All roads lead to Ukraine [war] – Scattered fragments of a [nuclear] memoir

by William Benzon

I grew up in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. At some point “mutually assured destruction” entered my lexicon. I came to accept the threat of nuclear war with the USSR as something I’d live with until I died (perhaps in a nuclear war?). The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and two years later the USSR dissolved. With that the possibility of nuclear war decreased, though the weapons themselves remained. Now, thirty years later, nuclear war is, all of a sudden, more likely than at any time in my life since the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962.

I actually do remember the missile crisis, but only vaguely. There is a sense of danger coupled with the image of a grayscale aerial photo, or perhaps a map, of Cuba. But that’s about it. Beyond that, I certainly had a strong sense of persisting conflict between the Soviet Union and American, plus the Free World. The the number and destructive power of nuclear warheads controlled by each side – the so-called missile gap – was a constant concern. Magazines such as Popular Science and Mechanix Illustrated regularly carried features about the design, construction, and provisioning of home fallout shelters.

Notice the sign at the upper right, indicating the presence of a fallout shelter.

I have a vague sense of one day being in the basement in the TV room and telling my father, “don’t worry, if I’m drafted, I’ll go.” But I can’t recall just what prompted that remark, perhaps a news story about draft resisters. That was before I went off to college. I turned 18 during my junior year and had to register with Selective Service. I was given a student deferment. A year later a draft lottery was instituted and I drew the number 12 in the lottery. I was certain to be drafted once I graduated. By that time I had been actively protesting against the Vietnam War for four years and did not want to be drafted to fight a morally abhorrent war.

I decided to apply for status as a conscientious objector, which would exempt me from military service but require that I perform some kind of alternative civilian service. I sought legal advice through the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization committed to social justice and peace. I worked with one of their lawyers in preparing my application, which was successful. I was assigned to work in the Chaplain’s Office at Johns Hopkins. Chester Wickwire, the chaplain, had been active in both the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, and was able to get two local congressmen to write letters of support. When my term of service was over, 1972 or 1973, I went off to graduate school.

But the Cold War persisted. By this time I had come to accept it as The Nature of the World. Oh, I knew it was a set of contingent circumstances, like all historical phenomena, but this particular complex of contingencies seemed, for all practical purposes, permanent. Thus I was both surprised and pleased with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the USSR. The world was not overcome by a reign of universal peace – alas, not at all – but at least the standoff between America and the Soviet Union was over.

That had a strong effect on me. The world CAN change. Amazing!

Roughly a decade later I moved from upstate New York, where I’d been living in Troy, to Jersey City, New Jersey, on the western bank of the Hudson River across from Lower Manhattan. Two year later, on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was demolished.

I was watching the news on television when the television went blank. The North Tower of the World Trade Center had been struck and, when it collapsed, the antenna carrying the TV broadcast signal was destroyed. I spent the rest of the morning following events online. I walked down to the river at noon to see a large dust cloud over Manhattan where the World Trade Center had been.

On March 20, 2003, the invasion of Iraq began. The War on Terror now replaced the Cold War in the psychocultural economy of America. Two days later, Saturday, March 22, I headed to Harold Square in Midtown Manhattan to meet Charlie Keil for the big peace demonstration, my first since the 1960s. Charlie had his cornet and I had my trumpet. We joined various groups of musicians here and there:

We’d come to the demo in ones, twos and threes, managed to home-in on one another’s sounds, and stayed in floating proximity for the two or three mile walk down Broadway to Washington Square. Sometimes we were closer, within a 5 or 6-yard radius, and sometimes we sprawled over 50 yards. The music was like that too, sometimes close, sometimes sprawled.

That demonstration was quite different from those in the 1960s, which weren’t so rich in music. But, of course, to no avail. This was effort would drag on for two more decades, with the focus shifting to Afghanistan in the process.

Three weeks later I travelled to Goshen College, in Indiana, to deliver the keynote address, “Magic of the Bell: Music and the Making of Community”, before the Fifth Annual Student Research Symposium. What, you might ask, does this have to do with today’s theme, which is war? Everything.

Goshen College is a Mennonite school. The Mennonites are a conservative Christian denomination, kin to the Amish. Like the Amish, they reject much of the modern secular world, though they are more accepting of technology. And they are pacifists who object to military service. The older male relatives of these students went to prison to legitimize conscientious objection to military service, a practice that had been important to me three decades earlier. While music was my topic, I also discussed peace activism with these students.

That was 2003. In May of 2010 I joined Charlie Keil, and other musicians, for another protest march – against nuclear weapons, which ran from Times Square in Manhattan and ended up near the United Nations Building. Japanese and Japanese Americans dominated the march, which is not at all what I would have expected. There is an obvious logic in play, for the Japanese are the only people who have experienced the destructiveness of nuclear weapons.

And that brings us back where we started, the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24 of this year. Like many others I didn’t expect Russian rhetoric to lead to an invasion. We were wrong. Once the invasion began, I assumed, as did many others, that it would proceed relatively quickly to its inevitable resolution, the Russian annexation of more territory. We were wrong.

At this point I do not know what will happen, nor does anyone else. Will Russia join American in the most exclusive of clubs, that of nations that have used nuclear weapons. And, if so, what then? We do not know.

Can the world change?

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