I was twenty-six, and George H. W. Bush was gearing up for the first Iraq War, or Desert Storm as would it soon become known. I had grown up in the long shadow of the Vietnam War and the silent but persistent threat of a nuclear holocaust. It seemed to me that the days of good guys and bad guys, of Nazis and Yanks, were over. As a result, within our collective conscience, peace had surely replaced war–with all its violence and fear–as the only true solution of humanity’s many differences.
Apparently, it had not.
As I read of troops being shipped to Saudi Arabia, of military alliances being forged with other nations, a little alarm went off in my mind. This is it, I thought. This is the world-ending calamity I had been taught to dread. As the days ticked down until the first bombs would be dropped, anti-war protests sprouted up around the country. One of the largest was to be held in Seattle, and my fiancé and I decided to attend.
Neither of us had ever marched, held a sign, written a letter to our editor, or even argued with a friend about war and peace. We were both almost entirely a-political; I had even skipped voting for President in ‘88, the first year I was eligible to do so. But this felt worthy of our time, and so off we went to Capitol Hill one evening, joining a mass of young people in the quad of a community college.
There was lots of music and people crowded together, some drinking, some hanging off of lampposts. Eventually, a woman climbed onto the impromptu stage and got behind a microphone and talked about the need to exhaust all diplomatic options. She was very clear, and passionate, though I had heard these points already on the PBS News Hour. Still, we cheered and clapped because this was why we were here, and it felt good to be reminded that there were so many others who believed more or less the way I did.
When she was done, a man hopped up onto the stage with a guitar. He sang a protest song, and then started talking about why we were all here tonight. “Remember,” he said, “there’s a reason this is happening. It wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for them. You have to remember that there’s an us and a them, and they are the reason there are wars.”
Everyone whooped, and I thought, “But that’s why are the wars in the first place. Because we think there is such a thing as an Us and Them.”
We stayed for the rest of the protest, but my enthusiasm for it began to wane. When it was over, I marched with a crowd back through Capitol Hill singing “Give Peace a Chance.” That was nice. I’d always liked the song, written as it was to be sung by groups of strangers. Just singing it was uplifting, though I suspected I knew who we were actually singing for. Certainly, not the people we marched by; they were already on our side. We had to be singing to ourselves.
Even as I marched and clapped, I knew the war was inevitable. If I was honest, I’d known before I went to the protest, though the guy with the guitar reminded me why. I was strangely okay with it. If you want peace, you can’t fight even the people who want to fight. You have to let them find each other and fight each other, painful as it may be to watch. It’s easier to do if you remember war is just a misdirected path to peace, the consequence of a persistent notion that it can be found by eliminating an enemy that never existed.