The pervasive images of war and the realities of peace

During World War II, when all the young men put on uniforms and marched off to battlefields whose names they had never heard of, a 14-year-old girl name Maggie Thomas went to work in a Nova Scotia herring shed. Stamping her cold feet on the wet floor, she learned the haunting little rhyme the workers sang while stringing 18 herring on a rod, preparing the fish for pickling.

Soon Maggie, crooning faster and faster, could string enough herring to earn 25 cents a day. Then 45 cents. Then 90 cents. And one unbelievable day, $1.45.

But Maggie's soaring count, set to her quick-song, began to merge with other counts, set in a minor key, when she returned home at night and listened to the war news on the radio.

One day she learned her brother had become a casualty - a part of war's grim count - in a place called Dunkirk.

Maggie went back to the herring shed, gallantly, stubbornly sticking to her own count, managing to sing her song of life in the darkness of Nova Scotia winter mornings until finally spring came.

The storyteller Jay O'Callahan made a small masterpiece out of Maggie's story. We've been listening to his new recording of it between bulletins on the two latest wars - bulletins that threaten to turn everybody into a Maggie Thomas - trying to maintain one's daily rhythm against the counterpoint of gunfire from Lebanon and Grenada.

Compared with the resources of television, Maggie Thomas's radio in World War II seems like a party phone line.

We have had practically hourly updates on the number of troops killed in Lebanon and Grenada, and the number of troops sent to replace them.

The polls have provided us with the ongoing statistics of Americans at home who thought this cost was necessary, or not, on any given day.

The networks have taped interviews with grieving parents and dialogue with State Department officials (and former State Department officials), not to mention briefings by Pentagon officers.

Microphones have been held up to soldiers munching their rations in the field.

These two wars, scarcely the equivalent of an hour's destruction in World War II, have been reported upon with such insistence that nothing else in the world seems to be happening.

How would a Maggie Thomas have been able to hear herself sing her sanity-saving rhymes in 1983?

Thanks to the one big television war - an around-the-clock bombardment of images of camouflaged troops and helicopters popping across the sky and flag-draped coffins - all the wartime habits came out of mothballs, as if there had never been any peace since Vietnam. One's ear almost effortlessly accommodated again to the trade language: ''strongholds'' and ''pockets of resistance'' and ''firefights.'' The terrible phrase ''mopping up'' fell casually into place, with as little sense as ever that what gets ''mopped up'' is people.

As the images of two small wars dominated the television screen, the debate continued over the risks and benefits of showing ''The Day After'' on the same screen later this month. The ABC-TV film depicts the effect on Kansas of a hypothetical nuclear holocaust - war's ultimate drumroll, war's ultimate body count.

How would Maggie Thomas get back to her song and her count after that?

And yet this must be the point: World War III is the image superimposed upon all the other images obsessing our TV screen these days.

And, one way or another, we must not allow war and the images of war to silence the music and rhythm of everyday life. Our survival depends upon this.

With spring in Nova Scotia, the wheat sprouted, sweet and green, overgrowing the barren image of a World War II battlefield, and Maggie Thomas's heart was healed. TV makes it harder for us, putting us into a war as the crackly static of radio could never do - showing us close up what George Santayana called ''the mad heart of the world riven and unmasked.''

And in a world now possessing, and possessed by, the megabomb, we need more than a ditty and a beat and a fertile field.

Santayana described himself as a skeptic. But after World War I, he was driven to conclude that in order to achieve peace among themselves, human beings would have to ''learn to live at peace with God'' - defined as ''the sum of all possible good.''

Then he added what still remains the final word: ''To make our peace with Him , it is we, not He, that must change.''

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