Hey, I’ve moved! If you enjoy this post you can find more of my writing at Foreign Exchanges, a Substack newsletter covering a variety of topics in history and foreign affairs. Check it out today and become a subscriber!
The outpouring of “man of peace” eulogies after Ariel Sharon’s death on January 11 got me wondering why we use/abuse that phrase so much. George W. Bush called Sharon a “man of peace” even before the stroke that put Sharon in a coma, so it’s not all that surprising to see editorials from places like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy with titles like “Ariel Sharon: From Warrior to Man of Peace at Last.” But even folks who acknowledge that Sharon had a, let’s say, checkered relationship with the idea of “peace” for most of his life are asking whether he “was turning into a man of peace,” which seems silly if for no other reason than that he’s been in a vegetative state for 8 years, so he wasn’t “turning” into anything. Then there’s Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), who tweeted: “Ariel Sharon spent his life working for peace. May he rest in peace now.”
Obviously opinions may vary, but it defies objective reality to say that Ariel Sharon, who was an officer in the Haganah and then the Israeli Defense Forces for almost three decades, participated in paramilitary raids against Arab targets in the 1940s, led a special forces unit responsible for carrying out reprisal attacks against Palestinian civilians in the 1950s, and as defense minister organized the horrific Sabra and Shatila Massacre, “spent his life working for peace” (and Carper’s reaction was all too typical of the kind of comments that have come from US political figures). Sharon was interested in one kind of peace: the kind that he thought would come after Israel had killed enough people to sap its enemies’ will to fight. Even current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who you’d think would be very inclined to lavish Sharon with praise, wasn’t inclined to talk about his commitment to peace:
Sharon “was first and foremost a warrior and a commander, among the Jewish people’s greatest generals in the current era and throughout its history,” Netanyahu said today at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, according to a statement from his office. “He was tied to the land; he knew that it had to be defended. He understood that above everything, our revival is our ability to defend ourselves by ourselves.”
I’m not saying any of this to knock Sharon, really. I have problems with many of the things he did while he was alive, but even if I had been a fan I still don’t think I could have abused the truth enough to classify him as a “man of peace.” But, then, I’m not sure I know how to define a “man of peace,” anyway, and consequently it’s not a label I tend to throw around very much. That’s what I want to talk about.
I mean, there are the archetypes, like Buddha, Christ, Bahaʾullah, Gandhi, and so on, but they’re only helpful as ideal forms, not at the margins, and what’s interesting is that none of these archetypes led a kingdom or a nation-state. Is it easier to be a “man of peace” when you’re not holding a position of political authority? Socrates is often called a “man of peace” because he accepted his execution, but Socrates is said to have served with distinction in the Athenian army in at least three different battles, and Plato never has him repudiate or apologize for his military service. Mandela was of course hailed as a man of peace, and his post-imprisonment career certainly supports that characterization, but before he was arrested he had openly embraced violent resistance against the apartheid government. To what degree is the epithet “man of peace” just a euphemism for “great man”? After all, even though we keep fighting wars, we intellectually understand that peace, as long as that peace upholds certain conditions, is better than war, so great men (and women, I don’t want my use of the masculine to seem sexist because I don’t mean it in that way) must naturally be men (and women) of peace, right?
What about closer to home? Is Obama a “man of peace”? He won the Nobel Peace Prize, although among his fellow Nobel laureates are Henry Kissinger and Yasser Arafat, who certainly were not “men of peace.” Obama escalated a hot war in Afghanistan and continues to preside over a global war against terrorism that features the heavy use of unmanned drones to bomb targets all over the world, resulting in civilian casualties alongside whatever terrorists we kill. Hell, his Nobel acceptance speech was mostly about the necessity of war in certain situations. Was Lincoln a “man of peace”? He was certainly a man who wanted peace, but he spent his entire presidency prosecuting a war in which his side was the aggressor; he could have ended the Civil War at any time by sacrificing his principles on national unity and, later, slavery, but he believed the war was preferable to that sacrifice, no matter how undesirable the war may have been. On some level it seems ridiculous to call a president whose entire presidency was spent at war a “man of peace,” but maybe Lincoln deserves it.
What about “women of peace,” while we’re on the subject? It seems to me that we hear about “men” of peace much more often than we hear about “women” of peace, and I have no explanation for that apart from the fact that men are still, unfortunately, disproportionately represented in the kinds of roles to which we apply this label—political leaders, movement leaders, diplomats, etc. A woman named Shulamit Aloni died on January 24, and I don’t know of anybody who referred to her as a “woman of peace,” even though her credentials for that title were a lot stronger, in my humble opinion, than Sharon’s. Like Sharon, Aloni had a military background; she served in the Haganah’s elite Palmach force and was captured by the Jordanians in 1948. But unlike Sharon, Aloni spent her entire political career (she helped form the left-wing Meretz party and served as Minister of Education, Minister of Science and the Arts, and Minister of Communications in the 1990s) working tirelessly for dialogue with, and civil rights for, the Palestinians. Where the peace that Ariel Sharon sought was the kind that comes after an enemy has been thoroughly defeated, Aloni strove for the kind of peace that can be achieved between equal partners. Why isn’t she a “woman of peace”? I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that so few people took notice when she died. Being a person of peace requires being famous enough that lots of people want to note your passing.
Let’s take another example, one that doesn’t have to so with Israel-Palestine. Florence Nightingale founded modern nursing, and so has done incalculable good for humanity; does anybody refer to her as a “woman of peace”? I think they probably should, although she (along with several other women) made her earliest advances in nursing while serving with British forces during the Crimean War, a ridiculous and needless colonial waste of a war if there ever was one (even if it did help convince Alexander II to abolish serfdom in Russia). I would certainly say that she was a “woman of peace,” but I’d understand if someone else had some reservations about that because of her connections to that war.
I hope it’s clear by now that when I say that some of these people were maybe not so obviously “men of peace,” I’m not saying that to denigrate them. Socrates, Mandela, Lincoln–these are great individuals, whether or not they meet anyone’s definition of a “man of peace.” Part of the reason it’s so hard to nail this term down is because most people aren’t all one thing or another. Winston Churchill is sometimes described as a “man of peace” despite his greatest claim to fame being his stewardship of Britain through a war against the most repugnant evil of the 20th century; after all, World War II was not really a war of choice for Britain, and stopping Hitler was certainly a noble cause. But Churchill is also the kind of guy who had no problem with the British military dropping chemical weapons on “natives” in various corners of the British Empire. Not really a “man of peace,” there, and maybe not even a particularly good man to be frank, but his impact as PM during the war was great, and he’s revered here in America. You know who isn’t as revered in America? Hippies, by which I mean the anti-war Left of the 1960s. But they were assuredly “men (and women) of peace,” weren’t they? We don’t think of them that way, though, because, again, we’ve conflated “man of peace” with “great man,” and we still tend to dismiss those who are anti-war (as a rule, not in terms of being opposed to this or that particular war) as unserious and, thus, not worthy of titles reserved for great men (and women).
This essay hasn’t really solved the mystery of what makes someone a “man of peace,” because I’m not sure there’s one good standard that can tell us who does and doesn’t warrant that title. What I do believe is that we ought to be far more thoughtful in term of how, and to whom, we apply it. I’d be very interested in hearing from people in the comments about how they would identify a “man (or woman) of peace,” maybe with examples and rationales for those examples too, if you’re so inclined. It would be kind of cool (and a first) to actually get a discussion going in the comments section around here.