Is Peace an American Value? – Daniel Kimmel

As a Soldier in the US Army, I hold it to be my most sacred duty to become obsolete.

That is, at least in theory, the highest military achievement would be to inaugurate a perpetual Armistice in which the professional “Soldier” was no longer needed. This is what the Book of Common Prayer calls achieving “peace in our time” (Ernest Hemingway’s war-time collection of short-stories hearkens to this very phrase). My experience informs me that peace is indeed a common prayer in the US—many Americans believe that peace is valuable, and they wish for it. They believe that someday, eventually, they want to bring our Soldiers home for good.

But my experience also tells me that, though peace might be valuable, it isn’t valuable enough. It isn’t valuable enough to be an American value.

A short phrase from Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos helps to clarify this point, why peace is not “valuable enough” for Americans to move it from wishful prayer to political reality. In her first chapter, Brown ruminates on the state of American democracy and with searing insight states: “these political commitments [to the values of democracy] can no longer stand on their own legs and… would be jettisoned if found to abate, rather than abet, economic goals.”

As it turns out, Brown put her finger right on the problem of peace: it is not profitable, or so our Capitalist mindset has led us to believe. Rather than “jettison” it wholesale, however, Americans would much rather keep world peace a safe “prayer” in the mouths of our super models—that way we can continue to express warm, fuzzy dreams about “getting along” in the same breath as we wail over our wallets on Wall Street. Anything more than that might risk upsetting the political order of our pocket books, and that is a cardinal sin as American as apple pie.

I didn’t always have this clarity, however. My intellectual agitation concerning peace began after reading J. Glenn Grey’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle. In that book, Grey, a World War II veteran and philosopher, remarks that “we”—as Americans—“are often puzzled by our continued failure to enlist in the pursuit of a peaceful world the unified effort, cheerfulness in sacrifice, determination, and persistence that arise almost spontaneously in the pursuit of war.” In war, Americans readily unify for the military cause and very rarely, though it take a decade or more, do Americans fail to see the war through to its bitter end.

On the other hand, when it comes to laboring for peace, Americans are “often puzzled” about what to do with it. We back-peddle and say it is too difficult to “realistically” achieve—but hey, we wish it were. Besides, there is no patriotism in peace (and, by God, we love our patriotism).

In any case, like Grey, I was “puzzled” about peace, and knew it. So, in the Fall semester of 2014, I taught a writing course at Lehigh University that engaged in a semester-long inquiry into war and its manifold causes and consequences. I wanted to get an answer to why Americans pray for peace, but practice war.

Beginning with Horace’s maxim that it is “sweet and fitting to die for one’s country,” the students analyzed the rhetorical appeal of patriotism as it appeared in several mediums: philosophy, journalism, literature, film, et cetera. We did this in order to witness how “we,” both historically as a human race and as a nation, fashion warfare as a glorious human activity.

In addition, prompted by Mark Twain’s War Prayer, we studied the traumatic side of war—the psychological and material costs of battle. You know, the aspect of war that rarely gets mentioned in the context of American hero worship (unless it is mentioned only to worship war more). We questioned whether or not the various costs of war were “worth” the glory and the gains of warfare, whatever those gains may be.

Finally, at the end of the semester, we turned our attention to the future and asked ourselves how we, individually and collectively, might achieve peace in our time.

In order to bring our discussion to a culmination, I held a “Peace Summit” on the final day of the course. I asked the students to come prepared to contribute (a utopian wish, I know). Theoretically, they understood how the rhetoric of patriotism operated to conceal the hideous underbelly of warfare. They understood the psychological and material costs of battle. They were equipped with several theories of achievable peace articulated by some very smart people.

All they had to do was show up and deliberate as a democratic body about how they might contribute to the pursuit of peace in their time. I simply facilitated the process.

Needless to say, I was brimming with positive energy when I walked into the classroom that day. I was excited to see young minds work together for the advancement of peace, something I, as a Soldier, care so much about. Furthermore, I thought I would finally gain some insight into Grey’s “puzzle”—I certainly did, but not in the way I expected.

After 30 minutes of deliberation in which the students struggled to imagine what world peace might practically look like and what it might take to get there, they finally decided that pursuing a globalized peace was insurmountably difficult. In a word—their word—they determined that peace was economically unprofitable and that this was somehow, though they could not articulate why when pressed, a bad thing.

Unprofitable. They agreed that peace was a desirable global condition, but the lack of “return on investment” involved in pursuing peace was enough to turn them away from wishing to pursue it themselves. They voted that a cessation of war would dampen creative competition and, in the end, would ultimately harm America’s (aka their future) economic opportunities.

And so, within the space of an hour, I witnessed my students liquidate our semester long project for peace in the name of the free market. They subjected the concept of peace to an economic analysis and, in the end, they found it wanting.

Admittedly, my class experiment constitutes only a small case study. In fact, I find hope in that it is only a small case study. As a Soldier, I maintain the hope that the Armistice is possible, and I hope there are others out there like me willing to pursue it even if they are labeled “dreamers” or, worse, “radicals.” If my thinking thus far has revealed anything, achieving world peace is less about laying down our arms and more about laying down our economic self-interest. It is time to pursue a radical transformation of American values—before the storm of war bids us all requiescat in pace.

Daniel Kimmel is an MA student in the Lehigh University English department’s Literature and Social Justice program and is a Soldier in the US Army Reserve.


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