Peace, They Say
Some thoughts on a slippery word and concept

<I>Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World</I> (Encounter)


What is this thing called love?” goes an old song. In the same spirit, we might ask, “What is this thing called peace?” Everyone wants it, everyone talks about it, everyone lauds it. But what is it, exactly? The Norwegian Nobel Committee must determine what peace is, and who has furthered it — furthered it enough to merit the world’s most prestigious prize.

There is probably no subject on which it is easier to be glib than that of peace. In 2010, The National Interest had a cover bearing a photo of Neville Chamberlain and the word “Appeaser!” The cover then described “appeaser” as “the Most Abused Word in History.” I would say that “peace” is by far the more abused. (“Love,” of course, is the most abused word of all time.)

In 1988, the U.N. Peacekeeping Forces won the peace prize, and the secretary-general, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, gave the Nobel lecture on their behalf. He said something wise: “‘Peace’ is an easy word to say in any language. As secretary-general of the United Nations, I hear it so frequently from so many different mouths and different sources that it sometimes seems to me to be a general incantation more or less deprived of practical meaning.”

We can confidently say what peace is not: It is not the mere absence of war, as President Kennedy noted, and as countless others have noted. And yet, peace is not war either. “I hate war,” said FDR, in that incomparable voice of his. Well, who doesn’t? Who doesn’t hate war, except for psychopaths, some of whom rise to power? And the man who said “I hate war” waged it, in Europe, in the Pacific, and wherever else he found it necessary.

When people debate whether their country should go to war, they are divided into “pro-war” and “anti-war” camps (and we speak here of democratic countries, because, in non-democratic countries, there is no real debate). Those labels are more than a little unfair; they are at the least bothersome. Are those who conclude that war is necessary, or just, or the lesser of two evils, really pro-war, and not anti-war?

There are people who think that nothing is worse than war, that war is the worst thing in all the world. Said Benjamin Franklin, “There was never a good war or a bad peace.” In 1938, Clive Bell, the Bloomsbury figure, said, “A Nazi Europe would be, to my mind, heaven on earth compared with Europe at war.” As a rule, peace is better than war, sure. But it can get a little tricky: Which is worse, genocide in Sudan (or elsewhere) or some war whose purpose is to put an end to it? But then you might say, a condition of genocide is not a condition of peace in the first place.

You are familiar with the slogan, “War is not the answer.” But it is the answer to some questions, of course — as when it put paid to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Emerson said, “Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.” A fine sentiment, but unfortunately not true — or not strictly true. Again, the Second World War is instructive. And you might say that understanding can lead a person, or a nation, to see that violence is the only way to put down a threat, and thereby keep or attain peace.

In Salzburg one summer, I encountered a graffito. It said (in English), “Fighting for peace is like f***ing for virginity.” (There were no asterisks.) I later learned that this is a well-known line, in some circles — but I first encountered it scrawled under a bridge. And the concept of fighting for peace can be difficult; it can even seem perverse. But it gets less difficult, and less perverse, when you think of the neighborhood bully, and the necessity of dealing with him, so that the neighborhood can be at peace.


April 2, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 6

  • Mitt Romney, the Mormons, and those who hate them.
  • Claims that the GOP is fighting a war on women’ can be made to backfire.
  • It is far from unthinkable that we will have one.
  • Some thoughts on a slippery word and concept.
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