In contrast to parades, sales, and barbecues, I offer another side to Memorial Day: a mixed bag of research and personal reflection on war and peace. The research (useful to teachers and others) points us to forgiveness and nonviolence as effective, powerful peacebuilding tools. The personal reflection (on my father’s military service) invites us to remember the human cost of war to soldier and civilian alike. War is truly an inhuman behavior. We can do better. The research and the long view of history point the way to peace. Let’s pay attention.
Beyond Revenge: University of Miami psychology professor and researcher Michael McCullough takes a long view of history and knows that humans “prefer peace over war, every time…” Not only do we prefer it, but Beyond Revenge author McCullough agrees with Better Angels of our Nature author Steven Pinker that humankind is moving in the direction of peace. Based on his research of human and animal psychology of revenge and forgiveness, McCullough speaks in a realistically hopeful way about the power of forgiveness in Ugandan peace initiatives, childrearing, school anti-bullying strategies, and interpersonal relationships. If we’re really serious about celebrating Memorial Day, we will work to build a world in which war is not the answer. McCullough seems to have some of the peacebuilding answers to the question of how we can get along. Take time to read the transcript or listen to the podcast of McCullough’s conversation with On Being’s Krista Tippett. (See link below.)
Global Nonviolent Action Database: For practical reasons why war is not the answer (and evidence than nonviolence actually works!), read about creative, dynamic, powerful, and NONVIOLENT movements for peace and justice across the United States and world. At 560 cases and growing, the Global Nonviolent Action Database was started by activist, researcher, and peace educator George Lakey, assisted by his Peace and Conflict Studies students at Swarthmore College. Advance searching helps you find historical cases dating back to the year 300 when Catholics nonviolently defended a basilica in Italy. Or select 1619 when Polish artisans nonviolently protested for the right to vote in Jamestown, VA. Search by types of nonviolent campaigns for civil rights or democracy. Or, search by case or geography for historical and recent nonviolent actions recently in the headlines. (See link below.)
Waging Nonviolence: For connections from the database collection to current events, read Lakey’s (and colleagues’) weekly column Living Revolution at the Waging Nonviolence news site. Students from middle school through adulthood can easily engage in discussing these cases and the weekly column. Recent topics connect Long Walks for Justice in India, Thailand, and the Americas or More Violence, the Less Revolution, in which Lakey details research of international revolution movements throughout history: violent and nonviolent. (See link below.)
Teach for Peace—Memorial Day & Every Day: The research exists to help us change the prevailing belief system from one that nurtures a culture of war to one that builds an enduring culture of peace. Strong motivation should exist as well. If you think about it, every soldier is a child soldier. What does war do to the children we send to fight it?
For me, a deeper level of understanding the human cost of war came with learning my father’s experience of war as a World War II combat infantry soldier. I had grown up with his nightmare-driven screaming, but only as an adult had I videotaped my middle school son interviewing him about the war. Later I read the thousands of letters my father, Fred, had written my mother. Here’s a letter from boot camp in Georgia:
- “I was low the other day & I went to see the chaplain on the advice of my Sergeant who calls that T.S. (Tough Shit). I talked for about 1-1/2 hours about this, that, & everything, until finally he steered me around to my favorite subject—YOU. I guess it was a little bit of home-sickness, me for the old fireside, eh. I love you so much honey, that when I next see you they will probably have to use a crow-bar to get me anyplace but where you are. You are my idea of all that is fine & sweet in this world. I shall write tomorrow. God Bless You.”
Months later, my father was under attack on the way to Italy. This is not something he would have or could have written my mother. Fifty years later he told my son:
- “We were on the water for about 60 days sometimes in cold, sometimes in warm weather. There was rotten food and sleepless nights and tempers were at knife’s edge. Many fights occurred…. After a long time we were going through the Strait of Gibraltar. That night we were attacked by a German airplane and a pack of submarines….”
Fighting at the Gustav Line May 10-15, 1945, my father Fred recounted seeing farmers along the road sides selling black bread and onions. Soldiers would trade cigarettes in exchange. He earned a Purple Heart there, but experiences on the battle field were so fierce he would only say this to his grandson,
- “Those times weren’t a vacation and it wasn’t a game. There were thousands of dead people lying around. Not just one--- thousands.”
Seeing war from a soldier’s point of view may help us wake up from our Memorial Day parade-sale-barbecue-induced acceptance of war. Dying civilians. Dying soldiers. Scars: mental and physical for the survivors. Summing up his view on war for his grandson, my father concluded:
- “It is the devilish invention of mankind. Even for our enemies that we have—that this country has in the world today—I wish no casualties to either side. War is hell. And I hope we never, never, never have to go through it again.”
The miles-away stare in the eyes of the returning veteran or war-surviving civilian should tell us that war is truly an inhuman behavior. The other side of Memorial Day is to remember the human cost of war to soldier and civilian alike. We can do better. The research and the long view of history are pointing the way if we pay attention and wake up.
Research the possibilities for active peacebuilding at the links below:
- Link: On Being: Michael McCullough—Getting Revenge and Forgiveness: http://being.publicradio.org/programs/2012/revenge-forgiveness/transcript.shtml
- Links: Global Nonviolent Action Database:
Browse cases: http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/browse
Geographical locator: http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/map
- Link: George Lakey (and colleagues’) Living Revolution column at Waging Nonviolence: http://wagingnonviolence.org/2012/03/the-more-violence-the-less-revolution/#more-15545
- Link: Teachforpeace.org: Numerous peace education resources for critical and creative thinking, local and global care, and effective social action are at my website: www.teachforpeace.org