It’s so easy to take peace for granted, when we have it.
In my 2012 book, The Great Game: Berlin-Warsaw Express and Other Stories, the character Cal, an American writer living in Berlin, commits the sin of lamenting peace as dull. Boarding the train for Warsaw at Zoo station, looking out his window as the Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate slip by, he reflects on how “concrete, barbed wire and gun turrets had been replaced by a currywurst stand, shoe stores, and other unremarkable trappings of the everyday. Everything looked so normal, as if people had never argued let alone fought here. The graveyard of communism and fascism looked beautiful with its flowers and its river in the sunshine.”
But Cal – named for his safe, privileged, native California – was frustrated. “The banality of today’s prosperity be damned,” he thought. “‘Orson Welles was right about the cuckoo clocks.’ On this day, Cal was not interested in sunshine, flowers and rivers. He wanted shadows, smoke and bastards. He wanted danger.”
A look out the window now and Cal would have his wish. Returning trains from Poland to Berlin brim-full of Ukrainian mothers carrying children, their fathers and husbands left behind to fight a re-fanged Russia. For where a writer like Cal seeks conflict only to enliven his stories, like a chainsaw to butter former KGB agent Putin has brought the unsteady calm of what former U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates calls a “holiday from history” to a bloody end.
Peace no more.
Sarajevo 1914. Crimea 2014. One eye on the calendar, Putin knew in hindsight history would spot it, one century exactly – bullseye. In his view, it’s all one war, intervals meant only for regrouping, reloading. Today his Sudetenland (this time uniting not German- but Russian-speakers, borders be damned). Tomorrow, if not his Poland, his Moldova. Georgia. And then…
How fortunate others today, following his lead, are not seeking to reclaim past empires. Elizabeth II, Charles at her side, mounting horse and charging off to recapture India, Kenya, America. (Avoid Yorktown.) Turkey’s Erdogan, suddenly not content with today’s borders, Ottoman glory beckoning, hoisting sword and leading his troops through the Balkans, Iraq, Egypt. And Rome, dusting off its chariots, then onto the Appian Way. Until one reclaimed empire bumped into the edges of the next, and the whole damned cycle would begin again.
Like Cal, I now live in Berlin, having moved here from my native America across a wide sheltering sea. That sea not quite wide enough, however, like many in my peace-and-love generation (remember peace? remember love?). I can recall climbing under my school desk during air raid drills in those long-ago black-and-white duck-and-cover days.
My son, 12, came home from school a few days ago and asked, “Do you think there’s going to be a nuclear war?” As fast as that, a quiet, peaceful street out the window, or swing set in the garden, Potemkin illusions.
Still, “Where there is light there are shadows, where there are shadows there is light.”
The terror unfolding now in Ukraine bears witness to the worst but is also bringing out the best in people. Tremendous acts of courage and compassion, a global wave of empathy. There’s a reborn unity in the West in particular, a determination to see freedoms long fought for not just survive, but advance.
This is a dangerous, but temporary, step back on a long march forward.
When peace comes again – and it will – let’s not repeat Cal’s mistake of finding it dull. Hard won, it’s the most exciting chapter in the human story.
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