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Saturday, January 11, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Religion / The Rev. Dale Turner

Our real test lies in preventing war, not in waging it

In the middle of the 19th century, Victor Hugo said, "In the 20th century war will be dead, hatred will be dead, frontier boundaries will be dead, dogmas will be dead; man will live. He will possess something higher than all these — a great country, the whole earth, and a great hope, the whole heaven."

It is amazing to see how one as bright as Victor Hugo could have been so wrong in predicting the future. In the past century there were two devastating world wars and countless battles in various areas of the world — all adding up to millions of dead and wounded, with financial costs soaring into the trillions of dollars.

In one of his last books, "The Holy Terror," H.G. Wells wrote, "Man has become a new animal who can jump a hundred miles, see through brick walls, bombard the atom, and analyze the stars, yet he goes on behaving like the weak quarrelsome ape he used to be."

We seemed to be rising above our animalistic nature and were learning to live like the family of love our creator intended. The removal of the Berlin Wall and the defusing of the volatile Soviet-American relationship seemed to foretell a day of extended peace.

We have long been aware of the continuing problem of conflict in the Middle East, but we had not expected to be catapulted into the center of a possible war with Iraq. The central question is what should the United States' response be now and in the days ahead? Is war the only alternative?

Only the person who experiences no genuine satisfaction in life ever wants war. There are people who even court war to escape meaninglessness and boredom in their daily lives, but no whole and rational human being is so foolish as to desire war more than peace. In peace, sons bury their fathers; in war, fathers bury their sons.

Today the real test of America's power and wisdom is not our capacity to make war but our capacity to prevent it. Prevention must be our overriding objective. It can be done. Surrendering to the inevitability of combat only paves the way for its occurring.

Gen. Ulysses S. Grant said, "There never was a time when, in my opinion, some way could not be found to prevent the drawing of the sword."

What we need are not bullets, but brains; not missiles, but minds; not combat, but conference and a negotiated peace. It is not too late for that.

On arriving in Buenos Aires near the end of the conflict between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands on Jan. 11, 1982, Pope John Paul II said, "Humanity should question itself once more about the absurd and always unfair phenomenon of war, on whose stage of death and pain only remains standing the negotiating that could and should have prevented it."

Robert Ingersoll said, "As long as nations meet on the fields of war, as long as they sustain the relations of savages to each other, as long as they put the laurel and the oak on the brows of those who kill, just so long will citizens resort to violence and the quarrels be settled by dagger and revolver."

We honor the soldiers who risk their lives on foreign shores, and honor them we should. But we must respect those who refuse to accept war as an alternative and refuse to go. It is not an act of treason, disloyalty or cowardice to say no to a military call.

President John F. Kennedy was a veteran of World War II. He believed that military action was legitimate and necessary, but he honored, too, those who chose to oppose war by refusing to enter the military service.

"Wars will exist," he said, "until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today."

"As long as war is regarded as wicked," said Oscar Wilde, "it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular."

War is glamorous only for those who have never seen battle. Veterans see it for the brutal, cruel, dehumanizing and vulgar enemy it is, and it must be detested by all.

Mark Twain wrote one of the strongest satires ever in opposition to war. He wrote it in the form of a prayer to awaken consciousness to the incongruity and obscenity of war. It deserves to be pondered by all:

"O Lord, our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out rootless with their little children to wander unfriended through wastes of their desolated land — for our sakes, who adore thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protect their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

"We ask of one who is the spirit of love and who is the ever faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset, and seek his aid with humble and contrite hearts. Grant our prayer, O Lord, and thine shall be the praise and honor and glory now and ever. Amen."

A new 64-page booklet, "The Lessons of Life," is now available and includes 31 of The Rev. Dale Turner's best columns. Copies are $4.30 if picked up at The Seattle Times, 1120 John St. To order by mail, send a check for $6.05 to The Seattle Times, The Lessons of Life, P.O. Box 1735, Seattle, WA 98111. To order by credit card, call 206-464-3113.

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