by Murray Polner
by Murray Polner
I once edited and wrote the introduction to William Graham Sumner's sadly forgotten book, The Conquest of the United States by Spain and Other Essays (Regnery/Gateway). Sumner was an irascible and biting Social Darwinist and classical nineteenth century supporter of laissez faire. What attracted me to him was not his economics but his utter contempt for American imperialism during the Spanish American War and its subsequent invasion of the Philippines, which left 4,000 American volunteers and perhaps 250,000 Filipinos dead. Despite the backing of a jingoist and cowed press, politicians who believed they had God's ear, and a large majority of Americans, Sumner the eternal skeptic wasn't convinced. Unlike the cheerleaders for war, he recognized what lay ahead. The rest of the century, he accurately predicted, would bring a "frightful effusion of blood in revolution and war."
Since then, the world's addiction to war and violence has never abated. Nor has America's. Big and small and proxy wars, attacks on militarily powerful states such as the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Panama, plus interventions in the Caribbean and Central America, to name but a few, have occurred in nearly every decade. All of which seems to reflect Randolph Bourne's famous, all-too prescient remark that, "War is the health of the state." (Of course you can always pacify the population with patriotic and reverent ceremonies honoring the heroic troops who died in battle — always, the rationale goes — in the cause of "freedom.")
During Vietnam —and later, before the Iraq War — we antiwar dissidents finally began mass protesting, marching, contacting politicians, writing, constructing placards and posters, praying, carrying out acts of civil disobedience and marching but to no avail. At least not yet.
My own humble proposal to put an end to war and terrorism everywhere is somewhat different, namely that the International Criminal Court in The Hague be empowered to investigate, indict and try every high-level — and only high-level — governmental leaders whose policies have led to the murder of civilians. The court should be granted the muscle to deal with all those unaccountable politicians including those whose nations have not joined the ICC. In that event, the guilty leaders will never again be allowed to travel to a signatory nation without risk of arrest.
Had such a court had the power, scores of notorious African, Central and Latin American presidents and generals would now be behind bars, as would past, present and future caudillos, generalissimos, presidentes, commissars, führers, duces, Great Leaders, presidents, vice-presidents and assorted zealots. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon would have been hauled into court and tried for their responsibility in causing millions of deaths in Southeast Asia. The court would have had the power to call to the dock Saddam Hussein and any American and British leader who lied so Iraq might be invaded.
This accountability, this threat to punish guilty heads of state, this permanent black cloud would forever strip them of honor and memory and with hope, dissuade future leaders from murdering in the name of one ideology or another and then justifying the resulting savagery with groupthink, excessive flag waving, religious fanaticism and the demonization of "enemies."
Moreover, we could institute special worldwide celebrations for the naysayers and whistleblowers that refuse to go along with the murderous plots afoot in their countries. John Kenneth Galbraith and George Ball are rightly remembered for saying "no" to JFK and LBJ. Who now cares to honor Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow and McGeorge Bundy? I would also have a curriculum devised to teach the young everywhere the virtues of tolerance.
It's a dream, I know, but the alternative is a 21st Century even worse than the one Sumner envisioned.
July 6, 2005
Murray Polner [send him mail] co-authored Disarmed and Dangerous, a biography of Daniel and Philip Berrigan and wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran. A version of this article appeared in the July-August issue of Fellowship magazine.
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