Poetry and popular songs for peace

War is devastating, cruel and terrible—and, actually, that is what it is meant to be. No need to describe this now when the Russian war in Ukraine rages. We are now reminded of it daily as TV spectators, but that is nothing compared to how it is for those who have sons there as soldiers, on both sides, and relatives and friends. Five weeks ago, few would have believed that war would happen; so cruel could not men be. Sadly, it happened, yet again—even in the 21st century.
How come we have not been able to find peaceful and humane ways of settling conflicts? That question we always ask when a war strikes, alas, usually after the fact, and when it ends, we seem to want to forget, not learn, not listen enough; we may say “never again”, but not put force behind the words—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and all the other places where war has destroyed people’s lives, taken away children’s innocence, women’s passion, men’s plans, and the rest.
Today, we experience war in the middle of Europe, with Russia invading Ukraine. But other wars are also terrible, indeed the many wars led by the US, a country that today plays the moral leader and policeman; it is the largest NATO country and it earns big money on the war industry. Pope Francis last week said that it is ‘madness’ of the Western nations to call for increased military spending following the war in Ukraine. New ways must be found to balance world power. May God open our eyes so we can see and do what is good and right, find new ways of peaceful coexistence and conflict resolution, including pacifism and the revival of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence.
The First World War is said to have been the cruellest of all wars—till the next one. Twenty-year years later came the Second World War, as cruel as the previous, even worse. Besides, for each person affected, those who were maimed, crippled, made armless and legless, blind and insane, and their loved ones, there would be little meaning in ranking the devastation, making statistics and definitions. Erik Bogle (b. 1947), a Scottish-Australian singer, describes some of the devastation of WWI in his song, “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (1971), but it could also be in Ukraine today.
He ends the song by explaining his feelings when every April, on Memorial Day in Australia, he sits on his porch watching the parade, where the old men march slowly, with stiff and sore bones. Gone are the days of imaginary glory and pride, and the young people ask: “What are they marching for?” The veteran on the porch asks the same question: “What was it all for?” the hellish battles in Gallipoli and Suvla Bay in Turkey and elsewhere.
From time to time, the two enemy sides paused to pray and to bury their comrades, till the commanders ordered them back to fight, again making the sand and the water red from blood, and the sky black from fire. One soldier, waking up in a makeshift hospital bed many days later, says, in Eric Bogle’s words, that when he saw what the war had done to his body, “I never knew there was worse things than dying”. He looked at the place where his legs used to be, and was glad there was nobody waiting for him, “to grieve, to mourn, and to pity”. He says a man needs both legs, to live a free and good life, the life that he had lived before they gave him a tin hat and gun, and shipped him off to war. Did it make anybody’s life better? No, not then, not now.
Bob Dylan (b. 1941) asks the same questions in his haunting anti-war song, “Blowin’ in the Wind’, from 1963, in the midst of the Vietnam War (1955-1975). “How many times must the cannonballs fly before they’re forever banned? And how many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry? And how many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died?” The song became an international anthem for people who fought against wars everywhere, pacifists and others, indeed against the American war in Vietnam. It helped people question if war was really a solution to any conflict, any ideological, religious, economic, or other differences and misunderstandings.
Each question in Bob Dylan’s symbolic song ends by the line, “The answer is blowin’ in the wind”. It sounds aloof and simple, but it is more profound than that. Bob Dylan tells us that we must listen to the soft and tender feelings in our soul and heart, which can feed the mind—like on a sunny and fresh spring day, when we look up at the sky, seeing the free birds fly, the light clouds dance, and to the sacred whispers of the wind telling us happiness, hope, and a good life for all human beings. God’s answer of love and peace is blowing in the wind, too, so let us listen and abide.
And then one more song, perhaps the most beautiful, which can give comfort, advice and direction in this tragic war time in Europe and the world, namely “Danny Boy” by Frederick Weatherly (1848-1929). His sister gave him the melody, which comes from an old Irish folk song, “Londonderry Air”. Although universal in content, it is often seen as the unofficial Irish national anthem. It tells the story of a father having to send his youngest and most beloved son to war, having to abide by the government’s demand, maybe even God’s. He has already lost two sons in the war.
As time goes by, the youngest son is not coming home, and the father lives on dreams and imaginations; his mother sighs and feels so low, longing to see the boy’s smile again. “So if you’ve died and crossed the stream before us, we pray that angels met you on the shore. And you’ll look down, and gently you implore us, to live so we may see your smiling face once more, once more.”
The song is about the loss of three sons at war, senseless and wasteful, with comfort only found in dreams and imagination, in nature’s beauty, and in steadfast faith. The song is also about other loss and love, as the Irish know so well from recent history with famine, starvation, emigration, and work abroad. Many left their homeland for America, never to see their loved ones again. Today, the same is a fact for many Ukrainian people, and also Russians, who now become displaced people within their own country’s borders and refugees abroad.
Opening our hearts and minds to poetry and songs, and learning from other facts and messages, we must work more actively for disarmament and peace. Some will be pacifists, others not, but all can work towards changing the current military-based defence system so it can become more humane, indeed focusing on conflict resolution and prevention of war. Poetry helps us create peace in people’s hearts, openness of spirit and thought. Now, we must take it from there, and create peace in the minds of people.

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