COMMENTARY: Thoughts on war on a quiet morning

Before me is “Sketches from a Life,” by George F. Keenan, a 380-page diary whose entries date back more than 60 years. Keenan, then the foremost expert on US-Soviet relations, wrote a tome of personal insights, reflections, and critiques as a diplomat in war-torn Eastern Europe.


The Cold War began as nothing more than a precautionary attitude, blown out of proportion by over-eager world powers. Keenan had unraveled man’s ultimate tragic flaw with Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the outbreak of the Second World War, and the subsequent extermination of Jews.


But he had also pondered his own country’s follies, its smugness as an emerging imperialist power, and its insulation from the heart of humanity. Through it all, and I’m not even halfway, Keenan writes lyrically yet compellingly about the evil that men do.


Not unlike what Robert McNamara lamented about in 1993, he who’d spent seven years as JFK’s defense secretary and 13 years thereafter as president of the World Bank. In his documentary, “The Fog of War,” he admits to have made serious mistakes of judgment during the Vietnam War. The former defense chief recalls how the hawks in the Kennedy Administration had resolved to “blow (the North Vietnamese) back to the Stone Age,” and how America had earlier been such a paranoid superpower during World War II.


McNamara recalls the exploits of Gen. Curtis LeMay, who’d firebombed 64 Japanese cities in 1945, instantly incinerating more than 100,000 Japanese during the first three hours of the campaign. All in all, the two nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki included, LeMay and the Pentagon had killed over a million Japanese civilians at the war’s Pacific theater.


In a barely audible confession, McNamara echoed what LeMay had uttered at the end of the war—that had the world known any better, it could have tried them as war criminals.


But that’s for history to flog itself with. His concern—uttered some 13 years ago—about the threat of nuclear war wasn’t unfounded. Only recently, wire reports bared a new consensus by a group of prominent scientists and security experts who declared that the world continues to “inch closer to nuclear Armageddon.” The advisory was issued by the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, whose board includes 17 Nobel laureates.


The scientists said that there were a number of factors reinforcing the plausibility of nuclear war in the Pacific Century. These were the “nuclear ambitions” of Iran and North Korea; global terrorism; nuclear materials in Russia and elsewhere that remain unaccounted for; some 2,000 of the 25,000 nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia that are still on “launch-ready” status; and “new pressure” from climate change that could intensify proliferation.


That last one strikes a resonant chord with yet another documentary, that of former US vice president Al Gore. I watched “The Inconvenient Truth” and, although not a big fan of the former VP, was riveted by the indisputable logic of his statistics:


The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has almost doubled in the last 30 years.

Malaria has spread to higher altitudes in places like the Colombian Andes, 7,000 feet above sea level.

At least 279 species of plants and animals are already responding to global warming, moving closer to the poles.

Deaths from global warming will double in just 25 years — to 300,000 people a year.

More than a million species worldwide could be driven to extinction by 2050.


Extinction. Now that’s a big word. I doubt if policymakers would even bother to recite it. US presidents with perhaps the exception of Kennedy and Clinton wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. One even called Gore “a man gone crazy!” Not too many people, learned or ignorant, good or bad, would even consider the consequences. After all, as a guy named Upton Sinclair said, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his NOT understanding it.”


Hmm, not very encouraging, that one.


But I was in a barangay named Manili sometime in 2003, in the dirt-poor town of Carmen in North Cotabato. We were surveying what now was a shrine, a spot that used to be a mosque, where more than 70 Muslim men and women were shot dead by rogue soldiers in 1971.


The village hadn’t overcome its horrid past, if the quality of its residents’ living was anything to go by. We’d gone there along with a handful of volunteers to introduce some self-help programs, and while the residents seemed stolid at first, we thought we made a connection, albeit barely visible. My thought at the time, while the half-naked children were squatting beside me and their mothers were eyeing our decidedly white collar appearances, was that man could wage as many wars as he wanted but that at the end of it all, some good had to prevail.


My 12-year-old son’s face pops out from behind George Keenan’s non-fiction. And he asks, “Why do people have to die?” After a moment’s silence, he quips, “Tough question, huh?”


We both laugh. But he laughs longer.


[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Nikki Rivera Gomez is a communications adviser for business and government decision makers. He authored “Coffee and Dreams on a Late Afternoon” published by the University of the Philippines Press.]