Rusty Nelson on Peace and War

Rusty NelsonAfter weeks of gawking at genuine antiquities, I returned to my native state and spent a few hours looking at an archive of 20th Century Georgia history. I don’t know whether the contrast or the similarity is more striking.

A massive, new Richard Russell Building for special collections of the University of Georgia libraries holds papers and records from most of Georgia’s significant politicians and political characters from the past century. Far above files for serious researchers, political campaigns and policy struggles involving Georgians are in interactive venues down the hall from a museum of the Peabody Awards, presented for excellence in electronic media by the university since 1940.

As a nephew of the late Senator Russell, a former gopher and receptionist in his office, and a radio news reporter during the administrations of Governors Lester Maddox and Jimmy Carter, I find this library to be part candy store. To the university’s credit, there are items that are more embarrassing than sweet, but I also found statements, questions and declarations which fit 21st Century situations, sometimes in surprising contexts.

Speaking of contexts, Nancy and I were doing our gawking in Spain, with a trip planned around Granada and the Alhambra. The history there and in Seville has too many fascinating layers, stories and contradictions to fit into fewer than 7 or 8 centuries, and it’s no surprise that legends abound, along with distortions and fantasies of three of the world’s great religions.

In Spokane and the 21st Century, we still say those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it, but having acquired a little history of my own, I find dozens of ways to observe history and the present. Seeing what passes for current economic and political choices through a 15th Century lens and a mid-20th Century mirror, I’m horrified by the pervasive absence of important truths learned and re-learned across the ages. These truths have to be found archaeologically while the fallacies which continue to devastate us are presented on pedestals, palaces and stained glass windows. In Georgia, there are monuments to Martin Luther King, but it takes diligence to uncover his hatred of war and corporate greed. In Spain, one need not dig to find veneration for San Francisco (or Francis of Assisi), but his passion for peace and justice is obscured by images of flashier saints wielding bloody swords or be-decked in gold. It is hardly a wonder that most of us were taught history through the stories of generals and wars, but it is tragic that we were denied access to historic and creative acts of peace and justice.

In the 21st Century, we can be overwhelmed by available information, but with a little initiative, we find instructive chinks in the armor of the institutional story. In Georgia, I found a 1964 television interview in which the Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee said he did not buy the domino theory on Vietnam. He said the only justification for U.S. involvement was that we were invited and therefore obligated by treaty. I somehow missed that information in the year I cast my first vote in a presidential election and obligated myself to become an army officer. The domino propaganda made me believe it was appropriate, just and urgent for me to go to Vietnam and protect my country.

In Spain, I found a remnant of a stand for peace between Moors and Christians, a shred of sanity easily overlooked among the vaunted artifacts used to recall the glory of the Christian “reconquest” of southern Spain. The evidence was hardly hidden. It has been the motto of Seville, Spain’s 4th largest city, for centuries. It is, however, quite cryptic if you don’t have an explanation like the one I found in a widely-used guide book.

It looks like this: “NO 8 DO”. It appears on contemporary banners; time-worn cornerstones and walls; sewer covers; and city vehicles. It’s shorthand for a statement of gratitude to the people of Seville from King Alphonso the Wise, an abbreviation for, “You did not abandon me.” It seems the people of Seville were among the few Spaniards who did not turn against the king when he decided not to pursue war with the Moors, but to try to come to a point of peace and reconciliation and build upon the contributions Muslims had made to the country. It was a stunning commitment to peace, although the Moors were ultimately vanquished, and Ferdinand and Isabella reaped the glory eschewed by Alphonso.

The royal couple’s glory grew as Spain became the leading military power in Europe, but it eventually led the country to ruin as the expenses of the armada, the violent quests for riches in the New World, and the lavish maintenance of churches, nobles and institutions destroyed the economy and facilitated widespread corruption.

In Spokane, we are encouraged to believe that our prosperity depends upon Fairchild Air Force Base, although a closer look shows Fairchild gets more money from our taxes than the Air Force brings into our economic region. Today’s considerable economic woes in Spain and in Spokane are sometimes blamed upon workers who insist upon jobs, or even decent wages, but they come from the failure of moneyed institutions and governments to look after the interests of working people and their families. Of course the public often goes along as individuals anticipate having their own treasure ship return with plunder from an updated El Dorado. Meanwhile, those fighting for economic justice feel like we’ve been riding with Spain’s most iconic literary figure, Don Quixote.

Being conservative is not all bad, as long as one conserves something of value. It’s quite another thing to insist upon policy or planning as it’s always been done, all the way back to the 1300s, and beyond. I’m talking about war, institutional violence. We also have the disturbing, ultra-conservative idea that people of another faith, Muslims in fact, pose a threat to a “Christian culture” upon which we cannot improve.

If you are becoming more interested in history as you age, look for some of these minority reports behind the gilded facades of ruinous wars. Then look for some of the bright spots and hopeful signs that empire is an obsolete concept. The EU may be in big trouble, but I surely do like to travel in countries in which I’m not treated like a criminal for leaving one or entering another.

Don’t expect perfection, or even a better place to live than the U.S. But I think our country loses a piece of its soul each time we codify paranoia, justify a war or refuse to walk away from a fight, each time we have legislative competitions to make an entity the toughest, most patriotic, or most conservative. Civilization as we know it has survived, not because of concentrations of power and wealth, but in spite of it. And when we say nonviolence works, we are not re-writing history. We are revealing it. – RN