When Carl Sandburg wrote down the lyrics for the traditional gospel song “Down by the Riverside” in his 1927 anthology, no doubt the refrain “Ain’t gonna study war no more” meant a great deal to the generation still reeling from the effects of the Great War of 1914-1918.
It’s the one part of that song I hate to sing.
Anyone who works for peace should feel the same way.
Encouraging people not to study war is a certain path to a future filled with violence and death.
I’ve had this conversation a number of times with leaders in peace and conflict resolution programs for whom I have offered to teach courses on the history of warfare. Over time, I have changed their expressions from the incredulous to the merely uncomfortable, but the response remains a polite refusal.
This is a serious mistake. Education is the best means we have to change our culture toward one in which fighting for any reason is a last resort, not just a casual choice. You can’t work effectively for peace if you don’t understand what it means to go to war.
I remember when I first taught a course (on live cable television) on the history of technology. Well-meaning colleagues told me I should not include more than passing references to technology and warfare or I would be accused of promoting militarism. That would mean trouble and I risked (as a contract employee hanging by the thread of departmental whim) not being rehired.
Somewhat bluntly, I refused the advice, saying I defied anyone to finish my course and conclude that war was a good idea. So, as planned, one-third of the course dealt with the subject. As the black and white images of the Great War battlefields faded away to the concluding chorus of Eric Bogle’s “And the Band Played Waltzing Mathilda,” there were no militarists in the house.
In the years I taught the course (before the whimsical thread was eventually cut), I had not a single complaint either from students or from the community, just some very poignant moments. I will never forget the grand-son of the last German soldier to make it out of Stalingrad, talking to the grand-daughter of a British army veteran who helped liberate concentration camps about what it was like to study the Second World War together, as classmates here in Canada — both in tears.
So, we need to study war some more. The only way to avoid war is to ensure that everyone knows exactly what war means. In my experience, those who know the most about war are also the most likely to want to solve the world’s problems some other way.
It’s the people who know the least about war who are the most willing to start one.