The word peace has suffered from some serious overuse. As a result, this overuse has given us consistent ambiguity and miscommunication.
Society’s confused understanding of peace is directly connected to this ambiguity.
Given humanity’s long and trophied history, it’s understandable we would have a bit of trouble here. Thousands of writers, politicians, businesspeople, tyrants, advocates, religious leaders and devotees have used the word peace to mean what they want it to mean, sometimes violently.
The problem with this widespread appropriation is that it comes with endless projections and littered histories mixed further with false assumptions and often empty and oversimplified hopes and advert campaigns.
As a further result of this widespread misunderstanding, each individual now has only a vague awareness of what it may be, but no real insight into what it is.
Now, you may be asking yourself, ‘Isn’t peace just no war, or no violence?’
Well no, not quite.
And just so we’re clear, here: war is bad, and peace is good.
There are those that promote direct violence through war on the basis of it being, what they would call, a necessary evil; a.k.a. just war theory. But in real-world application, in war there are often no clear winners or losers, and both sides see themselves as the ‘true’ righteous cause; ultimately alienating and dehumanizing the evil ‘other.’
I’m sure you can see the problem with just war theory if each side continues to see their cause as a just and righteous war.
Hindsight in consistently 20/20, and war is no different. When all the dust settles amongst the grey and scattered rubble, according to the people who fight (who lead nations and soldiers) simply too much is lost in conflict to claim any real victory. The rest is just propaganda.
One of the most respected generals in United States history, Norman Schwarzkopf, said, “Any soldier worth his salt should be anti-war. And still there are things worth fighting for.” And he’s not wrong.
The problem lies in how the fight most typically ensues.
Robert McNamara, who was involved in most of the western wars, skirmishes, or standoffs of the 20th century, and did his fair share of propaganda, said of the Tokyo fire-bombings,
“In that single night we burned to death over 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo; men, women and children . . I was part of a mechanism that had recommended it . . 50 square miles of Tokyo were burned. [General Curtis] Lemay (also known as ‘the Demon’ or ‘Bombs Away Lemay’) said that if we’d lost the war we’d have all been prosecuted as war criminals, and I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals. Lemay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose, but not immoral if you win?”
The Japanese American War was also among the many wars fought, for the most part, against civilians. The United States, according to those that ran it at the time, devastated many dozens of cities in their quest for efficiency and proportionality.
And this before the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Proportionality is the idea of a cost-benefit analysis basically, in regards to loss of life on either side of a conflict.)
This loss of innocent life is bracingly consistent throughout history. Surprisingly, most people who die in war never actually hold a gun, never sign up for service, and in many cases, aren’t even old enough to do so.
For example, research from Carolyn R. Nordstrom, of the University of Notre Dame, said in regard to the violence and war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo:
“Only six percent of the 2.5 million war-related deaths were of combatants, with the vast majority of these deaths caused by disease induced by the conditions of warfare. Civilians die because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ironically, the least dangerous place to be in most contemporary wars is in the military.”
Over the course of human history so much intent and excruciating effort has been lost to war, with barely a risked backward glance for peace.
This may come as a surprise, but this destructive human habit is changing. There is a whole field in academia, and complementary institutions across the world called, Peace and Conflict Studies.
These folks eagerly and methodically look into the workings of society, social systems, institutions, atrocities, wars, skirmishes, genocides and on to understand their core issues.
Each region and institution has their specific focus, and have become experts in these areas and their processes. There’s the PRIO Institute in Norway in partnership with UPPSALA University in Sweden, and the KROC Institute working with Notre Dame. Then there’s the University for Peace in Costa Rica with the United Nations.
Winnipeg is actually walking with these leaders stride for stride with our very own homegrown universities working together for peace.
They work with organizations such as Peace Days—a social movement initiated by Rotary World Peace Partners to bring peace to the masses, the Human Rights Hub, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Winnipeg Foundation, and many many others.
The colleges include the University of Manitoba’s Mauro Centre for Peace and Justice that has Canada’s first Ph.D. PACS program and a Joint PACS MA program with Global College, Menno Simon’s College at the University of Winnipeg.
There are economists, academics, public servants, business persons and ambassadors across the world collectively moving toward world peace.
These world citizens dedicate their lives to the study of peace. They do it to inform us of its intricacies.
After years of study and cross-examination, we know the absence of war or violence is not peace, but more accurately understood as negative peace. We know one concept cannot be defined by the absence of another, especially where something as important as peace is concerned.
It’s because of their pioneering work we know peace is not a static phenomena, but a flowing macro-system intimately intertwined with hundreds of other micro-systems.
When all is said and done what most people mean when they conceptually wrangle the loaded word is positive-peace: no violence, no war, people living in mutually beneficial and nurturing relationships with access to resources and opportunities for them and their children and their children’s children.
All this is also integrated into a positive feedback ecosystem, effectively weaving these practices in balance with nature and the planet.
Lived experience and generational strides do matter. And make no mistake, society has made huge strides. These increase our understanding and our ability to move forward in applying such important research.
It’s okay to not know what peace means, most don’t. However, it is important to spread the word once we do. The more people understand peace, the more equipped society at large will be at building it.
This can be difficult though. We aren’t raised to understand peace.
For example, in secondary school there are a lot of lessons and discussions based in social and economic ideas, algebra, biology, history and on. But the textbooks don’t pay much attention to peace—how it happened, what factors led to longer durations of peace, and so on.
Even in university, wars and direct conflicts take more than their fair share of the spotlight, with the opportunity cost lost on other pursuits, and thus lost on understanding what peace actually is, and how it’s built.
There’s also the sticky issue of ownership. Or, who does that particular version of peace, that parcel of land, that idea, or perspective on history, belong to. What community claims it, why, and what is the platform and context that gives them that right?
Whether it was 20, 100, or 1000 years ago we know quite a bit about war. We know in our littered histories, in most instances, direct force has occurred as the first resort instead of the last, and most commonly without the best of intentions.
We know these wars have happened, again in most instances, when they did not need to, and that the majority of these wars were counterproductive to the claimed goals or ends espoused by the actors.
Whether through skirmishes in Israel and Pakistan, or in the genocides in Canada, the United States, Sri Lanka, Darfur, Rwanda and Aleppo; the mistakes of the past continue to roll on into our present due to the lack of peace literacy.
Just 100 years ago, peace was a frail hope as the world suffered through the War to End All Wars. The world collectively sighed, and yearned for an end to the trench-warfare that still to this day has left visible scars across Europe.
When the end finally did come, it didn’t end in battle, but with the signing of document entitled the Covenant of the League of Nations. This League of Nations sadly failed, but in it’s place was later birthed the United Nations and with it, the Declaration of Human Rights.
It’s important to understand here, that words matter, and that relationships matter. Words explain, emphasize and bind.
The world’s collective history (from Alaska to Chile, from Portugal to Mauritania to Japan) are dependent upon the written word in one form or another. Especially documents where signatures are required.
Much of this word-based culture is due to the world powers of millennia ago and to the reigning world powers of today. But this written word is still humanity’s collective culture, however it occurred, and despite the trauma that still exists there.
Peace can be a tough nut to crack; it’s nuanced and layered with intentions and understandings that don’t come easily. It takes time and patience to consider other points of view without projecting our own. It’s hard.
However, peace — positive peace — is well worth that effort.