Peace on Earth

Today is Christmas. The religious meaning of Christmas is particular to believers, but the message of Christmas is universal: Peace on Earth.

That the message is not realized does not diminish its importance. The absence of peace does not mean men and women of goodwill do not aspire to Peace on Earth.  I do not know if anyone has totaled up the years of war versus peace since records have been kept (would such a project even be feasible?), but I suspect periods of war outweigh periods of peace in human history.

British and German soldiers fraternizing in no-man’s land, somewhere in France, during the Christmas Truce of 1914.

Even religious texts frequently discuss war: Think of the terrible conflicts itemized in the Hebrew Bible. Or wars caused by religious zeal: The Crusades, for example, and the religious wars of 16th and 17th century Europe. Still, at this season, our thoughts turn to peace. Even in the awful brutality of the First World War, the combatants celebrated the famous Christmas Truce of 1914. On Christmas Eve, German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines. At dawn on Christmas Day, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and, marching across no-man’s land, approached the British lines. Fearing a trick, British soldiers were hesitant at first, but seeing the Germans unarmed, the British climbed out of their trenches. Enemy combatants soon shook hands and exchanged presents. There is a documented case of opposing soldiers playing a friendly game of soccer (as shown in this dramatization). The 1914 truce was episodic along the lines, and it was never repeated. Still, it demonstrates the yearning for peace even in the dreadful killing fields of northern France.

The Roman Empire in 117 CE, at the height of the Pax Romana.

We celebrate periods of peace: The famed Pax Romana (Roman peace), for instance, of 27 BCE to 180 CE, was a period of stability when the Roman Empire was at its peak in land, and its population soared to roughly 70-million people. The century from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914 is known as the Pax Britannica, a period relatively free of major conflicts among the strongest European nations. The post-World War II period often is called the Pax Americana, the era in which American military and economic dominance helped shape and direct global events. It remains to be seen if the America First doctrines of the current American president mark the end of Pax Americana.

None of these periods were entirely free of conflict. The Roman Empire constantly was pacifying rebellious tribes along its frontiers, and it fought several bloody conflicts with Jewish rebels in Palestine. The Pax Britannica was marred by the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, the Spanish-American War, and the Russo-Japanese War, not to mention numerous ethnic conflicts in southern and eastern Europe as well as brutal wars of conquest by Europeans in Asia and Africa. And, the current era has seen its share of war: Both the Korean and Vietnam Wars were extraordinarily costly in life and treasure. But, none of the three eras cited witnessed major conflicts between the most powerful adversaries in which combatants brought their full military and civilian might to bear.

Rodney King

Still, it is hard to escape the conclusion that humankind has problems getting along (remember Rodney King’s plaintive, “People, can we all get along? Can we get along?” as Los Angeles smoldered?). We frequently glorify war: Think of all those Civil War re-enactments and the tendency in parts of the United States to extol the so-called “Lost Cause.” We often refer to civilian crusades as “wars,” as in the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Poverty,” as if the term provides a kind of cachet. Phrases of engagement often mark our vocabulary: Peace through strength, for example.

There is plenty of conflict now. The United States has been fighting terrorists — al-Qaeda and ISIS, most notably — for nearly two decades. Washington has a permanent military presence on land and sea around the world. Most famously, thousands of American soldiers in the DMZ have kept peace on the Korean peninsula since 1953. Adversaries — Russia and China are the two most powerful — force the United States to maintain a robust military. 

The yearning for peace in this post does not suggest any willingness for the United States to pull in its horns and maintain a Fortress America between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Washington needs to keep troops posted in numerous global hot spots, including in Syria fighting ISIS. Clearly, there are no easy solutions. Isolation does not equal strength, nor does engagement necessarily yield peace. Still, America cannot withdraw from the larger world. 

Perhaps one day the meaning of this season truly will be realized, and Peace on Earth will be more than an aspiration. Until then, peace to you and yours.

Posted December 25, 2018

My thanks to Hilary Stone Ginsberg for suggesting the subject matter of this post and offering many ideas about its content.

Comments are closed.