It is easier to lead men to combat, stirring up their passion, than to restrain them and direct them toward the patient labors of peace.
Andre Gide (1869-1951) was a French author and winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947. He was noted for his significant writings about human problems and conditions. It is important to understand that Gide lived in Paris, France, during both World War I and World War II – two of the most horrendous armed conflicts in history to that date. Within this context, I consider his words about war and peace.
I was tempted to restrict my reflection to armed conflict on a national or international level; in other words, keep the focus on organized warfare between civil factions or between nations. In light of the sheer numbers of individual people slain by lone gunmen or other kinds of attacks in recent weeks and months, I choose to widen the scope of my remarks to include this kind of combat.
What struck me most when I read Gide’s words, is that he claims that going to combat is easier than creating a sustained peace. As I look back historically at warfare between nations, I can’t argue his point. In order to maximize the possibility for victory, governments set out to mobilize public opinion, to incite its citizenry to outrage and fury against the identified enemy. This is and was done by manipulating and manufacturing information. Clearly, with a literate citizenry and the mass media tools available, this task is much easier to accomplish today.
Yet, even in western nations of a century ago, the daily newspapers were effective propaganda tools. As a high school History teacher, I recall showing students examples of political caricatures, editorials, government sponsored posters – all published in the newspapers for local consumption. There were drawings of evil monsters in German uniforms raping, pillaging and murdering innocents. These images incited the masses to: enlist in the armed forces, open their billfolds to finance the war and volunteer in other ways to help the war effort. It was easy to hate.
Fast forward to the present day and we see examples of mayhem loosed upon unsuspecting citizens around the world by radicalized terrorists. The response? The War on Terrorism, of course. Government agencies hunt down terrorist leaders and attempt to execute them – with popular support. In these cases, governments don’t need to resort to propaganda, since the horror perpetrated by terrorist acts serves as ample motivation to support government efforts.
For me, the most upsetting violent events happening today are the police shootings of black citizens in the United States and the retaliatory shootings of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge. In the past, the killing of black suspects by white police officers have resulted in few prosecutions of the officers involved. Now we are witness to cases where enraged black shooters have killed a number of police.
In both of the cases cited above, the black shooters were former US military personnel. They were trained to kill, served their country in conflict areas overseas, then returned to civilian life. It was very easy to train them to kill efficiently with assault weapons, but what about retraining them to fit peaceably into civilian society at home? Did they receive psychological support and job training? Not likely – that’s too costly. Statistics suggest that visible minorities make up the majority of America’s armed forces, yet very little effort is made to ensure they can re-enter society and be self-sufficient, successful citizens. Instead we have well-trained, ticking time bombs in a society that discriminates against visible minorities and where the procurement of deadly firearms is relatively easy. As Gide states above, preparing citizens for war or violence is easier than training them in the ways of peace.
It may sound like I’m taking America to task. Every country faces this same dilemma. My country, Canada, has radicalized citizens who have perpetrated deadly violence – even in our nation’s capital, Ottawa, in 2015. The terrorist threat is universal. The violence that results from injustice threatens to shred our social fabric beyond repair. This is not an exclusively American problem. The Internet, global satellite telecommunications and social media have made us truly a global village. What happens in Dallas, Minnesota, Paris or Brussels, is of great concern to people around the world.
Humanity has turned warfare into an exact science in many ways. Now it is time to put our collective knowledge and skills to work to turn peacemaking into a fine art. We have the lessons of the past to school us and there are countless people of good will in every country on this planet we all call home. Let us take the longings and dreams of peace from our hearts and minds and make them real. Humanity has proven again and again that there is no problem that can’t be studied and solved. It is really a matter of choice and determination. The ball is in our court.