For 72 years, human civilization has lived under the existential threat of annihilation. No nuclear weapons have been dropped since 1945 — on civilian populations, anyway — but we may be closer to atomic war than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. (The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has put its “Doomsday Clock” at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, hardly even time to squeeze in one last dance.)
One hundred years after the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War I, and 50 years after Rev. Martin Luther King expressed his opposition to the Vietnam War, the San Francisco Public Library will convene a panel on the feasibility of a world without war. On Thursday, May 25, Daniel Ellsberg — the whistleblower who brought the world’s attention to the Pentagon Papers — comes together with historian Adam Hochschild (To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918), and Jackie Cabasso, executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation and co-chair of United for Peace and Justice.
World Beyond War co-founder and activist David Hartsough will moderate “Remembering Past Wars … And Preventing the Next,” which includes 12- to 15-minute talks from each of the participants, Hartsough included, followed by a Q&A period. Considering that World War II’s dual horrors of mushroom clouds and concentration camps crowd out World War I’s rat-plagued trenches in the public imagination, why would they choose that earlier conflict?
“That war is kind of a template for so many others that have happened since then,” Hochschild tells SF Weekly. “Countries think that going to war is going to solve a problem, and that the war is going to be short, victory’s going to be quick, casualties are going to be low — and lo and behold, it turns out differently on all counts.
“A lot of the same patterns were there, the expectation of quick victory was there when George W. Bush invaded Iraq, and we are still fighting,” he adds. “The victory we were supposed to have doesn’t seem to have been won yet.”
Whereas World War II had an almost Star Wars-esque line of demarcation between good and evil, World War I’s moral divisions were more complex, making it the better forerunner to today’s ever-shifting confrontations. Given the missiles the Trump administration launched at Syria without a formal declaration of war by Congress — to say nothing about the Obama administration’s multiple, concurrent theaters of drone warfare — it’s become difficult to draw the lines between where war ends and peace begins. The identity of the enemy can be hazy as well.
“It’s awfully hard to pick who the good guys and the bad guys are in Syria,” Hochschild says. “You have a horrible dictator running the place, but among the forces aligned against him is the Islamic State — and I’m not sure things would be any better if they take over.”
This ethical murk contributes to the haziness that confronts the American public. A strong majority of the country wishes for peace, Hartsough says, yet we rally around the flag almost reflexively. The only solution is the obvious one: people power.
“People around the world have discovered the power of nonviolent action to resist governments that are not representing the people,” Hartsough says, citing the recent demonstrations that brought down a corrupt government in South Korea. “That’s the kind of thing we saw in the Women’s March, when millions of people were out in force. That’s a very important beginning. It needs to be sustained resistance as it was in the Civil Rights movement.”
South Korea may have forced out President Park Geun-hye over influence-peddling, leaks, and even associations with an alleged cult, but it’s the saber-rattling with North Korea that sets the world on edge. Hochschild and Hartsough agree that war between the U.S. and the regime in Pyongyang is within the realm of possibility.
“I think that, in the immediate future, the danger of war with North Korea is very hot,” Hartsough says. “But North Korea has essentially said, ‘Look, if the United States and South Korea sign a peace treaty with North Korea and recognize our right to live in peace with you … we will cease and desist from our nuclear programs.’ We should take them up on that.”
Strictly speaking, when we talk about armed conflicts in the postwar world, we’re repeating a contradiction in terms. “Postwar” commonly refers to the period after 1945, after all, and not to an era after the prohibition of war itself. Still, Hochschild is cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a world that is truly postwar.
“I think it’s one we still ought to work for, and the one thing I do take encouragement from is that there has not been another world war since 1945,” he says. “I think that if the human race is still around another millennium from now, people will look back at all the time that’s elapsed since 1945 and say — at least up until 2017 — ‘those primitive people who developed the atomic and hydrogen bombs, they didn’t set another one off in wartime.’”
“That’s a real achievement, I think,” Hochschild adds. “How long it’ll last, I don’t know.”
Remembering Past Wars . . . and Preventing the Next, Thursday, May 25, 6-8 p.m., at the Main Library’s Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin St. Free; sfpl.org.