By Michael True
Memorial Day is a time to honor those who sacrificed themselves in battle. Among the great works remembering victims of war are the poems of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in Northern France, one week before the Armistice, November 4, 1918, and Benjamin Britten’s, powerful oratorio, War Requiem.
On Memorial Day, it’s appropriate, nonetheless, to remember peace heroes, who devoted their lives to resisting injustice, violence, and war, as well as war heroes. And t its recent Friday Night “Clarification of Thought” meeting, Jane Sammon, editor of the Catholic Worker in New York, decided to mark Memorial Day by focusing on well-known peacemakers.
Many people who have contributed to the history of nonviolence sacrificed themselves for the benefit of others in building a peace culture. They responded to conflict without killing and skillfully brought about social change without killing or harming others. Poets, human rights activists, and peace researchers, who have enriched our lives include William James, 1843-1910; Muriel Rukeyser, 1913-80, Stephen Biko, 1946-77, Kenneth Bolding, 1910-98, and Elise Boulding, 1920-2006.
William James contributed to peacemaking through his remarkable essay, “”The Moral Equivalent of War,,” in which he advocates devising a substitute for war-making. . According to tradition, this essay inspired the development of the Peace Corps decades later,
Sadly, he argued, “Showing war’s irrationality and horror is of no effect,, since the horrors make the fascination”; and “war taxes are the only one people never hesitate to pay.” A century ago, as James predicted, the U.S. a military-industrial-academic complex corrupts language as we know it. “’Peace’ in military mouths today is a synonym for war expected….Every up-to-date dictionary should say that ‘peace’ and ‘war” mean the same thing.”
A nonviolent alternative to war, however, “would preserve in the midst of a pacific civilization the manly virtues which the military party is so afraid of seeing disappear in peace. We should get toughness without callousness, authority with as little criminal cruelty as possible, painful work done cheerily because the duty is temporary and threatened not, as now, to degrade the reminder of one’s life.”
Stephen Biko, 1946-77, a heroic figure in the nonviolent campaign against apartheid in South Africa, was forced to shoulder the heavy weight of the campaign after older leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were imprisoned. Arrested on September 6, 1977, he was interrogated for twenty-two hours, fiercely beaten about the head, fell into a coma and died six days latter. Although only 31 when he died, he remains a hero to many, the subject of an award-winning film, Cry, Freedom, based upon Donald Woods’ biography, who described him as “quite simply the greatest man I have ever had the privilege to know.”
A graduate of Marianhill, a Catholic high school in Natal, Biko saw African Christianity as a colonial inheritance, a product of and symbol of imperial Europe and resigned from the University Christian Movement, his book, The Challenge of Black Theology in South Africa,” reflects his religious upbringing and his belief that black theology provided an opportunity “to bring back God” to black people, to the truth and reality of their situation.
Muriel Rukeyser, 1913-80 as with the other peacemakers cited here, was a person of courage, not only in her commitment to peace and social justice She took many chances, failing at times, but always in an effort to speak truthfully about the pain as well as the joys of being an American.
Among various commitments to the common good, I particularly admired her willingness to risk standing at the door of a prison in Seoul, South Korea, on behalf of the poet, Kim Chi Ha, in the early 1970s. As president of PEN at the time, having endured two serious operations, she stood in the rain for three days, on her colleague’s behalf. It was an action that helped to facilitate his release from prison, during a terribly repressive era, in which the U.S. was complicit.
Kenneth Boulding, 1910-93, and Elise Boulding, 1920-2009 were both peacemakers extraordinary, both nominated for the Nobel Prize, he in economics and she in peace. They were co-founders of the International Peace Association at the University of Michigan in 1965 and the academic inter-discipline of peace, conflict, and nonviolence studies. Today, there are now over 400 peace, conflict, and nonviolence studies programs and research centers around the world, undergraduate and graduate programs and peace research centers, including a special chair in nonviolence at the University of Massachusetts.
This developed from a modest beginning forty-seven years ago, as they worked to recommend ways of eliminating war as the principal means of addressing conflict. In peacemaking, as Elise said, “there are no easy parts where you can rest…Whether we work in protest and social change movements or in the safe professional fields of peace studies and conflict resolution, peace makers must be intensely aware of the interconnectedness of all the elements in the system we know as life-on-earth.”
Through his posthumously published poems, Wilfred Owen alerted many young men to the waste and horror of war than anyone, often inspiring them to conscientiously object to war. His deep understanding of Jesus’s sayings led him to challenge clergymen and others who justified the slaughter of innocents in the First World War. “Futility,” one of the most powerful and moving poems in English, is a fitting memorial for those who offer their lives for the benefit of others as war heroes or peace heroes.
By Wilfred Owen
Move him unto the sun
Gently, it woke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown,
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was is for this the clay grew tall?
–O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
to break earth’s sleep at all?