Pearl Buck and the Cycle of War

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(Host) Commentator Lois Eby says that recent events have reminded her of writer Pearl Buck’s experiences in China at the beginning of the 20th century.

(Eby) Many years ago I read Pearl Buck’s autobiography called “My Several Worlds.” In it there’s a description of the attitude ordinary Chinese had toward armies and war, at a time when warlords fought back and forth across the landscape of China. Buck wrote that they spoke of war as a natural disaster. She inspired me to think of war as if it were a hurricane, a disaster that local communities can only pray does not blow their way.

It’s a metaphor that has seemed even more compelling since September 11 and the aftermath of violence and retaliation around the world since then. The aggressive side of human nature continues to carry the destructive force of hurricanes, floods, and volcanoes. Communities continue to hope that the disaster does not blow their way.

Pearl Buck also wrote eloquently about observing seeds of violence in the relationship between the colonial West and the Chinese people. As a child, she was accepted in Chinese homes. She became especially sensitive to the negative effect that colonialism and its aggressive policies had on Chinese attitudes toward white people and the West. After the Western powers defeated the Chinese in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, she saw how the Chinese hated and feared white people, feelings they hid from white adults but not from her. She says, “I learned the other side of the victory the white men had won and I knew then what my life has taught me since, that in any war, a victory means another war, and yet another, until some day inevitably the tides turn, and the victor is the vanquished, and the circle reverses itself, but remains nevertheless a circle.”

Pearl Buck’s dual images have been very much on my mind lately. The image of war as an endless circle of battles, defeat, humiliation, and still more battles certainly fits the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it seems to me that her image of war as a natural disaster like a hurricane, blowing first one way and then another, serves as a warning about the potential consequences of a never ending cycle of terrorism and anti-terrorist wars.

The wish to avoid planting the seeds of future hurricanes give us an urgent reason to question whether war will ever bring an effective end to terrorism. Unlike facing an impending hurricane, we do have the opportunity to step back, assess the consequences, and seek ways to break the cycle, rather than take at face value assurances that some day war will eliminate our enemies.

This is Lois Eby.

Lois Eby is a painter who comments on the arts, women’s issues and civil rights.

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