They ask me where I’ve been,
And what I’ve done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn’t I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands…
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name. — Wilfred Gibson, “Back”
A century. In geological time, it is not that long. In cultural time, in the time of the hidden movement of our collective moral unconscious, it is less than moment. The ready-made graves of the trenches do not appear distant, like the fallen walls of Troy, but they are present. They are present in our abilities to make war on the same technological scale that the First World War initiated. We’ve just gotten better at it. The trenches are present, filled with their dying men and boys, in our faces and our names and our languages. We are the hollow men, still and always.
It is arrogance to assume that the violence that once consumed the world would no longer be present, could no longer consume our peaceful streets. Our streets are not peaceful; they are merely quiet. But disquiet moves as an underground river of violence, the Styx on which Acheron waits to ferry us across. Abraham Lincoln once said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” I would amend that, the cost of peace is perpetual peace-making.
In the seventy years before 1945, there were three wars, each increasing in its devastation, that consumed Europe. In the seventy years after, there have been none, although violence and the threat of violence has not dissipated. The European Union has helped to bring about this reign of peace, a pax europana, as it were. But this peace is not a guarantee; it is a promise we try to give to ourselves, our ancestors, and our posterity.
The thousands upon thousands of men and women who fought and died are not the last ones that violence claims. The violence of the wars that tore Europe apart is merely one manifestation of the violence inherent in human culture. That violence remains in and among us. We find it in the xenophobic language of demagogues. We find it in crimes against those who are other because they are other. We find it everywhere where peace is not pursued.
What does the pursuit of peace look like? It is the active intention to love and to welcome the stranger. It is the active intention to put aside selfishness and the desire to possess. It is the active intention and attempt to establish a community with each other, with the stranger, with nature. Peace aims at perfect rest. Peace aims at perfect unity in diversity. Peace aims at perfect cooperation between human society and nature. Peace does not dissolve difference; it celebrates it.
Wars may never end, but we work towards their end. The vision of Schuman, of Monnet, of Spaak, of Adenauer remains a vision for today: to see a world at peace with itself. To see countries put aside differences and histories of violence to pursue the common good. The pursuit of peace is the process of putting off tribalism and celebrating our common humanity. The European project is such a pursuit, when it is at its best. It is a pursuit, not merely for Europe but, for all humanity.
It has been a century. Let us give our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren a better world. In a century, may we who have strived for peace today be remembered as trying our hardest and securing a better future for all. Let our actions bear our names, and let them be actions of peace.