Mark Kurlansky: A pen against the sword

He is the author of internationally bestselling micro-histories of cod and salt. Mark Kurlansky tells John Freeman why he has turned his gaze to war - and peace
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For a brief moment earlier this month, even the most diehard lefties in New York grudgingly admitted to feeling pretty good about the US mid-term elections. Not Mark Kurlansky, though. "I couldn't celebrate that night," says the 58-year-old historian and food writer, sitting on a tiny stool in his drafty Manhattan office, his eyes basset-hound tired. He adds glumly: "I was so unhappy [Joe] Lieberman was re-elected." The democratic senator from Connecticut, and sometime Bush ally, was defeated in early primaries thanks to his support of the Iraq War. But he regrouped, ran as an independent, and won. To Kurlansky, this victory augured everything he needed to know about what Iraq policy would look like in Washington with a new Congress. "Don't forget," he says, "the Vietnam War was brought to us by Democrats."

Kurlansky doesn't have any problem recalling this bitter memory because he lived through the Sixties, refused the draft for the Vietnam War, and protested alongside Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Many of his closest friends were integral to the movement, and a few were involved in the Weather Underground, an offshoot of the radical left that staged a series of bombings, jailbreaks and riots in the late Sixties. "They were crazy," says the writer, who covered some of this territory in his recent book, 1968. A few miles downtown from where we sit is the Greenwich Village townhouse that exploded when a member of the Weather Underground accidentally set off a homemade bomb, killing three. "How can anyone expect, if they know anything about this country, an armed guerilla movement to become popular?"

For many years, Kurlansky kept his thoughts on the matter to op-ed length pieces, since his day job was corresponding from Latin America for the Miami Herald and other papers. But now that his reporting days are a decade behind him, he has expanded these thoughts into a little book called Non-Violence: the History of a Dangerous Idea (Jonathan Cape, £12.99). Shaped like his bestselling works of micro-history, Salt and Cod, it culls the past two millennia, examining moments when non-violence flourished. It ends with a list of 25 pithy lessons, from "Practitioners of nonviolence are seen as enemies of the state" to "A propaganda machine promoting hatred always has a war waiting in the wings."

Kurlansky has been on and off the road with the book already in America, where lists and pithy ideas are a good thing, but questioning the idea of a "just war" a bit more complicated. "Europeans are far more anti-war than Americans," Kurlansky observes mildly, "they've had more wars and they really just don't believe in it any more. But Americans do." It doesn't help that Kurlansky has taken on three of the most sacred "just wars" in the pantheon of US history: the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and Second World War.

Non-violence attempts to dismantle the idea of these wars in particular by dismantling the myths - quite powerful in the US still - that keep them sacred. Namely, that the Revolutionary War was cleanly fought and force the only option at the time; that the Civil War was a dispute over slavery; and that America entered the Second World War to stop the Holocaust. "When I get into arguments with people, they always start off with: 'Well, what would you do about the Holocaust?' To which I reply: 'The Second World War wasn't about the Holocaust: they weren't doing anything about it.'"

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1948 and raised Jewish, Kurlansky grew up in the shadow of this war and knows its darker, more nuanced shape. His father had been a dentist in the medical corps, and his uncle a soldier in combat. "He came home and told stories for the next 70 years," Kurlansky remembers of that uncle, "but they were sort of jolly stories, with important parts missing, till he got old, and then he started talking about really grim stuff." Kurlansky's father did not have to see combat to hate the organisation committed to it. "He really disliked the military. He wouldn't even buy a raincoat if it had epaulets on it."

Kurlansky's own experiments with non-violence began as a boy. "I grew up in a neighbourhood where there was a lot of fighting," he says. "It's what boys did during school, during recess, after school. And I was a fairly large kid. So everyone wanted to see if they could take me on." It seems odd to imagine Kurlansky - burly, bearded, with shoulders so broad he looks too large for his own office - being pushed around. "I hated it," he says. "So I decided to not fight back. I ducked punches, blocked punches, but I didn't fight back. It sort of worked: they all went away, but I lost all standing." Less than 10 years later, in the early 1960s, Kurlansky had a war to duck and he did that, too.

Against the odds, whether it is in Vietnam or Afghanistan, Kurlansky says that governments conclude force will work where diplomacy has not. To justify their actions, they often lean on religion. "Religious elements are big problems in the US government," Kurlansky says, "but the problem is Bush." The President's enlistment of religious iconography isn't unique to America, though. "Religion is a big problem in Israel and the Arab world, but again the problem isn't religion, but political leaders who want to use the religion. It's like that phrase, 'God bless America'. Do you really believe there's a God that goes around choosing which countries to bless?"

For all its discussion of the abuse of religion, Non-violence is actually a remarkably sanguine book about faith. Kurlansky goes back to the beginnings of the three major religions and argues that all of them began in the spirit of non-violence. The Koran forbids wars of aggression, Kurlansky notes, and wars "to spread the teachings of Islam" are not allowed either. In Judaism, Kurlansky writes, non-violence started with the Ten Commandments, the sixth of which is "Thou shalt not kill." "It is one of the shortest commandments and offers no commentary, explanation, or variations," he continues. "It does not say, as many Jews claim, "except in self-defence.

"Christianity was probably the least violent of all religions, and the least followed," continues Kurlansky. This began to change with Constantine I, who coissued the Edict of Milan, decriminalising Christianity, and solidifying a connection between warfare and the cross. While many Christians believe great damage was done to the faith by Constantine, Kurlansky believes that St Augustine was more responsible for giving a state ruler's abuses the patina of theological justification. "He was on very shaky theological ground," Kurlansky argues.

From the increasing uneasiness of evangelicals to talk of war, to the continued pressure of Quakers, there are signs that non-violent resistance to the current war in Iraq is growing in the religious communities. It's also being felt by the armed forces. Kurlansky is in the middle of four books now, one of which is a cultural history of Gloucester, Massachusetts, the oldest fishing port in the US. The town has sent a lot of soldiers to wars thanks to its maritime tradition. "It has very active veterans groups, and they're not happy about the war," he says. "They don't believe there's any glory in Iraq."

The problem with non-violence has always been how to demonstrate it. Looking backwards, the questions are even thornier. Should Palestinians have resisted non-violently in 1948? If so, what does that mean? Kurlansky doesn't have entirely clear answers to these questions. But he points to successes as a reason why it should be considered for the future. "It takes very little imagination to be violent," he says, "but it takes a great deal of imagination to be non-violent."

As Kurlansky notes throughout this book, there is no word for non-violence in any language that isn't a negative of violence. Without a word, or an image, protest has to look good to be effective, he says. "I think the thing is when people are watching you on CNN, or reading about you in The New York Times... you want them to be sympathetic toward you. You don't want them to think, 'jeeze, these people are really scary.' I think, you know, the 'Clean for Gene' thing isn't a bad idea. Eugene McCarthy, in his 1968 presidential campaign, told all his supporters to be clean-shaven and straight looking. I think they should do that."

Mark Kurlansky will discuss his book with AC Grayling at the South Bank's Purcell Room, London SE1 (08703 800 400) on 28 November at 7.45pm

Biography: Mark Kurlansky

Mark Kurlansky was born in Connecticut in 1948. He worked for many years as a journalist, writing for the Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the International Herald Tribune. His first book, A Continent of Islands, about the Caribbean, was published in 1992. It was followed in 1995 by A Chosen Few, a book about European Jewry and in 1997 by Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, which was an international bestseller. His other books include Salt: A World History and a novel, Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue. Non-Violence: The History of a Dangerous Idea is published by Jonathan Cape this week. Mark Kurlansky lives in New York with his wife and daughter.