy,” of course, bounces off me differently than it does anyone else, including my children and their children, and I resent the implication that I’m just another naked chick in a crowded nest, open wide for whatever worm that differently-feathered parent figure dangles above me.

Today’s cliché is “Making History.” After all, haven’t we just made history? Maybe it seems more like history has happened to us or on us, but for most, it’s not our history. Maybe it will be the history of the next generation or just a footnote in an obituary, but I didn’t make history in 2016. Whether the recorders of our cultural stagnation tell us about Hillary Clinton being history or Donald Trump creating history, we need to consider how we’ve been wired to consider, digest, and comprehend history to spare our heirs the repetition of our assaults upon our neighbors and our planet.

Howard Zinn rescued many intelligent people from the quagmire of history written by the “winners” of wars, massacres, and struggles for control of The Economy. A Peoples’ History of the United States, however, was published after I had begun disseminating the lines of those who wrote history the old way. And in the 21st Century, the American public still clings to that news and history that is pre-digested by the White House, the Pentagon, The New York Times, and competitive news corporations, known by half our country as the Liberal News Media (of course, we who read and hear alternative news are quick to point out that corporate media are as liberal as the billionaires who own them). Although gently exposed to the concept of critical thinking, most schoolchildren are still taught that the survival of our species is dependent upon U.S. military superiority and the leadership of wealthy white men. Who among us learned Jeanette Rankin’s adage that we can no more win a war than we can win an earthquake, wisdom more ironic than she could have imagined as Oklahoma rattles itself to bits under a female governor (soon to be cabinet member?) pledged to victory through fracking?

Meanwhile, we who had anticipated a female president this late into our herstory might find some solace in an election that is bound to shorten the trajectory of our political pendulum. Leaders and policy makers like Jean Kirkpatrick, Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice, not to mention Golda Meir, Maggie Thatcher, and Indira Gandhi had already demonstrated that a woman’s touch may be little different from an iron fist. The inevitability of violence will not be determined by gender, but by which lessons we refuse to learn from our male-dominated history.

My personal battle with unlearned lessons of history centers upon the illegal, undeclared and un-won U.S. war in Vietnam. Deployed as a true believer in the goodness of my country, the justice of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, and the righteousness of my military mandate, I was more shocked by the institutional poverty and corruption than the brutality of combat. I couldn’t help noticing the enormity of the mismatch, the colossal waste, and the moral vacuum, but I didn’t comprehend the shame and degradation, the slaughter and the earthquakes unleashed until I was safely civilian. Who made that history? Who learns it? Who repeats it?

Any history contrived in our recent presidential election is likely to be obscured by that produced during the Trump administration. I and many other peacemongers, however, have engraved upon our troubled memories a huge blank space representing debate and discussion about war and peace, the dozens of wars in which we participate and chimera of peace for which we claim to yearn. It is time to step up and be accountable to generations to come in case some of our antecedents survive. Nobody needs us to observe the next four years from a bunker, nor will random cursing and finger-pointing part the darkness.

I was particularly horrified by the Clinton campaign’s urging to imagine a President Trump with the nuclear codes always by his side. For one who remembers Reagan’s jokes, Poppy Bush’s war on Panama, Bill Clinton’s bombing civilians in the former Yugoslavia, W’s revenge upon Saddam Hussein for trying to kill his Daddy, and Obama’s continuing to take military direction from Israel, Trump’s finger on the trigger is not as frightening as the fact that the President of the United States remains constantly encumbered by the unspeakable codes as if the containing brief case is a teddy bear not to be scorned as an essential accessory in the emperor’s dated wardrobe.

Elliott Adams, one of the heroes of Spokane Veterans for Peace, shared some wisdom with us last Memorial Day: It’s not so important whom we vote for as what we do to hold the winning candidate accountable. That’s a quick paraphrase, but it means a lot to me. Not that I’ve had any influence over any of the foxes guarding the henhouse in the last 50 years, but it gives me something to do, short of staying in Mexico or building a bomb shelter in Idaho.

The history of PJALS has been recalled over the past year as we’ve celebrated and reflected upon the first 40 years. What now emerges from the detritus of my abused recollections of those years is the local strength we derived from our national impotence. On the other hand, we gained from our networking with national and international organizations which were similarly dismissed by those who held political power. In 12 years of Reagan-Bush, we felt throttled, but PJALS came of age, a beacon for those who refused to buckle under the cheap nationalism and extravagant me-too-ism that enthralled so many of our neighbors. We were able to organize and make meaningful contributions on issues that might have gone unnoticed in more progressive times. When Bill Clinton ascended to the White House as the answer to the prayers of voters who revered both Kennedy and Reagan, half of the progressives in Spokane celebrated by shaking off any affinity for PJALS and smothering those old hippie flames for peace and justice that had begun to smolder against the bald-faced fascism of the Always Right.

Some of us would have celebrated mightily for a victory by Hillary or Bernie or Jill. Halfway through our dream administration, we would awake to a profound lack of change or a horrible choice by our joyfully chosen leader, or the realization that peace was not on the agenda, that Lincoln Chafee’s clownish fedora was the only peace hat in the ring. I’m not saying that I condone the choice of our almighty college of electors, or even that I saw it coming. I am saying to make the most of it.

Sure, the world may end tomorrow or in Trump’s first 100 days. We may exchange a few decent institutions for indecent ones. We may lose some more voice, additional civil liberties, and other necessities which had already begun to slip away. What we gain is opportunity. No — Not the opportunity that we have squandered before by clinging to our change-resistant two-party system and our parochial self-interests. This time the change is not a campaign promise but history thrust upon us with plenty of warning that we will always consider inadequate.

And the opportunity? Be creative, kind, considerate. Be involved, outspoken, radical, subversive. Stop worrying about where your next dollar is coming from, and be concerned about where your neighbor’s next breath of fresh air and drink of clean water are coming from, where your child’s next raft of information is coming from, where your next tax dollar is going, your next consumer dollar. Make your needs known to your local officials and be tenacious.

In other words, be the person, the citizen, the neighbor, the parent you were going to be if the history some fool made hadn’t already been divided into kings, generals, peasants, winners and losers, allies and enemies, garden and desert, miracle and catastrophe.

I never made history, but I’ve read a little. And I don’t think it’s worth repeating.