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US Culture: War or Peace?
Published on Sunday, February 25, 2007 by
US Culture: War or Peace?
by Nels Christianson

"No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
-- James Madison

“We seek peace” G. W. Bush boldly claimed during his 2003 State-of-the-Union address. In 2004, it was, “Our aim is a democratic peace.” In the next year’s address he explained how promoting freedom rather than fear and hatred leads to peace. All the while he has been waging two wars. Three if you count our support of Israel in the recent battle in Lebanon. And Iran could be our fourth. Our leaders (not just Bush) talk peace but wage war. This is nothing new. So I ask:

How do we – we as a nation – seek peace?

That we seek peace at all can be challenged by those who look at our recent history. The author, Gore Vidal, cites America’s laundry list of more than 250 armed aggressions on foreign soil since World War II. That pencils out to about one every three months. Add in propaganda build-up, manufacturing of ammunition and equipment, transport of soldiers and supplies. One could claim America’s mantra and daily practice is war.

Each 4th of July, we pay tribute to soldiers who have sacrificed for our country. We do the same for Veteran’s Day, Flag Day, Pearl Harbor Day, Memorial Day, and so on. Towns unfurl flags by the thousands, uniformed groups march in parades, and newspapers carry touching stories of bygone conflicts. It makes sense that we host such festive displays because, for all of our hard work for war, we deserve to celebrate.

We have other citizens who sacrifice for our nation and for peace. Like soldiers enlisting for military service, these citizens enlist in the Peace Corps. A few years ago, Congress established National Peace Corps Week to recognize the service to our country by these volunteers. This year, National Peace Corps Week begins February 26th.

I live in a fairly small city in the Pacific Northwest that has several active peace organizations and this area in general produces a relatively high number of Peace Corps volunteers. My city council officially recognizes its Peace Corps citizens and periodically there is mention of Peace Corps service in our local paper. I could be wrong but I believe most towns don’t know about Peace Corps Week so most locales will have no flags, no parades, and no poignant stories. Instead, they get the same old song: War, war, war. And it begs the question:

How do we – we as a community – teach our children about peace?

Inspired by John F. Kennedy and Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps was founded in 1961 with a three-fold mission: to provide technical assistance to developing nations, to teach others about America, and to teach America about the world. For the last 46 years about 187,000 Americans have been our "ambassadors of goodwill" in over 135 countries around the world. Chances are you know former or current Peace Corps volunteers.

For the volunteers, committing to live in a foreign village requires courage. Many live and work in areas where strange diseases are the norm. As in the US, local folks are often suspicious of foreigners so volunteers are sometimes accused of being spies. Some volunteers have served in the very countries in which we have committed military aggressions. At the most fundamental, human-to-human level these volunteers build the foundation for respect and understanding between nations … without an M-16 or an F-16, without a platoon to back them up, without calling in some covert action, and without buying UN votes to impose sanctions.

Some volunteers have died while in service. Most Peace Corps casualties are the result of road accidents which is not very glamorous when compared to the exciting, heart-pounding, battlefield deaths depicted in movies like Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down. However, we can make rough, back-of-the-napkin calculations which show that the probability of being a Peace Corps fatality is about equal to that of winding up in a military body bag. Both peace and military services involve risk and courage.

Don’t misunderstand this. I am not saying that Peace Corps should replace the military. And certainly there are other jobs that are riskier than joining either the Peace Corps or the Armed Services. I’d guess that driving a taxi cab in New York City is riskier, for example, but I don’t know that for a fact. Nor am I saying that Peace Corps service should be extolled in the same manner that military service is. My intent is to challenge the belief that our nation’s culture is about peace and to further suggest that, by not seeking peace, we imperil ourselves.

Even our military recognizes this simple point. In a Washington Post article (Jan. 7, 2004), Thomas Ricks wrote that Army units in Iraq are being criticized because of their brutal tactics. Such militarism is fomenting anti-American sentiments. One officer explained, “Success in a counterinsurgency environment is based on winning popular support, not blowing up people’s houses.”

In other words, they don’t hate us because of our freedoms. They hate us because they have the same emotional response we do when our loved ones are killed by foreign attackers. According to Ricks, the Pentagon’s solution to this problem is to remove the callous Army units and then send in a kinder, more culturally sensitive group: the Marines.

Peace Corps volunteers are living and working among local villagers and city folk all over the world. They build homes, instruct children and adults in classrooms, provide medical assistance, create small business opportunities, teach agricultural and farming techniques, and share vocational and artisan skills. They participate in the local village life so that, through these volunteers, many foreigners come to understand and admire America. It is impossible to say, of course, but just maybe their work has already prevented many attacks against us.

Speaking of attacks against us… As we continue to elect leaders who take us to war, the odds become increasingly gloomy for We the People. The percentage of citizens killed worldwide (as compared to soldiers killed) in wars has increased through the last century from about 14% in World War I to about 90% in the wars of the 1990s. We now know from the tragedy of 9/11 and the subsequent USA PATRIOT acts that, in spite of our unequaled firepower and proven willingness to use it, our generals cannot protect us or our freedoms from the consequences of our militarism.

Rather than changing our militarism, though, leaders now explain that we must give up rights and freedoms in order to protect the democracy. They couldn’t be more wrong. The military’s form of governance is one where everyone obeys orders from the top Commander-in-Chief on down to the grunt soldiers. Democratic governance is just the opposite. Thus, the more we behave as if we are at war, the less we function as a democracy. Just what did the Commander-in-Chief mean by “democratic peace?”

Almost daily, officials tell us whom to fear. Our businesses fund campaigns and lobby on behalf of their weapons and service contracts. The media and entertainment industries exaggerate our fears while glorifying war. It is a self-perpetuating system that repeatedly thrusts our youth into one hostile situation after another. Essentially, we live in the midst of continual warfare.

America is a great country. Were the world less connected, perhaps we could be more cavalier and less concerned about blowback. With globalization, however, we must be acutely aware of the consequences of our actions upon our neighbors and, ultimately, upon ourselves. A single military action can wipe out decades of diplomacy and trust-building efforts between nations. Let alone 250 incursions. The genuine goodwill, respect, and admiration that most of the world has, or had, for America is simply too precious to risk. Needlessly fomenting animosity squanders our greatness.

Finally, this is our culture. If we want to maintain our democracy and freedoms, we can and must choose a different path. If we truly seek peace, then we citizens must make the political cost of military aggression an untenable choice for our elected leaders. And we must glorify all our heroes. It may seem like a monumental task, but it really isn’t. It all starts with a simple question:

How do we – you and I as individuals – create peace?

Nels Christianson is a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Kenya (78-80) and more recently was a Crisis Corps Volunteer in Sri Lanka helping with the tsunami recovery effort.   Crisis Corps is a relatively new branch of the Peace Corps.  He currently lives in Washington.  Email comments to:
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