Study War Some More

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.

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Cast a Cold Eye

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.

“Under Ben Bulben” — William Butler Yeats

They call me “Dr. Doom.” The first few times it happened, I was upset. When you are teaching a course on ethics and sustainability, the last response you expect is hopelessness and despair.

Yet, there it was. I tried to make jokes about the nickname, but whether the audience laughed or not, I didn’t find it funny.

The problem with making choices toward a sustainable future is that you need to begin by recognizing an unsustainable present.

I have grown accustomed to the litany of impending disasters on so many fronts, from the implications of global warming on polar ice caps, the threats posed by the loss of fresh water, desertification and declining food production, over-population, resource depletion, and the implications of wildly uneven consumption for social and political stability, to the various ways humans manage to make a mess of their lives together.

It’s a grim list, and my students can be forgiven for imagining the Grim Reaper standing next to me, nodding his black-cowled head with satisfaction as I go through it. But the last thing I want is for them to stop at that point.

I first read the words William Butler Yeats intended for his tombstone many years ago in an Irish literature class, as together we debated in abstraction what he meant. A year later, as I stood next to his grave in Sligo, with dark Ben Bulben lowring on the sky-line on a grey August day and storm clouds forming and unforming overhead, the abstraction was gone.

Poetry, at its best, expresses something fundamental about life without needing to make the same concessions to form and expectation as a story requires. Yeats had spent his life as a poet, and as a writer, casting a cold eye – an objective eye – on many aspects of life in his time, as well as on life outside of time.

His “cold eye,” however, was not dispassionate. Objectivity does not entail the absence of passion. Nor is it possible to cast that cold eye on life without also contemplating death. Objectivity requires us to see the world as it is, life and death together.

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Love Letters

It’s been said the world needs more love letters. Unfortunately there are so few letters of any kind being written anymore, for any reason.

Even greeting cards are being fire-saled to the older generations who have not shifted entirely to e-cards and electronic messages.

The only real advantage we have over previous generations is not our ability to send messages world-wide, however, but just how fast we are able to do it.

Hand-written letters also went around the world – they just took longer to reach their destination and had other reasons for failing in their journey than do our messages today.

When it comes to love letters, it is not the speed of delivery that matters. It is whether anyone takes the care and thought to write them at all.

Living as I do in the heart of the continent, my favorite illustration goes back to the early days of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Single men would come to work for the HBC, leaving their sweethearts behind in England. Yet they were in constant contact, if they chose it:

Every spring, as the ships arrived at York Factory on Hudson’s Bay to reap the winter’s harvest of furs, letters from England would arrive and there would be letters ready for the trip back. Every fall, when the ships returned with supplies for the winter trading, again, there would be letters. All across the continent, through to the Pacific coast, the HBC undertook to deliver the mail to its people — and held onto the letters that did not reach their destination as planned.

Those undelivered letters – simple, direct, thoughtful and from the heart – have survived for future generations to read and appreciate as examples of the many letters that did reach their destination and then vanished into history.

Our faster communication does not measure up well in comparison. It is touching to get a tweet for good luck or some hashtag #loving, but a read receipt to show the email arrived doesn’t carry the same emotional freight as a letter. No response at all just leaves us wondering if the electronic ship sank en route.

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