Down by the riverside here in East Tennessee where the Bible Belt wraps around the Republican Party in a smothering embrace. Here where a majority grows up believing their country never fought any unjust wars. Here, where most folks don't see the downside of storing enough nuclear materials in Oak Ridge to blow away civilization. Here where the phrase “depleted uranium” makes no sense to most and that more musical phrase, “give peace a chance” seldom passes the lips of self-respecting teenaged boys. Yes, even here the peace movement sometimes gathers enough candlelight power to make its presence known.
So it was Wednesday as twilight seeped into the river gorge at Volunteer Landing. About 100 peace advocates drifted in from three directions, four if you count those descending from the crosswalk over Neyland Drive. Athletes, lawyers, writers, politicians, carpenters, teachers and students formed a circle, lit candles and, at 7:30 sharp, joined their prayers and voices to thousands of others singing out at such gatherings across the country in support of Cindy Sheehan, mother of the hour.
She's a local issue in communities across the country. When soldiers come home in boxes, outspoken grievers become lightning rods. Even with Karl Rove and Bill O'Reilly smearing Sheehan's name, you know in your heart she has something they can't take away—and that's standing. This mother of a sweet boy named Casey who became an Eagle Scout and honor student and a soldier who died April 4, 2004 in Iraq, evidently did something right, though her heart is plainly broken now. You see it written there in her plain American face.
Still, there was an odd air of celebration—the sort you glimpse on TV amid the growing throng at Crawford, Texas, as if they sense the tide is turning. Many Americans, including some Republicans, now say out loud what few dared even think two years ago--that invading Iraq was a mistake and George W. Bush misled us.
Speaking out Wednesday was tough though. A rockabilly band with heavy metal touches performed “Dirty Woman” and other raucous tunes at a nearby restaurant. Still, speeches and peace songs lapped up against music, traffic and intermittent silence in one of the most beautiful settings in Knoxville. Ah that Henley Street Bridge, so majestic, so cathedral from below.
Peace advocates spoke of Sheehan's courage, Bush's perfidy, the need to speak the truth about our leaders. Had I felt at liberty to speak, I would've said something like the following.
Take heart. Peace and reason are winning. It may seem odd to say it in the middle of a dishonest war, but those who believe our greatest enemy is war itself are winning. It's something you can chart on a graph. Nearly a century ago a war began that claimed the lives of millions. Russia alone lost 1.7 million soldiers and many more were maimed. Yet most nations fought on in the face of such horror, many of them oblivious to the havoc until they looked around at their emptied villages, their starving children. Still, multitudes tolerated that war for years, swallowing the Big Lie that God was on their side and victory imminent. World War II followed all too soon and millions more died, but since that time fewer and fewer people have been killed in warfare. A popular movement in this country brought the Vietnam War to an end, thanks to television news and hard reporting. The Cold War ended with dictators unwilling to open fire on their own people with cameras watching—a kind of first.
In our time, fewer than 2,000 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq, and yet most people see this war for the madness it is. We see the torture, the beheadings, the lies about causes. The true costs of landmines and depleted uranium and post-traumatic stress are seeping into public consciousness. Thanks to the Internet, more and more people realize our past and present leaders played a role in setting up the tyrants we now have to fight, and even people who are dimly aware of such things are telling their leaders to stop this craziness. War, like slavery, remains, but it's only a shadow of its former self.
Rational people of good will can win out in the end if we try hard enough, thanks to communications, the ubiquitous image of this fragile earth in space and the growing realization that God does not choose sides in political slaughter. Eventually this knowledge will spread to our worst enemies through coaxing, incentives, discourse, negotiations and aid. Yes, occasional military action is inevitable, but better means of communication favor peace more often than not.
Still, there is a peril to be faced. Old Cold Warriors like Rumsfeld, Cheney, Bush and Wolfowitz—not to mention truly horrendous tyrants in the mold of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden--have much to lose once people turn away from war as the primary means of resolving conflicts. The question is whether they can reach up from their moldy graves and, with their nukes and robot drones and battle schemes, bring the whole works crashing down around us. I'm betting they'll fail if people of good will remain vigilant and continue to speak out.
On the eve of our invasion of Iraq, the largest worldwide peace demonstration in history occurred. It barely registered in our myopic media, but it's true. The world has had its fill of war, something even Bush eventually must face.