February 2009

I asked this question in a comment the other day, and didn’t get any clear answer, probably because it’s a difficult question. Naturally I have my own ideas, which I will share here, but I’m not claiming I’m right – just throwing out ideas.

First of all, I’d like to point out that one kind of “peace” that we’ve seen in the past is the total extermination of one side of the conflict. There is historical evidence of quite a few aboriginal cultures in Europe that have perished this way. Many Native American tribes were wiped out in this way. It’s what made Stalin and Pol Pot famous.

I mention extermination because I think that many of the wars that we see nowadays are silently predicated on the idea of total extermination of the enemy. I don’t mean that this is a deliberate goal – I just mean that these wars don’t make sense when viewed any other way.

What I mean is that there is no exit strategy for the conflict – no set of end conditions that would mean that it was time to stop fighting – other than that everyone is dead. I’m aware of at least one conflict that looks this way to me that’s going on right now, and I’d be surprised if there weren’t more. Interestingly, it needn’t be the case that both sides be fighting on this basis – it’s only necessary for one side to have no exit strategy, and I think you have an extermination-oriented conflict.

So suppose that such a conflict comes to a conclusion. Do we now have peace? History would suggest otherwise. What actually happens is that you wind up with an empire, and then that empire eventually crashes. And then you have conflict again.

So what about getting rid of the people who are in control, who are instigating the conflict? Does that work? I ask this question because I think this is the model most people who want peace actually believe in. Get rid of the aggressors, and the conflict will stop.

Let’s consider two examples – mid-seventies Iran, and the U.S. this year, 2009. Iran is a questionable example because they were not really at war in a technical sense, but I think only in a technical sense. Really, Iran was an occupied country. The leaders of the occupation were Iranian, but they were in power because of an occupation begun by the British, and continued by the Americans.

When Iran’s occupation ended, intellectuals in Iran who supported its end were hopeful. They wanted to build a new government that was just and peaceful. This was not an unreasonable hope – nowadays we tend to think of the Middle East as a place where everyone wants war, but this isn’t really true now, and in fact historically the Middle East has been a cradle of civilization.

Unfortunately, Iran was not ripe for a peaceful government when the old government fell. Consequently, what rose up in its place was something even worse. No longer occupied by a foreign power, Iran fell into chaos and repression. War with Iraq killed more Iranians than the Shah ever did.

In the U.S., in 2009, we are tired of war. I think the old government here fell because of this. Lucky us. Unfortunately, although I think we are ripe for improvement, we are not yet ripe for peace. We want an end to the war in Iraq, but not today. So the war is currently projected to continue until 2011, and the war in Afghanistan is ramping up.

There’s an argument, and I think a legitimate one, to be made for staying in Iraq. We allowed the war to start there, and if we just leave, the chaos that follows will be our chaos. But nevertheless, if we were ready for peace, I have trouble believing that the word would be that we would stay until 2011.

So this leads to what I think peace is. I think peace is what happens when most people not only are not interested in war, but are actively interested in peace. I say most because there will always be sociopaths, and there will always be people who feel unfairly done-by, and there will always be criminals. But for peace to exist, it must be the case that those people are not in control, and that their bad behavior is completely and successfully moderated by the intentions and actions of the people who do actively want peace.

I think that people who want peace sometimes imagine that in the absence of aggression, peace would happen naturally, and would remain indefinitely. I think this is unrealistic. We don’t expect the leaves in our roof gutters to clean themselves out. We don’t expect that, once painted, our houses will remain just as bright, forever. Why would we expect peace to emerge on its own out of the ashes of oppression?

Peace, when it comes, will be the result of a very careful and deliberate effort to create the habits that perpetuate peace. We have never seen what this looks like. Perhaps it’s naive to think it’s even possible.

The reason I think it is possible is because this is actually how societies work. Societies have police forces, but it is not the police force that keeps the peace. The police force is just there for the people who can’t restrain themselves. The reason the peace is kept is that the overwhelming majority wants it kept.

And so I think it is possible for there to be peace on earth. But it will not happen because we get rid of someone, or stop someone, or something like that. It will be because we figure out what our world culture needs to be in order for peace to be possible, and because we work, over probably a very long time, to foster the birth of that culture, and to nurture it once it’s been born.


An acquaintance of mine, Steve Shick, was the first director of the Unitarian Universalist Peace Network, a faith-based organization that was formed late in the Cold War to promote nuclear disarmament. The Peace Network grew out of a coalition of national and international organizations in the early 1980s. In spite of a small budget, the Network proved to be quite successful, running a wide range of programs including direct legislative actions, peace education curricula for children, cross-cultural programs to increase Soviet-U.S. understanding, protest actions, etc. The Peace Network’s programs were specific to the Cold War, and thus it ended its institutional existence in 1991.

In a recent article, Steve Shick points out some of the strengths of this Peace Network. Of primary importance, says Steve, the Network was a broad-based coalition: “With the Network were pacifists, nuclear pacifists, and those who supported only limited arms control but not disarmament.” A number of denominational leaders declared that the Unitarian Universalist Peace Network “was the most effective cooperative… effort they had experienced.” Equally important, the Network provided many opportunities for individuals to get directly involved, at whatever level they felt comfortable.

Steve concludes by saying that the old Unitarian Universalist Peace Network offers some lessons for anyone doing faith-based peace work today:

1. You don’t need an ideological consensus to develop effective national programs that mobilize members of a denomination into action.

2. You don’t have to declare yourselves a traditional peace church to be strong advocates for peace.

3. Large numbers of individuals within your denomination are eager for their religious organization to provide action programs in peacemaking.

I especially like the first lesson — you don’t need an ideological consensus to do effective peacemaking.

It’s a Quaker tradition, when seeking clearness, to ask questions rather than to make statements.  Today I have some questions.

A few days ago, Dan Harper called for a new peace aesthetic.  In the comments on his post, Ted Lemon said that we might be too old to be the ones coming up with new imagery or symbols for the peace movement.  When I half-humorously suggested a loaf of bread as good symbol for peace, Will Shetterly said that we’d need an image of bread that could be graffiti’d in “twenty seconds or less.”

I smiled and nodded when I read these comments, but I’ve been thinking since then.  What are we saying about the kind of peace we seek?

Do we want a peace that can be symbolized, “image”-ined, only by the young?  For that matter, what is “young”?  Ted is in his forties.  I’m 39.  What sort of peace, what sort of peaceful world, has only those under forty as its spokespersons?

For that matter, is the peace we’re seeking a peace of marches, signs, banners, t-shirts?  Is it a “movement” in that sense?

What sort of peace requires a central aesthetic, an image, that can be turned into graffiti?  That must be rendered in twenty seconds or less?  Are we graffiti people?  Scrawling our images, our idealism, on other people’s walls in the dead of night?  Is the peace we’re seeking a peace that has to be understood in a blip, a few quick lines?

When we say, “Give peace a chance,” do we mean that you get once chance to get it right, or forget it?

What would a slow peace, a complex peace, look like?  What would a peace be that incorporates the understanding of those over forty, as well as those under?

Is such a peace even possible?  Would anyone recognize it, if they saw it?

I grew up with this peace sign:

And this peace symbol:

That peace sign has older meanings: it’s an all-purpose gesture of disrespect, and it’s Churchill’s “V for Victory.” That peace symbol comes from Gerald Holtom’s “Nuclear Disarmament” symbol. It you know their past, they’re limited symbols.

But the history of those symbols may add to their power. I like knowing that a gesture of military victory now says coexistence is more important than conquering, that a design to indicate opposition to one kind of war is now opposition to all kinds of war.

For purists, there are older symbols. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share Noah’s dove carrying an olive branch. Olives were sacred to Athena—the wise value peace. In Asia, the white crane flies where peace reigns.

There will be newer symbols, because humans are symbol-makers. I love Grey’s suggestion that bread should be a peace sign: what’s more peaceful than sharing food? Flatbread, rice cakes, and corn tortillas can be circles—maybe that’ll inspire a new peace sign, perhaps something like the Pax Cultura symbol:

All I know is I want to share the sushi of peace.

No conclusions. But the next time I make a pizza, I may make a peace symbol of some form on its top.

There’s a nice collection of peace symbol clip art here.

My partner and I arrived back this morning from our one week vacation in San Francisco (our first real vacation in years). On our last day there, we happened across an outdoor marketplace down the the end of Market Street, right where lots of tourists would walk through. There were people sitting at tables selling the usual things you find at such marketplaces:– colorful scarves, bad watercolor paintings, funky jewelry, good acrylic paintings, carved wooden tchotchkes, and so on.

At one table sat a youngish woman with uncombed brown hair wearing a drab green hooded sweatshirt. She was selling t-shirts with peace signs on them. The t-shirts were exactly the colors you would expect, deep purple and various earth colors. It’s exactly the sort of thing a tourist might buy and wear back home while bragging “I got this cool t-shirt from this funky woman in San Francisco. Cool, huh?” It’s exactly the kind of shirt that screams Hippy-Peacenik-Wannabe.

I think it’s time the grand concept of peace got re-branded with a new aesthetic that better reflects its universality and its high aspirations. Or maybe it would be better if peace didn’t have a brand. Can’t we just dump the drab colors, the hemp t-shirts, and yes even the venerable peace sign, altogether?

Pretty please?… I’ll be nice to you if you say “yes”…

Suppose we want peace. Real peace. We believe that peace is possible in theory, although we haven’t lived a day of our lives in a world at peace. What do we do?

Here are some options:

  • We can get upset
  • We can protest
  • We can vote
  • We can boycott
  • We can resist more actively
  • We can think

If it sounds like I’m leading you to a conclusion, please don’t think that.   I’m just trying to be complete.   I think all of these options are things worth discussing.

Let’s take getting upset.   This is a good one, because it’s so easy.   All we need do is read the news.   There is a war going on somewhere.   An atrocity was committed somewhere, today.   A child died in a hospital, in the arms of her sobbing mother, because of some tragic act of horror that was done yesterday, or last week.   I don’t mean to make light of this.   We need to stay in touch with why we want peace.   If we cannot put ourselves in the place of that sobbing mother, we cannot have compassion for her, and if we cannot have compassion for her, how serious can we claim to be?

At the same time, though, getting upset is time consuming.   I can waste an entire day getting upset about war, researching its causes, trying to figure out who’s right, who’s wrong, what was done badly here, how much guilt I share in the horror I have just vicariously witnessed.   So personally, I try to be careful about this.   I think moderation is important here.

We can protest.   I think protest is necessary.   At the same time, we have to be realistic.   For example, when Bush was in office, no amount of public protest that was realistically possible was going to sway him from the course he’d determined to follow.   I’m not saying that no amount of protest could have swayed him – just that the will for the amount of protest that could have swayed him wasn’t present.   As witness the fact that the protests that happened did not sway him.

So I think protest is a worthwhile avenue for communicating our intentions to those in power, and it’s important for us to affirm those intentions, and not just sit back and accept passively the evil that will be done in our names.   But this kind of protest, by like-minded individuals who already believe in peace, isn’t going to be enough.   

For my part, I protest by writing letters more than by appearing in public.   I think the last actual peace rally I attended was the one in New York in 1982, unless you count Critical Mass, which was motivated by a desire to end wars over oil, and which I used to ride in when I could when I was living in San Francisco.  Although reading about those protests when I went to find links describing them got me all teary-eyed – maybe I should go to some more.

We can vote.   This is a hard thing to contemplate.   I have never had the opportunity to vote for a president who was unreservedly pro-peace.   The last one who spoke seriously about creating peace was Jimmy Carter, and he was run out of town on a rail eight days after my sixteenth birthday.   But I voted enthusiastically for Barack Obama, despite his pro-war stance.   Why?   Because I’d rather have a president who’s a diplomat willing to go to war than a president who is not a diplomat, and willing to go to war.

Obviously we will never end war simply by choosing presidents on this basis, but as a practical matter, actions which are less likely to lead to war are worthwhile.   People often brag about refusing to vote on principle, because the choice is between two evils.   But if you ask someone who lives in a U.S.-dominated country like the Philippines how life changed for them when Bush was elected, they’re quite unequivocal about it (I know because I have asked).   When you choose, on principle, not to vote for someone who’s less likely to go to war, I believe that you are choosing to risk war on principle.   I don’t think that’s actually a principled choice.

We can boycott.    The thing about boycotts is that they are essentially tactical.   It’s not that boycotting people is the right thing to do.   In all likelihood, the people who will actually suffer the most from the boycott are not the ones you want to injure.   And there it is – in a boycott, you are essentially seeking to injure someone in a small way in order to prevent a larger injury.

I do not mean to imply that boycotts are never the right thing to do, but I think that a boycott should stand the test of practicality.   If the boycott has some hope of actually accomplishing the change that’s intended, then perhaps it’s worth doing.   But to engage in a boycott as a matter of principle, when it will not actually change anything, to me seems immoral, because now you are attempting to injure someone, and you can’t even point to any good that will come of it.

So personally I tend to shy away from boycotts unless it’s pretty clear-cut.   I was pretty enthusiastic about the INFACT boycott many years ago, and I still think that, for example, boycotting chocolate that’s produced using slaves is a very good thing, but a lot of times when I’m personally called on by a friend to participate in a boycott, it just doesn’t feel like the right thing to me.

We can resist more actively.   I guess this would range anywhere from lying down in front of a train carrying munitions to Weather Underground and SDS territory.   I think engaging in a protest where you might be grievously injured is on the one hand a very powerful statement, and on the other hand, like a boycott, a very questionable tactic.   In effect, you are trading one moment of terrible risk for all the good you might do in the rest of your life if you survive.

I think Brian Willson’s story is worth examining.   I find what he says in his extensive writings on peace both inspiring and discouraging.   He’s an amazing person, but his principled act of self-sacrifice back in 1987 barely left a ripple on the national consciousness.   Whether we agree with his choice of tactic or not, I think his story should be required reading for anybody who’s serious about peace.

As for the Weather Underground and SDS, I think history shows a pretty clear conclusion.   WU and SDS made things a lot worse.   Because of their actions in the sixties, Barack Obama came under scrutiny, merely for an incidental association with Bill Ayers.   Furthermore, any good those involved do now is forever tainted by their actions as misguided youths in the 1960s.   Their actions are used as justification for police brutality against protestors, up to and including killing in self-defense.   Violence begets violence, whether it is in the service of peace or war, or any other cause.

We can think.   We can be slaves to our drives, or we can think our way out of them.   When we engage in war, we are enslaved by our drives.   We are not moral actors – we are dumb animals reacting to our environment.   Thinking is actually the most important thing we can do to promote peace.   Our drives are never permanently conquered.   We do not, one day, decide that we will never get angry again, and then thereafter our will is perfectly imposed on our drives.   Quite the contrary.

Even our thinking about war is muddled by our drives.   The more you read about human drives, the more clear this is.   People can be manipulated, en masse.   We are manipulated by our emotions even as individuals.   Look at the standard action movie setup: some bad guy commits an atrocity against the hero’s loved one.   Any subsequent action on the part of the hero, no matter how depraved, is justified by this initial act.   It works in real life too.

The only tool we have with which to fight this is our intellect.

It’s key to bear in mind that it is not only those who promote war who manipulate us.   It is also those who promote peace.   I don’t mean that peace activists are bad people.   What I mean is that we need to use our intellect to examine all arguments offered to us, not just those with which we disagree.   A peace activist friend who urges us to do something extreme, or even just something ineffective, in the service of peace is just as wrong as the war hawk who urges us to go to war.   Right now I think the peace activist who has a serious, intellectually rigorous answer for why peace is better than war as a tool for achieving any end at all is a very rare bird.   Are you such a rare bird?

So I don’t mean to discount all the other things we can do to achieve peace, because they are also important.   But we need more of those rare birds.   We should all be able to sit down with Bill O’Reilly and not be stumped by a single thing he throws at us.   We should be able to describe and justify our own agenda clearly, and we should be able to respond to cross-examination on any point.

It is in service of this crucial need that I debate with people about war and peace.   It’s why I agreed to write about peace here on this blog.   And it’s why I blew my targeted word count by about 700 words.   So if you got to this point in the article, that’s a very hopeful thing.

From The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant: “In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war.” The Durants don’t say how they came up with the number. I would love to have the list, and know in each case whether peace had succeeded or war had failed. When people talk of the history of war and peace, the pessimist says we always fall back on war; the optimistist, on peace.

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