SAN FRANCISCO — With the current flurry of renewed discussion over nuclear arms and its irritating younger sibling, national missile defense, it is a glad thing to see a simultaneous American interest in remembering World War II.
Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation," the D-Day Museum in New Orleans, and the pending Washington, D.C. WWII memorial testify to the continuing importance of the war in our nation's experience.
The Germans remember WWII as well, though in a different spirit. And it is questionable whether we have learned as much from our victory as the Germans did from their loss. In Germany, you see, a newly rededicated Army base has been named for Sgt. Anton Schmid.
Sergeant Schmid, an Austrian drafted into the German Army in 1941, witnessed the mass murder of Lithuanian Jews at his post in Vilnius. He responded by hiding more than 250 Jews and aiding the Jewish underground. Schmid was caught in January 1942, and executed that March. In the 58 years since Schmid's death, Germany has learned enough from its WWII sins to honor a man with the ethical courage to betray the evil of the Reich.
In this US election year, however, we fail in our own ethical courage: The US and other WWII victors - the official nuclear-weapon states - still fail to move with passionate intensity toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, the war's continuing legacy to world affairs. We thus demonstrate our fatal misunderstanding, casting disarmament as a question of policy instead of morality.
Our nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert, the cornerstone of our security policy. Disarmament is hostage to senatorial squabbling that treats international treaties as partisan prizes.
Neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush urges his proposed strategic-arms reductions in the context of eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. Our leaders ignore our sworn national oath under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, reviewed and rededicated last May: We and the other nuclear- weapon states are bound to the "unequivocal undertaking" of complete nuclear disarmament.
More important, our leaders ignore the common person's sense of right and wrong.
We nations victorious in WWII never learned the very human morality for which we sent a great generation to fight and die. Allied soldiers returned from liberating Dachau and Auschwitz to discover their own homelands busy building death camps with wings. Our nuclear-war plans require at best what would be hanging offenses at Nuremburg - the wholesale burning of millions of civilians.
There is breathtaking evil in our sterile arguments of strategic necessity and the invention of a doctrine called Mutually Assured Destruction.
The political proponents of our nuclear system carry briefcases, not billyclubs; so we maintain and mostly ignore this modern evil, which Ronald Reagan, citing C.S. Lewis, called the evil of smooth-faced men in well-lit halls.
We who cast judgment at Nuremburg have failed to abide by its ethic to choose morality over country, doctrine, pride, or revenge. In five nations over 50 years, how has noone with the power to say simply, "This ends here," also possessed the ethical courage to do so?
A judgment of the cold war, however, must acknowledge it was an age of transcendent fears and abstract, seemingly uncontrollable forces. This cannot excuse, but does help to explain. It has been difficult enough to find heroes who resisted even an evil as immediate as the Holocaust.
It is in the decade following the cold war that we've run out of explanations for why we continue to ignore Sergeant Schmid's lesson. This is the people's lesson to learn, and we have failed.
Nuremburg was a reparation forced by a common people's relentless failure to be horrified by pervasive sin. We victors of WWII will not have the abhorrent luxury of a half decade of death to help us discern our wrongs.
We cannot wait for a nuclear bomb to be used before learning to speak our ethical integrity. Our moral voice withers with disuse.
We the people continue our mute permission of nuclear weapons, death camps in our own backyards, with thousand of hydrogen furnaces at the ready. We continue to allow ourselves the false comfort of imagining that a matter of absolute morality could somehow be discussed using the language of strategy or security.
Worse still, in this election year, we continue to allow ourselves the silent cynicism of believing it naive and unrealistic to speak otherwise. The self-evident morality of nuclear weapon elimination is all the reason we need to proceed toward that goal; our debate should be limited to determining the safest and fastest means.
Human ethics own a place in the too-often amoral arena of international politics. Politics and foreign policy rooted in virtues offer us a third way of thinking, unconstrained by tired, cold-war-era paradigms.
In Schmid's last letter home, he wrote that he "merely behaved as a human being."
In this election year, we would do ourselves a service to demand that our leaders follow this example in dismantling our nuclear arsenal. In being men and women before their offices, they would honor the ethic of Nuremberg for which our soldiers died: Our humanity above all else.
*Tyler Stevenson coordinates religious and political field operations for the Global Security Institute, a nonprofit organization specializing in nuclear disarmament and security issues. The views expressed here are his own.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society