Violence from the Past

By Julie Clawson 6-04-2010

The day after we here in the U.S. paused to remember the men and women who had died fighting for our country, the fight continued from beyond the grave. On Tuesday in the town of Göttingen, Germany, a World War 2 era bomb exploded killing three people and injuring six others. The strangeness of death coming from a conflict long resolved, the destruction of former enemies now become close friends, gave me pause as I read the headline.

My first thought in the "what a tangled web we weave" category, was to wonder if the Allied airmen dropping those bombs some years ago ever thought that their action had the potential to kill their unborn grandchildren. Or that one day we would live in a globalized world where the idea of Germany and America being at war with one another would be utterly preposterous. And still the violence and the hatred of a time gone by had its latest causalities in 2010.

I'm fully aware that if any war could ever be called a "just war" it would be World War 2. I also know that this could simply be seen as a freak accident. But it isn't just in Germany where the conflicts of the past still reach into the peaceful times of the present -- harming generally those with no stake in the fight. The poor farmer in Laos whose legs were blown off when he overturned a bomb leftover from when his country was used as a pawn as the colonial powers of the West fought for control in Vietnam. The three children killed in Columbia when they triggered a landmine while playing a game of soccer. The people in Japan dying from cancers caused by the atomic bombs dropped in their country. The children born with birth defects because their parents were exposed to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. Wars never end when a treaty is signed or peace declared.

It can be easy to dismiss these as simply the vicissitudes of life, but I wonder if that is just a way to avoid dealing with the issues. Our news channels don't give us body counts of those we've killed in Iraq or Afghanistan because that would make the conflict too real -- too human. Thinking about the lingering effects an act of violence might have seems to do the same. In the moment the goal of winning trumps any understanding of the enemy as a real person. Considering that in a decade one might be sitting down for a cup of coffee with the person one is attempting to kill today isn't conducive to gaining the upper hand today. But the future still comes.

I recall first understanding the strangeness and regret hindsight can elicit when in grad school I sat down for a lunch with a friend from the Ukraine and we joked about the duck and cover drills we practiced in our grade schools. Each of us was conditioned to hate the other, sure that our respective countries would launch an attack at any moment. And now we were in school together, studying missions theology, eating sandwiches at the local deli. It is easy to question why I assumed she was my enemy then, I just wish I had had the courage to do so when I was a child.

I know how simplistic it sounds to suggest that a long-term perspective be applied to the conflicts of the present. Most would answer that the peace of tomorrow can only come through the violence of today. But how many of us would look at our closest friends and tell them that if we could travel back in time we would have no problem killing their grandparents. So why are we interested in killing people today whose children will go to school with our kids in a few years? Are we okay with the bomb we dropped today killing our allies in Afghanistan in 70 years? I hope if anything good comes from this incident in Germany it is that some of these questions start being asked. It's complicated and messy, but that's what generally happens when we take the time to think beyond the moment.

Julie Clawson is the author of Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP 2009). She blogs at and

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