By Donella Meadows
–January 17, 1991–
So this is how it happens. This is how the world convinces itself that war is inevitable, logical, and necessary. It’s an age-old story, but I have never seen it acted out before, and I am heartsick.
To my generation the two World Wars are textbook history. We were too young to understand when rhetoric turned into hardened positions, which turned into war in Korea and Vietnam. As children in the Fifties we were told that war, if it came, would come from the USSR in a sudden, all-consuming flash. As a young person in the Sixties I learned that nonviolent resistance is the only moral way to oppose evil — an idea that I, with many others, took as a mandate for my life.
During the Seventies and Eighties I built up hope that war could be transcended; that the interconnected, rapidly communicating world was developing some wisdom; that the idea of a full-scale, million-soldier, city-bombing war was unthinkable. For a brief, sweet interlude in the new Nineties, as the Soviet Union fell apart and democracy spread through East Europe, I actually turned that hope into a belief.
It’s so very sad now to let it go.
Over the last six months I’ve seen the world retreat a century. I’ve been watching not just what has happened on the ground in the Middle East but what has happened in our collective minds. Within a month we changed Saddam Hussein from “a thug, but OUR thug” into a Hitler. We escalated his grievance with Kuwait into a plan to take over the entire Arabian peninsula. We dismissed the idea that the Arabs might be able to discipline him and began to believe that only the combined forces of the world could do that.
Within two months our purpose changed from protecting Saudi Arabia to rooting Iraq out of Kuwait. Within five months the idea that sanctions could work was discarded. An arbitrary deadline became serious; the acceptable date for negotiation became an issue weighted with significance; it was somehow inadmissable for that negotiation to take up the chronic problems of the Mideast, however much those problems need negotiation.
Every one of those idea-changes narrowed the field of options, limited our imaginations, and pressed us toward war. Not one of them was founded upon fact. Some people in Congress, in the White House, in the Pentagon, and on the streets sounded very certain, but they had no real certainty. Who knew whether the Arabs could have brought their own house to order? How can anyone be sure what the effect of sanctions would have been? Who other than Saddam Hussein himself knows what he intended last August or intends now? Who can foresee what this war will be like or what will remain either physically or politically after it is over?
Through a process of self-hypnosis we created apparent certainty out of nothing. The Iraqis did the same. Together we made this war up. We turned pride, fear, and fantasy into violent fact.
I guess that’s how all wars start. Abstractions — substanceless notions such as “strengthening the hand of the President,” “Arab unity,” “establishing a new world order,” or “opposing imperialism” — take on such reality that for them we are willing to terrify, maim, and kill people, to destroy property and resources, to devastate the environment, to drain national treasuries, and to leave a scorched ground of mortal hatred upon which to build the next war. That reasoning seems so insane to me that I still can’t believe it has swept the world, right before my astounded eyes. I see no new world order. I see a retreat to the oldest, most primitive order of all.
This is a week for people who are committed to peace to despair. But there are some signs that let us cling to the hope that someday, not yet, but someday, the idea of war may become inadmissible. The Congress voted for this one reluctantly and by no means unanimously. Hundreds of thousands of people in many lands are protesting against it. There have been at least token attempts to involve the United Nations, to stop and think, to negotiate, and to protect innocent citizens. And the events of the past six months do demonstrate with utter clarity the basic premise of the peace movement. The cause of this war is in our collective minds. Minds can change. War can become unthinkable.
Said Ralph Waldo Emerson more than a hundred years ago: “It is really a thought that built this portentous war establishment, and a thought shall melt it away. Every nation and every man instantly surround themselves with a material apparatus which exactly corresponds to their moral state…. Observe how every truth and every error … clothes itself with societies, houses, cities, language, ceremonies, newspapers. Observe … how timber, brick, lime, and stone have flown into convenient shape, obedient to the master idea reigning in the minds of many persons….
“It follows of course that the least change in the man will change his circumstances…. If, for example, he could be inspired with a tender kindness to the souls of men, the tents would be struck; the men-of-war would rot ashore; the arms rust; the cannon would become streetposts.”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991