The U.S., War, and Peace

A few months ago, I listened for the first time to Ralph Vaughan Williams's 1936 cantata Dona nobis pacem ("Grant us peace"). I was so moved by it (and pleased by its great music) that I wrote my next Odyssey article as a homage to Vaughan Williams. Written as it was between the two world wars (Vaughan Williams had himself served in the "Great War"), it's a fervent plea for world peace, meshing together the "Agnus Dei" ("Lamb of God") text from the Mass, poetry written by Walt Whitman in response to the Civil War, a famous speech by British politician John Bright condemning the carnage of the Crimean War, and several biblical passages speaking of hope for a messianic/eschatological era of peace. The blending of music and words in a movement from destruction to glory is just great. Its desire for peace reminds me of a choral piece I performed in a few years ago with a local choir: Rich Campbell's "If Ever There Is", another antiwar plea, this one rooted in a text by poet Robert Creeley.

So here I am, deeply moved by two antiwar choral pieces, and I happen to be the grandson of a Korean War veteran. I happen to also have come back from a country (Argentina) which has a strong tradition of respect for the military as a venerable national institution. I am very aware that the Catholic Church's traditional teaching on war (see paragraphs 2307-2317 of the Catechism) is that, while it must be avoided when it can be, it is possible that an unavoidable war be fought justly. I think it would be unwise to not honor men and women who have died in war for their country and likewise foolish to not recognize that many nations have forged their identities through war (think of our own Revolutionary War). Those national identities aren't less sacred for having been forged through violence.

I would hope that wars will cease through the increased practice of successful diplomacy, though I might pessimistically assert that that might not happen any time soon. A religious polemicist might say that the agnostic Vaughan Williams's "Dona nobis pacem" is a secularist claim that humankind will be able to end war, whereas, in reality, wars are inevitable until God brings about the end of the world. (That, I suppose, might be a key argument on the part of conservative Catholic theologians who support just war theory; a similar vein of thought is likely important for that same group, (very) critical as it probably is of Pope Francis's decision to call capital punishment unacceptable rather than just hopefully avoidable.)

So, where do I stand on patriotism, peace, and pacifism? I suppose that I am temperamentally a pacifist but not dogmatically so. I like the ideal of the U.S. as a civilized nation whose wars are fought to prevent future ones; I am also troubled by this crusading mentality, which toppled European fascism but also reinforced violent reactionary regimes in Latin America. We are now living a century after World War I, which made it perfectly clear that war is not to be glorified. (See, of course, Wilfrid Owens's famous poem "Dulce et Decorum Est".) We should not, like many Europeans in the years that led up to World War I, become too confident in our own progress; nor should we be pessimists, like the generation that followed.

We should, like Ralph Vaughan Williams, be totally assured of the beauty of peace, and, however the future unfolds, we must recognize that it is our sacred duty to impede violence as far as we can.

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