A Reflection on War and Peace for International Peace Day

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Greg Simons, international day of peace, global education magazineProf. Dr. Greg Simons

Institutional Filiation: Uppsala University, Uppsala Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies

e-mail: greg.simons@ucrs.uu.se 

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This is intended as a reflection on peace, its cultivation and its greater significance. International Peace Day, which is celebrated on the 21st of September each year, is a highly symbolic and value rich event. In order to engage in a meaningful discussion on peace, the subject needs to be contextualised and its duality with war explored. War and peace are opposites in meaning and practice, they are also deliberately or unintentionally confused or obfuscated at times. One of the dilemmas facing those who seek to build peace is that it is something that requires a lot of time, effort and sacrifice to create, and is easily derailed. On the contrary, war is seemingly much easier to propagate. In the end though, I believe that in spite of the difficulties and obstacles, the effort to bring about peace is well worth it. To bring this about requires developing and imparting knowledge and information literacy. 
Soon the annual International Day of Peace shall be marked once more. A lot of hope and symbolism is attached to this day. As a reflection upon this day, I would like to broach a number of different questions. A starting point is to actually explain the date from a very mechanistic point of view. What is the significance of this day? How and when was it instituted? And what does it hope to achieve? 
The International Day of Peace is celebrated on the 21st of September every year, it was first celebrated in 1982. It was a proposal that was supported by the United Nations General Assembly and embodied a simple idea. 
The General Assembly has declared this as a day devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples. (1)
This ideal is supported by a request or invitation for participation by the symbolic act of ceasing conflict to reflect on the value of peace. It is a day that is celebrated by raising public awareness of issues related to peace through education. The theme of 2014’s International Day of Peace is the Right of Peoples to Peace. So why is this wonderful ideal so seemingly hard to approach, let alone attain? The answer is found, in part, in how mankind things about and relates to war and peace. 
I teach an undergraduate course at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Mass Media and Contemporary Armed Conflict. One of my students wanted to write an essay that involved peace journalism. She soon found out that it was much easier to find research material on war journalism than peace journalism. Unfortunately, a seemingly sad reality of the modern world is the nature of mankind and their relation to war and peace. On the surface, it seems that it is much easier to create hatred and war than it is to foster harmony and peace. 
War as defined by sources such as the Oxford English dictionary or Wikipedia describe it as being a state of armed conflict between nations or among peoples within a territory. It is characterised as being something that is intentional, destructive and very disruptive in nature. Throughout history, philosophers and theorists have described war as politics by another means, such as in the writings of Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz. It is a means that often involves coercing and forcing your opponent to do something that they would not otherwise do, and which in some way benefits a certain set of interests or policy. However, in the current times where war is unpopular, in no small part to many Western countries being at some form of state of war since at least 11 September 2001, it needs to be ‘dressed up’ to try and mask the uglier side of what is intended, and what is likely to come. This is particularly apparent in the heavy use of norms and values to justify what may otherwise not seem to be justifiable. 
Currently we are experiencing an age where the notions of “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect” or R2P. These are ‘useful’ mechanisms to provide an emotional context for initiating war, but very little in being able to forecast or predict the long term results of short term and expedient policy. Those mechanisms of the past, such as just war theory, which weights the pros and cons involved in each scenario, and attempts to predict the long-term consequences has been discarded. Unfortunately this means that society begins to create an almost Orwellian world of double speak, where war becomes the path to peace. 
Since 9/11 there have been a string of different armed conflicts initiated, mostly of an irregular (insurgency and terrorism) nature or soon became so. However, none of them have been resolved – killing and destruction continues in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria … etc. The highly political nature of war means that there is a political price to be paid at some stage. This has already occurred in the region where these wars are being fought – civilian deaths, massive displacement of people and various repressions (based on ethnicity, religion and so forth). I have argued in a recent article in the Small Wars Journal, we are already beginning to see the initial results of the decision to use war as a policy instrument, without regard to the wider picture. (2)
War is as much about façade and opinion as it is about reality and facts. Those that should be informing the public have been caught in this trap. Journalists who should provide a means of check and balance against excesses and abuses of those in power, has come in for a lot of criticism lately. Different organisations have been created to watch the media, such as Media Lens in the United Kingdom (3) and PR Watch in the United States (4). They have been created by those who are worried about the ability of journalism to act as an effective fourth estate. For example, Media Lens was created by a journalist and an academic worried about the lack of objectivity and balance in corporate media reporting in the United Kingdom. Once I was given the task of presenting a talk to a group of Azeri and Armenian political scientists meeting in Sweden, by the Council of Europe. My task was to talk about media as being a bridge between cultures. It was a task that I found very difficult to fulfil, there were many more instances of media acting as a means to inflame tensions, such as the extreme case that was witnessed in Rwanda. In 2005, BBC producer Kenneth Payne published an article called Mass Media as an Instrument of War
The media, in the modern era, are indisputably an instrument of war. This is because winning modern wars is as much dependent on carrying domestic and international public opinion as it is on defeating the enemy on the battlefield. And it remains true regardless of the aspirations of many journalists to give an impartial and balanced assessment of conflict.
Although the West does undoubtedly possess a clear advantage in terms of tangible military superiority over the opponents that it has chosen to go to war against, there is also the element of intangible factors that need to be seriously considered. Wars can be very unpredictable events at times, as world history has shown on a number of occasions – such as the very rapid defeat of the one of the world’s largest armies (on paper at least) in 1975, which was South Vietnam. After being at a state of war for over a decade and with no end in sight, the Western public yearns for something else, which was certainly witnessed in the late summer of 2013 when another war seemed to be inevitable, this time in Syria and large scale anti-war protests were witnessed around the globe. 
There is a certain human expectation, which is enshrined in the notion of just war, if a war has a beginning, then it should also have an end too. Being in a perpetual state of war is damaging to the intangible elements of society, such as ethics, values, norms and morals. War changes people, and mostly for the worse. These are all good reasons to give peace a chance. But what is peace exactly, how do we characterise and explain it? When the definition of peace is sought, it is often juxtaposed against the condition of war, such as in Wikipedia or Oxford English dictionary. For example, the normal, non-war condition between nations or groups of nations. It can also reflect the state of relations between peoples or groups of peoples, being tranquil and an absence of hostility or conflict.
The road to peace can certainly be a very difficult one to take, many frustrations can be countered along the journey, which may be a very lengthy one. Peace can be dismissed as being a ‘coward’s way’ or not effective by those that sometimes advocate war. Certainly peace takes much more effort and time to bring about. I would go as far as to say that those who advocate peace demonstrate a greater depth of courage and ethical conviction precisely because their path is a much more difficult one to take that starting a war. Throughout history there are notable examples of those that carry the message of peace, after the path of war proved to be ineffective. How many could with all sincerity characterise Mahatma Gandhi and his non-violent struggle of lacking moral and ethical conviction and a sense of courage? Another example being the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) path to independence from the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, which was led by the use of national songs and symbolic public acts of unity, such as the Baltic Way on 23rd of August 1989. (5)
On many occasions, at the grassroots level, women have been actively involved in trying to reduce war and cultivate peace. The work of the Soldiers Mothers’ Committee in Russia (6), provides a good example of a grassroots movement that works under very difficult circumstances to try and safeguard the welfare of their children that have been conscripted into the Russian defence forces. The Russian wide NGO was established in April 1989, actively working on educating the public about the rights of conscripts and for better service conditions. Their work in promoting peace and human rights has been internationally recognised. Although women have been active at the grassroots level of peace movements, they are almost entirely absent from the negotiations that are intended to lay the framework for peace and the future of the country/region (7). This situation is divisive insofar as it excludes women from the processes of reconciliation and reconstruction, making the goal of peace that much more difficult to attain. Women possess a great deal of potential, some realised and some yet to be, as bearers of the message and practice of peace. In many cultures, they are the ones that instil children with their moral and ethical compass. To ignore this wealth of potential or not to use it to its fullest potential is tantamount to not taking the problem of war and its consequences and effects seriously. 
Peace is something that is difficult to bring about and requires constant effort and engagement in order to maintain. Is it worth it? Yes, peace is very much worth the time and effort, especially given the current perceived alternative, war. In some regards, war can be considered as a ‘quick fix’ to the symptoms of some kind of political, economic or social problem. Often as we have seen in the post-Cold War years, the problem remerges once more and often in a more extreme form. An underlying reason for this is that war does not address the core problem at stake, the ‘winning’ side coerces their opponent into accepting their terms and conditions. In order for peace to work, the core problem needs to be openly discussed and a satisfactory compromise by all parties agreed upon. 
However, peace like war, is a considered and conscious effort that does not occur by itself, requiring work and sacrifice in order to realise. One line in the recent movie about the life of Nelson Mandela (Long Walk to Freedom, 2013) sticks with me, where he talks about hate. He states that children are not born to hate, but are taught to do so. This leads to one of Mandela’s famous quotes “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”(8) Education and awareness campaigns should be at the forefront of the tools helping to realise the aspirations and the goals of the International Day of Peace. As a famous saying goes, “there is no wealth like knowledge, and no poverty like ignorance.” 
As such, each and every individual, should take upon themselves not only the task of imparting knowledge to others, but also to seek it as well. In this day and age, there is a plentiful supply of information that is readily available. Although the access to this information is unequal and should be addressed, those with the necessary will and conviction shall find it. However, there is also an inherent dilemma in this current state of information channels and flows, which is the understanding of the value and accuracy of that information. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges, although the potential result will prove worth it, is skill of informational literacy. That is, to be able to differentiate between misinformation and more objective and accurate material. This is one of the primary goals on my Uppsala University course, Mass Media and Contemporary Armed Conflict. The students come away with the necessary tools after the course, to make their own judgement on the validity and the purpose of information appearing in the public information space. Therefore, it is not only important to know where and how to look for information, but to be able to evaluate it once it is found. 
Peace needs to not only be firmly established as being a desirable value and state of being, it must also be something that has an active tangible relationship and emotional bond with mankind. That is, to teach and instil into each and every person the value and wider positive effects of peace, rather than how to hate. One of the possible paths to do this is to demonstrate the consequences and the results of war and peace. Too many living in the West, war is something that is often remote from direct experience and daily life. In fact, it is often appearing in some kind of entertainment format, such as video games and war journalism. However, the consequences are starting to be felt, through terrorism, rising extremism, refugees from war stricken areas and the gradual arrival of service personnel killed in foreign places.
There are currently numerous wars of choice that are being fought, causing human misery, instability and narrowing the perceived choices we are able make. War comes at a cost, not only in terms of the devastation and disruption it causes, but the economic, social and political costs that are involved. One of the trade-offs that has been seen is the incremental cost of reduced liberty for security within the context of the Global War On Terrorism. This seems to be ending in exactly the manner that was envisaged by Benjamin Franklin – “he who is prepared to give up freedom for security deserves neither and will lose both.” 
Ultimately, there is already enough misery in this world without deliberately setting out to create more. There are currently various natural and health disasters and crises occurring around the globe, such as the current Ebola epidemic in Africa. So why create more? At the end of the day, and according to this year’s International Peace Day theme, people should not only have the ability, but also the right to enjoy peace. 

References

This article was published on 21stSeptember International Day of Peace, in Global Education Magazine.

A Reflection on War and Peace for International Peace Day, global education magazine, unesco, unhcr, acnur,

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