A Modest Step Towards Peace and Union

Among reflective people, there is probably little doubt that the traditions and culture we are born into incline most people in the United States towards war. Indeed, the Peace Testimony would not be as essential as it is if this were not the case. There can be little doubt, too, that despite all the progress towards the equal treatment of everyone (in accord with Quaker and U.S. values), racism remains a plague. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, an African American, observed early this year that "racism remains alive and well in much of the country. . . . There are plenty of racists still lurking among us."

As to bellicosity, most people in this country like to think that our nation goes to war only as a last resort, only in a just cause, and only against someone who deserves it. But it wasn’t just faulty intelligence, Administration eagerness, and a compliant Congress that led the United States to attack Iraq in 2003. A majority of the public agreed with that decision, though enough people opposed it and took to the streets to demonstrate against it to show that one needn’t have been a Quaker to conclude that starting that war was a very bad idea.

In welcome contrast to the prevailing U.S. opinion came the sweeping popular opposition to the war and enormous street demonstrations across western Europe. Yes, peoples can mobilize themselves against a war, though doing so in the United States remains a huge challenge, at least until the scent of victory fades away, as it did in Vietnam and now in Iraq.

In his book Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, published in 2006, longtime New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer reviews 14 occasions when our government ousted or materially aided in ousting foreign governments, nearly always by resorting to war, military attack, or other violence. He concludes, though: "In most cases, diplomatic and political approaches would have worked far more effectively." Yet, initially at least, most of the U.S. public went along with each of those resorts to violence.

It’s not that we are inherently more warlike than most peoples. Coming from as many different lands as we do, how could we be? But our history and culture seem to have made war a widely acceptable option—once we allow ourselves to believe that it’s a last resort and so on. The United States was born in a war of independence; it survived and expanded by wars (plus a few purchases) to fulfill its so-called Manifest Destiny. Along the way, it indulged in the massive slaughter that ended slavery. On each of those occasions, too, most of the public went along.

As to the culture, U.S. children grow up playing with toy soldiers and guns and violent video games. A good part of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) is filled with war stories. Violence permeates popular entertainment. Many people are enamored of guns far beyond the needs of those who choose to hunt. Body-slamming football, played from high school onwards, inspires enthusiasm. So do the Manichaean simplicities of the labels of "good" and "bad" people. Negotiated settlements lack the allure of victory, winning, or forcing an unconditional surrender. Many people of both sexes strive to be macho. While "tough" is a much touted virtue, "peaceful" and "humble" are not. Indeed, "peacenik" is a put-down that supposedly impugns a person’s patriotism. Not so long ago, my wife’s "Teach Peace" bumper sticker was ripped off our car.

And there’s the traditional music. Images of war pepper "Onward Christian Soldiers" and many other Christian hymns, and, of course, our national songs. Who has not been moved by "The Stars and Stripes Forever"? During my time in the army, decades before becoming a Quaker, I would march among my fellow soldiers to the beat of a brass band that was belting out tunes by John Philip Sousa, and I would feel invincible. Anyone rash enough to take us on had better watch out!

Oddly perhaps, the martial music that may stir us most deeply is found not in the Sousa songbook, but bound up with those Christian soldiers in the pews of our churches. It is the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." One day in 1861, Julia Ward Howe, who was visiting a Union Army camp near Washington, D.C., heard the soldiers singing the song "John Brown’s Body." So moved was she that the next morning she wrote the poem that fit that tune and created this song that inspired Union troops throughout the rest of that needless war. I imagine that most people in this country outside the Old South have known and loved the song since childhood. Here are Howe’s words as they appeared in the February 1862 Atlantic Monthly.

Battle Hymn of the Republic

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."

He hath sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the seas,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

However inspiring those lyrics may have been for the Union troops and for many people ever since, they push the public in the wrong direction. First, they glorify war. But this glory is a cruel fiction. The reality of combat gives it the lie. Howe was safely back in Washington when she penned her poem. Though she wrote, "let us die to make men free," she wasn’t going to die; the young men she heard singing and hundreds of thousands of others would die, many most gruesomely. Ernest Hemingway wrote of his World War I experiences, "I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it." It would surely help, in a modest though perhaps exemplary way, to pluck from our culture this premier song that glorifies war.

The "Battle Hymn" is also problematic for its certainty that God was on the side of the Union troops, that through them God was trampling out a wrathful vintage, that they were God’s fateful lightning, and so forth. Confederate troops were, of course, equally certain that God was on their side. President Bush has openly asserted that in deciding to attack Iraq, he had God on his side. Yet, we are told, every suicide bomber who has blown up U.S. troops or members of a rival Muslim sect in Iraq or civilians in Israel has believed the same.

Some may say that God was surely on the side of the Union’s fight that ended slavery. But even if we presume that God wanted slavery to end, there is no reason for presuming that God also wanted us to fight the bloodiest war in all our history to end it. The North, the British, and many others ended slavery without going to war. It may be fine to pray for God’s guidance in weighing questions of war and peace—recall that some Quakers chose to fight against Hitler—but it skews everything if we presume to place our own self-serving version of God’s will on the balance.

What to do? It would not be possible to put the old war horse out to pasture—expunge the "Battle Hymn" from our hymnals and hearts—any time soon, even if most people wanted to. The answer, I think, is to give people a choice by offering new lyrics set to the same stirring tune.

This tune has aced the test of time. Before "John Brown’s Body" and the "Battle Hymn," it was apparently a revivalist hymn. In 1915, a labor activist named Ralph Chaplin used it for his union song, "Solidarity Forever." I recall from my school days, "Glory, glory, hallelujah/ teacher hit me with a ruler." The tune can surely serve another turn.

To provide a true alternative to the "Battle Hymn," the new lyrics need to be patriotic yet peaceful and affirmative, along the lines of "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" (which entreats but doesn’t presume). As the "Battle Hymn" was born out of our deadliest division, the alternative should stress the common bonds of humanity and tradition that unite us all. It should be inclusive of everybody: the Native Americans who trekked from Asia across the land bridge before the Bering Sea washed over it, the millions who were forced into claustrophobic floating dungeons that sailed here from Africa, and everyone else who crossed by ship or plane. The words should stress what unites us (and, indeed, unites all humankind); be historically sound and unflinching; and, echoing Quaker testimony and the Pledge of Allegiance, reflect our core values of liberty, equality, and justice. Indeed, the words may proclaim that the same humanity flows through each of us regardless of skin color or, by implication, any other difference. Towards these ends, I offer "Walk in Freedom"

Walk in Freedom

We came here through Alaska and across the tossing sea,
From Asia and from Africa and Europe’s family.
Some came in hope and some in chains, all longing to be free,
Across this wondrous land.
Let the people walk in freedom,
Let the people walk in freedom,
Let the people walk in freedom,
Across this wondrous land.

Through forests and through prairies with a beauty yet untold,
We took the chance to prove ourselves with labor, land, and gold,
And find a place to live and love and peacefully grow old,
Across this fruitful land.
Let the people stand for justice,
Let the people stand for justice,
Let the people stand for justice,
Across this fruitful land.

Like canyons red and cities white and mountains’ haze of blue,
And golden corn in Iowa beneath the morning dew,
Our skins have varied colors, but our blood’s the human hue,
Across this blessed land.
Let the people cherish freedom,
Let the people cherish freedom,
Let the people cherish freedom.

However these words strike you as you read them over, I hope you will try singing them—with your family, friends, in your school or place of worship, or simply in the shower. For the words without the music are like a surfboard on the sand. I expect you know the tune.

Above all, I hope that "Walk in Freedom" will move our nation at least a little way towards becoming a peaceable land, and will remind everyone who sings or hears it that, despite the differences among us, there are deeper bonds that unite us all in the great adventures of this nation and of life. Believing that "Walk in Freedom" stands the best chance to catch on if nobody ever has to pay anybody else to copy, perform, or publish it, I hereby place it in the public domain. Enjoy!

Malcolm Bell

Malcolm Bell is a member of Wilderness Meeting in Shrewsbury, Vt. A retired lawyer, he is the secretary of the International Mayan League/ USA, and he writes editorials and book reviews for Interconnect, a small quarterly that serves the U.S.-Latin America solidarity community.