What is a “Man of Peace,” anyway?

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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.

"Peace," by Pablo Picasso
“Peace,” by Pablo Picasso (via)

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.


40 thoughts on “What is a “Man of Peace,” anyway?

  1. Theodore Roosevelt received the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his efforts to negotiate the peace between Russia and Japan, but mother-in-law has yet to forgive him for betraying Korea to the Japanese and launching a spectacularly brutal occupation. Daughter absorbed a hatred for the Japanese in her mother’s milk, but son is – even as we speak – meeting his girlfriend’s family in Tokyo.

    I think my point here is that actors like Sharon have multiple, overlapping consequences in the world and it may be that in 110 years his memory will be alive for good and for ill.

    On an orthogonal axis, Curtis LeMay was a man of peace who worked tirelessly to end WWII and to prevent WWIII while “Butcher” Harris was shunned at the end of the European war and slunk off to South Africa is semi-disgrace; the principle difference being that Harris burned out historical old cities that people had been to and killed off hundreds of thousands of people who had relatives in Britain and America.

    So these things are painfully complicated. In fact these questions will never be resolved, and I have to fall back on the educated man’s attitude that the virtue lies in the honest wrestling with them. To pass on an insight I realised the other day, the questions that I deal with in my professional life are really just a rehash of the thirty year argument that Bohr had with Einstein, which itself was a relitigation of Plato v Aristotle.

    1. The notion that we can continue having never given thought to a consensus definition for the term and not constrain those who judge qualifications for membership makes all this nonsensical. Additionally, a man of peace must have in some way have tactically ended a war or conflict. Otherwise, he remains impotent at it. The fact that a man of war and peace must be mutually exclusive in order for membership becomes self-contradictory. My son has long stated he dislikes this or that type of food without eating any of it.

  2. Well, to the Palestinians Sharon is not a man of peace. And if the Israeli settlers in Palestine call him a man of peace at all, it is probably meant as an insult. Lincoln is called a man of peace, because the most important goal of the war in the public discourse is the abolition of slavery, not so much the unity. The vast majority knows slavery is a really bad thing, so if you stand against it, you’re a good guy. If Hitler had won WWII, he might be hailed as a man of peace, because he brought peace to Europe.
    What I’m trying to say is: We call those “men/women of peace” whose goals were good from our perspective.

      1. Yes, I think it does. Or maybe it can only be applied without bias to people, who had no political power. You mentioned Buddha, Jesus, etc. Are there people who would not say so?

  3. It depends on what side of the coin you are on. People usually can not walk in the shoes of the other. There is always a residual prejudice involved. Usually a peace keeper comes from the outside with no loyalties to either. There is give and take, add hundreds of years and maybe through a ton of intermarriage there is peace. That is why the French trappers married the Indians maidens from the tribes. It was not love, it was an arranged treaty and bound both not to kill each other.

  4. I think of men of peace as Buddist monks, the Amish, and a few other scattered people. Politicians should almost automatically be excluded from that title. I know few politicians that would be worthy of it. (except possibly Ron Paul?)
    The world’s a strange place these days, but then again, it always has been.
    Yall have a nice day!

  5. it’s a simple fact that Sharon was not a man of peace. this is not a matter of Palestinian perspective or Israeli perspective. False balance doesn’t equate with truth. if you’re concerned with truth you don’t care about giving balance to issues that are so clearcut one way or the other like climate change for instance or the fact that creationism is not science. same goes for Sharon’s legacy. Anyone who whitewashes it is either ignorant or has an interest in whitewashing it…for example the peddlers of hasbara. he was a man of war and committed many massacres and crimes against humanity against the Palestinians and also the Lebanese which if any person here seeks to take me to task on these assertions…go ahead and do it…I’ll wipe the floor with you. The only reason Sharon is a controversial figure is because of the false narrative that has been built around him by the state of Israel and the supporters of its occupation and ethnic cleansing. This “controversy” is yet another example of how the oppressors write their history as it relates to the oppressed. To anyone who cares about truth, Sharon is anything but controversial. To anyone who doesn’t, well you’re only deluding yourself.

  6. I believe we must first ask ourselves – what is peace? Is “peace” the place we want to arrive once opposing views are crushed, or is it a place we populate after everyone gets off their high horse, relinquishing centuries of mistrust and oppression? My point being; “man of peace” is one silly expression. Silly because “peace” requires concessions on matters of faith – faith being the one thing no one is willing to budge on. A “person of peace” would be a leader willing to take religion off the table. Fat chance of that! World leaders like Bush, calling Sharon a man of peace, simply translates into “he’s willing to play ball with American interests”

  7. I readily agree with you that it is incredibly difficult to pinpoint who a man (or woman!) of peace could or would be. I think Dave Mustaine (Megadeth) sums up quite well what is wrong with humans as regards to living in peace and harmony – “Peace sells but who’s buying?”

  8. I think we arrive at peace only after having understood the effects of war. We rarely appreciate what we have until it is taken from us, and then we must fight to regain it, unfortunately. I do have to agree that a politician cannot be what he is , and a man of peace. There is too much conflict, and too many ideals and principles must be sold to survive very long.

  9. Every man or woman idolized as people of police have often either been nothing of the sort, or quite the opposite. We have a way of idolizing people who doesn’t deserve it really.

  10. Perhaps we are too focused on only one definition of peace here… that being “the absence of war and violence.” Peace can also simply mean calm and tranquil. It is entirely possible the term, “man of peace,” simply implies the individual was accepting of his/her faults and the tough choices they made. One can peacefully (calmly) shoot an intruder if one believes it is the only correct decision at the time, even though shooting someone would not be an act of peace (non-violence).

  11. I agree that the devil lies in the details concerning the definition of peace. The Hippie sitting stoned in Golden Gate Park in the 1960’s would define peace as an absence of violence while Stalin and Hitler, et al., would define it as an absence of opposition. I believe that if we wish to use the term ‘person of peace’ at all we should do so in the context of the life they have lived viewed through the lens of the effect that their life has had on the taking or quality of lives of people who come after them. For example, the writer of the Christian classic hymn “Amazing Grace” was a captain of a slave ship making the run between West Africa and the Indies. When he realized the hideousness of his actions (his original lyrics, I’m told, went “…that saved a worm like me”) he did a 180 turn and spent the rest of his life repenting of his actions and fighting slavery. I doubt that any politician or military person can be called a person of peace, even if the wars that they pursue are just wars to end oppression (WW II, American Civil War). The violence inherent in war, however justified, will not allow it. At the same time, Nobody has ever been devoid of anger or the urge to strike back: Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, got pissed off at the temple and drove out the money changers with a whip. To think that somebody sits in the lotus position and thinks happy thoughts all their life is absurd. Their lives wouldn’t amount to much if they did. Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, the Amish, the Dalai Lama and so forth come to mind as the people most fulfilling that description. As an aside, in my opinion nobody has ever peacefully and calmly shot an intruder or anyone else in the history of the world, except on a movie screen or television.

  12. Nice post. Peace is a worthy topic. “Man (or woman) of peace” must likely include men (women) of war by sheer necessity. Many of these individuals are working toward a long-lasting peace and do not relish war or escalate their commitments. While it’s certainly cleaner and easier to include people who never served in a military role, be careful not to craft an exclusive definition. One can serve in the military and spend the rest of one’s days working toward peace, or even for instance with Mandela, be classified as a terrorist and then truly implement actions and policies that unite people in common justice. Regarding Obama, he’s truly both escalated and neutered U.S. military action and strength; his prize caused chuckles, of course, with many (quick, name the reason why he received the Nobel Peace Prize?) and better reflects his ability to absorb people’s projections of their own hopeful personas upon him. Just one example of this is his sponsorship of a “partial birth abortion bill” while in the Illinois Senate, using the same language that was simultaneously and categorically rejected by the U.S. Senate. (WARNING: YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO READ THE NEXT SENTENCE AS IT CAN BE OFFENSIVE OR UPSETTING IN DESCRIBING THE BILL: Is it an act of peace to remove a fetus/infant from the womb in the breech position while leaving the head in the birth canal so that a high-pressure vacuum can be injected into the skull to implode it? Yet, that is what was sponsored.)

  13. I wonder if we can only label people peaceful once their moment and their influence was is past its zenith. Because, though a great many people thought Mandela was a “man of peace” while he was in jail, a great many others believed, and were manipulated into believing, that he was a terrorist. Today, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn’t sing his glories but, at the time – when his actions were the most provocative and relevant and critical – I think things were a little more complex. My point is, can someone be called a person “of peace” while they are still a person “of interest” i.e. while they’re still doing the work that would put them in the history books. Thoughts?

    Flux: Encountering Adulthood

    1. That’s a great point, and one that applies a lot more broadly than this. One the one hand it’s hard to evaluate anyone’s life while they’re still living it, before there’s much historical context in which to place them. Of course, on the other hand what contemporaries thought of a person and how they reacted to that person’s actions is certainly important in determining anyone’s legacy.

      I also keep coming back to the idea that it’s probably impossible for a political leader to really be a person of peace. Too many compromises have to be made in running a country or other political entity.

  14. You’ve asked some great questions–a few I’ve wondered about as well. I was surprised when Bush called Sharon a man of peace. I’m not sure being peaceful is very deeply ingrained in very many people and I know that power and the necessity (or desire) to lead drastically changes outlooks.

  15. Great post! It raises a lot of questions, for instance; how do we define peace? Is it defined by an absence of war/conflict or by the presence/promotion of just outcomes?
    If the first, then I believe I have never heard of a true man or woman of peace. In fact even Jesus would be ruled out as he, in his own words, said “I come, not to bring peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34). I think the pursuit of peace is rarely without conflict.
    If we define peace as the promotion of just outcomes then men and women like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks certainly fit the bill. They were people involved in a conflict situation who refused to compromise their ideals of equality, were willing to suffer and even die for those ideals and yet did not walk a path of violence to obtain them.

  16. I’m not sure I know enough about Sharon to comment on whether he qualifies. It seems to me that a person of peace may be forced to resist evil non-violently or even using force without ceasing to be a person of peace. There is a difference between the kind of peace where justice and human flourishing exist, and appeasement where human rights are sacrificed to totalitarian regimes to avoid conflict. I think of the kind of resistance Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela practiced, which certainly escalated hostility at points and yet always sought to love the adversary, yet without sacrificing principle.

  17. I do agree with your line of thought we use terms and give awards and accolades very easily these days. When they offered Nobel peace prize to Obama before he did anything I knew it was not more about politics than real achievement.

  18. There is a difference between being a peaceful person and someone who is working for peace. One only requires a single action by a single individual. He or she can choose to have boundaries by walking away and totally disassociating with others and other circumstances if peace, during the process, is not present. He or she can choose with whom to associate. Whereas, someone who is working for peace has to make decisions or be part of decisions which test their conviction, sometimes having to forfeit things such as non-violant approaches on a path to peace simply because the circumstances do not allow the path to peace to be, well, a peaceful one. I realize that yours as well as others perspective may vary in this next comment. From a Christian perspective, was Christ working for peace when he, on several occasions, cleared out temples of money changers and livestock. Though his actions can be described as violent, some may say he was simply acting out in favor of promoting that his fathers house be kept holy, not a place for commerce. Yet, when a young women was set to be stoned by the public for her transgressions, he was able to stop the violence by simply asking others if they were without transgressions. He or she who is without transgressions, then cast your stone. This from a man whose mission even to this day is clear that he was the author of peace and forgiveness. Whether you believe in Christ mission or not, this is still a lesson which brings back a question. In regards to violence, when considering others well being, where do our convictions start and stop on a path to peace? Perhaps, this has much to do with my first statement. Do we think of ourselves as a peaceful persons or someone who is working for peace.

  19. Interesting piece. It is my opinion that war and peace are the two sides of the same coin, just as with love and hate, and one cannot be had without a clear understanding of the other. Therefore, a Man of Peace is equally a Man of War, regardless of personal beliefs or behaviors.

  20. I think when there are too many opinions regarding someone this automatically exclude her/him from the man/woman of peace category. I very much believe in the saying that There’s no smoke without fire in most cases. Great Post!

  21. He was a man of peace for Israel. Obviously, he was a man of war from the other perspective. There will never be a true peace in Israel, unless the Jewish people were no longer in existence. “A man of peace” in Israel is someone who keeps their country on the map. Often times that requires offensive military action. As you write from your suburb it is hard to understand a life such as that. One thing is for sure, if I had a choice between Sharon and Ghandi to make me feel safe and at peace while living in Israel, Sharon would be a no brainer.

    1. I would submit that a “man of peace for some people but a man of war for everybody else” is not really a “man of peace.” Words have objective meanings, don’t they?

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