What Is It Good For?

Today is the United Nations’ International Day of Peace.

You would be forgiven if you think this is another fake celebration of high ideals cooked up by public relations interns, and, in truth, a lot of it is.  Hashtag marketing, pointless celebrity endorsements, feel-good concerts and media events, and related nonsense to make people feel good about themselves for doing absolutely nothing.  But the day has actually accomplished some incredibly important things, including a countrywide ceasefire in Afghanistan in 2007, which resulted in not only a vast reduction in violence, but in thousands of children being vaccinated against polio and other serious diseases as volunteers were able to reach them in areas previously inaccessible due to warfare.

Beyond that, it is a day to reflect on peace, not just in the sense of a cessation of war, but as an end of violence.

I have had a very difficult relationship with the concept of violence my entire life.  I was not born into an abusive family, but many people I knew were, and I saw the way that domestic violence could wreck families, destroy marriages, and shatter children forever.  I was the first male in my family to not serve in the military, and this caused strains in my relationship with the very men who themselves provided me with living proof of how war could traumatize the mind and pollute the soul.  I went through a period in my youth where I got into a lot of fights, and I learned many lessons from that time, but most all of them were lessons of regret, shame, pain, and fear, lessons I could have learned much more easily without hurting other people and being hurt.  I still believe that violence is a tool, and must sometimes be employed, but I have also seen the unfathomable damage it can cause, not only to its victims, but to its perpetrators, and have come to believe that the only great and unforgivable sin is inflicting suffering on the innocent.

I have been obsessed much of my adult life with the Second World War and its immediate background and aftermath; more than anything else in the last century, it is what shaped our world politically, economically, morally, ethically, and philosophically.  In studying, I have learned all the great victories and immeasurable progress that resulted from the war, but I have also learned that it was a charnel house of murder, pain, destruction, and loss, the likes of which most of us cannot even imagine.  The war caused untold amounts of death, suffering, and misery; it eradicated entire peoples and ways of life; it disrupted the social fabric at a time when progress was truly being made and injected hatred and fear into the political discourse that poisoned international and domestic relations for decades to come; and it necessitated vast, unfathomable waste of materials, money, resources, human lives, and the environment. And this, of course, was the good war, the one almost everyone felt was justified and right, the true battle against an obvious evil that we are told every war should be.  If our one great triumph, our one true violent struggle of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, freedom vs. oppression, our one good war could result in this much anguish and horror, what good was any other war?

The Day of Peace is about much more than just cross-border wars between states.  It is about an end to terrorism, an end to rape, an end to colonialism and subjugation of all people, an end to armed rebellion and to gang warfare and to every form of organized violence.  It is about an end to gun violence.  It is about an end to domestic violence.  And these are all ridiculously noble goals; it says so much about how deeply soaked the skeleton of the American body politic is with blood that we ridicule those who cry “peace” as ineffectual hippies, losers, and do-nothings, and that we scoff at the search for an end to violence as pie-in-the-sky nonsense.  When men of the caliber of Gandhi and King, of Tolstoy and Thoreau, of Nhât Hanh and Nhât Tuu, have repeatedly shown us what can be achieved through nonviolence, when even a man like John F. Kennedy learned that it is as important to learn to praise the peacemakers in the same way we do the warriors, there is no form of working towards peace that should not be embraced.

But here in America, it is particularly important to think about the lessons of the Day of Peace.  We are a country so obsessed with violence — even imaginary and theoretical violence — that we respond to murder after murder, massacre after massacre, with little more than a resigned shrug and an unwillingness to even think hard about the cost of our nearly unrestricted access to guns. We are a country that spends mind-boggling sums on military spending, much of which is unnecessary, untraceable, and ineffective except as a mean to line the pockets of the already-wealthy.  We are a country that has demanded prosecution of warmongers overseas while protecting our own soldiers, our own allies, and even our own former government officials from the consequences of their own war crimes.  We are a country that has refused to accept the price of war for our own people by blanching at military casualties overseas and struggling over how to aid our returning war veterans, but that has also embraced an increasing militarism of the police at home and a ramping up of unsanctioned, unregulated, and covert warfare abroad.  America has embraced many components of fascism in the past, but we have never allowed the kind of aggressive political violence that allows it to truly breed; that seems, lately, to be changing.

Most of all, we are a country facing a national election in which one of the two parties that has any chance of winning the nomination is fielding candidate after candidate that favors a new war, this one with Iran.  We have already invaded Iraq, the nation that fought Iran for a decade at the cost of half a million lives, and that invasion cost them tens of thousands more dead, as well as the dead on our side, the impoverishment and degradation of the region, the rise of radical militants inflicting their own brand of suffering, and so much money it can never be tallied.  The same party that brought you that war now wants to bring out a sequel against another nation that has never attacked America, and that is also much bigger, much stronger, and much better equipped.  Any war with Iran will certainly cost hundreds of thousands more lives, create another generation of wounded and haunted Americans, waste gargantuan amounts of money and resources we can hardly afford to lose, and inflict even more suffering on a world that has seen too much.  The Democrats are currently led by a woman whose position as secretary of state was marked by a less aggressive but just as deadly stance in which America could violently interfere with the destiny of other nations, as long as we did it by proxy or remote control.

On the International Day of Peace, you can do something practical, something that really makes a difference; I suggest making a donation to Direct Relief, who are doing vital work in providing medical care to Syrian refugees, walking testaments to the fact that in war, it is always the innocent who suffer the most.  Direct Relief is one of the most highly-rated charities in the world, and you can be sure that the vast majority of your donation will go exactly to the people who need it the most; go here to their donation page and select “International Programs” to give.  But if you can’t do that, at least give some consideration to the decision you’ll be making next election, and think about which candidates might truly believe in the promise of peace — and which ones promise you nothing but more blood and death.

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