Give Peace a Chance

The Beatles popularized it in a song and it became one of the most popular phrases during the anti-war protests of the 1960s.  The phrase may sound “mushy” and “feel good” to some, but it appears to be one of the easiest methods known to reduce violence in the world.  A variation of this theme has been echoed by the Dalai Lama, who often tours this country, spreading his message of nonviolence.  He is among a long line of “peacemakers” and has been the recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, and is perhaps the ultimate in Buddhist compassion and love.  He lives in exile, traveling around the world trying to bring peace to his Tibetan land in their support for independence from five decades of Chinese rule.  Seems the Chinese do not like peaceful men.  Not that the United States loves peace, either.  Ever heard of a Department of Peace?  We use to have a War Department, which is now called, ironically, the Department of Defense (the irony is that this department more often engages in war, both directly and indirectly).  In fact, we Americans seem to love war and enjoy using the word. 


The prevailing wisdom here in the U.S. is that whenever we discover that a specific social problem has gotten out of hand (or has become an embarrassment to the ruling powers), we want to declare a “war” on the problem.  Thus, during the past half century we have declared wars on communism, poverty, drugs, gangs and crime in general.  Now we have a war on terrorism.


The problem with using the metaphor of “war” is that it almost invariably sets up a simple dichotomy of “us vs. them.”  This is because in any war there has to be an “enemy” and that individuals, groups, or nations are generally seen as “evil” or “sick” or “alien” or just plain “dangerous” and perhaps even a threat to the “American way of life.”  Also, when such a war is declared all manner of reason and logic seems to be thrown in the toilet with little or no attempt to find and root out the causes.  All too often the solution is to simply get rid of the “enemy” (either literally via the death penalty or segregating them in prisons or ghettos or deportation).


So obsessed we are of war that we have several “war colleges” around the country.    Each major branch of the service has its own “war college” and there is the “National War College” at Ft. McNair in Washington, D.C.  The Navy has its Naval War College in Monterey, California; the Army’s war college is located at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania; the Air Force has its Air War College, located in Montgomery, Alabama.


A reasonable question might be: are there any “Peace Colleges”?  While there are no colleges exclusively devoted to peace like those focusing on war, I was surprised to learn that there are some colleges and universities who have programs that focus on peacemaking and conflict resolution. In the state of Indiana, for instance, there are three “peace studies” colleges: Earlham in Richmond, Goshen in Goshen and Manchester in North Manchester. On a web site I found there will also be an Indianapolis Peace House residential program.  The Lilly Endowment-funded has donated more than $13 million to a “Plowshares program,” a collaboration between three above colleges.


In Massachusetts there is a special program in “Peace and World Security Studies,” a multidisciplinary endeavor among five colleges (Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Smith and U-Mass Amherst).  Searching the web I also found a web site that listed dozens of programs in colleges and universities throughout the world that focused on peace (


One of the latest is found at an unlikely place, Cal Poly Pomona, in Southern California.  Usually known for its programs in engineering and other technical subjects, Cal Poly just approved a proposal by Tara Sethia, a history professor.  According to a story in the Los Angeles Times (April 24, 2004), Professor Sethia was raised in the religious tradition of Jainism, which for more than 2,600 years has stressed the importance of ahimsa or “nonviolence.”  Professor Sethia observes that most history books have explained change “in terms of war, as if it is violence that will bring results.”  The belief in nonviolence, she says, has always been neglected and “often misunderstood as a wimpy act of surrender.”  She began to “wonder why the history of nonviolence is marginalized.”  She wonders why kids don’t know about Gandhi.  The program, funded through private donations, will hold its inaugural conference May 14-15.  There will be several speakers, including A.T. Ariyaratne, a social activist known as the “Gandhi of Sri Lanka,” along with Thai Buddhist leader Sulak Sivaraksa, founder of the International Network of Engaged Buddhists.


The development of these programs is consistent with world-wide interest in nonviolence, especially with the current war in Iraq and war on terrorism.  The United Nations has declared the current decade as a “Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence.”  This program was originally conceived by 20 Nobel Peace laureates, including the Dalai Lama.  The religious underpinnings to this movement are obvious.  Every major religion places emphasis on peace and nonviolence, even though, ironically, wars are often done in the name of someone’s God.


Speaking of the Dalai Lama, if we took seriously at his message (and the message of over 2000 years of Zen Buddhism and other religious teachings) we could easily end the violence both here and abroad, between men and women, between men and men, between gangs, and between rival nations. In the summer of 2000, the Dalai Lama gave a talk in Los Angeles. In attendance were 22 youths from two Los Angeles County probation camps and around 50 more from an organization called We Care for Youth.  In a rare moment a troubled teenage girl asked His Holiness the following question: “How can I stay out of trouble in this cruel world?”  He gave her a hug and uttered words that she says she’ll never forget: “You don=t need fists to fight.  You just need wisdom.”  According to a story in the Los Angeles Times the girl said, “He told me to find self-confidence in my heart and myself. I had tears in my eyes.  My heart was beating, like, wild.  He just touches you in your heart.”  Later he told the audience “You are your own light.  Look into your own self.”


The Dalai Lama points us in a direction that we need to go in order to end the violence that is all around us.  We read about it every day in local newspapers, see it on the nightly news, watch countless movies with violence as the main theme, and support with our taxes a constantly growing war machine for a war in Iraq and several “wars” at home.  And how often do we applaud the victors as they wipe out the “enemy”?  How often do we seek vengeance against someone who has killed another, never thinking of the utter hypocrisy of claiming to be against violence, yet eagerly awaiting the next execution of a condemned man? And we vote for candidates who espouse a “law and order” rhetoric and support “our troops” in their foreign conquests (and domestic conquests too, as in the “war on drugs,” “war on gangs,” etc.).  And we often secretly wish to commit violence ourselves, both against our perceived enemies (the boss at work, a co-worker, someone who has “dissed” us) and our own loved ones - our spouses, our children, our parents. And who are we to condemn violence here, when we support violence our military commits against foreign nations?  I recall the hypocrisy of President Clinton in the aftermath of the shootings at Columbine in 1999.  He told the youths of the nation not to solve their problems with violence.  The very next day he ordered the bombing of Yugoslavia. Currently we have a president who has claimed to be a “compassionate conservative” and yet heads an administration into a war without justification.


And we wonder why we have the highest rate of violence among all democratic societies, a rate that compares only with totalitarian dictatorships?  I am convinced that some very fundamental changes need to be made in the way we live and think before we see any significant decrease in these problems.  Somehow we must end the ugly profits earned from the current war and all wars.  About 70 years ago, Major General Smedley Butler wrote that “war is a racket,” and “the only one international in scope.  It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives” (


I don’t have the solution to this, but certainly one method of overcoming this “racket” is to take seriously some of the philosophies of the East, like the one espoused by the Dalai Lama and Tara Sethia.  We need to “give peace a chance.” The message is nothing new.  We just haven't been listening.


 © 2004 by Randall G. Shelden. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.