09/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Britain's Oldest Soldier Said

A story crossed the Atlantic last week about funeral services for England's last surviving veteran of World War I. Born in 1898, Harry Patch was 111 when he passed away last month in a nursing home. The rites for him attracted as much attention for the fact that soldiers from Belgium, France, and Germany attended as for his great age and symbolic status. Mr. Patch was especially eager that former enemies should meet; he had grown vocally anti-war in his last years. The New York Times quoted him as saying "Too many died. War isn't worth one life." World War I was ignited for the slimmest of reasons, like our own Iraq War, but with staggeringly more casualties: 900,000 Britons alone.

As a rule, veterans organizations are super-patriots who see it as their duty to uphold almost any armed conflict. It was newsworthy that Mr. Patch told the BBC, "Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims." But victims of what? Peace movements have existed for decades (always remembering a remark of Mother Teresa's distinction that an anti-war movement isn't the same as a peace movement), yet nobody has successfully defused the aggressive impulse that ultimately fuels all combat.

Veterans of Mr. Patch's war were especially bitter about old men safe in their beds sending young men off to be slaughtered in the trenches. In this country, the most vocal opponents of the Vietnam War included decorated veterans like John Kerry, George McGovern, and Bob Kerrey, while among the staunch warmakers have been those who never heard a shot fired in anger, like Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld. But the division between hawks and doves crosses the line of who served in the military and who didn't. We seem constantly to be looking over our shoulders at the last war and saying "Never again," until a new war comes about under new circumstances. The fact that World War II could happen a mere 21 years after the staggering conflagration of World War I demonstrates something important: pain and death don't prevent war. Sorrow and grief don't, either.

A viable peace movement will only come about when consciousness changes on a mass scale. As long as war seems tempting, for any reason, it will continue. The reasons in recent years have included global ambition, right-wing ideology, ignorance of the enemy's determination to fight, illusions that war can be free, with little cost on the home front and that old standby, working up public fear against "them," a crazed enemy who is focused on annihilating "us." If you argue against these motivations, the rationale for war simply slides into new argument; the impulse to wage war never runs out of them. The U.N. reports a steep falling off of war casualties in major conflicts since 1990, which may indicate that a shift in consciousness is already occurring. Even George Bush, the most reckless warmaker of his generation, refused to provide Israel with the high explosive super-bombs needed to undertake a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities (apparently a good deal of them are buried too deep for large conventional bombs to reach).

Yet the most heartening sign of progress may ironically be the absence of an anti-war movement, in that President Obama holds anti-war views, not as his ideology or crusade, but as a natural aspect of his generation's thinking. When you don't have to mount a campaign, with all the attendant anger, divisiveness, and virulent name-calling that has been part of the anti-war movement since any of us can remember, an invisible victory becomes possible. I post for peace regularly and watch with interest to see how many fires get started as a result. I won't be satisfied until the number is zero, and then, like civil rights, woman's equality, and potentially gay marriage, what was a point of violent contention can transition into a point of general agreement.

Five former Secretaries of State are among those calling for a world totally disarmed of nuclear weapons, and Obama echoes the call. No one knows how long it will take for peace to reach a critical mass in the world, much less a decisive event -- a symbolic tipping point -- that history holds in store. It won't be the slaughter of "these who die as cattle," as the poet Wilfred Owen wrote about Mr. Patch's war. Perhaps the general agreement that the Iraq War has been a sham and a disaster will one day be viewed in hindsight as a major breakthrough. Unless it is something far more powerful and invisible that we cannot see coming.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle

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