A mother of teen-age sons was speaking about Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the reaction in America. It's almost like a war fever, she said. The president is raising the military budget by 5 percent and he is criticized for being overly restrained. Members of Congress who once opposed the excesses of the weapons lobby are now calling for more missiles and bombers. The draft may be revived.
As a defense analyst, this mother was no more than a vague generalist. I wondered why I was bothering to listen to her. But then she came to her point, and the listening was well worth it: "I haven't been raising my sons to be at the disposal of the Pentagon. With Vietman supposedly behind us and Russia now in Afghanistan, there is an itch to crank up again. All in the name, of course, not of war death but of 'military preparedness.'"
I wished the woman well. I said her anger was justified, and suggested she contact groups like the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia or the Women Strike for Peace in Washington for some information on conscientious objection. She could help her sons in a truly material way: begin shaping their consciences against the day when America's militarists, announcing their manpower needs, come after the young to put rifles in their hands.
If we are to have an effective peace movement during the 1980s, it is likely to begin with lone citizens making individual commitments. Mothers and fathers talking with their children. Or citizens seeing through the simplistic calls for hasty increases in defense spending, as though it is weakness to stop to think about whether what we will buy actually works and is needed. Or individuals paying attention to politicians like Rep. Ronald Dellums, the California Democrat whose work for peace and disarmement has been singularyl valuable.
Dellum's current thinking is worth examining. Unlike a number of his colleagues, who speak as if World War III has already begun, he is keeping a calm head. He argues that however unsettling Afghanistan may be, the events there "require sober and sophisticated analysis. Under no circumstance should they become an excuse for jingoistic pandering to the paranoia of the Cold War idealogues. The proper solution does not lie in mindless, Pavlovian increases in the defense budget."
Reasoned thinking like that contrasts sharply with the current alarmism that "America is militarily soft" or that "it's time we woke up and understood the Russians for what they really are." The cry is not only for more complex weapon systems like the MX missile but also for conventional weapons like tanks, aircraft and warships, all of them bigger and better.
Before turning the country over to the defense contractors, it might be helpful to wonder as much about the nature of the militaristic Soviets as the recent uses to which we have put our own excessive might. Richard Barnet of the Institute for Policy Studies and the auther of "The Giants: Russia and America" wrote in The Washington Post last week that America's military adventurism has taken us in the past 25 years to Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Guatemala, Lebanon, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.
As for the Soviets, Barnet notes, "their record of military invervention has not been spectaularly successful. In Egypt, Sudan and Somalia, they lost control and made enemies of the countries on which they had lavished military aid. Pacifying Afghanistan will not be all that easy and the price already paid has been an overwhelming vote of condemnation by the Third World Nations."
This sensitive and non-alarmist analysis of how American and Soviet leaders do violence to the earth's weak doesn't lend itself to code-word solutions. It is simpler to call for a thumping of the national chest through more weapons and more military spending.
But the satisfactions of that kind of false patriotism are short-lived.