Bombs to balms

Paul W. Johnson is a preacher’s kid, returned Peace Corps volunteer, former state legislator, former chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service (now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service), a former director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and a retired farmer. -promoted by Laura Belin

I have reached a point in my life journey when I often wake at night and mull over the life this world and my country have given me. 

I began my journey in June of 1941 in Oakland, California.  When I was six months old the Japanese bombed our Navy in Pearl Harbor. Two thousand four hundred of our midshipmen died and we entered the Second World War.  Bombs fell throughout Europe and the Far East for the next four years.  Hitler murdered 6 million European Jews and millions of others, including the Romani people and gays and lesbians. Altogether 3 percent of all the people in our world died in this war.

When I was four years old we dropped Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Those two bombs killed 150,000 people, ending World War II.  Today we honor “our greatest generation” for their heroic efforts during this war. But my uncle who fought in the war came back a broken man.

In 1945 there were about two and a half billion people on earth.  Today we are approaching 8 billion.  And they all strive to consume what we in America do.  In 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote “The Population Bomb”, saying that we would soon starve with too many people on earth.  He was wrong.  However, science today warns us that as we increase population and utilize more of the earth’s primary productivity, very large numbers of other species we share this earth with will die.  And as our population explodes, our consumption “bomb” exacerbates the population problem.

When I was nine years old we entered the Korean War.  During that war 40,000 Americans, 46,000 South Koreans, 215,000 North Koreans, and 400,000 Chinese died.  General Douglas MacArthur commanded the war from Japan.  My Peace Corps roommate fought in this war and had nothing good to say about the general. Bill was thankful when President Truman put MacArthur out to pasture before he had a chance to drop atomic bombs on China.

When I was 20 years old (1961) we entered the Vietnam War and left, defeated, when I was in my 30s.  In 1963 Pete Seeger recorded the following song:  “What did you learn in school today dear little boy of mine.  I learned that war is not so bad.  We fought in Germany and in France, and someday I might get my chance.  That’s what I learned in school today.”  During those years, 2.7 million young Americans were drafted into this war.  Very few came from privileged families.

Two million civilians, 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers, and 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War.  We dropped eighteen million bombs, 400,000 tons of Napalm, and spread the defoliant Agent Orange over one quarter of the country, resulting in tens of thousands of children born with birth defects.  While in Washington DC, I visited the Vietnam War Memorial and put my hand on the name of my high school buddy.  He died in Vietnam in 1967, never able to hold his twin daughters.

Lyndon Johnson once justified expanding the Vietnam War by saying that he was “not going to be the first president to lose a war.”  Richard Nixon got elected in 1968 saying that he would end the war.  He did, but not before he took the war to Laos, dropping seven bombs for every Laotian, and causing more than 20,000 deaths.  The Pentagon Papers exposed by Daniel Ellsberg told us that both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon lied to us about this war.

Then when I was 60 years old came Afghanistan. Up to now, more than 113,000 people have been killed and after 18 years the war continues.  Our troops are still there.  And now we’ve learned that our presidents lied to us about the status of this war as well. 

Then came Iraq.  We entered that war on a lie, and a half million people died. 

In Yemen, over 10,000 have been killed by Saudi Arabia using U.S. and British weapons, and 1.5 million children are at risk of starvation.

And now we have President Donald Trump.  Bombastic. Trump brags that we have more and bigger bombs than anyone else.  And he tells North Korea that if they don’t stop building their big bombs Kim Jong-un and his people will suffer a fate like this world has never seen.  And now our president brags about the love letters they write each other.  

As I put final touches on this essay, the New York Times has an article that says “North Korea on Thursday threatened to resume calling President Trump bad names, including ‘Dotard’, two days after he again called its leader ‘Rocket Man’ and raised the possibility of using military force.”  Here we go again.

President Trump also “bombed” our participation in the international war against climate change, making us the only country in the world whose leader denies the science of climate change. In addition, he pulled us out of the Iran agreement that curtailed their efforts to build a nuclear weapon.  And now there are serious concerns about him “bombing” our Constitution.

I have read that we have fought in 35 wars since we first took our country from the Native Americans. In my lifetime I’ve had fourteen presidents. I believe Jimmy Carter was the only one who didn’t involve us in a war. President Trump’s party calls Carter weak for emphasizing human rights rather than bombs. President Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his work on human rights.

One of my favorite authors, the anthropologist Loren Eiseley, published The Immense Journey just one year after Hiroshima.  In it he wrote,

The need is not really for more brains, the need is now for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger, and the bear.  The hand that hefted the ax, out of some old blind allegiance to the past fondles the machine gun as lovingly.  It is a habit man will have to break to survive, but the roots go very deep.

When I was eight years old and my parents had urged me and my siblings to say our evening prayers, Dad would pick up his violin and be our “fiddler on the roof.” One of his favorite songs was the old Afro-American spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.” That haunting melody still comes back to me now and then.

When I was twelve years old and bored listening to Dad’s Sunday morning sermon, I pulled out the hymnal and came upon “There is a Balm in Gilead.” I was amazed to see the word “balm”.  I had always thought that we were singing “There is a Bomb in Gilead.” Maybe almost all our presidents during my lifetime thought the word was “bomb” too.

Fortunately, our country has “balmed” as well.  Think Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid,  Affordable Care Act, Public Education, Public Libraries, Interstate Highway System, Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Food for Peace, School Lunch Program, National Parks, Monuments, Forests, and Wildlife Refuges. And less familiar to most Americans, there is the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  More than half of our land mass is in agriculture.  Since the 1930s, SCS/NRCS has provided technical and financial assistance to the owners of this land.  Almost every farmer and rancher in our country has utilized these services, protecting and improving land health.

In the 1960s African Americans took to the streets singing “We shall overcome” and brought about civil rights progress. A few years later, college students took to the streets singing “Give peace a chance,” thus hastening the end of the Vietnam War.  In 1970 we celebrated the first Earth Day with millions of citizens singing “Give earth a chance,” and we created the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and more.

Is this the slippery slope to socialism that our President and his party are now fearfully warning us about?  Maybe we should abolish all those “balms”?  I think not.  How great we could be if we commit ourselves to spreading balm worldwide!

Trump’s party likes to brag about President Reagan’s “shining city on the hill”.  But wasn’t it Jesus who said in his Sermon on the Mount, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works…”?   And even as children in Sunday School we sang:  “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine…

Recently we saw more than 1 million young people in our country skip school for a day and take to the streets challenging adults to pass sensible gun legislation.  That was followed by over 5 million young people around the world pushing adults to stop delaying and work urgently on climate change. 

I’m now 78 years old.  How I wish I could have 30 more years to see what our next “greatest generation” will do.  Let’s give them a chance. Because of them I remain hopeful, and with Louis Armstrong, “I say to myself, what a wonderful world”.

Paul W. Johnson, Decorah, Iowa

Top photo of Paul W. Johnson published with permission.

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