Peace is a moral quality

Published 10:53 am Monday, March 9, 2009

As a student in the Army’s Command and General Staff College, I was required to study in detail the major battles of the Civil War. I have recently been revisiting those battles, and I gain another — and contrasting — perspective. The more I study war, the more firmly convinced I am of the futility of war. Peace is achieved by peaceful people.

The army instruction had a purpose different from my present interest, of course. It sought to teach tactical and strategic errors and successes in combat—how a war should and should not be fought. The Civil War offers a unique opportunity to study actual combat experience, and the army does this very well.

We have complete official records from both the Union and Confederate armies. We have personal documents, letters and diaries, from soldiers on both sides—general officers, mid-level commanders and private soldiers. We study letters and diaries of civilians left at home after families members had gone off to war. More, we study these from civilians actually caught in war. We can read contemporary newspaper coverage from both North and South, which were then the primary source of intelligence for both sides.

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The major battlegrounds are preserved and maintained excellently by the National Park Service. (One visitor remarked how curious and convenient that so many Civil War battles were fought in national parks.) Army instructors have taken us on walks through these battlegrounds and had us stand where the heroes stood—and fell.

Mostly, however, we have had time to read and think and debate and rethink and publish facts and opinions. For this, I am very much indebted to Yale’s Harry S. Stout for his Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War (2006) Wheaton’s Mark A. Noll for his The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006), and to Randall Miller, Stout, and Charles R. Wilson for their Religion and the American Civil War (1998).

Armed forces, at their best, effectively deter foreign aggression. So, armies at their best are armies not at war. Once they enter war, all hell breaks lose. The most we can expect from armies is so to overpower aggressors they cause a cessation of open and direct hostilities. During the finite time this can be maintained, it becomes the opportunity and responsibility of diplomats to negotiate a truce.

All the gains won by armies are lost if diplomats fail, which they do more often than armies. Political truces, however, are as fragile and finite as cessation of hostilities. Neither is an enduring achievement but only opportunities. Yet, neither armies forcing cessation of hostilities nor diplomats crafting a truce bring actual peace.

Peace is not a political quantity but a moral quality. Armies can make people stop fighting, and diplomats can get them talking. Peace, however, must be lived. It must be a free choice of moral humans.

The people need to hear national leaders exhorting peace, to be sure, but peace grows from seed within human souls. Individuals must be at peace with themselves and then join with kindred spirits. They reach out with peaceful hands to those at war with themselves and offer to share the peace. They gather them with loving arms, and then they are at peace. We must ask each other that question often asked in the Old Testament: “Do you come in peace?”

I do not think there will be world peace without the deterring effect of strong armies and the persuasive skills of diplomatic missions. Neither of these will be ultimately successful without both soldiers and diplomats themselves being people of peace.

We begin with our own hearts and share peace with our neighbors.

We select and train peaceful soldiers and diplomats. How far will peace so spread and how successful will it be?

I don’t know, but I do know what we can do at home, and that just might become sufficient.