Friday, December 14, 2007

Thinking about Peace

When we think about peace, we think about war.

We can’t even imagine peace. We don’t know what peace is. In the United States we’ve had a war about every 20 years for the last three centuries. What would the United States be like without all those families with all those losses in each generation? We are like that woman in the Stayfree commercial, always before during or after—we are always preparing for a war, or fighting a war, or recovering from a war. When we think about peace, we think about war.

I did some research.

I did a Google search on “hundred years of peace.” I turned up:
Hundred Years War
Two hundred wars in one hundred years
One hundred years of struggling for peace (Israel)
One hundred years of violence
Five hundred years of struggle, and
Five hundred years of war.

But I did finally find four countries—Egypt, Poland, Japan, and Denmark,—whose histories carry some clues to what happens to cultures with “hundreds of years of peace.”

Egypt has been a country since about 3000 BCE.
The ancient Egyptians were stay-at-homes. They lived in a long, lush oasis surround by desert and mountains. Where would they have gone? They had a placid, industrious national temperament.

True, the Egyptians had to defend their borders against Bedouins and Libyans, but both were disorganized. They built fortresses in the south to keep out hostile Nubians, but they also traded with them. There were two periods of civil war in 2,000 years.

Even before the long era of the Pharaohs, pre-Egyptians settled on the Nile and developed cooking, baking, animal husbandry, copper working, sewing, weaving, growing and storing barley.

After 3000 BCE, they began to develop the thing that was the true glory of Egypt, bureaucratic government. They had international trade from which they acquired writing. Thus, they had sailboats and love poetry. Their government also conferred a trusted justice system. They invented geometry, metallurgy, engineering, and medicine, including dentistry and obstetrics roughly on a par with English medicine of the 18th century AD. They had money on a gold, silver, and copper standard. A fun-loving people, they had games, dancing, wrestling, hunting, and they were the best embalmers history has ever known. They built the great tombs and pyramids.

They domesticated cats. ‘Nough said.

By contrast, other examples pale.

Poland is a country we in the 21st century don’t associate with long periods of peace. But if we look far enough back into its history, we find that Poland experienced two relatively peaceful centuries.

During the 12th century, Casimir the Great built Poland into a major European Power. He invested so heavily in towns and roads that they said of him that “He found Poland built of wood and left her in stone.” He began Krakow University, the second oldest University in central Europe. And he improved trade along the East-West and North-South corridors that Poland is so famous for.

Poland united with Lithuania, a union that started toward the end of the 12th century and continued for the next 400 years.

Unlike Egypt, Poland had powerful, warlike enemies on its borders, namely the Teutonic Order and the Turks, who at this period were rapidly taking over southern central Europe. Poland broke its peace at the end of the 12th century with a long and eventually successful war to reclaim Gdansk and Pomerania from the Teutonic Order. (Although it is also said that when the Teutons heard the yapping of all those little dogs, they returned Pomerania voluntarily—an obviously scurrilous notion, as anyone who has ever heard the bark of a Dachshund will attest.)

The second period of relative peace followed, between 1466 and 1579. This second peace saw major developments in the legal and political realms. Poland passed a Habeas Corpus law—that law that says the government can’t hold a person without charging them with a crime. Poland established a Parliament with two houses, and a statute of Nihil Novi, meaning that the king could make no new decisions without the consent of Parliament—no sweeping executive orders, in effect.

At this time Europe was being torn apart by savage religious wars, but the Polish king declared, “I am the king of the people, not the judge of their consciences.” This spirit of tolerance attracted to Poland refugees from religious persecution from that time through the 17th century. There was an influx of foreign writers, artists, and scholars, and the first great literature created in Polish was written during this time.

Toward the end of this period, Polish nobility began the practice of electing its kings—first swearing them to uphold the constitution.

And so we see that 14th century Poland in peace was in some important ways more advanced than the 21st century United States in war.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty at the end of WWII, under which Japan was forbidden to raise an army, is often said to have been a great, if unintended, gift to Japan, because the Japanese could then devote all their resources to peaceful development.

Japan had an even longer period of peace—nearly 300 years—during and immediately after the Tokugawa Shogunate, from the early 1600s to the early 1900s. This was an isolationist period in Japan. Trade with China and the Netherlands was tightly controlled, travel outside the country was forbidden for many years, and Western literature was banned for a century.

Warriors educated themselves in flower arrangement and the tea ceremony, popular culture flourished. Kabuki Theatre was born. The Confucian values of morality, education, good government, and strict social hierarchy prevailed. Our own Admiral Perry sailed warships into the port of Nagasaki and forced Japan at the point of a cannon to open up to international trade in 1857. Japan became a constitutional monarchy. It shared in the worldwide era of progressive reform during the 1910s, before it began on its path of aggression called the “New Order.”

Denmark’s “Long Peace” lasted all of 87 years during the 18th century. Yet during that time between wars the country paid off its war debts, and increased its population by 40 percent, experiencing a corresponding increase in agricultural production and shipping. Almost half of the country’s tenant farmers became freeholders. For 15 years they flirted with freedom of speech and the press. Danish people developed a national identity, something that previously had been noticeable only in its aristocracy.

The Scottish poet Charles Mackay wrote:

In the good time coming
Nations shall not quarrel then
To prove which is the stronger,
nor slaughter men for glory’s sake;
Wait a little longer.

While you’re waiting, I invite you to wonder what peace could be like. Could we, with 87 years of peace, nearly double our agricultural output? With two hundred years of peace, could we break new ground in civil rights? With a thousand years of peace, is there any scientific or mathematical challenge we could not meet?

Instead of thinking about war when you think about peace, try thinking about about the benefits possible with peace when you think about peace.

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