Boys draw first lines in the sandbox, veteran pacifist observes

February 08, 1991|By Randi Henderson

"Sometimes I think every generation of fathers gives their sons a new war."

Grace Paley's tone was despondent, her demeanor somber as she said these words and considered their unfortunate implications.

"Men are raised to want war," she reflected. "But if you've ever had a boy baby, they're the tenderest, gentlest things, even more gentle than girl babies, I think. Yet by the time they're in the sandbox, they're engineered into fighting. It's the culture that engineers them."

It's no surprise to anyone who knows the writings and teachings of Ms. Paley that she thinks the Persian Gulf war is a very bad idea, indeed.

"You don't want your country to be wrong," said Ms. Paley, 68, who lives in Vermont and is serving as a visiting professor this semester for the Johns Hopkins University writing seminar. "But if your country sends 500,000 troops 7,000 miles away -- I think it's wrong."

The woman whose poems and short stories have earned her an enduring and respected place in American literature classifies herself as a pacifist -- to a point.

"I'm a pacifist as long as I can be," she said. "Nobody is totally a pacifist, it's a matter of degrees, just as people are violent to different degrees."

This war could have been prevented, she said, with a more patient attitude toward sanctions. "Obviously sanctions work. We've maintained an embargo to this day against Vietnam and it's kept that country in total abject poverty. Look at South Africa, look how many years it took there. These things take time."

Protest has been a part of Ms. Paley's life for decades. She moved from the confrontational activism of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam to the steady, if more muted, protest of withholding some taxes from the federal government so as not to contribute to the Pentagon. Her feelings now have brought her back to the front lines of protest.

"I feel a strong obligation to talk to people about this," she said. "Emotions have to be dug out. People have to know sentiment against the war is out there."

It is her own activism, she added, that gives her personal hope. "When you're involved, talking to people, talking on the phone, writing a letter, writing an article, then you don't feel so helpless. You feel worse when you're not doing things."

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