Is seeking peace a naïve thing?

Many of us who protested the Vietnam War–and subsequent wars–think that some initiatives on behalf of peace are a waste of time. During the Vietnam War, some people suggested that if our troops would sit down with the Viet Cong and sing “Kumbuya” together, the war would end. Among other things, this view showed an ignorance of the region’s history and what brought all the players into the conflict.

Could any of the great wars have been avoided if–prior to the days the first shots were fired–people had worked harder for peace? Historical accounts tend to convince us that the answer to that question is “probably not.” If you’ve read historical accounts, you know that World War I was billed as the war to end all wars. Those who believed that were fooled, I guess.

On the other hand, if we believe that peace is unlikely, then perhaps it is. Our beliefs about peace being unlikely probably shape a lot of our words and deeds and keep us from speaking out against the so-called hawks doing the saber rattling whenever potential conflicts exist. If we remain quiet, then the so-called doves and those who haven’t made up their minds yet don’t consider the fact that the “proper response” need not be a military response.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us that maintaining the Department of Defense costs us (as of 2016) $605 billion, including “Overseas Contingency Operations” in areas such as Afghanistan. Those who advocate social programs, reduced taxes in general, and (naïvely or otherwise) a peaceful approach to the world see these expenditures as a waste of money. We’re lured, I think, into the belief that we must spend that money to keep ourselves safe. Personally, I don’t think the Iraq war or operations in Afghanistan made any of us safer, much less more secure. I support our troops, but not those who sent them to such places.

If you read the news, it’s hard not to think that the world isn’t a very nice place. North Korea is threatening to blow us out of the water, ISIS is causing trouble wherever it can, and it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between the Russian government and the Russian mob. Almost every week, we hear of a new terrorist attack somewhere. It seems logical, doesn’t it, to buy more guns and spend more money on defense and covert activities.

But is all that logic a self-fulling prophecy that leads only to more unrest and less security? I think so. I don’t think it helps us to be naïve about the world and its dangers. I do think that if we assume war is the only answer, then that’s what we will have. We need to stop listening to the playground-style bullies who keep telling us the only answer is to “kick the shit out of” one group or another. That keeps leading to more or the same. We kick them. They kick us. We kick them. It’s lose-lose for everyone.




Dona Nobis Pacem

One night in 1967, I picked up a white candle on the campus of Syracuse University and joined a long line of students that moved like a ribbon of continuous light across the dark campus. We did not use the words Dona nobis Pacem (Grant us Peace) as many bloggers are saying across the world on this November 4th day in which we blog for peace. We were, of course, protesting the Vietnam War in those days when many of us sang  “Where have all the flowers gone.”

Since that night of candles and songs, at least 10,960,000 have been killed by wars. “Gone to graveyards every one,” the old Pete Seeger folk song tells us. “When will they ever learn?”

My Scots ancestors once sang—and often still sing—an old song called “The Flowers of the Forest,” a lament about the grief of the women and children after James IV and his 10,000 men died at the Battle of Flodden Field in northern England in 1513.  I wonder if Pete Seeger ever heard the words: “The Flooers o’ the Forest, that fought aye the foremost, The pride o’ oor land lie cauld in the clay.”

Perhaps There’s Hope

Since 1967, we have had many occasions to ask “When will they ever learn?”  Even in these days of terrorists and unstable governments and territorial disputes that seem to have no solutions, there may be hope. In his October 2011 article in Foreign Policy “Think Again: War,”  Joshua S. Goldstein writes that even though 60% of Americans responding to a recent survey thought a third world war was likely, fewer people per year have been dying in wars in years between 2000 and 2011 than in the 1950s through the 1990s.

One reason for the decline is the smaller scale and scope of the conflicts after World War II, Korea and Vietnam. According to Goldstein, “Armed conflict has declined in large part because armed conflict has fundamentally changed. Wars between big national armies all but disappeared along with the Cold War, taking with them the most horrific kinds of mass destruction. Today’s asymmetrical guerrilla wars may be intractable and nasty, but they will never produce anything like the siege of Leningrad.”

Is there reason for hope in such an analysis? Goldstein suggests that the world seems more violent now than it ever did in part because information is more accessible and pervasive. Whether it’s via 24-hour news channels, online news sources, or social networks like Twitter and Facebook, we hear one way or the other about every car bomb, every attack and every atrocity. On such days, I’m still tempted to ask, “When will they ever learn?”

Higher Standards

We still have work to do, and this isn’t it. – Wikipedia Photo

The world, writes Goldstein, also seems more violent because society’s standards have risen. A day’s worth of fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan brought news of battle deaths that were a tiny fraction of the numbers killed per day in World War II. Yet our anger about every five soldiers or civilians killed in recent these conflicts was, it always seemed, much higher than for every 5,000 killed in the 1940s.

We’re less tolerant of violence now. The in-your-face nature of TV war reporting that began during the Vietnam War is showing us in ways we cannot accept where the flowers are going and how they got there. The images out of Iraq showed us more of what we didn’t want to see.

Perhaps we are learning. Perhaps our flowers of the forest will remain in the forest and the day will come when laments and folk songs about war and grief can be left on dusty shelves and slowly forgotten. Until then, we still say Dona Nobis Pacem and hope people are listening.