Oct/Nov 2003  •   Salon

War: Means to an End

by Tom Dooley

Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind. —John Fitzgerald Kennedy

As a journal prompt, JFK's words managed to spark some thought from my seventh grade English students today. They also gave me occasion to consider the somewhat monumental shift in meaning these words have undergone since I was sitting in a seventh-grader's desk, contemplating (when not engaged with more immediate, pre-adolescent concerns) the world at large.

When they were originally expressed, these words acknowledged the awesome power of destruction the human race had achieved with the invention and proliferation of the thermonuclear bomb. The realization we could effectively extinguish ourselves in a great, cataclysmic bonfire seemed to sober people for awhile. It certainly sobered me as a kid watching made-for-TV movies about the end of the world, coming to grips with terms like "nuclear winter" and "mushroom cloud."

Now, though, we're not so worried about a cold war-induced armageddon, as we are about some rogue nation or terrorist destroying a city or building. I'm not sure which is worse. On the one hand, we have the luxury of believing it's probably not going to happen to us. We can tell ourselves it'll be someone else who'll be shot by a sniper, mailed an anthrax letter, or blown up by a car bomb. With the old nuclear annihilation scenario, there was no doubt when it happened, if it happened, it was going to be happening to all of us in one way or another.

On the other hand, the likelihood a terrorist will strike somewhere soon is pretty high. At least with the nuclear threat, we could relax a little with the knowledge that pressing the red button was so unthinkable, it was doubtful anyone was actually going to do it.

So, nearly four decades after JFK said we needed to put an end to war, we've taken to waging them out of a preemptive need to protect ourselves from terrorists and other "evil-doers." For the first time, we started a war with another country that technically wasn't already attacking us or our allies, on the grounds they might do so someday. Whether this was the right thing to do or not is beyond my capability to tell, but what I do know is the coming years are going to put JFK's words to the test in ways the previous threat of armageddon could not.

Instead of a total, mutual wipe-out, something even the most obstinate, blood-thirsty zealot could grasp as big bummer, we're looking at the kind of death by slow-boil scenario that has been simmering in the Middle East for decades. It isn't mankind's ability to blanket the earth with thermonuclear destruction that is the greatest threat to mankind's existence. It's mankind's inability to solve the riddle of "An eye for an eye." It's western civilization's inability to understand eastern civilization cannot be beaten in the way western civilization has gone about vanquishing its foes for centuries. It doesn't matter how wrong we think they are or how right we believe ourselves to be. I can only hope we will step up efforts of finding other ways to deal with our enemies. Trying to destroy them only appears to add fuel to the fire—a fire that may yet consume us all.