War, What is It Good For?

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash
Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash


Absolutely nothing. War, I despise, ‘Cause it means destruction of innocent lives. Good God, y’all.

Source: LyricFind via Google.com
Songwriters: Barrett Strong / Norman Whitfield
War lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

If you are reading this as a follower of JewishSacredAging.com, there is a good chance you remember watching the first televised war, the “police action” in Viet Nam. It wasn’t a war because it was never declared. Yet every day we saw clips of the brutality of a war. We sang that war was good for absolutely nothing. Today many of us are having difficulty watching TV, or browsing our computers, because the news is a flashback.

Back then I was fighting the draft, protesting the war, and screaming at our government officials.  My father, a WWII hero, at first did not like my anti-war activities. When I was granted conscientious objector status (highly unusual for someone applying based on a Jewish religious basis), my father was concerned about the effect it would have on my future career. But eventually even he decided the war in Viet Nam was wrong.

But now, I am 70 (how terribly strange to be 70). And this war is not being fought by friends who were unlucky enough to be caught in the draft. In fact, if I was Ukrainian, my friends and I would not be in the group that President Zelensky says should stay and fight. We are too old to fight. But not too old to remember. And not old enough to forget. We see this war in real time. We see that it is not just soldiers fighting each other. It’s civilians being attacked indiscriminately. Dying because one megalomaniac wants more land? For dreams of restoring the great Russian empire? It seems to be insanity. Oh, my sweet lord.

So how do we confront such ugliness, ugliness that we don’t seem to be able to impact. Back then I went out into the streets. I sat in at draft boards. I marched on Washington. I organized voting. Today, if I take part in a sit in, I will have trouble getting up. And instead of screaming at government officials, I scream at God (a really good exercise. Go into the woods or go into the basement, and really let loose. You will feel better. Let me know if you hear any response). We can’t vote Putin out of office, and I do not think protests move him. Some estimate that over 13,000 people in Russia have already been arrested for protesting the war. Putin hasn’t blinked.

Should we all pray? Absolutely. Each night before I go to bed, I say a prayer for peace. Some of you us have already started going to the mass prayer vigils that are being organized. But as we know, there is an old Yiddish saying, pray as if everything depends on God, and act as if everything depends on you (although it sounds like a Yiddishism, it was actually said by St Augustine). So how do we take action?

I attended PS 94. Our bell rang once to start and end class. If it rang three times it was a fire drill. If it rang five times, it was a shelter drill. As I remember shelter drills, we walked silently to the hallways marked with signs as fall out shelters, or we lifted the seat on our desks, get on our knees, pulled the seat back down and covered our heads with our arms. That was considered effective action to protect us from a nuclear attack.

Now we are hearing people talk about nuclear war again. Has the world gone crazy? Didn’t we put and end to that talk years ago? Obviously not. So when we get through this Ukrainian war, we must get back on the road to real disarmament. Mutually shared destruction may not be a deterrent to crazy people. Perhaps we can not use our physical strength to great impact, but we have plenty of brain power. It is time that we share our accumulated wisdom with the world. We must prove that we learned something from watching the Viet Nam war: war does not solve border disputes; wars only stop ideas for short periods of time; war can ruin cultures, but the strong ones survive and revive.

Remember, we are the people who believe that will be a time when nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. We must live into and cause that future. It is our job to move world, now, because, we can. Anne Frank said, “How wonderful it is that nobody needs wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” And she was a child. If you don’t listen to children any more, take Maggie Kuhn’s lead. Her goal was to do something outrageous every day (if you don’t know who she was, Google her and the Grey Panthers. See what old people can accomplish when they become activists). Pick someplace to put your activism. Stopping war is a good one, but so is racial and economic inequity or environmental justice. Fighting antisemitism is another one we should all be involved in.

We must use our collective energy to move the world. We must not sit quietly. Our creaking bones make a lot of noise. Our powerful voices must also. In a weird twist, maybe this war has given us a reason to find purpose. Take on any purpose that will leave the world a better place. And when you get stuck thinking the task will take too long to complete, remember this: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” —Pirkei Avot 2:21

2 Comments

  1. Thank you, Carl, for the reminder that we all have a responsibility to “do something” when we see the need. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of all the challenges that face us. We can each find our own way to an issue or cause that moves us and “something” we can do.

  2. HIAS did so much good a century ago for our grandparents, so I have tried to support them in their efforts to help the victims of Putin’s “special military operation”. Please select your favorite charity and support it in the name of all those who will continue to suffer.

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