What If?

Antiwar.com is pleased to announce the winners of its first-ever Student Essay Contest, held summer 2006. Today we present Madeline Reese of the United States, 1st-place winner in the junior division.

Alexia Gilmore
Executive director, Antiwar.com

Sometimes, in contemplating war and the need for peace, one wonders, “what if”; what if Thomas Paine’s ideas were not considered radical, unconventional, or “out there” at all; what if the entire citizenry of the United States of America read and was influenced by The Rights of Man and Common Sense; what if the current administration had not been installed; moreover, what if one embraced the seemingly radical notion that governmental systems would be better led by women, the natural proponents of peace and nonintervention? In considering those what-ifs as they relate to peace, one may find the key to peace is in educating the public to discard the status quo.

Thomas Paine discarded the status quo. He was an extremely influential man, and he influenced many great figures, such as poet Walt Whitman, writer and mighty opponent of slavery William Lloyd Garrison, Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and a man allegiant to Paine’s ideas named Thomas Spence, who was sent to jail for selling Paine’s book The Rights of Man, Part the Second. Paine was a person who rejected convention and stood up for his opinions. He also made a significant impression on Founding Fathers John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who welcomed Paine the first time he came to America in 1774. After his book The Rights of Man was banned in England, Paine would have been arrested had he not been on his way to France as he had just been elected to their National Convention. He was then incarcerated in France for two years because he voted against the execution of King Louis XVI. Thomas Jefferson invited Paine back to America because prior to that, when Jefferson was America’s minister to France, he had met Paine and admired him. When Paine returned to America at Jefferson’s invitation in 1802, he was not welcomed by Adams and company. They no longer wanted his radical ideas around; they just wanted to rest after the American Revolution – ironically, a revolution started in part by Paine’s radical ideas and stated in the Declaration of Independence as “such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”(1)

If the current administration had not been installed in office and instead today’s Americans rejected the status quo as their ancestors did during the American Revolution, the United States of America would not only be well over $338,000,000,000 richer because it would not be at war, but it would also not be in danger from people who hate America because of its government’s policies endorsing torture and the immoral occupation of Iraq. In rejecting the senseless status quo of the Bush administration, Americans would thereby reject the intolerance and violent religious extremism it promotes. To achieve this requires educating the people. In the twisted status quo of Bush, common sense is viewed as radical and unpatriotic. By enlightening the public about the value of dissent, Americans demonstrate their patriotism. To reject the killing and maiming of thousands of people, Americans will need to be less ignorant about the lies of the Bush administration, which led to a war that has so far killed almost 3,000 of America’s young men and women and wounded more than 17,000 American soldiers. The more Americans are educated about the treachery of the Bush administration, the more they show their patriotism, because “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”(2)

Peace is promoted as education challenges the status quo. “It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry,” wrote Paine.(3) More than half of all of today’s college students are female, the inevitable backlash against centuries of sexism. What if women had always led society? The great Greek playwright Aristophanes illustrated women’s ability to reject the status quo and stop war in his play Lysistrata. Women are far less likely than men to start wars that kill their husbands and children. They are far more likely to promote social policies benefiting families, as demonstrated by over 6 million recipients of microcredit from Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank and others like it.(4) One measure of graduating from poverty, according to Yunus, is a family’s ability to provide for the education of its children. In impoverished nations, education is the rejection of the status quo. It empowers women and is the key to peace and prosperity. This peace and prosperity is being accomplished by women, millions of women, who have rejected the status quo, a radical achievement.

In conclusion, the radical, unconventional, “out there” ideas of great thinkers like Thomas Paine, the Founding Fathers, Aristophanes, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus show that contemplating these what-ifs may lead one to discard the status quo for the sake of a better life. By educating the public and enabling them to question authority, a safer world can be created. By embracing the radical notion of enhancing women’s roles to create better governmental systems, one discovers that a more prosperous, peaceable society is within one’s grasp. By rethinking the status quo, one is free to learn from Thomas Paine that “war lets loose the whole contagion of hell and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”(5) It is only through education that changing the status quo and unlocking the door to peace are possible.


(1) The Declaration of Independence, 1776.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Paine, Thomas. The American Crisis. Philadelphia, 1776-1783.

(4) Bruck, Connie. “Millions for Millions.” The New Yorker, Oct. 30, 2006: 62.

(5) Paine, Thomas. The American Crisis, “No. 5, To General Sir William Howe.” Philadelphia, March 21, 1778.