Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.—Mark Twain
Despite Mark Twain’s excellent advice, a lot of people back in his day—like many people today—did vegetate in one little corner of the earth for their entire life. Of course the majority of people have never had a choice. To travel comfortably is a luxury reserved for prosperous people, but even among them, many people don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Fewer than half of all Americans have a passport.
Traditionally men have traveled while women stayed at home, but there have always been women who insisted on travelling just as their brothers and husbands did. One of the most notable woman travelers of the 19th century was Gertrude Bell. She traveled and learned about other cultures, studied languages, and had a major influence on the course of history.
Gertrude Bell was born into a wealthy family in County Durham, England, in 1868. Her mother died when she was very young, but her father soon remarried and her stepmother, Florence Bell, was a strong influence on the girl. She even decided, eventually, that Gertrude was too restless and intelligent to be decorously educated at home as other girls were. She was sent to school and even attended a women’s college in Oxford where she was the first woman ever to receive a first in history. She was not, however, awarded a degree for that because women might study and excel in learning, but it was feared that an actual degree was a step too far.
Gertrude’s father supported her desire to travel and her interest in archeology and
supplied a generous allowance that made it possible for her to travel the world. She fell in love with the Middle East and spent much of her life there, learning languages, studying ruins, and getting to know the rulers and their wives. Despite looking like a staid Victorian schoolteacher, Bell was a fearless traveler.
In 1911, when Winston Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty, the British Navy replaced coal fired ships with oil powered ones. Suddenly England became dependent on oil from the Middle East and the exotic countries where it was produced. Access to the oil was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, which encompassed most of Mesopotamia, and the Turks were allies of the Germans.
British intelligence was very interested in what was going on in the Middle East and because Gertrude was recognized as an expert, she was summoned to Cairo to help map the area. Given the rank of Major—the first woman officer in the history of British intelligence—she caused consternation among other officers who couldn’t figure out how to treat her. But she managed build a comfortable relationship with the men, and she played a vital role in establishing the governments that ruled the Middle East for decades after the war.
Iraq was the country that was closest to her heart. While she was there she oversaw the establishment of the great National Museum to house antiquities of the country. She also started the library, which became the National Library of Iraq.
There have been many questions raised about the role Bell played in establishing borders for countries that no Westerner truly understood. She was not always right in her advice, but she respected the people and, unlike most of the English, she foresaw many of the difficulties that would arise. Perhaps before any of us make judgments about Bell’s work we should read the biography written by Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.
Now that we have so many ways of getting to know the world, maybe in 2018 more people can travel whether in person, by reading, or through the Internet. And remember the words of Confucius “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”
Perhaps the week that the Republican candidates held their final debate of the year was not the best week to reread Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, but quite by accident that is what I did for my reading group. Vonnegut’s book was beloved by young people during the 1960s when the
Vietnam War made pacifists of so many of us. In 1945, during World War II, Vonnegut, a young American soldier, was a prisoner of war in Dresden and was a witness to the destruction of the city by British and American bombers. The carpet bombing of Dresden killed about 25,000 people and destroyed one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. As Vonnegut’s protagonist Billy Pilgrim would say in the most famous phrase of the book “So it goes!”
Seventy years have passed since then, but the destruction of cities and the indiscriminate killing of people continues. As the Republican candidates made clear on Tuesday night, they believe the answer to the unease felt by many Americans now is to send bombers over to the Middle East to bomb and bomb and bomb until the unease passes—if it ever does. Ted Cruz even talked about “carpet bombing” although he didn’t make clear just which cities would be carpet bombed or how many thousands of people would be slaughtered before he and his supporters would feel safe.
The fear and hatred exhibited in the debate were in sharp contrast to the calm patience with which President Obama is going about the job of
defeating extremists and establishing peace in the Middle East. That, of course, is the real solution to most of the terrorist threats in this country. It takes a strong leader to ignore the chattering of politicians and to stay focused on the important work of government in preserving peace and freedom. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in this poem (more familiar to our grandparents than to most of us) being a leader calls for good sense, patience, and courage:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…
So during this holiday season let’s wish good cheer to President Obama for all of his patient, well-considered work on defeating terror and maintaining peace, and to Secretary of State John Kerry whose diplomacy will keep America strong and safe without shedding the blood of innocent civilians.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
This week Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that women member of the U.S. military will be allowed to serve in any position, including those in combat areas. That’s one more step toward equal rights for women in all areas of life, but it is far from the vision of the early leaders of the Suffrage movement. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress in the United States, a feat she accomplished in 1916, felt strongly that allowing women to vote and to participate in national decision would build a more peaceful world. “The peace problem is a woman’s problem….peace is a woman’s job.” How many individuals hold that view today?
Born in 1880 in Montana, Jeannette Rankin believed in equality for women and peace for the world. During her lifetime, women gradually got the right to vote, first in a few of the western states of the U.S. and gradually in all of the states. Montana gave women the right to vote in 1914, and Jeannette Rankin seized the opportunity to run for an at-large seat in Congress. She depended on her wealthy brother, a leading member of the Republican party, to finance and support her candidacy and she campaigned vigorously. Her commitment to peace was just as strong as her commitment to enfranchising women, so when in 1917, President Wilson asked Congress to vote to declare war on Germany, she refused to join the majority. She was one of fifty members, most of them Democratic, who voted against World War I. Being in the minority did not deter Rankin from supporting both of her causes—Universal Suffrage and Peace. When Montana changed its voting pattern from an at-large system to a district system, Rankin lost her Congressional seat, but she continued to be active in public life.
In 1940, Rankin was again elected to Congress and once again America was close to war. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt asked Congress to vote for a declaration of war on Japan. Once again Rankin voted against war; this time she was the only member to do so and she was attacked by the public and by fellow members. Soon after she retired from Congress, although, when asked, she said that she never regretted her vote against war. “If you’re against war, you’re against war regardless of what happens. It’s a wrong method of trying to settle a dispute.”
When the Vietnam War came along, Jeannette Rankin was against that too. She led a coalition of women’s peace groups to present a peace petition to the speaker of the House of Representatives. Even though she was in her late 80’s. Rankin considered running for office again so that she could oppose the Vietnam War, although in the end her poor health prevented that. She died at the age of 92, still believing strongly in both peace and suffrage, although she probably no longer believed that women’s votes would end war.
Now, as we lurch toward yet another war, women will at least be participating equally with men in planning and fighting. That is perhaps some sort of victory, but an equal right to suffer and die on battlefields was never the dream of our foremothers who fought for women’s equal rights. It’s a victory, I guess, but the cheers stick in my throat. Why didn’t we listen more seriously to Jeannette Rankin when she wrote: “You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake”?
Eleanor Roosevelt once wrote, “I cannot believe that war is the best solution. No one won the last war, and no one will win the next war”. The world has had a chance to see the truth of that statement over and over again during the last half century, most recently in the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians have been struggling and fighting ever since the creation of Israel and no one has won. Many people have lost—lost their lives, their families, their freedoms—but there are no winners. There are no winners in Syria or Central Africa. Wars keep exploding and then sputtering out in temporary truces and ceasefires, but no one ever wins.
The same is true in all the wars against abstractions that America keeps declaring—the War on Cancer, the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty—some have produced some limited good, but not one has ever been won. None will ever be won.
There is something wrong in the way we call for war every time we see something we don’t like. The only wars won these days are the fantasy wars on TV and movie screens where unreal villains are vanquished by unbelievable supernatural heroes. And only children believe in those.
The truth is, as the Friends’ Committee on National Legislation keeps telling us War Is Not the Answer.
It is not war that solves the world’s problems; it is hard work. That means the hard work of negotiating even with people we don’t approve of; the hard work of rejecting the schemes of arms manufacturers and refusing to send weapons to combatants; the hard work of education so young people will learn the value of compromise and conciliation; the hard work of listening to all the members of the UN no matter how unwelcome their comments.
War tries to exclude people—to push aside and overcome anyone and anything we don’t like, but life is lived by including as many people and opinions as we can, by hammering out agreements and compromises to keep the world moving ahead. How many of us remember the poem by Edwin Markham, a mostly forgotten poet, who wrote a verse favored by many anthologists and teachers?
He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
Eleanor Roosevelt knew that peace had to be won by drawing people in; the Friends Committee on National Legislation knows it too. How long will it be before our political leaders learn that simple truth?
One hundred years ago in 1914, Europe blundered into World War I, a story of chilling diplomatic failures brilliantly told in Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914—a book every member of Congress and the diplomatic corps should read over the holiday break. It’s scary to see how peace can fall apart so easily.
Then there was 1814, a year during which much of the world was at war. Napoleon won a few battles, but lost bigger ones. Paris was occupied and Napoleon finally abdicated and was sent to the island of Elba. Meanwhile the Americans were fighting the British in the War of 1812. The Americans won at Niagara Falls, but lost when British troops marched into Washington and burned down many of its most important monuments. Another inconclusive set of battles which accomplished very little but brought death to far too man young men. The centuries roll on, but young men in every time and every country continue to be treated as though their lives were of no value.
So what will 2014 bring? The world is not starting out in very good shape. There are wars in Syria, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. Unrest continues in most of the Middle East including Egypt for which we had such high hopes only a few years ago. Israel and Palestine continue their seemingly endless and dangerous dance. And violence is reappearing in Russian cities.
The world needs a new broom. Does anyone besides me still remember the poem “Welcome to the New Year” that Eleanor Farjeon wrote more than half a century ago? I found it again in one of the favorite books of my childhood More Silver Pennies by Blanche Jennings Thompson.
Hey, my lad, ho, my lad!
Here’s a New Broom.
Heaven’s your housetop
And Earth is your room
Tuck up your shirtsleeves,
There’s plenty to do—
Look at the muddle
That’s waiting for you!
Dust in the corners
And dirt on the floor,
Cobwebs still clinging
To window and door.
Hey, my lad! Ho, my lad!
Nimble and keen—
Here’s your New Broom, my lad!
See you sweep clean.
(Eleanor Farjeon Come Christmas)
What would a new broom consist of these days? Perhaps a new approach to solving the world’s problems without war. If each of us decides to raise our voice and let our leaders know that we are sick and tired of constant fighting and endless wars, maybe at last we could get something done.
I strongly support the efforts of the Friends Committee on National Legislation to urge Congress to take four steps to stop the endless wars:
1. Repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force
2. Disclose the Rules for Using Drones: No More Secret Wars
3. Repeal the Patriot Act
4. Close the U.S. Prison at Guantanamo Bay and End Indefinite Detention
Perhaps if enough of us speak out, we can build a new broom that will make 2014 a better year and the 21st century more than just a repeat of earlier centuries and endless wars that accomplish nothing except to sow the seeds for another war. Let’s stop the cycle now.
This week when most Americans are breathing a sigh of relief because it looks as though the Syrian crisis may be ended without bombs, it’s a good time to think of some of the other peacemakers who have worked to remove some of the worst weapons from the world. Jody Williams and the people who worked with her to ban the use of landmines is one of the most prominent.
Just over twenty years ago, in 1992, Williams started the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) which worked tirelessly to convince countries and international organizations to join together to outlaw the use of landmines. These mines have been used for several centuries in wars in Asia, Europe and the Americas, but their use increased toward the end of the twentieth century. Television brought sickening pictures of the victims, many of them children, into the world’s living rooms.Landmines are shocking weapons when they are used to kill and maim soldiers, but their use goes far beyond that. Anti-personnel landmines stay buried in the earth for years—for generations—and the damage they do can be seen in the number of people with only one leg, or no hands, or other body parts missing. Small children hobble around on crutches because a seemingly harmless walk through a field led to a devastating explosion that brought pain and misery. No number of free crutches or doctor services can undo the lasting harm.
When Jody Williams decided to start the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, it must have looked like an overwhelming job. Slowly and painfully through collecting enough money to raise the issue publicly and finally shame most governments into signing the ban, the organization made headway. 161 states have signed the Ottawa Treaty banning the use of anti-personnel landmines although neither Russia nor the U.S. has done so. The U.S. has said that it needs to have the freedom to use landmines in the DMZ between North and South Korea. Americans still need to push our legislators into finding other ways to fight wars—methods that don’t involve the killing and maiming of innocent civilians.
But this week Russia and the U.S. are working together to find a way to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It’s not a perfect solution to the violence in Syria; the civil war continues there, but it is an important effort. If Syria can be persuaded to give up chemical weapons and destroy them, the world will have moved one small step toward greater peace.Perhaps someday John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov will join the roll of peacekeepers. If Jody Williams and her colleagues can persuade countries to ban landmines, surely two powerful government officials can work together to eradicate another one of the world’s devastating war tools—chemical weapons. That would surely be a blessing for all of us.