It is Armistice Day. Across the room, my daughter is singing to her stuffed lamb. Being not quite five months old, she sings without words or melody, in half-formed "a's" and "o's." She can keep it up for hours.
Laura is a happy child. She grins at visitors, and her whole body smiles at the sight of my wife or me. She laughs at much which adults have long since lost the humor of. She stares transfixed by events which we hardly see, they have become so commonplace to us. She has a child care center where there are other children who love her. She has Lamb and Froggie and Bear. If I hold her hands, she can stand up, and she is more proud of that than of everything else.
She is a part of the future.
The birth of a child brings a hope and a burden. The hope is that there will be a future, that this child may have a place in it and make it better. The burden is that the future suddenly becomes a present reality. One must think about it. One must, in the last analysis, reflect on whether the hope makes any sense.
But it is Armistice Day, a day that belongs to the past. We do not remember it now-we have even changed the name of the day-but on this day sixty-one years ago, the guns in Europe stopped. The Great War was over. Ten million were dead; the old Europe was in ruins. War had become destructive beyond the worst nightmares of the nineteenth century. Another great war would come, and after it the balance of terror. Yet, for that one day at least, there was no war, but peace.
I am thinking about the future, but the past is always there. I cannot escape it, nor can I unmake it. But I can read it for what it may tell me about now and, perhaps, the rest of the century.
In the decades before 1914, there were many small wars but no large one. There had been none in Europe itself since 1870, and that war was quick, decisive, and, by modern standards, bloodless. The international balance held. The old order was crumbling, but few read the signs.
As with politics, so with warfare. The guns on the Continent had been silent, but they had been there, changing and becoming more and more terrible until they had outdistanced military strategy and tactics. Artillery, flame-throwers, poison gas, and above all the machine gun had ended the old-fashioned pitched battle. Entrenchments and barbed wire had made the defense supreme and the offense impotent.
Few, least of all the generals, understood the change. And so, again and again, at Ypres, Tannenberg, Verdun, the Somme, tens of thousands charged, and tens of thousands died. At the Somme, 20,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded in the first half-hour of fighting; 60,000 had been lost by the end of the first day. There were no new tactics, and the old brought only slaughter.
If all this were only history, it would have little to do with my daughter. But today, of all ways, it is, like the future, a present reality. One studies the first two decades of the twentieth century almost as one would a magnifying mirror. The image there is distorted, but in a grotesque way it is true. It points, at least, to truths we would rather ignore.
Kings, princes, barons, counts, dukes-the whole decaying leadership of Europe lived in those years as in a dream. They were not irresponsible. They literally did not know what they were doing. War, in the unreal world they had created, was an instrument of national policy: quick, surgical, and decisive. It would all be over in a few weeks.
So the politicians risked war, and the generals prepared for war. For the Franco-Prussian War with bigger guns. In August, 1914, all the belligerents believed that the war would be over by Christmas. To the end, the British commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, dreamed of cavalry wheeling and flashing in the open fields, driving the enemy in terror before it. War had changed; politics had changed; human thought had not.
The magnifying mirror distorts, but it is much like today. An old order is crumbling today: not an aristocracy, but a way of life based on the illusion of unending resources. Politicians risk war today, as they did then. An accident-an assassination, a goose on a radar screen, a tank lost in the fog-could start the shooting. And the nations prepare for wars which will never be fought because modern weapons have made them impossible.
World War III would be to earlier wars as World War I was to the Battle of Agincourt. The President and Congress, the leaders of the Soviet Union, the military leaders on both sides, all say they know this. But they talk of strategy, or tactical nuclear weapons, or intense land wars-all the macabre jargon of modern "defense"-as though little or nothing had changed. It has taken us sixty years to learn precisely nothing.
Military technology has stripped us of defense, yet the government talks of "survivability" and has a Defense Department. Large conscript armies would simply die in the holocaust with the rest of us, yet many in the government want a new draft. Is all this less unreal than Field Marshall Haig's obsession with cavalry?
All the planning, all the computer projection, all the jargon, all the reassurances, only obscure the central fact. Today we are all in the trenches. God help us if the assault whistles ever blow.
Laura is sleeping now. She sleeps easily, deeply, stirring only when I try to put a blanket over her.
She will be eighteen before the end of this century.
Eighteen. The age when one becomes a legal adult. She will have to choose between British and American citizenship (my wife is English). She will be able to vote. And, if she has not already made up her mind, she will have to decide how she feels about war: she may face the draft, and she will almost certainly face the recruiters.
Perhaps this is thinking too far ahead. If Laura is to have a future at all, more and more people must say no to the madness that surrounds us. That-more than civil liberties, more than religious freedom (important as these are)-is why there must be a right to object to war and a right to speak out against it. Saying no is a small hope, but it is the only hope we have.
At the beginning of the century, there were many who spoke against war. There were some who saw what the next war would be like. Pacifists, socialist, anarchists-all dreamed that the ordinary people of Europe would join each other and refuse to fight in a conflict which could mean nothing but the death of millions of their fellows. They did not stop the war, for the powers and principalities found it convenient not to listen. When war came, the ordinary people of Europe fought, and those who refused to fight suffered. In the United States, some objectors were still in jail in 1933. Dissent has never been easy.
Nor, though it has ended wars, has it yet brought peace. But if no one reports the emperor naked, he will still be naked. The powers that be will choose not to see his nakedness, and people will be deceived or deceive themselves. That is why, even in the most hopeless times, every word, every act against war is precious. In a society where the deaths of thousands become sanitized by pseudo-clinical Pentagon language, only dissent can restore the moral dimension that somehow got lost in the computer.
When I was in high school, my English teacher once asked each of us to talk about what we were planning to be in the future. An awkward situation for me. I had no plans. Everyone else seemed so organized, and there I was-almost the last to speak, which made it worse. I stammered out a couple of sentences about my values and sat down. I felt like a fool.
Now my daughter will be growing up, and I see that I was wrong to feel foolish. I could wish for nothing better than that she should be concerned first with what is right and good and true, and second with her career.
Our society does not make this easy. Thousands of our youth would rather stay at home, go to school, get useful work-but they join the military because it is either that or sit idle on a doorstep. If too few of them join, the right wing in Congress will cry panic and introduce a draft bill. That is no world for someone just beginning life. For my daughter, and for all other young people, I wish for a world where choices about the military are free and real, not coerced by circumstances or the draft.
I could wish, and I do, for a world in which that kind of decision is not necessary. But that is hoping, perhaps, for too much. One does what one can; it is not enough.
So Laura, too, will have to choose. I hope she will stand for the future-for a future for herself and her children. She may choose differently. That would hurt, but I could not change it.
At least I can help her to see that there is a choice. I can help her to be free.