September 21st is International Peace Day, a day dedicated to ‘strengthening the ideals of peace within and among all nations and peoples.’ International Peace Day was initiated in the early 1980s by the UN General Assembly, the largest deliberative body of the United Nations.
As we mark International Peace Day this year, I appreciate there may be some reluctance to celebrate the occasion. Instead of strengthening the ideal of peace, the day may appear a grim reminder of how elusive the goal of global peace is. Every day we bear witness to increasing levels of barbarity and violence around the globe. So I can certainly sympathise with those who feel that global peace may be too grandiose to even talk about.
But rather than abandoning the ideals of this day altogether, perhaps we can reframe our perceptions of the path to peace. By this, I mean instead of aiming for world peace, maybe we should start smaller and take more manageable steps towards peace. We can, for instance, focus on cultivating moments of peace. The concept of a moment of peace feels a lot easier to grasp, especially when we consider how plentiful these moments have been throughout history.
Even in the midst of war, it is possible to identify moments of peace. They have come to be known as ‘ceasefires’ – a term which literally means to hold fire. Whenever ceasefires are put in place, warring parties agree to temporarily stop or suspend active hostilities. The concept of a ceasefire seems to be as old as the history of warfare itself and we continue to see evidence of it being practiced today, including the most recent ceasefire in Syria.
There are a number of reasons why the practice of observing ceasefires developed. In some instances, ceasefires were put in place to allow for fighting to pause on days of religious or spiritual significance. Humanitarianism has also been another important rationale behind the emergence of ceasefires, as the cessation of fighting provides an opportunity to assist the wounded in war and offer relief to civilians. In other situations, ceasefires have been used as a critical step in building longer-term peace – for instance, as the first stage in a negotiated settlement or peace process.
The most well-known example of a ceasefire took place in the trenches of the First World War in 1914. The Christmas Truce, as it has come to be known, involved soldiers laying down their arms and crossing enemy lines on Christmas Day to play football, sing hymns, share food and exchange stories with their alleged enemies. It was a brief moment of comradery and connection in the midst of one of the deadliest wars in human history. The war poet Curtis Bennett captures this moment in a section of his well-known poem, ‘The Christmas Truce’:
On Christmas Eve through frozen sky,
Across the void where dead men lie,
Men’s voices sang the holy hymn,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
And Christmas magic filled the night
And in that fading, winter light,
Men lay down arms and stopped the fight.
They rose from trenches deep in mud
And walked the fields of dead and blood,
To greet the other, man to man.
As men, not soldiers, offered hands
To others born in foreign lands,
Where for the first time they could see,
The young men called the enemy…
How can we explain this temporary reprieve from fighting during such a brutal war – a war which witnessed the atrocious use of chemical weapons, destroyed an entire generation and led to the demise of empires? We now know from historical records that it was a completely unplanned moment of peace. It was not directed by army commanders or policy makers. It was not part of a grand plan to boost morale or a window for humanitarian assistance. Nor was it intended as a step towards ending the war, as the fighting raged on for several more years after this event. Instead, it was a spontaneous coming together of individual soldiers, a moment of humanity amidst inhumanity. But how can this impulse among soldiers coming together be explained?
The reason why these soldiers were able to lay down their arms and commune with their sworn enemies is because, in that moment, they realized a fundamental truth – they were not actually enemies. The things they had in common were greater than the things that divided them, and as Bennett’s poem suggests, they were able to recognise themselves in one another.
While this event is often treated as a historical anomaly, what it did was demonstrate the absurdity of the four years of warfare that engulfed the planet between 1914 and 1918. The fighting was the real anomaly; the moment of peace that emerged that evening was a genuine reflection of the human spirit.
The world may have changed a lot since the First World War, but the fundamental truth that was uncovered in the trenches on that evening remains just as true today. We are all deeply connected and have much more in common than we tend to acknowledge. And while we may disagree, fight and even kill each other, our common humanity binds us – even to those we choose to call our enemies.
So if world peace feels too grand an idea to discuss on International Peace Day, particularly given the prevalence of conflict around the world, let’s draw on and be inspired by the concept of a moment of peace. If it was possible in the trenches of one of the most bitter and devastating conflicts the world has ever seen, it is certainly still possible today.