At a 2007 anti-Iraq War protest march in Santa Barbara, California, a man is holding a sign. Shutterstock/Joseph Sohm
I enjoy singing, and what I enjoy most is singing loudly while I’m alone. I found myself screaming out a medley of songs about peace from my long-ago summer camp days one summer when I was alone, saving for the barn swallows and walking through the corn fields in New York’s Hudson River Valley. That was in the late 1950s when World War II’s hardships were still vivid in people’s minds, the UN seemed like a promising development, and folk music was just plain groovy.
At my well-meaning, often self-righteous, and always melodic camp, 110 kids used to sing with so much hope:
Although the sun shines on cloverleaf and pine in other countries, and their skies are all as blue as mine, my country’s skies are bluer than the ocean.
We can all enjoy beautiful things; it felt like such a logical and mature way to think. That was before I matured and understood that adults don’t always reason logically. Many years later, as I finished the last chorus, I wondered: Who talks or sings about peace in such a sentimental way today? Without irony and with sincere hope, I mean?
Since I went on my summertime ramble, International Peace Day has passed. In the meantime, soldiers are murdering civilians (and occasionally the reverse) in diverse locations like the West Bank, Yemen, Iran, Ethiopia, Ukraine, and Iran. It seems to go on forever. Not to mention all the tenuous cease-fires, terrorist attacks (and retaliation), putdowns of uprisings, and barely subdued current hostilities.
Let’s not even begin to discuss how frequently war rhetoric permeates our daily lives. It is understandable why the pope lamented the “famine of peace” in the globe in his recent Christmas speech.
Isn’t it challenging to think peace has any hope amidst all of that?
Songs can only have so much meaning, of course, but a successful political movement needs a decent soundtrack. I discovered while reporting there that rage Against the Machine served that purpose for several post-9/11 anti-war soldiers. Even better would be a song that the masses can sing when they come together to pressure politicians. After all, it feels nice to sing in unison at a time when the lyrics are more important than your ability to carry a tune. However, by definition, a protest song isn’t a song of peace; it turns out that most contemporary peace songs aren’t exceptionally peaceful either.
During the Vietnam War, many people liked to listen to songs against the war. There was “Give Peace a Chance,” which John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and friends famously recorded in a hotel room in Montreal in 1969; “War,” which the Temptations first released in 1970 (I can still hear their “absolutely nothing!” response to the question “What is it good for?”); Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train,” which they released in 1971; and that’s to name a few. Nonetheless, in this century? The majority of them I found—the current self-care mantras—were about finding inner peace or making peace with yourself. The few articles about global or international peace were unsettlingly hostile and pessimistic. This seemed to be the general mood of the day.
It’s not like the concept of “peace” has been abandoned. My neighbour’s porch has a worn-out peace flag, Trader Joe’s always has Inner Peas on hand, and peace occasionally receives the complete commercial treatment, as seen on designer T-shirts from the Chinese apparel brand Uniqlo. However, many groups that seek to promote world peace have opted to omit the word from their names, and the term “peacenik,” which was derogatory even in its heyday, is now wholly out of date. Has peace work changed its tune, or has it undergone more significant development?
Peace is a state of being, possibly even a state of grace. It might be as narrow as interpersonal tranquility or as large as international comity. But at best, it’s erratic and inevitably in peril. Although there have been periods without war in some places (post-World War II Europe until recently, for example), that certainly does not seem to be the natural state of all too much of this world of ours. To have an impact, it must be combined with a verb—seek the, pursue the, win the, keep them.
Most people who work for peace disagree with or wouldn’t do what they do. In 2008, I talked on the phone with Jonathan Shay, a well-known psychiatrist known for his work with Vietnam War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. He disagreed that conflict is inherent or unavoidable in our century. We were chatting about that when he went off-topic and declared that he thought it was feasible to end all war.
He believed that most of these wars were caused by fear and how frequently both military brass and citizens “drink” it for pleasure. He advised me to read Immanuel Kant’s essay on perpetual peace, an Enlightenment philosopher. I was indeed surprised by its echoes more than 200 years later when I did. Take Kant’s argument that standing armies make it easier for governments to go to war as an illustration of the ongoing discussion about reintroducing the draught. Then, he added, “They stimulate the several states to outrival one another in the number of their warriors, and to this number, there can be no limit.”
The present academic area of peace and conflict studies began roughly 60 years ago; there are currently 400 such programmes worldwide. The ideas of negative and positive peace, originally widely popularised by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, serve as the foundation of peace theory (though Jane Addams and Martin Luther King both used the terms earlier). Negative peace is the belief that you may go grocery shopping without running the risk of being blown to pieces. It is the absence of immediate violence and armed conflict (as in Ukraine today). A state of ongoing concord between and among nations is known as positive peace. That doesn’t mean there will never be disagreements; it just means that conflicts over competing objectives will be resolved amicably by all parties. Also, because so many violent conflicts are caused by underlying social problems, the process of healing needs empathy and creativity.
Positive peace tries to last, whereas negative peace aims to avoid it. Galtung’s position is more pragmatic than messianic because conflicts are so much easier to start than to end, making negative peace an urgent requirement. He wrote, “I am not concerned with saving the planet. “Finding solutions to particular issues before they get violent is something I’m worried about.”
In an email, Win Without War co-founder and Vietnam War veteran David Cortright provided me with this definition of the work that goes into it: “To me, the question is not ‘world peace,’ which is dreamy and utopian and too often used to mock those of us who believe in and work for peace, but rather how to reduce armed conflict and violence.”
Peace Emerges Drop by Slow Drop
Most peace movements emerge in response to specific conflicts, growing and dissipating alongside them, though they occasionally persist in our world later. For instance, a desire for peace following the Civil War gave rise to Mother’s Day. Women have been at the forefront of peace movements ever since Lysistrata told the women of ancient Greece not to sleep with men until the Peloponnesian War was over. Some anti-war groups have existed since before World War I, and others grew out of movements against the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons in the early 1980s. Others are more recent, such as Dissenters, a group of young activists of color who formed in 2017.
The goal of today’s nonprofits, religious organisations, NGOs, lobbying efforts, publications, and academic initiatives is to abolish war. They typically concentrate their efforts on developing better means for nations to coexist peacefully or quell internal disputes while teaching populations on how to rein in militarism and military spending.
But you can always count on one thing: It’s never going to be simple, not even in the United States, where militarism is sometimes sold as patriotism and unrestrained spending on homicidal weapons as a deterrent, while war profiteering has long been a national game. It is true that a signer of the Declaration of Independence later advocated a Peace-Office that would sit alongside the War Department and be led by a Secretary of Peace. But after the UN Charter banned wars of aggression, this idea didn’t change much. In 1949, the War Department became the Defense Department, which sounds less aggressive. If only…
A database by the Military Intervention Project says that since 1776, this country has been involved in 392 military interventions, with half happening in the last 70 years. This country isn’t currently engaged in any major wars. But US troops are still fighting in Syria, and US planes are still bombing targets in Somalia. This is on top of the 85 counterterrorism operations Brown University’s Costs of War Project found the US did from 2018 to 2020, some of which are probably still going on. In its 2022 Global Peace Index, the Institute for Economics and Peace places the US 129th out of 163 nations. The size of our prison population, the number of counterterrorism operations, military spending (which lags behind the rest of the world), general militarism, and our nuclear arsenal being “modernised” to the tune of almost $2 trillion in the decades to come, the staggering numbers of weapons we send or sell abroad, and the number of wars fought are just a few of the categories we failed in. It’s simple to think that pursuing sustained peace is unachievable and decidedly un-American, given the abundance of other important, connected issues and everyday brutalities committed against this planet and the people who inhabit it.
But it’s not. You can’t say enough about how vital peace work is, if only because the Pentagon’s budget, which takes up at least 53% of the country’s discretionary budget, makes it harder to meet several critical social needs. Therefore, it should be no surprise that US peace activists have had to change their techniques and rhetoric. Because “no justice, no peace” is more than simply a catchphrase, they increasingly emphasize the connections between conflict and so many other concerns. It’s a requirement for leading a more tranquil life in this nation.
To understand how our problems are linked, we need to do more than convince other groups to put peace on their agendas. It entails accepting and collaborating with other organizations on their issues as well. It would be best if you went where people are and met them where their problems and needs are, as stated by Jonathan King, co-chair of Massachusetts Peace Action and professor emeritus at MIT. So, King, a peace activist, is now on the coordinating committee of the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign, which wants to stop “military aggression and war-mongering.” Veterans For Peace also has a climate crisis and militarism project. Similar to this, David Cortright highlights the rising body of study on the peace that draws from science and other academic disciplines, such as feminist and post-colonial studies, while advocating for a radical reevaluation of what peace entails.
Then there is the issue of how movements can progress through internal institutional effort, broad political influence, and public pressure. Yes, it is possible that a lobbying effort would eventually convince Congress to rescind the antiquated authorizations for the use of Military Force that were passed in reaction to the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed in 2001 and 2002. That would at least make it more difficult for a president to send US soldiers into far-off conflicts arbitrarily. However, it would probably take a massive grassroots campaign to convince enough members of Congress to support cutting the defence budget. All of this, in turn, would mean that any peace movement would have to join with a much larger one, as well as make several concessions and keep asking for money (like a recent request that I “put a down payment on peace”).
I went to a session on “Chronicling War and Occupation” this past fall at a conference on press freedom that students put on. Impressive, seasoned, and battered combat correspondents who made up the panel spoke eloquently about why they chose such work, which they seek to influence, and the risks they face, including the potential for “normalizing” conflict. During question time, I inquired about the coverage of anti-war protests. I was met with silence until I heard someone half-heartedly talk about how Russia shuts down dissent.
Although it’s not a good idea to consider the alternatives when bullets are flying, I began to wonder whether there shouldn’t be a peace reporter on every panel discussing war reporting. Most newsrooms probably don’t even think about the idea that there could be peace reporters along with war reporters. And how would that beat the look, I wonder? What could it accomplish?
Not even long ago, when we sang those beautiful tunes, do I recall expecting peace in our day? But I have seen battles come to an end and, on occasion, even been in one. I’ve seen fights end well for everyone involved, and I still respect those who helped make that happen.
You work for peace because, as World Beyond War’s cofounder and executive director David Swanson reminded me in a recent phone conversation, “it’s a moral responsibility to oppose the war machine. And you have to do it as long as there is a chance and you are working toward what has the best probability of success.
That’s how simple—and perplexing—it is. To put it another way, we must give peace a chance.