Vox Populi

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Nan Levinson: Is There a World Beyond War?

A demonstrator shows a peace symbol painted on her hand as she stands next to a riot police officer during an anti-war protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in St. Petersburg on March 2.

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I like to sing and what I like best is to do so at the top of my lungs when I’m all alone. Last summer, taking a walk through the corn fields in New York’s Hudson River Valley with no one around but the barn swallows, I found myself belting out a medley of tunes about peace from my long-ago, summer-camp years. That was the late 1950s, when the miseries of World War II were still relatively fresh, the U.N. looked like a promising development, and folk music was just oh-so-cool.

At my well-meaning, often self-righteous, always melodious camp, 110 children used to warble with such sweet promise:

“My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine
but other lands have sunlight too and clover
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine”

It seemed such a sensible, grown-up way to think — like, duh! we can all have the good stuff. That was before I got older and came to realize that grown-ups don’t necessarily think sensibly. So many years later, as I finished the last chorus, I wondered: Who talks, let alone sings, that way about peace anymore? I mean, without irony and with genuine hope?

Since my summer ramble, International Peace Day has come and gone. Meanwhile, militaries are killing civilians (and sometimes vice versa) in places as disparate as UkraineEthiopiaIranSyria, the West Bank, and Yemen.  It just goes on and on, doesn’t it? And that’s not even to mention all the fragile truces, acts of terrorism (and reprisal), quashed uprisings, and barely repressed hostilities on this planet.

Don’t get me started, by the way, on how the language of battle so often pervades our daily lives. Little wonder that the Pope, in his recent Christmas message, bemoaned the world’s “famine of peace.”

Amid all of that, isn’t it hard to imagine that peace stands a chance?

Sing Out!

There’s a limit to how much significance songs can carry, of course, but a successful political movement does need a good soundtrack. (As I found out while reportingthen, Rage Against the Machine served that purpose for some post-9/11 antiwar soldiers.) Better yet is an anthem crowds can sing when they gather in solidarity to exert political pressure. After all, it feels good to sing as a group at a moment when it doesn’t even matter if you can carry a tune as long as the lyrics hit home. But a protest song, by definition, isn’t a song of peace — and it turns out that most recent peace songs aren’t so peaceful either.  

As many of us of a certain age remember, antiwar songs thrived during the Vietnam War years. There was the iconic “Give Peace a Chance,” recorded by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and pals in a Montreal hotel room in 1969; “War,” first recorded by the Temptations in 1970 (I can still hear that “absolutely nothing!” response to “What Is It Good For?”); Cat Stevens’s “Peace Train,” from 1971; and that’s just to begin a list. But in this century?  Most of the ones I came across were about inner peace or making peace with yourself; they are self-care mantras du jour. The few about world or international peace were unnervingly angry and bleak, which also seemed to reflect the tenor of the time.

It’s not as if the word “peace” has been cancelled. The porch of a neighbor of mine sports a faded peace flag; Trader Joe’s keeps me well-supplied with Inner Peas; and peace still gets full commercial treatment sometimes, as on designer T-shirts from the Chinese clothing company Uniqlo. But many of the organizations whose goal is indeed world peace have chosen not to include the word in their names and “peacenik,” pejorative even in its heyday, is now purely passé. So, has peace work just changed its tune or has it evolved in more substantial ways?

Peace 101

Peace is a state of being, even perhaps a state of grace. It can be as internal as individual serenity or as broad as comity among nations. But at best, it’s unstable, eternally in danger of being lost. It needs a verb with it — seek the, pursue the, win the, keep the — to have real impact and, although there have been stretches of time without war in certain regions (post-WW II Europe until recently, for example), that certainly doesn’t seem to be the natural state of all too much of this world of ours.

Most peace workers probably disagree or they wouldn’t be doing what they do. In this century, I first experienced pushback to the idea that war is innate or inevitable in a 2008 phone interview with Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist noted for his work with Vietnam War veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. That was the subject we were talking about when he veered off-topic and asserted his belief that it was indeed possible to end all war.

Most such conflicts, he thought, stemmed from fear and the way not just civilians but the military brass so often “consume” it as entertainment. He urged me to read Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s treatise Perpetual Peace. When I did, I was indeed struck by its echoes over two centuries later. On recurring debates about reinstating the draft, to take one example, consider Kant’s suggestion that standing armies only make it easier for countries to go to war. “They incite the various states to outrival one another in the number of their soldiers,” he wrote then, “and to this number no limit can be set.”

The modern academic field of peace and conflict studies — there are now about 400 such programs around the world — began about 60 years ago. Underpinning peace theory are the concepts of negative and positive peace first widely introduced by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung (though Jane Addams and Martin Luther King both used the terms earlier). Negative peace is the absence of immediate violence and armed conflict, the conviction perhaps that you can buy groceries without taking a chance on getting blown to smithereens (as in Ukraine today). Positive peace is a state of sustained harmony within and among nations. That doesn’t mean no one ever disagrees, only that the parties involved deal with any clash of goals nonviolently. And since so many violent clashes arise from underlying social conditions, employing empathy and creativity to heal wounds is essential to the process.

Negative peace aims at avoiding, positive peace at enduring. But negative peace is an immediate necessity because wars are so much easier to start than to stop, which makes Galtung’s position more practical than messianic. “I am not concerned with saving the world,” he wrote. “I am concerned with finding solutions to specific conflicts before they become violent.”

David Cortright, a Vietnam War veteran, professor emeritus at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and co-creator of Win Without War, offered me this definition of such work in an email: “To me, the question is not ‘world peace,’ which is dreamy and utopian and too often used to ridicule those of us who believe in and work for peace, but rather how to reduce armed conflict and violence.”

Peace Comes Dropping Slow

Peace movements tend to mobilize around specific wars, swelling and declining as those conflicts do, though sometimes they do remain in our world afterward. Mother’s Day, for instance, grew out of a call for peace after the Civil War. (Women have been at the forefront of peace actions since Lysistrata organized the women of ancient Greece to deny men sex until they ended the Peloponnesian War.) A few still-active antiwar organizations date from before World War I and several arose from the Vietnam War resistance movement and the antinuclear one of the early 1980s. Others are as recent as Dissenters, organized in 2017 by young activists of color.  

Today, a long list of nonprofits, religious groups, NGOs, lobbying campaigns, publications, and scholarly programs are intent on abolishing war. They generally focus their efforts on educating citizens in how to rein in militarism and military funding, while promoting better ways for countries to coexist peacefully or stanch internal conflicts.

Count on one thing, though: it’s never an easy task, not even if you limit yourself to the United States, where militarism is regularly portrayed as patriotism and unbridled spending on murderous weapons as deterrence, while war profiteering has long been a national pastime. True, a signer of the Declaration of Independence later proposed a Peace-Office to be headed by a Secretary of Peace and put on equal footing with the War Department. Such an idea never got further, however, than renaming that War Department as the more neutral-sounding Defense Department in 1949, after the U.N. Charter outlawed wars of aggression. (If only!)  

According to a database compiled by the Military Intervention Project, this country has engaged in 392 military interventions since 1776, half of them in the past 70 years. At the moment, this country isn’t directly waging any full-scale conflicts, though U.S. troops are still fighting in Syria and its planes still launching strikes in Somalia, not to speak of the 85 counterterror operations Brown University’s Costs of War Project found the U.S. had engaged in from 2018 to 2020, some of which are undoubtedly ongoing. The Institute for Economics and Peace ranks the U.S. 129th out of 163 countries in its 2022 Global Peace Index. Among the categories we’ve flunked in that reckoning are the size of our jailed population, the number of counterterrorist activities conducted, military expenditures (which leave the rest of the planet in the dust), general militarism, our nuclear arsenal being “modernized” 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 conflicts fought. Add to that so many other urgent, interlacing problems and mundane brutalities against this planet and the people on it and it’s easy to believe that pursuing sustained peace isn’t just unrealistic but distinctly un-American.

Except it isn’t. Peace work is all too crucial, if only because a Pentagon budget accounting for at least 53% of this country’s discretionary budget undercuts and sabotages efforts to address a host of crucial social needs. It’s hardly surprising, then, that U.S. peace activists have had to adjust their strategies along with their vocabulary.They now stress the interconnectedness of war and so many other issues, partly as a tactic, but also because “no justice, no peace” is more than a slogan. It’s a precondition for achieving a more peaceful life in this country.

Recognizing the interconnectedness of what plagues us means more than just coaxing other constituencies to add peace to their portfolios. It means embracing and working with other organizations on their issues, too. As Jonathan King, co-chair of Massachusetts Peace Action and professor emeritus at MIT, put it aptly, “You need to go where people are, meet them at their concerns and needs.” So, King, a longtime peace activist, also serves on the coordinating committee of the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign, which includes ending “military aggression and war-mongering” on its list of demands, while Veterans For Peace now has an active Climate Crisis and Militarism ProjectDavid Cortright similarly points to a growing body of peace research, drawing on science and other scholarly fields, including feminist and post-colonial studies, while pushing a radical rethinking of what peace means.

Then there’s the question of how movements accomplish anything through some combination of inside institutional work, general political clout, and public pressure. Yes, maybe someday Congress might finally be persuaded by a lobbying campaign to revoke those outdated Authorizations for Use of Military Force passed in 2001 and 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed. That, at least, would make it harder for a president to deploy U.S. troops in distant conflicts at will. However, getting enough members of Congress to agree to rein in the defense budget would likely require a grassroots campaign of staggering size. All that, in turn, would undoubtedly mean a melding of any peace movement into something far larger, as well as a series of hold-your-nose compromises and relentless fundraising appeals (like a recent plea asking me to “make a down payment on peace”).

The Peace Beat?

This fall, I attended a panel, “Chronicling War and Occupation,” at a student-organized conference on freedom of the press. The four panelists — impressive, experienced, battered war correspondents — spoke thoughtfully about why they do such work, whom they hope to influence, and the dangers they deal with, including the possibility of “normalizing” war. At question time, I asked about coverage of antiwar activity and was met with silence, followed by a half-hearted reference to the suppression of dissent in Russia.

True, when bullets are flying, it’s not the time to ponder the alternative, but bullets weren’t flying in that auditorium and I wondered whether every panel about war reportage shouldn’t include someone reporting on peace. I doubt it’s even a thought in newsrooms that, along with war reporters, there could also be peace reporters. And what, I wonder, would that beat look like? What might it achieve?

I doubt I ever expected to see peace in our time, not even long ago when we sang those lilting songs. But I have seen wars end and, occasionally, even avoided. I have seen conflicts resolved to the betterment of those involved and I continue to admire the peace workers who had a role in making that happen.

As David Swanson, co-founder and executive director of World Beyond War, reminded me in a recent phone call, you work for peace because “it’s a moral responsibility to oppose the war machine. And as long as there’s a chance and you’re working at what has the best chance of succeeding, you have to do it.”

It’s as simple — and as bedeviling — as that. In other words, we have to give peace a chance.


Copyright 2023 Nan Levinson. First published in TomDispatch. Included in Vox Populi with permission. 

Nan Levinson’s most recent book is War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built. A TomDispatch regular, she taught journalism and fiction writing at Tufts University.

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