by Austin Bay
It was February 1990, three months after the Berlin Wall cracked
and the Cold War began to melt. Following my lecture, she approached me in
the school hallway. Despite the crowsfeet around her eyes, a tattling detail
that pegged her on the high side of 40, she had decked herself in the
perennially adolescent costume of a 1960s hippie: bandanna in the frizzed
hair, faded blue jeans, and a pearl-button shirt best described as vaguely
Navaho and LSD.
She smiled self-consciously, then raised a scold's finger: "You
write books about war, right? With the end of the Cold War and so many
people waging peace, I guess you'll have to find another subject, eh?"
I wasn't sure what rough beast I might represent in her garbled
version of the universe, though I felt certain soldier, male and Republican
would appear on her list of indictments. With two kids at home, I didn't
have a spare six hours to catalog the conflicts lurking in what she believed
to be a looming era of global bliss, so I kept my reply brief and Texan:
"Well ma'am, it's quite a hazardous form of peace."
Color her a living caricature of trendy leftist politics and a
middle-aged woman in desperate need of a fashion consultant. Yup, those are
the right Crayolas. Note that within six months, Saddam Hussein invaded
Kuwait; within 18 months, Yugoslavia began to crack; within two years, the
Soviet Union shattered and released the seeds of a dozen wars. Three years
later, Islamist terrorists bombed the World Trade Center.
Still, in this time of year when we pray to the Prince of Peace,
hope for Peace on Earth, and wish one another cheer and goodwill, it is fair
to damn our world's terrible condition.
The numbers appall: In its annual assessment of conflicts, The
National Defense Council Foundation identified 59 wars in 2001. My count
differs, perhaps because I spend so much time watching Africa and Central
Asia. Depending on how one parses the combat, there are at this
moment between 110 and 130 armed conflicts (a euphemism for wars
grand and petty, but always deadly) plaguing the globe.
Several historical studies have attempted to determine how many
years of peace have occurred in humankind's 5,000 years of recorded history.
"The results vary from a few hundred to a few dozen years of peace," says
noted military historian and editor of StrategyPage.com James F. Dunnigan,
"but these exercises always depend on how one defines peace. I would say
there have been no years in man's recorded history where there has been no
Why is conflict so endemic to our species? The poet Petrarch
wrote: "Five great enemies to peace inhabit within us: avarice, ambition,
envy, anger and pride. If those enemies were to be banished, we should
infallibly enjoy perpetual peace." Avarice, ambition, envy, anger, pride:
Shakespeare made villains of them all. They reappear every 30 minutes on all
news television. Indeed, they are at the root of Sept. 11, Afghanistan,
Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, ad infinitum.
George C. Marshall, a statesman of impeccable credentials as
both warrior and peacemaker, observed: "If man does find the solution for
world peace, it will be the most revolutionary reversal of his record we
have ever known."
Yes, the 1990s began with the Cold War pulling a slow fade, but
in its wake the world discovered a thousand simmering ethnic and historical
conflicts, with a dozen little Hitlers stoking these small infernos. This
new millennium begins with religious absolutists spewing 10th century
rhetoric while seeking modern weapons of mass destruction, their violent
schemes leaving thousands murdered. As for our own unperfected democracy,
countless micro-conflicts -- from drive-by slayings to gang brawls --
continue without respite.
What is to be done? The eagle on our national seal casts eyes
toward the talons that clutch branches symbolizing peace; the other foot
clasps arrows. May God bless our hopes for a world without war. But given
the strange mix of heaven and hell that we are, may we pray for the wisdom
to prepare for both the worst and the best.