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Literature, War and Peace



By Rocio Campos,

TFF Peace Antenna



All of us who share an interest in peace almost instinctively turn to study war in the search for answers that may open our ways to find alternatives, solutions and lessons that may be translated into nonviolence, absence of war and justice. But from where is it that we obtain, construct and weave our images of war? The use of history textbooks, television broadcasts and newspaper articles may be useful to a certain extent, but if our expectations and views ought to be challenged and enriched we should also consider the images of war and peace offered by literature.

The Bhagavad-Gita, the exquisite text of Hindu culture, has endured for centuries communicating a deep understanding of mortality through the dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna. The profound and manifold teachings of the Gita can be taken to other cultures and contexts and can certainly be brought to assist our present concern for war and peace. As we explore the causes, values, logic and rewards of war, the Gita exquisitely suggests that war reside in the triad of greed, anger and desire, whereas in the triad of peace charity takes the place of greed, lucidity of anger and faith of desire.

If these are the values of war and peace how can we reconcile them? When does human imagination becomes corrupt?

Virginia Woolf would argue that this happens when we sell our brains for the sake of money, fame and praise. In Three Guineas she turns to chastity, poverty, derision and freedom as the values that can enable an individual to "join the professions and yet remain uncontaminated by them; rid them of their possessiveness, their jealousy, their pugnacity, their greed. You can use them to have a mind of your own and a will of your own. And you can use that mind and will to abolish the inhumanity, the beastliness, the horror, the folly of war"(Woolf, 83).

In the book Abolishing Wars, Elmer N. Engstrom addresses the question of whether the society's acceptance level of violence at the interpersonal or intergroup level is rising, falling, or unchanging (Engstrom, 101). This question reveals not only a contemporary concern for violence but for human responsibility toward violence, which may be helpfully assisted by the questions, reflections, and impressions derived from poems, stories or novels related to war.

According to Simone Weil in the use of violence there is no room for thinking. The conditions created in a violent setting inhibit lucidity. She establishes a connection between the act of killing and the fear of dying. Every individual knows the feeling of fear, which is usually linked to the fear for the future and more precisely to the fear to die. "The future may bring with it the realization of our desires, hopes, and dreams. But it also inspires us with terror. We are tortured with anxiety about the unknown future [...] The future may or may not bring with it disappointment, suffering and misfortune. But certainly, and to everyone, it brings death. And fear of the future, natural to everyone, is, in the first place, fear of impending death. Death is determined for everyone in this world, it is our fate"(Berdayaev, 422, 423).

Those who kill do it because they do not want to be killed and also because they do not want to die. To kill is more than an act to survive but a desire to anticipate the future through the defeat of death. Contrary to this, nonviolence offers the willingness to suffer or even to die without posing the threat to kill. "Nonviolence is based on the refusal to do harm. It is renunciation of the will to kill or to damage so that the only test of truth is action based on the refusal to do harm"(King, 246). Gandhi's satyagraha distinguishes and empowers the nonviolent willingness to suffer above the violent willingness to kill.

This paper will examine the forces that determine war, in general, and gender violence, in particular, as opposed to those that determine nonviolence and peace through the creative and revealing formulations, interpretations and questions drawn from literature. Hence the hypothesis to be proved and discussed here are as follows:

i) The private origin of literature bounds the imagination with the public world through the reader's introspection, thinking and analysis of the mental barriers and social restraints that may blind us to comprehend reality.

ii) The symbols and language found in literature offer valuable elements that engage the reader to learn about the values, causes and rewards of war, the appeal of violence, the psychology of enemy-making and the meaning of death and suffering in war.

iii) The triad of anger greed and desire motivates war whereas peace moves in the triad of lucidity, faith and charity.


Accountability of an audience

Literature engages the reader with responsibility. As we follow the mental war films as described by Bao Ninh, they no longer belong solely to the writers. The reader becomes witness of another testimony and therefore responsible to make questions, to find answers and do whatever is in his/her power not to contribute to the reproduction of such mental war films. Readers are not passive spectators, but active participants of the reality that is conveyed through the literary revelations, which exist not only to carry a message, but also to encourage critical thinking and introspection.

Joe Boham is the main character of the novel Johnny Lost His Gun by Dalton Trumbo published in 1939. "Minus four limbs and his face blown away by a shell, Joe is deaf, dumb, and blind, and must lift and drop his head against a hospital pillow to tap out (in Morse code) his scathing message to all of mankind. He asks that the wretched trunk of his body be placed in a glass case and taken around the world on display" (Hallock, 51).

He wants to exhibit his mutilated body as a symbol and testimony of the fate of war, and build guilt and remorse in the minds and speeches of the leaders who declare and justify war. The case of Joe Bohman leads us to believe that in modern times there needs to be more moral justification of war than in ancient times. Probably, because modern societies are better equipped to be aware of the effects of war even if they take place in the antipodes.

Moreover, twentieth century societies are also increasingly affected by wars even if they take place in the antipodes. Bohman is also responding with the image of his body to the images and rhetoric used by governments or political leaders who abuse the resource of dehumanizing the faces of the enemies in order to fight them. Cartoonists play an important part in this practice as they show countries, ethnic groups and/or heads of states as monsters or animals. The use of dehumanizing images is part of the elaborate process of constructing enemies and therefore justifies war through the destruction or subordination of the enemy.

The Nazis compared the Jews with rats and the diseases spread by rats. The horrific use of hate-propaganda makes it easier to fight someone that is considered or viewed below the human condition. Hence, Bohman is dehumanizing war, as he alerts the reader of the nonviolent means to protest against the causes and effects of war.

This dilemma was also crucial for Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), a poet and soldier during World War I who protested against war in his Declaration. Pat Barker's novel Regeneration deals with the time Sassoon spend at Craiglockhart War Hospital, where we read his protest against war showing his position against the governments that impose them without explaining the goals. Sassoon like Arjuna in the Gita, individually refuses their duty to kill and as they do, they encounter the contradictory power and presence of the institutions or belief-systems that ratify the duty to fight.

To face a personal anti-war neurosis or protest poses a series of difficulties when one belongs to larger community or society engaged in war. Death and suffering attached to violence in general and to war in particular have always accompanied humankind. How to deal with this at individual and collective levels poses different challenges. Keeping in mind Engstrom's concern we can say that to deny violence at an interpersonal level usually demands greater courage since it usually challenges the values of a greater system where enemies are legitimate and the triad of war is purposeful.

For the individual soldiers who suffer the violence of war in the trenches or civilians who meet violence in the streets, death and suffering acquire very concrete dimensions. The effect of these experiences at an intergroup level may result in rising, falling, or unchanging acceptance of violence depending on the collective values that influence the individuals who form the collectivities.

The following poem entitled Despair was written in 1966 by a Duc Thanh, a Vietnamese soldier who describes his gloom before the destructive power of violence that has wrapped him in the collective failure of war, while he remains against the unchanging acceptance of violence.


"Unbearable heat this afternoon.
The wind blows dry and hot.
The trees are withered,
Their branches dry,
their leaves yellow
I grieve for the roses that blossom only to die.
I blame the universe that revolves.
The wheel of life that turns so skillfully
And dazes me with longing.
If spring would come to stay,
The bees and flowers would never part
Who could be so unfaithful
To keep the bees from their flower?
Only those who believe money and power
Determine our fate
Never think of me in this unjust way"

(Nguyen, 33).


In the Enormous Room E. E. Cummings takes the reader to a co-educational station in France during the First World War, where he faces the bureaucracy of war and challenges his views and stereotypes as he meets prisoners from different countries.

"Up to the time of my little visit to La Fert, I had innocently supposed that in referring to women as the weaker sex a man was strictly within his rights. La Fert, if it did nothing else for my intelligence, rid it of this overpowering error" (Cummings, 120,121).

To examine the origin of our stereotypes and prejudices related to nationalities and gender represents a challenge to understand others and see the humanity and potentiality of charity, lucidity and faith within the human condition. The experiences of Cummings in France and of Sassoon in Craiglockhart expose the importance of renovation, rehabilitation and reconstruction of communication, sexuality and stereotypes in order to understand war and consequently find peace.

Literature can assist us in this path as the bridge that connects our images of war with renovating meanings, rehabilitating alternatives and reconstructing skills. Creative writers and creative audiences can use literature to prevent war by protecting culture and intellectual liberty.


Why do we need enemies?

In the Homer's Iliad we can find the undisguised brutality of war where, "neither victors nor vanquished are admired, scorned, or hated. Almost always, fate and the gods decide the changing lot of battle. Within the limits fixed by fate, the gods determine with sovereign authority victory and defeat. It is always they who provoke those fits of madness, those treacheries, which are forever blocking peace; war in their true business, their only motives, caprice and malice"(Weil, 32).

In the Iliad, the gods kindle human imagination to conquer and defeat the enemy and the calamities of destruction blind the combatants with the desire of annihilating the enemy. The psychology of enemy-making is one of the guiding principles of war. "Rigidly organized struggle groups may actually search for enemies with the deliberate purpose or the unwitting result of maintaining unity and internal cohesion. Such groups may actually perceive an outside threat although no threat is present. Under conditions yet to be discovered, imaginary threats have the same group-integrating function as real threats"(Coser, 110).

The necessity to have enemies evokes the capacity to replace or invent them. Here human imagination can be manipulated toward the search and materialization of threats in the form of enemies that consequently need to be destroyed.

Hence the correlation of threats to identifiable enemies in the form of nations, communities, or groups explains the nuances between the exaggeration of a real danger, the attraction of a particular enemy and the capacity to invent a threatening entity. During the Cold War, for example, the world was clearly divided into the capitalist and the communist blocs. The enemies were clearly identifiable and with them the economic interests and political rivalries. The guerrillas that were fought during these years were to a great extent supported by the United States in order to boycott socialist movements in Latin America and to allow conservative dictatorships to rule under the capitalist umbrella.

After the Berlin Wall came down, there was uncertainty about who would be the new enemy. The economic resources and political power of the United States turned to drug-dealing and migration as the new 'evils' to fight. What to say about Milosevic in ex-Yugoslavia and the extraterritorial, military interventions in the name of democracy that have not ceased?

These questions gain a larger meaning if we bring to the surface Thich Nhat Hanh's Being Peace and reflect upon the effect ideologies have in our daily actions. As we follow an ideology we are taking sides and directly or indirectly assume that other individuals, communities or nations do not belong to us and may deserve death, threat or brutal minimization. To what extent are the words, attitudes or messages that we convey to our immediate others a result of larger paradigms or ideologies?

A contemporary of Confucius, Lao-tzu originally wrote the Tao Te Ching or The Book of the Immanence of the Way. It is extremely useful to clarify the interconnectedness of events. In the translation by Stephen Mitchell we find that war is an imposition that goes against the given nature of things, one that burdens an arbitrary and destructive division between those who deserve to live and those who deserve to die. "When man interferes with the Tao, the sky becomes filthy, the earth becomes depleted, the equilibrium crumbles, creatures become extinct" (Mitchell, 39).

Weapons as tools of fear are also vehicles of destruction that embrace the potentiality of having someone to destroy. The willingness to kill is a violent imposition to the willingness to die. War is where the harmony of the circulatory system is chaotically aggressed as blood scatters in the battlefields, reminding of the brutality of the chaos. To impose fear and violence over other human beings - individually or collectively - by the use of arms is to alter the equilibrium of life.

However, how many times have countries not invaded, fought and destroyed the equilibrium of others' lives for the greed of their natural resources and territories? How aware are we of the fact that in destroying the other we are also destroying a part of ourselves? It is almost evident to assume that such greed sooner or later transforms into anger and then into desire to annihilate those that violated, invaded and depleted a society of their soil, people and dignity. Thus, the effects of preparing to defend and attack 'the other' are seen in the misfortune of having an enemy.

Nevertheless, to have an enemy is not seen as a misfortune by those with political leadership responsibility. Enemies are carefully designed as doorways to blame others for our own mistakes, as escape valves to spill our own faults on others and even to justify power. The victimization of the enemy behaves as a reward to the confusion of war.


Womanizing the enemy

In periods of political violence, war, or revolution, some women who have not been directly involved in the struggle are imprisoned and tortured only because they are wives, mothers, daughters, or sisters of the combatants. Moreover, sexual abuse in the form of rape dramatically increases in times of war. The psychological trauma of war, that victimizes men as soldiers, often leads them to victimize women sexually.

One of the effects of war in soldiers is the fear to loose connection with all sensual being in the world. This fear in turn translates into a desire to dominate or possess women as a symbol of the missing sensuality of the world. As women become the escape valve to release the fear to loose contact with the beauty of the world they are sexually abused, tortured and their images translate into sex symbols at the service of the soldiers, whose sexuality and maleness is also threatened by the castrating war environment. Women becomes a kind of vulnerable fuel to keep the fighting impetus moving until the enemy is defeated or the war is over.

One may also argue that as soldiers are deprived of their own freedom when they are sent to the battlefields, they in turn need to find their own enemies and deprive them of their freedom, which is closely related to the normal course of sexuality that is destroyed by war. The anger caused by the annihilation of the soldier's freedom becomes the bridge between fantasizing with women and dominating women in the most brutal ways.

In the novel The Sorrow of War, Bao Ninh portrays the struggles of a North Vietnamese soldier during the Vietnam War where the reader can elaborate about how the lost of youth is related to the abrupt interruption of the normal course of sexual life. The aching memories and 'burden' of feminine sensuality, rape and the incapability of reconstructing love are not accidents but direct consequences of war. "You will be unhappy. Most unhappy. These are perilous times for free spirits. Your beauty one day will cost you dearly" (Ninh, 129).

The sorrow of war lives long after war ends. The ghosts and images of death haunt the efforts to live a normal life. The duty to kill, the most horrific imposition of war is a duty melded with overpowering anger that eclipses lucidity, charity and faith. "But the big soldier, embarrassed, got up and kicked at the body angrily, screaming at the dead girl: You fucking prostitute, lying there showing it for everyone to see. Dare trip me up, damn your ancestors! To hell with you!"(Ninh, 102).

According to Ruth Seifert, rape is part of the rules of war. To rape even becomes a right that is legitimized by the confusion of war. In military conflicts the abuse of women is part of male communication, resulting in massive rapes. She observes that rapes committed in war are aimed at destroying the adversary's moral and culture. "Maybe, for men, hating the woman makes sex more exciting. You are a man, you ought to know. When you have sex with someone strange -when you trap her, hold her down, get her under you, put all your weight on her - isn't it a bit like killing?

Pushing the knife in; exiting afterwards, leaving the body behind covered in blood - doesn't it feel like murder, like getting away with murder?"(Coetzee, 158).

J.M. Coetzee's treatment of gender violence in his novel Disgrace is highly provocative. It encourages the reader to question the following: Is rape a private or a public matter? Is the interdependence between the public and the private spheres so great that the events that take place in either of them always impact the other? What are the consequences of using sexuality as a vehicle to expose our inhibitions and rebel against social practices and taboos? What are the sacrifices of a nation, in general, and of women, in particular, throughout a peace and reconciliation process? "Sexual violence against women is likely to destroy a nation's culture. In times of war, the women are those who hold the families and the community together. Their physical and emotional destruction aims at destroying cultural and social stability"(Seifert, 38).

In many countries female representations or symbols embody the nation as a whole such as the French "Marianne", the United States' "Statue of Liberty" and the Bavarian national statue "Bavaria". Hence, rape of women can be regarded as the rape of an entire community, culture or nation, as an assault to the healing and forgiveness of a peace process. In words of Vlasta Jalusic from Slovenia, women represent the "blood and soil" of the public sphere.



Do we have to immerse ourselves in an enormous room filled with disgrace and despair to understand the sorrow of war? Are enemy-making and rape rituals that mark or delineate ownership or property? Can we say that the assault of a female body is similar or equal to the alienation of the human mind? The logic of war, founded in the psychology of enemy-making, attacks public issues through the devastation of the private realm. Therefore, private issues become public and representative of a larger event or reality.

Johan Galtung, who introduced the concept of 'structural violence', says that 'when one husband beats his wife, there is a clear case of personal violence, but when one million husbands keep one million wives in ignorance, there is structural violence'. The message underlying this example can also be applied to gender violence in times of war, where rape is not incidental.. Its ephemeral privacy disappears as it operates routinely as a weapon with organized, horrific variations that exemplify the dehumanizing weapons of war. In the absence of lucidity brutal action, violence or anger substitutes the human capacity of thinking. In the absence of charity, greed emerges as the force capable of taking human intimacy and life as property.

In the absence of faith the meaning of suffering transforms into a desire to kill. As long as the full meaning of death and suffering in relation to war is not assimilated, there is little chance that the level of acceptance of violence will decrease. The triad of charity, lucidity and faith are whispers of evaporating dew to the ears of the terrifying confusion of pain, disease, fear and death. Hence, violence echoes from the cries of the battlefields to the women and children missing a brother, a father, or a husband.

The hatred, resentment and tortuous memories left behind struggle to heal, as a new motif for war erupts. New causes and interests refresh old grudges or regenerate the reasons to ensure the existence of an enemy and therefore the 'need' to fight and destroy it. The confusion associated with violence camouflages the deeper meanings that have caused humankind to kill from ancient to modern times. The human fear of the future incarnated in the curiosity of death fuels the engine that creates war. Thus, imagination can become a macabre vehicle at the service of the reproduction of death as an attempt to understand and face it.

Paradoxically, death and suffering, as the appeals of violence, may unconsciously serve to satisfy this fear and curiosity. In addition to sensible fact-finding reports, articles and studies, literature offers images and episodes of reality directly drawn from the private world of experience and imagination. The uncensored, free flow of ideas poured into the mind of the reader foments creative thinking.

In addition, the reader enriches his/her own privacy and gains genuine expressions product of inner needs of expression symptomatic of the fears, hopes and struggles of a particular culture, community or group. At the same time, this input can translate into questioning the accountability of the audiences that receive these fears, hopes and struggles and may transform into nonviolent protests and resistance. Examples of the lessons drawn from imagination are present in this literary journey to disentangle important aspects of war. The endeavor has been highly inspiring and serves as a contribution to preserve culture and intellectual liberty. It represents an effort toward peaceful thinking and acting.



Engstrom, Elmer N. (1999) "Asking Tough Questions" in: Abolishing War Dialogue with peace scholars, Boulding Elise and Forsberg Randall (Eds), Boston Research Center for the 21st Century: Boston, p. 124

Barker, Pat (1991) Regeneration, Penguin: New York, pp.252

Berdayaev, Nikolay Aleksandrovich (1937) "The Part of Imagination in the Moral Life" in: The Destiny of Man, pp. 419-427.

Coetzee, J.M. (1999) Disgrace, Viking: New York, pp.220

Coser, Lewis A. (1956) The Functions of Social Conflict, The Free Press: New York, pp.188 Cummings, E.E. (1978) The Enormous Room, Liveright: New York, pp. 275

Hallock, Daniel (1994) "Bloody Century" in: Hell, Healing and Resistance, Plough Publishing House: Sussex, pp.44-91

King, Mary (1999) Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.: The Power of Nonviolent Action. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, pp.361

Mitchell, Stephen (1988) Tao Te Ching, Harper Perennial: New York, pp.111

Muller, Jean-Marie (1991) Simone Weil L'exigence de non-violence, Editions du Toinage Chrien Paris, pp. 205

Ninh, Bao (1995) The Sorrow of War. A Novel of North Vietnam, Riverhead Books: New York, pp. 233

Nguyen Thanh T., and Bruce Weigle (translators) (1994) Poems from Captured Documents, The University of Massachusetts Press: Boston, pp. 64

Seifert, Ruth (1996) "The Second Front. The Logic of Sexual Violence in Wars" in: Women's Studies International Forum, Vol.19, Nos. 1/ 2, pp. 35-43

Stoler Miller, Barbara (1986) The Bhagavad-Gita, Bantam Books, New York, pp..168

Weil, Simone (1993) The Iliad or the Poem of Force, A Pendle Hill Pamphlet, No. 91, Pendle Hill: Wallingford, pp.41.

Wobbe, Theresa (1993) "Die Grenzen des Geschlechts Konstruktionen von Gemeinschaft und Rassismus"in: Mittelungen des Instituts f? Socialforschung Frankfurt, 2, 98-108.

Woolf, Virginia (1966) Three Guineas, Harcourt Brace&Company: New York, pp.188


© TFF & the author 2001  


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