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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Daniel Berrigan Remembered

--  By Tom Phillips

When I was nine years old, my family visited the famous Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania -- row upon row of headstones, marking the young men who died there, and in subsequent wars overseas.  Wandering through the cemetery, I lost track of my parents -- and suddenly they looked and couldn't find me.  My mother went on a frantic search.  Finally she found me lying in the grass between two graves, with my arms crossed over my chest.  I looked up and said: "Tom Phillips, World War Three."

Growing up in cold-war America, body counts seemed a normal part of life.  Writing the news for radio and TV,  I calmly chronicled the deaths of 50 thousand Americans and millions of Asians in Vietnam.  After work I joined protests against the war.  Still, I wasn't a pacifist.  Like nearly all Americans, I bought the idea that some wars were necessary, notably the Civil War to save the Union, World War Two to save the world from fascist imperialism.

Daniel Berrigan, the radical Jesuit priest who died in April, disagreed.  Back in the Sixties I heard him say -- no principle is worth the sacrifice of a single human being.  

That's too radical, I thought, repeating the usual rationales -- Hitler, slavery, etc.  Now, reflecting on all the graveyards I've visited -- though I'm not an expert on war or history, I no longer assume Berrigan was too radical.

President Obama set an example of another approach in the conflict over Iran's nuclear program.  Resisting pressure from Israel and American hawks, he took a patient, firm stand -- using economic and political pressure to win crucial concessions from Iran.  The result is remarkable -- at least a temporary halt to the nuclear program, and more important, the prospect of peaceful, productive relations with a crucial player in the middle east.  Bombing would have failed on both counts.  It would have driven the nuclear project deeper underground but spurred its urgency, and would have ruined US-Iranian relations for another generation.

Could we apply these principles, in retrospect, to the Civil War, to World War Two?  Were 600 thousand deaths necessary to save the Union?  Were 50 million required to save the world from fascism?

In both cases, the US went to war only after it was attacked. Still, in both cases the response was to meet force with greater force, to overwhelm the enemy with a relentless offense -- culminating with the fire-bombing of German cities, the nuclear assault on Japan.  We bombed them into submission.  In the South, it was scorched earth -- remembered even today as an atrocity.

Suppose we had tried economic and political pressure, aiming to isolate rather than annihilate our foes?  Remember that the US was one of the last countries in the world to abolish slavery.  If world markets were closed to the Confederacy, how long would it have taken for their economy to collapse?  If northern markets were closed to southern goods, how long would it have taken for the south to give up and re-enter the union, for its own good?

After Pearl Harbor,  suppose we had taken a defensive rather than an offensive pose?  Japanese imperialism was as unsustainable as any other empire in the 20th century.  The same goes for Germany.  How long would it take for the Third Reich to die of its own inhumanity?  How many million people were sacrificed to destroy fascism and make way for communism in Europe?    

After the war, the great US diplomat George Kennan came up with a new strategy for the potentially world-ending conflict with Russia and communism: contain the enemy, limit its expansion, and eventually it will die of its own internal contradictions.  Kennan played a key role in the development of cold-war institutions, notably the Marshall Plan.  Later he criticized US policy for turning more militaristic and aggressive.  But his overall strategy prevailed.  Because it did, Tom Phillips did not perish in World War Three, along with human civilization.

Can we apply that wisdom, that patience, to conflicts of the future?  Hillary Clinton, can we talk?

Daniel Berrigan, rest in peace.

Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

Daniel Berrigan, New York, 2001