In Search of a Peace Culture

Perhaps 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:

Then in despair I bowed my head.

There is no peace on Earth, I said

For hate is strong

And mocks the song

Of peace on Earth, good will to men.

The 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.

But 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.


The 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.

So 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 America lost.

The 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.

The 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:

"Civilization 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."


It 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 of simplemindedness.

People 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 outcome.

Perhaps 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.


It 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.

Wars 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.

And 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.


Perhaps, 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.

I 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 wars.

Surely, 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.

If 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.

Even 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.


Over 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.

Most 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 peace.

Christians 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.

We 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?

Peacemakers, 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 prospect.

It 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 as boring.

We 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.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).