December 31, 2002
Search of a Peace Culture
it's the time of the year. I'm not over Christmas yet – I spent
much of the season singing with a quasi-professional (people actually
paid us!) caroling group – and some songs stay in my head. The third
verse of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" seems especially
poignant to me just now:
in despair I bowed my head.
is no peace on Earth, I said
hate is strong
mocks the song
peace on Earth, good will to men.
fourth verse (depending – the song was rearranged with Civil War-specific
verses eliminated) brings in a note of optimism, declaring that
"God is not dead, nor does He sleep." But Henry Wadsworth
Longfellow, once so well-known as a poet as to be almost a cliche,
wrote the poem in 1864. It reflects the war-weariness of those times,
as well as the 1861 death of his wife and the severe wounding of
his son in battle. And, probably, by Christmas of 1864, an intimation
that the end of the bloodiest war fought on this continent might
not be far off.
140 years and countless wars later, it is difficult not to identify
with the note of despair. I'm not sure it's hate itself that undermines
even the idea of peace. Most of us can hate without killing, especially
killing on a massive scale. I suspect it's more like politics and
exploitation, especially the politics of statism and exploitation
of the kind of shallow patriotism that is the best simulacrum most
people can muster.
CULTURE OF WAR?
pervasiveness of war might also be due in part to a pervasiveness
in our culture of a culture of glorification of war. Even though
it is about killing and death, war still has attractive aspects
for many, perhaps most of us if we admit it. There is the idea of
testing yourself as a person in the most severe life-and-death situations.
There is male bonding and comradeship. There is the idea of being
willing to sacrifice for your country and the things you believe
in. There is the attractiveness of courage in the face of danger.
There is fascination with uniforms and with well-executed close-order
drill. There are countless touching personal stories in every war,
whether of courage under fire, sacrifice, or the spirit of wives,
sweethearts and others left behind to keep the home fires burning.
pervasive is this culture of war and the attractiveness of testing
one's mettle in mortal battle that a significant number of American
baby-boomers, symbolized by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, seem
to have developed something resembling war-envy and nostalgia for
the "good war" that most Americans believe World War II
was. We (all right, I'm a little older) mainly had Vietnam, which
seemed too brutal at the time and somewhat pointless – and which
culture of war, one must admit, is rich and varied. Many of the
best films are about war, and even those that are at their hearts
protests against war recognize a certain tragic nobility in the
warriors who fight these battles at the behest of their political
rulers and elders. We have songs, stories and plays about war. Indeed,
part of the very definition of a work of narrative art is that it
has at its center a conflict. Though not all dramatized stories
involve shooting and death, it is more difficult to create a work
of art out of inner conflict or intellectual or emotional conflict
that may or may not involve depictable action.
culture of war permeates most of our intellectuals. Historians do
surveys from time to time on which American presidents were "greatest."
Only wartime presidents ever get on the Top Ten. Few historians
seem to have absorbed this bit of wisdom from Will Durant, who with
his wife Ariel wrote the 11-volume Story of Civilization,
once a part of every middlebrow Book-of-the-Month-Club America's
library of unread dust catchers:
is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood,
from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians
usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes,
make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle
statues. The story of civilization is what happened on the banks."
wouldn't surprise me if a good deal of support for the possible
upcoming war with Iraq comes from a certain unspoken yearning for
a war of our own time about which we can feel good – against a ruthless
dictator who is certainly easy to dislike, hopefully with a satisfactory
outcome. And part of the support George W. enjoys among the American
people stems in part from the very lack of ambivalence, ambiguity
and appreciation for shades of gray that some decry as evidence
seem to sense that this president, who thinks in terms of black-and-white
and stark contrasts between good and evil, is not likely to tolerate
an ambivalent outcome to an actual shooting war – even though the
very concept of a larger war on terrorism seems doomed to a less-than-decisive
some sort of nostalgia for an understandable outcome is even why
support for an Iraq war is so pervasive (if not necessarily enthusiastic
or inflamed) despite a notable lack of evidence that Iraq was involved
in the 9/11 attacks or constitutes a serious imminent threat to
the United States. People can imagine an invasion of Iraq with a
decisive outcome, whereas I suspect many more people than are able
to express it can see the larger war on the tactic of terrorism
ending with desultory whimpers and terrorists (though with any luck
fewer and less effective) still out there.
is important, it seems to me, for advocates of peace to recognize
that some of the attributes of war that people find admirable or
desirable are not necessarily to be despised. There is a closeness
that soldiers in battle attain that is almost impossible to find
anywhere else – team sports has some of it, but it's a pale imitation.
Courage in almost any situation is admirable. Especially for the
young, and especially for those who can't afford the time or money
to participate in extreme sports like mountainerering, whitewater
rafting, trekking the jungles of Borneo or whatever, there is an
element of adventure to which most human beings respond.
also bring people who might not otherwise have the opportunity into
contact with other cultures, other lands, other peoples. Wars encourage
inventiveness and sometimes spark concentrated periods of innovation
– even hasteing some developments, like the Internet or radar, that
have useful applications outside the realm of warmaking.
however we may deplore the waste of war, it is useful, perhaps chastening,
to recognize that the desire for conflict and adventure seem to
be deeply rooted. We even see conflict in peace movements – including
the current nascent peace movement – with different factions often
more interested in criticizing or undermining those who are temporary
allies or coalition members than in doing anything effective to
slow down the war machine. And those of us who were around and familiar
with college campuses during the Vietnam war should remember that
there was a certain enjoyment in the conflict of mass demonstrations
that egged police to make conflict more real and personal.
OR ONLY LIKELY?
given human nature and a certain tribalism (we can choose our tribes
in an era of mass communication and widely available travel rather
than being stuck with the ones into which we were born, but we still
seem to get something out of associating and identifying with a
group), war is inevitable. Perhaps it can't be entirely sublimated
through surrogates like sports contests or civic pride.
still find it difficult to reconcile the idea that war is inevitable,
that it will always be a part of human life. Conflict of various
kinds seems inevitable, to be sure, because human beings are different
and have divergent interests and desires. But does conflict have
to take the form of organized armies backed by states and governments
using weapons of increasing capacity to wreak devastation? Are there
other ways to resolve differences and disagreements? We know there
are other ways, but there may not be enough to eliminate all ways.
however, not every possible war is inevitable. Even if we can't
or won't eliminate war as a factor in human history, we don't have
to accept the idea that every war some brummagem statesman thinks
is desirable will happen. War as a phenomenon may be inevitable,
but the upcoming war with Iraq surely doesn't have to be. If it
happens it will be because of decisions and choices made by a discrete
group of people, most of them fairly easily identifiable, who could
have made other choices and decisions at almost any point.
a sufficiently persuasive and powerful critique of those war plans
gains currency and support – which seems unlikely at this juncture
but can't be ruled out – or if conditions change in ways that make
the war less feasible to undertake, then war with Iraq just might
not happen next year. I doubt that anything any one individual does
will be determinative in this process, but the efforts of a great
many people might just tip the balance.
if we had no hope we still should do what we can to avert this war
– even if it means working with people with whom we might disagree
on a host of other political issues. And while I think the hope
is small, it is not infinitely so.
A PEACE CULTURE
the long haul, those who dislike or fear war have a great deal to
do to change our culture in more peace-oriented directions. This
can start with an admission that the culture of peace, of quiet
resolution of conflicts, is still lamentably thin and nowhere near
as specific and pervasive as the culture of war.
great writers, even those that consider war inevitable, sometimes
necessary or potentially ennobling, have reservations about some
kinds of war. But the attractions of peace and prosperity sometimes
can seem so obvious that we overlook the necessity of making specific
arguments, citing specific examples of the concrete blessings of
call Jesus the Prince of Peace, but Christianity (like other great
religions) has also been used to justify or even to incite war.
Even scanning through the Bible, the citings are a bit slim. There
are the great prophecies of Isaiah, looking to a time when "in
the holy mountain of the Lord, all war and strife shall cease."
But beyond the images of the lion lying down with the lamb (which
may be metaphorical about different varieties of human animals)
and beating swords into plowshares – which have inspired further
poetry and works of art – there isn't much that's very specific
about the blessings of peace, the importance of peace, the superiority
of peaceful methods over the methods of war.
have poems and paeans to peace. We have a few impressive antiwar
songs. But we don't have much, especially in literature, that moves
beyond criticism of war, or of certain wars, to describe and to
prove the superiority of peace. Most of the technological and organizational
improvements we call progress depended on eras of relative peace
(and peaceful trading) to develop into forms that could benefit
wide swathes of humankind instead of only a privileged few. But
how many Americans appreciate this in their bones, or have favorite
novels that have made the abstract concepts real to them in the
lives of characters they come to know and love?
it seems to me, would do well to recognize this disparity between
the cultures of war and the culture of peace, and do more to create
a respectable and pervasive popular culture of peace. It is a daunting
is not easy to create works of art that rise above the level of
crude propaganda for any cause. It is not easy to envision ways
that conflicts (which in many ways really are the essential stuff
of drama) can be resolved in peaceful ways. In some ways peace and
prosperity, while most people claim to desire them, can be viewed
must find ways to make them interesting. If we don't we may be condemned
to a future of ineffectually deploring the wars of the future.
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