When Gen. Ray Odierno greeted U.S. troops in Iraq on Tuesday, his first day as the new military commander, he spoke in Arabic words translated as “Peace be unto you.”
Yes, soldiers wish for peace – probably more than the rest of us.
Unfortunately, in these politically divisive times, too often peace is equated with weakness, and war with strength. But most soldiers know – especially those who've been in combat – that peace is always preferable. Working toward it must be an imperative.
On Sunday, communities around the world will join symbolically in that effort as part of the International Day of Peace. In Charlotte, Mecklenburg Ministries is sponsoring a celebration next Thursday at St. Peter's Episcopal Church.
Peace Day was first celebrated in 1982, established by a United Nations resolution to encourage individuals, organizations and nations to work cooperatively for worldwide peace, and to create practical acts of peace on a shared date. The day was also designed to make clear the role of the United Nations. The resolution said in part:
“Peace Day should be devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and peoples… (It should serve) as a constantly pealing bell reminding us that our permanent commitment, above all interests or differences of any kind, is to peace.”
Two decades later in 2002, the U.N. General Assembly officially declared Sept. 21 as the permanent date for the International Day of Peace.
The International Day of Peace is also designated a day of ceasefire and nonviolence. This year, the U.N. launched a text-message campaign for cell phone users to send peace messages to world leaders attending the General Assembly on next Tuesday. Of that, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said recently: “Together let us send a powerful signal for peace that will be read, heard and felt around the world.”
Today at noon, the Secretary-General will ring the Japanese Peace Bell at U.N. headquarters to signal a minute of silence for peace efforts.
Some people will scoff at the very idea of an International Day of Peace. To them, it's an empty gesture with little real impact.
But I'm reminded of the lyrics of a song: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”
I'm also reminded of what I've heard repeated from soldier after soldier – from World War I vets to Iraq War vets: War is always horrible. We should avoid it at all costs.
The words of World War II vet Bill McMahon, whom I talked to five years ago when he was 79, still resonate: “Nobody wins a war…. People do terrible things in wars. You learn a lot of lessons, most of them bad.”
Of course Peace Day isn't only about working for alternatives to wars fought by soldiers on battlefields. It's about seeking peaceful resolution to conflicts in families, in schools, in communities, among people of different faiths and political ideologies. It's about looking for ways we can unite to do good instead of resorting to tactics that divide and foment hatred and distrust.
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “It isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” She's right.
Yes, some wars must be fought. Not all conflict can be, or should be, avoided. But it's not weakness to seek peace. As John Lennon famously said in song: “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”
This Peace Day and throughout the year, it's a goal worth pursuing.