All posts by Stephen Slaner, professor of history and government, NECC

Letter to the editor: Cease-fire now!

Dear NECC Observer,

Time tripping.

Perhaps some of you will recognize the expression from “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurth Vonnegut. 

I’ve been time tripping ever since Hamas’ attack of October 7th:  it’s as if I’m back in the movement against the Vietnam war.  

Every bomb dropped by Israel explodes in my mind, with no end is in sight.  As an aging antiwar activist, I remember all too well the anger and despair at the more than 7.5 million tons of bombs dropped on Vietnam.  Those feelings have returned.

What makes it especially difficult now is that I feel complicit in Israel’s attack on Gaza.  My tax dollars, after all, pay for the bombs used by Israel in the Gaza Strip.  And because of the horrendous attack by Hamas on hundreds of civilians, Israel has garnered much sympathy in the U.S. Before rushing to join the pro-war crowd, however, we might want to ask ourselves a few questions.

• Is it possible to achieve the complete destruction of Hamas given the support of much of the Gaza population for resistance to Israeli occupation?   Could it not be argued that for each civilian killed, two more will take their place?

• Is it possible to understand the current situation without taking into account the context of the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) in which Palestinians were driven off their land to make way for Israeli settlers?

• Is there a real moral difference between an intentional massacre on the one hand and, on the other hand, the technological massacre now raining down on Gaza, with 10,000 killed thus far and more to come?

• Is it necessary to factor in the danger of a wider war, with the possible use of weapons of mass destruction?  If, God forbid, Israel were to strike Iran, what would happen next? Does anyone know?

• Whatever happened to the idea of peace and negotiations?  Since unconditional surrender seems unlikely, the only viable alternative is some kind of compromise, though neither side seems particularly interested.

I submit that in the long run either a two-state solution or a binational state (as advocated by, among others, the famous philosopher Martin Buber) is preferable to the present configuration.  

And in the short run, a cease-fire is urgently necessary to stop the technological massacre now being perpetrated on residents of Gaza.  We should call on our representatives to support HR 786 for a cease-fire and de-escalation.  Let’s not forget the lessons of Vietnam!

— Prof. Stephen E. Slaner

Global Studies, NECC

Deja vu all over again

As the 60th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis rapidly approaches, it might be a good idea to consider what lessons can be drawn from it – especially since even President Biden has warned that “Armageddon” is a possible outcome of the current situation in Ukraine.  I can testify that many people at the time in 1962 felt that the Last Judgment was indeed at hand.  For example, unwilling to see a mushroom cloud appear over Boston, a psychiatrist friend of mine flew to Australia and remained there until the crisis was over.  Many of my friends said goodbye to each other, convinced that the end was near.

Our official mythology is that a handsome young president bravely stood up to the reckless Russians and forced them to stand down.  The reality is more complicated.  Ending the crisis required Kennedy to offer the Russians an “off ramp” by promising not to invade Cuba (which had been invaded by the US in 1961) and to pull our missiles out of Turkey if they would remove their missiles from Cuba.  (For the details, see the CNN series “Cold War.”)  For all his bravado at the outset of the crisis, Kennedy proved flexible enough to avoid nuclear war – which he estimated had up to a 40% probability of breaking out.

How does this apply to Ukraine?  However unprincipled the Russian invasion, it arose out of Russia’s historically based fear of being surrounded by hostile Western powers.  Ending the current crisis would, at a minimum, require guarantees of neutrality for Ukraine (i.e., no NATO membership) along with some accommodation for Russian interests in the region.  The only way out is by negotiation, which neither side seems willing to consider.  Things have reached a point where a recent column in the Wall Street Journal warned that we may have to actually consider sacrificing New York to save Kyiv!

As someone who lived through the Cuban missile crisis, I am struck by our apparent denial of the ramifications of the crisis in Ukraine.  Are we afraid?  Fear is a rational response to a life-threatening situation.  We need to have the courage to recognize our fear and to chart a course away from nuclear annihilation.  That would require acknowledging our vulnerability and doing the unthinkable:  signing and ratifying the January 2021 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and resisting the temptation to use, or threaten to use, weapons that have the capacity to end human life on this lovely, fragile habitation we call Earth.