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3000 Years of Peace: The Best Anti-War Poetry, Art, and More
For 3000 years, writers, artists, musicians, and, most recently, filmmakers have been among the most powerful voices against war. This is a collection of my favorite art, literature, music, and film that forces us to think critically about war, and understand its costs.
War and the Ancients
Even Homer, who lived and wrote about in a society so steeped in war and bloodshed that its economy revolved, in part, around the spoils of battle, understood the price of war.
Of possession/cattle and fat sheep are to be had for the lifting,/and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses,/but a man's life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted/nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth's barrier. (Iliad, Book 9:405-409, translated by Richard Lattimore)
By the time of the Peleponnessian War, even the war-loving Greeks had begun to grow weary of the constant fighting. The comedian Aristophanes wrote a scathing satire of the Athenian military-industrial complex in his Lysistrata.
The War Prayer
One of the most powerful modern indictments of war was written by none other than the American humorist and satirist Mark Twain, whose short story "The War Prayer" puts into words the unspoken implications of praying for victory.
"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it -- for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!"
World War I was the world's first real experience of the horrors of modern warfare, and it resulted in an outpouring of powerful anti-war statements. The most famous of these come from a group of young soldiers known now as the "War Poets." They included Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and many others.
Wilfred Owen was arguably the best and most famous of these young War Poets. His brilliant poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" is one of the most vivid depictions of the horror of war.
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,/My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/Pro patria mori.
Sweet and honorable it is, the ancient Romans wrote, to die for your country. Owen did die, killed in action one week before Armistice.
A Deeper Look at Guernica
- Treasures of the World | Guernica
It is modern art's most powerful antiwar statement... created by the twentieth century's most well-known and least understood artist.
- Guernica (painting) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
In the panel on which I am working, which I shall call Guernica, and in all my recent works of art, I clearly express my abhorrence of the military caste which has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose
A five line poem of extraordinary power, Randall Jarrell's "The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner" is considered one of the finest poems of World War II.
- "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell
- On the Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
Great poets and critics on the poem
More Great Poems of the World Wars
Thomas Hardy was too old to fight in World War I, but not too old to care.
His "Channel Firing" is a bitter and powerful indictment of the bloodthirsty nature of mankind.
Again the guns disturbed the hour,/Roaring their readiness to avenge,/As far inland as Stourton Tower,/And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.
Henry Reed also wrote of the ridiculous side of war with his clever "Naming of Parts."
This is the lower sling swivel. And this/Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see/When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,/Which in your case you have not got. The branches/Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,/Which in our case we have not got.
Learn More About the War Poets
- The War Poets Association
The War Poets Association, a UK registered charity, was launched at the British Ambassador's Residence in Paris in July 2004. It aims to promote interest in the work, life and historical context of poets whose subject is the experience of war.
Learn More About Mathew Brady
Almost as soon as the technology of photography was invented, it began to be used to document the horrorific aftermath of war. One of the first of the great war photographers was Mathew Brady, who used the infant technology to document the U.S. Civil War.
Singing For Peace
Music has long been a powerful force against war. The use of music to convey an anti-war message became particularly prevalent with the rise of the Anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s. Here are some of the greatest anti-war songs ever recorded, both traditional and modern:
Movies, which combine the storytelling power of words, with the visual immediacy of images, can also convey a powerful anti-war message.