One foreign policy issue neatly divides all people into this side or that. One issue that unites Americans, Europeans, Asians and Africans in disagreement. One issue that transcends race and religion to upset us all.
I’m talking about whether you should butter your bread butter side up, or butter side down.
In The Butter Battle Book--a collection of Dr. Seuss’ fantastic frontline reporting from the border between the Yookland and Zookland--this conflict divides two countries. There are Yooks. There are Zooks. The Zooks eat their bread with the butter side down; the Yooks eat their bread butter side up. Because of (or in spite of) this trivial difference, the two sides go to war, entering into an always escalating arms race. They continually redesign their weaponry, rearming from deadly weapon to deadly weapon, inescapably, until one Yook and one Zook approach each other on the wall that separates their countries, each ready to drop the ultimate weapon...
If you haven’t read it, buy it.
There’s a tendency by some commentators to simplify The Butter Battle Book’s message into a simple anti-war, anti-arms race Cold War analogy. “It is also a perfect emblem of the moral equivalence that neutered so many liberals during the Cold War,” writes John Miller in the National Review. “It assumes that the half-century conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union was based on nothing more meaningful than a dispute over how people prefer to butter their bread — as if Communism weren't a threat to liberty, but an eating preference.” The Butter Battle Book is similarly dismissed here and here as merely a “disarmament book” or “peacenik’s morally equivalent take on the Cold War”.
But The Butter Battle Book isn’t about the Cold War. It isn’t about nuclear war or Mutually Assured Destruction. True, all of these things are in there, but the book is much deeper, much more universal. The Butter Battle Book is about escalating conflict and cycles of retaliatory violence. It is as much about ancient Greek blood fueds, or the Darfur region of Sudan, or the Hatfileds vs. the McCoy’s, or the Tamils vs. the Sinhalese, or Muslims vs. Hindus in Kashmir as it is about America versus the USSR. It is as much terrorism and drone strikes as it is about cold wars and nuclear weapons.
The wall that separates the Zooks and Yooks is the Berlin Wall, but it also the peace lines in Northern Ireland, the Demilitarized Zone in Korea, or the West Bank barrier in Israel. More broadly, the symbolic wall of misunderstanding is the same wall that prevents Muslims from understanding Christians, and Americans from understanding Arabs.
The Butter Battle Book is about never turning the other cheek, never forgiving, and never forgetting. It is about the suicide that comes with these actions. In prepping for this post, Michael C told me, “You know, the Yooks do butter their bread wrong.” That may be true, but it’s no reason to go to war with them. It’s certainly no reason to destroy the entire world. The cost of violence, of near suicidal endstate of warfare was never clearer than in the Cold War. The Butter Battle Book illustrates this truth.
Take this video of a fight between a mentally ill Vietnam veteran and 50-year-old black man. A lot of people took sides. (Go veterans!) The truth of the video is that either party could have stopped the conflict at any time by simply disengaging.
It’s why, in retrospect, so many wars, American and not, seem so pointless and tragic in retrospect. Only history can show us that the wall we thought separated us was never there at all.