This history blog of mine usually focuses on Nez Perce, Native American, and American history and history telling. I like to find the missing pieces of our history—my current obsession is the under-told story of the beaver’s place in the US economy and Euro-American Westward expansion. I highlight the places where historians have found new links and chinks in old stories—in my student days, the role of disease in depopulating Indigenous America was not taught, the roles of the plague and the Little Ice Age in European expansion and emigration not seriously treated. Today they are routinely credited with major impacts on US history and world events.
It seems obvious to me now that history is not a series of discrete events, but a continuum of natural and human actions and reactions that moves people, creates industrial and economic innovation, makes and unmakes wars and countries, and crawls back down to touch and sometimes totally disrupt individual lives.
I was too young to be cognizant of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but nuclear tests were part of my childhood. Years later, I heard Terry Tempest Williams read “Clan of the One-Breasted Women,” the story of generations of cancer in the women in her family. The cancer, Williams surmises, is the result of those nuclear tests of the 1950s that we sometimes watched on TV, that we looked for mushroom cloud signals in far-away California.
The current events in the Middle East have stirred my emotions, and awakened me to a historical continuum that I see as a dangerous turn of events, a rippling of waters in that pond that is moving slowly but inexorably across the globe. Netanyahu invoked the holocaust after Hamas’s initial brutal attack. Hitler’s holocaust, in his own words—the displacement and then killing of millions of Jews and other undesirables–was modeled on Americas Westward expansion and displacement of the Indians. History. Israel responded forcibly to Hamas with bombings and military invasion of Gaza.
Blessed are the peacemakers.
Bless Nelson Mandela, who came out of 26 years of imprisonment to lead a divided nation towards rapprochement.
Bless Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy, who negotiated their way down from the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Nuclear missiles were on their way to Cuba; direct negotiations told Khrushchev that America would not attempt another invasion of Cuba, and that our Jupiter nuclear warheads in Turkey would be removed.
In an early October column following the terrible Hamas attack on Israel, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman remembered a 2008 confrontation between India and Pakistan. When Pakistani militants infiltrated India and killed 160 people in Mumbai, India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s military response was to do nothing. Pakistan remained the extremist, the criminal in the world’s eyes. And the two countries, both nuclear armed, did not go to war. Bless Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
A Peacemaker corollary: Revenge is the most dangerous emotion.
In the column sited above, and in later columns, Friedman goes on to describe how Netanyahu and his right-wing war cabinet have guided Israel into a protracted war, where the initial 1200 Israeli deaths are now, in reality and, more importantly, in the eyes of the world, outnumbered by thousands of Gazan deaths and casualties. We’ve watched hospitals, schools, mosques and churches bombed on our TV screens, watched doctors doing surgery without anesthesia, seen bodies dug from crumpled buildings, lined up in body bags in hospital hallways. The prospects for Gazan civilian survivors to join in a peaceful resolution seem dim. Revenge threatens to answer revenge.
It is at least as likely today that America’s involvement—and war activity across a wider region—will expand, as it was that the Gaza invasion by Israel would grow when Friedman wrote and expressed his fears. We too are now locked in a dual where revenge is the primary motivator,
There are no peacemakers in sight, but who knew what Khrushchev would do. Who knew that Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for 26 years, would emerge the conciliator and eschew revenge. With Selma and Bull Conner, the beatings and murders of civil rights workers, who knew that Martin Luther King could keep the lid on violence. And that it was a strong enough lid to survive his own assassination.
Revenge goes on and grows until absolute exhaustion, until one side is utterly defeated, hungry, cold, starving, landless, homeless. Or until there is an atomic bomb—unless peacemakers step in.
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