War and Peace: Rhyme & Reason

On the eve of the Gulf War exactly 23 years ago today, I took a walk in the brisk evening air. As I rounded the curve of Emerald Isle Circle West in our neighborhood, I noticed the scarlet blush in the sky at sunset. With that striking image in mind and an imminent war on the national consciousness, I wrote these words:

CRIMSON SKY AT DUSK

The throat of the sky is inflamed,

livid with anger at the war it must swallow,

gagged by the bloodshed which rages in the jaws

of Babylon.

An olive branch on its tongue,

the dove of peace

touches the parched flesh with healing.

constrained by love

which sends streams

into the desert.

January 21, 1991, eve of Gulf War

Mennonites are pacifists, adhering to the tenets of nonresistance: opposed to war, not participating in military service, but sharing love and overcoming evil with good. I am no longer a Mennonite, but I choose peace over war, whenever possible.

Dove of Peace: Mennonite Central Committee logo
Dove of Peace: Mennonite Central Committee logo

On her show last week, Diane Rehm interviewed the former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, on the publication of his book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. Having served under eight Presidents, Mr. Gates reflected on the hard decisions national leaders must make concerning going to war and keeping the peace. One memorable line from the former Secretary, who often spoke in terms of pros and cons: “We [Americans] over-estimate our ability to shape events in other countries.” At the end of 51 minutes, Diane Rehm concluded the interview with another memorable remark: “I wasn’t supposed to say this on air, but thank you to all who serve.” And the piped in music carried her voice away.

I suppose that’s how I think about war, with ambivalence: I don’t applaud war. Peace is preferable, peace is the goal in all conflict, in my opinion. But when I see a man or woman dressed in a military uniform, often at an airport, I often approach them and say “Thank you” too.

Do you side with either viewpoint about war? Is it hypocritical to embrace both?

Were there war heroes or conscientious objectors in your family history? Inquiring minds want to know.

I love when you read and comment. And I will always reply.

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27 thoughts on “War and Peace: Rhyme & Reason

  1. Freedom is not free! On an individual level we use words to stand and face ideas and principals that are opposed to us but nations have to be physical to keep these same ideas and principals. What happens when we don’t stand? Our ideas and principals are trampled and we become “lost” in the ideas and principals of others!

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  2. My mother’s brother was a doctor in the WWII Army who came home a decorated hero with national attention. Another uncle was a WWII prisoner of war. Very seldom would they speak of the horrors of what they saw and experienced, but their lives were unalterably changed. One became an outstanding, contributing citizen, the other an alcoholic. Both would have preferred a life uninterrupted by war. Would the outcomes have been different? I choose peace and The Prince of Peace. Thank you Marian for your thought provoking BLOGS.

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    1. When war strikes home and affects our family members, the perspective changes, as you say. CBS’ 60 minutes last year ran a piece on the physical and emotional toll of war, especially with vets dealing with post-traumatic stress. You ask about your uncles: “Would the outcomes have been different?” A great question to ponder, impossible to answer though. I always appreciate your thoughtful commentary, Carolyn.

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  3. Dear Marian, I don’t know if you’ll get this. WordPress won’t let me comment or like, for some frustrating reason. So I’ll try writing to you here. I hate war but there’s always been war. Even in the Old Testament there was war and Revelations predicts war in the end times. I don’t understand it but it’s a reality. Thanks for posting this. I love your poem. You’re a real poet! Is it published? It should be. Thanks, Anita

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    1. I hope you have returned to read this, Anita. Yes, you are posted here and I’m so glad.

      You are quite right: There were wars and conflict galore in the Old Testament, and the book of Revelation–wow! I write very little poetry, but when the emotion is strong enough, I guess it comes out. This one was published by Literary Syndicate. Thanks for reading and commenting, Anita!

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  4. As a Mennonite who is still a Mennonite, I have chosen pacifism. That doesn’t mean I condemn those in uniform, but it does mean I don’t choose to join them. It also means I am willing to be a minority voice that says “for me this is what it means to follow Jesus.”

    I know almost everyone prefers peace to war, so I hope I am not being self-righteous. I also am aware of, and learn from, pacifists in other religions. I pray for the day when our knowledge of how to build peace exceeds our knowledge of, and investment in, weapons of destruction.

    Your poem, especially the imagery in the beginning, is very powerful, Marian. I remember how often my own thoughts went back to Psalm 137 in those days. Here is Don McClean singing “By the Waters of Babyon.” Stuart and I wrote an essay with this title also during the first Gulf War. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTnspbSjKVc

    This song was also played in the memorial service for my niece Alicia Showalter Reynolds, who died a violent death after being kidnapped when she was only 26 years old. She was a PhD student at the time, hoping to find a cure for the tropical disease schistosomiasis.

    King’s College Choir sings the whole chapter of Psalm 137 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsIGAKvSjRQ

    Blessings, sister Marian, to you and to all.

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    1. Welcome again, Shirley! My main take-away from your insightful commentary: I pray for the day when our knowledge of how to build peace exceeds our knowledge of, and investment in, weapons of destruction.

      I love your constant connection to music, which at times transcends words to express emotion, particularly in the death of your sweet niece. Doubtless, I will check both YouTube links.

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  5. My thought when reading your poem was, oh, if only the intensity could be prolonged, of how the earth suffers with our wars, the way your poem describes the throat of sunset aching and being forced to swallow something awful.

    How can we hear the voice of our leaders who know that we Americans tend to overestimate how much we really can shape what happens in other countries?

    As a Mennonite, I grew up knowing I was non-resistant in relation to war, and that I was to ‘heap coals of fire’ on the heads of my enemies.

    This meant that I did not worship in a building that had a flag in it. I did not put my hand on my heart when we said the pledge of allegiance, because my allegiance was pledged to something (ONE) bigger than to my nation. However, my family paid taxes and obeyed laws and prayed for our leaders and gave thanks that we live in a country where we could worship and read our Bibles.

    I do have a g-g-g-g grandfather who fought, reluctantly, in the Revolutionary War.
    Many relatives provided, sometimes reluctantly, provisions and horses to soldiers in the Revolutionary War and Civil War.
    My Great Uncle Dan and Great Uncle Ezra were conscientious objectors during World War I.
    My father was not drafted in WWII because he was a farmer, and farmers had status then, if they lived in a place where farmers were few.
    My oldest brother did alternate service during the Vietnam War, serving as an orderly in a hospital.
    My husband was classified as a CO in the Vietnam War. (his number wasn’t called)

    I am grateful to all of them for their service and their stands.

    I am grateful to be living in times when we are all, male and female, learning more ways to practice non-violence.

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    1. Oh, Dolores, I can feel the deep emotion and strong conviction all through your comments. As I read your list of relatives and their service, I had to think of my own experience. My Mennonite classroom teacher led us in a pledge of allegiance every morning, but we had Bible reading and prayer as well. All of the men in Bossler’s Church were conscientious objectors when I was growing up. Some who were farmers did not have to serve in the military. The generation after that remained conscientious objectors and fulfilled their obligation to the government in hospitals as orderlies, etc.

      Like you, I am grateful to be living in times when we can still practice non-violence.

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  6. That’s the one thing I still care about—the Mennonites’ pacifism. I’m hauling my husband’s binoculars to school and back these days and paying attention to which spot I choose in the parking lot, because any of my third-graders who can memorize the bumper sticker on my car will get a prize and first somebody has to decipher the line. The other day Sydney, the one with the spyglasses, slowly eked out, When, Jesus, said, love, your—but that’s as far as she got. So I need to park closer to the window.

    The sticker reads: “When Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies,’ I think he probably meant don’t kill them.”

    The kids are reading a pair of stories: the one about Elizabeth Fry, the prison reformer in early-1800s England who got down by her bed and prayed aloud for the burglar hiding underneath it (whose boot she’d spied); and the one with Preacher Peter in 1700s Switzerland calling up to the thugs ripping the thatch off his roof in the dead of night to come down and have some supper. It seems reasonable to deduce that neither Peter nor Elizabeth had guns under their pillows, and I don’t see why curriculum in schools shouldn’t expose students to heroes like these—and to their logic.

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    1. Thanks for the comment and the introduction to the stories about Elizabeth Fry and Preacher Peter. Those third graders: They’ll always remember that bumper sticker and the binoculars that went with it. What a lesson! What a woman!

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        1. The first anecdote from Elizabeth Fry and the second one about Preacher Peter have the vibe of Les Miserables, all stories of grace. I enjoyed reading this piece, Shirley. You are a talented writer. And the bumper sticker and binocular story – a talented teacher too!

          Thanks for adding to the conversation. Readers who are looking for a specific topic will no doubt find the post with your comment nonetheless.

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  7. A wonderful poem in its merging of the beauty of the sunset with the brutality of war–After reading the blog yesterday,I watched “War Letters” on our local PBS station, part of the American Experience series. There is little room for ambivalence about war after those heart rending letters from the Revolutionary War to the Gulf War. That was followed by J. D. Salinger’s story on American Masters which revealed more than I ever guessed about the elusive author of the popular high school novel, “Catcher in the Rye”!

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    1. Ah, Verna, my long-time literary “sister.” Yes, there is little to be said about the glories of war, though our culture tends to elevate its heroes.Thank you for your comment and for references to the great American Experience series, always timely. This month is also the 41st anniversary of Roe vs Wade, an issue I will probably not address on my website any time soon.Thanks again for reading and posting today!

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  8. You’re “ambivalent” about war?!
    That ghastly way of dealing with perceived threats and injustices on a macro scale–murder, mayhem, chaos, destruction of communities, cultures, countries…
    I know we’ve been taught down through history that the spoils go to the brave and the strong, the warriors and best industrial military complexes. “Us” versus “Them.” We must drop the bombs on our “enemy countries” to protect ourselves and our holy and mighty nation.
    But, on a micro scale, we all know that kindness trumps revenge.
    And, we were taught by Christ that “we” are all “us” All peoples of the world are our brothers and sisters.
    We best love and care for them.
    We best send aid.
    We best practice diplomacy and use sanctions.
    WE DO NOT KILL OR TORTURE.
    That’s my humble belief.
    KGBS

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    1. You have strong views, and I am glad you feel free to express them here. Your belief is not humble; it is noble. As my poem and post suggest, peace is the goal, for it best reflects my hope that “They will beat their swords into plowshares / and their spears into pruning hooks,” (Isaiah 2:4), expressed in a sculpture piece in the United Nations Art Collection. Thanks for the comment.

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  9. War is horrific, but I do admire and respect the men and women who serve our country to keep us from inevitable conflict. During the time I lived overseas, the many conversations I had with global citizens often gave me a new perspective on how they viewed American involvement in foreign lands.

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  10. This is one of the reasons I respect Eisenhower, Marian. As a 5-Star General and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during WWII, he was also truly a warrior who hated war. His parents were from pacifist backgrounds, and Eisenhower knew the cost and the waste, and the ongoing pain of war. His famous exit speech about the costs hanging humanity on a cross of iron is a sobering reminder.
    Surely there could be a challenge between warring countries–each country’s most determined, boldest warrior teams fighting against each other–kind of like an ultimate Super Bowl of Warriors. Let them battle it out and decide the issue, rather than sacrificing thousands of young men and women soldiers and innocent civilians.
    My dad served in Brethren Volunteer Service at the end of WWII and went with the Heifer Project to transport farm stock and seeds to help rebuild farms on both sides that had been destroyed in the war and rebuild hope; what one bomb does takes thousands of hours to begin rebuilding, and the lost of life can never be replaced. But like you, although I hate war, I respect our soldiers and their sacrifices, and I am a supporter of our Wounded Warrior Program.
    Your “dove of peace touching the parched flesh” is a powerful image.

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  11. I like view of the Mennonite and Brethren (both Anabaptists): Sowing seeds, rebuilding lives. Eisenhower was revered in our family because he was of Pennsylvania Dutch stock through his mother. It was also thought that she was a Mennonite, but my research showed she was actually a Jehovah’s Witness in religion. Your mention of the general as a warrior who hated war illustrates the conflicting feelings many of us have about war as a way to solve conflict. Thanks for the detailed commentary, Marylin. We always learn something from you.

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  12. I was born just after the Second World War, so can’t say how I would have responded to that horrible situation. My father was a Merchant Marine and my uncle an Air Force Pilot. Instead, I was raised during the horrors of the Vietnam War. I marched against it–my favorite anti-war demonstrations with Quakers. And then there have been a chain of unwinnable wars fought for vague reasons (from my point of view). Like you, I support those who serve, but cannot support the glorification of war. I’m in the more food, medical support, and education school rather than the more guns school. Thank you for daring to speak your truth and encouraging me to speak mine.

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