Sunday, May 14, 2006

War and Peace

An interesting op-ed on the history of Mother's Day ran in the Akron Beacon Journal today on the same page as an article about the war on terror.
Contrary to what card makers would have us think, Mother's Day wasn't always a Hallmark holiday. The first Mother's Day proclamation, written by Julia Ward Howe in 1870, was a rallying cry for mothers to make their sons and husbands quit the business of warfare.

There has never been an age without war, not ever. Mass violence is a continual aspect of the human condition. Peace, like good weather, is always local and temporary. And what is peace anyway but the result of past victories in war and the effective threat of future war against would-be aggressors? We play with our children, read books, go to work and enjoy recreations only because people with guns stand ready, willing and able to kill other people with guns who would kill us if they could.

While best known for writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Howe lived through the Civil War. She was horrified by the violence she saw, and used her poetic gift to pen a proclamation against war -- a proclamation that birthed Mother's Day.

``Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause,'' Julia wrote. ``Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.''

It's sweet to forget this and therefore difficult to keep it in mind. ``It is hard for those who live near a Police Station to believe in the triumph of violence,'' as the poet T.S. Eliot wrote. That's us -- we Americans, protected by a mighty military that by and large obeys the rules of our republic -- safe enough, and keeping much of the world safe enough, so that we find it hard to believe in whatwould happen if that protection failed.

But these fighters do keep us safe. And because keeping us safe is harsh, dangerous work, we should glorify them, exalt them in story and song by way of appreciation.

Her solution? Women should join to ``promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.''

For the sake of mothers in the United States, Iraq and Iran, we should heed Julia Ward Howe's 1870 cry to ``Disarm! Disarm!'' and find the means ``whereby the great human family can live in peace.'''s not bloodlines but national creeds that make a people. And while even so great a creed as ours can't guarantee the decency of individuals, evil creeds surely sweep them up into destructive madness and therefore must be opposed.

Today, we face an enemy in the grip of a belief system just as evil, just as destructive in its intent as the system we fought back then. We were attacked at home in this war as we were in World War II. The outcome of the struggle is just as much in doubt.

Worse, because Islamic fundamentalism supersedes nationhood, the danger it poses is more protean and diffuse. It's easier to pretend it isn't there, more tempting for the war-weary and the fatally foolish to waver and sound retreat.

While assessing the intricate failings of our moral history, many of us have lost sight of the simple truth that the system that shapes us is, in fact, a great one, that it has moved us inexorably to do better and that it's well worth defending against every aggressor and certainly against as shabby and vicious an aggressor as we face today.

When war comes, as it always will, and when it is justified, as it is now, nuances and shades of gray have to be set aside. It is time, instead, for faith and for ferocity. Our enemies have these weapons, after all.

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