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Are We Afraid Of Peace?
by Elie Wiesel

Nobel Laureate Elie WieselThis page was compiled and edited by Michael R. Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry. You can click here to read his essay: "What I learned from Elie Wiesel and other Jewish Holocaust Survivors, about achieving World Peace."

From time immemorial, people have talked about peace without achieving it. Do we simply lack enough experience? Though we talk peace, we wage war. Sometimes we even wage war in the name of peace. Does that seem paradoxical? Well, war is not afraid of paradoxes.

Temporary by its nature, war seems to last forever. In the service of death, it mocks the living. It allows men to do something that in normal times they have no right to do: fulfill themselves through cruelty. A collective as well as an individual gratification of deep-seated unconscious impulses, war may be too much a part of history to be eliminated—ever.

Life on our planet would be so much easier if only men and nations could live in peace. But apparently they cannot. Is this because they are unaccustomed to it? Or perhaps because they need to simplify? For war simplifies everything; options are limited. The frontier separating Good and Evil widens: On one side, everything seems just; on the other, unjust. There is no need to think too hard about it—no one worries about the subtleties in time of war; the only thing that matters is war. Time itself becomes subordinated to war.

If only we could celebrate peace as our various ancestors celebrated war; if only we could glorify peace as those before us, thirsting for adventure, glorified war ... If only our sages and scholars together could resolve to infuse peace with the same energy and inspiration that others have put into war.

Why is war such an easy option? Why does peace remain such an elusive goal? We know statesmen skilled at waging war, but where are those dedicated enough to humanity to find a way to avoid war? Every nation has its prestigious military academies. Why are there no academies, universities, laboratories, institutes—or so few of them—that teach not only the virtues of peace but also the art of attaining it? I mean attaining and protecting it by means other than weapons, the tools of war. And why are we taken by surprise whenever war recedes and yields to peace?

Unfortunately, we are forced to acknowledge that war seems inherent in the human condition and in fact preceded it, according to an old Talmudic legend. Before He created man, says the Talmud, God was given contradictory advice by His angels. Some said they were happy, others manifested their discontent. The Angel of Love was in favor of creating man because he felt that in order to survive, men would have to love one another. But the Angel of Truth was opposed, because he knew that in order to exist in society, men would inevitably invent lies. As all the angles joined in the argument, it degenerated into a quarrel and then into open warfare. All but two—Michael and Gabriel, heavenly defenders of Israel—were destroyed by fire that they themselves had lit.

Human beings turned out to be no better. Adam had scarcely been created before he quarreled with God, with his wife, even with the place where he lived. His two sons, Cain and Abel—the only children on earth—became enemies and ultimately murderer and victim.

What lessons can be learned from this? Two men can be brothers and yet wish to kill each other. And also: Whoever kills, kills his brother. But we only learn that too late. In time of war, they try to make us believe that anyone who is not our brother is our enemy: We are forbidden to listen too closely to our hearts, to be compassionate or even to let ourselves be carried away by our imaginations. If the soldier were to imagine the suffering he is ready to bring about, he would be less eager to wage war. If he were to consider the enemy a potential victim—and therefore capable of weeping, of despairing, of dying—the relationship between them would be changed. Every effort is made, therefore, to limit, even stifle, his humane impulses, his imagination and his capacity to experience a feeling of brotherhood toward his fellow man.

Is this why people often appear so ill-prepared for peace? As soon as peace knocks on the door, they seem paralyzed by distrust: What if it is but an illusion, a mirage, a trap? It is as though peace makes them uneasy—which is not unnatural, since we are so accustomed to living in fear of war that peace becomes a sort of elevated, remote ideal, soothing associated with the absolute, the transcendent. Peace has been so eagerly anticipated, invoked, demanded, desired and dreamed of that its reality can only disconcert.

This is what is happening at various levels now. Alongside the open and clandestine wars that continue to ravage cities and countless villages in Asia and Africa, a favorable wind, a wind of peace, has undeniably begun to blow suddenly over our planet. Given the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, the Gorbachev-Reagan agreements, the cessation of hostilities between Iraq and Iran, the resolution of the conflict in Namibia, the settlement envisaged in Cambodia, the announced negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the hopeful sounds issuing from the Middle East, one has the feeling for the first time in a long while that real efforts of international reconciliation are being made in different parts of the world and that, with any luck, they could bear fruit.

And yet ...

The hope aroused by these events is countered by what certain commentators call an excess of skepticism and wariness. Like the patient who dreads leaving his hospital bed, like the prisoner afraid of being taken from his familiar cell, we hesitate, waver: What is at risk is too important. We are afraid to let ourselves go, to allow ourselves to be carried away by an enthusiasm born of "wishful thinking." It is as though we cannot forget certain images and words which, only yesterday, characterized the other side as our adversary. How can we erase the collective memory of the Gulag atrocities, the occupation of Prague, the attack on Korea? How can we reconcile the terror of the KGB with perestroika and glasnost, Stalin's Kremlin with Gorbachev's?

Still, no matter how great the reward, we must not forget. There is no justification for forgetting. If we had to forget the past in order to obtain peace, I would say that I would want nothing to do with such a peace. It could only be a lie. It could only induce in us a costly and dangerous passivity.

What we must do is use our memory as an opening rather than as a prison. What does our memory tell us? It shows us how absurd territorial conquests are today. Space, the strategic obsession of the military in the old days, has in our time become a scientific dream. The words "domination" and "supremacy" have dropped out of the vocabulary of the summits and are now heard in the world of finance. Imperialism, whether political or ideological, is outmoded. Nothing is left of the empires of Napoleon or the czars. What remains of Stalin's global ambition? In Eastern Europe, Soviet domination is no longer what it once was. Communism is retreating everywhere. As for the Third Reich, which was to last a thousand years, today its name arouses horror and shame rather than admiration and envy.

In general, nationalism is less tied to geography than it used to be. Western Europe—for hundreds of years so fragmented and divided—is about to abolish its internal frontiers. Hereditary enemies, such as France and England, France and Germany, will unite. Despite the past? Because of the past. Memory is a source of anguish, but it can also become a source of faith. And memory also reminds us that henceforth war will be without glory and without a future; it will leave no conquerors, but only victims.

J. Robert Oppenheimer expressed this aptly in his testimony before a Congressional committee in Washington. Asked what we had to do to avoid a nuclear war, he answered briefly, concisely: "Make peace."

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