The Glorious Art of Peace by John Gittings

In textbooks, video games, and movies, war and violence are widely portrayed as the shapers of history.  In The Glorious Art of Peace: From the Iliad to Iraq (Oxford University Press, 320 pp., $35 ) the former Guardian reporter and editor John Gittings offers a different perspective on war–and peace.

A believer that “our perception of the past is dominated too often by a narrative that is obsessed with war,” Gittings—who sits on the editorial board of the Oxford International Encyclopedia of Peace and is a research associate with the Centre of Chinese Studies at the School of Oriental & African Studies in the U.K.—seeks throughout his book to highlight “the case for peace as it has been argued since ancient times.”

It is Gittings’ contention that a rich history of peace advocacy is often overlooked in ancient cultures, particularly their songs and literature. While concluding that war remains “too tempting a mechanism” and that war has become dangerously impersonal in the modern age, Gittings optimistically argues that there has been an increased awareness of the “bloodiness and awfulness of war.” He also points to the growth of international law and institutions designed to prevent war and the increase in non-violent movements as reasons for hope in the future.

In one example, Gittings argues that the suicide of Sophocles’ Trojan War hero Ajax demonstrates the human consequences of war. Gittings also notes that Ancient Greek historian and Vietnam veteran Lawrence Tritle has drawn a parallel between Ajax and the Vietnam veteran, arguing that “Ajax should be seen as an ancient Greek equivalent to the traumatized veteran from Vietnam who, numbered by combat and betrayed by his own comrades, loses control and strikes out at whoever or whatever is nearest to hand. Afterwards nothing is left but suicide.”

While concluding that war remains “too tempting a mechanism” and that war has become dangerously impersonal in the modern age, Gittings optimistically argues that there has been an increased awareness of the “bloodiness and awfulness of war.” He also points to the growth of international law and institutions designed to prevent war and the increase in non-violent movements as reasons for hope in the future.

Altogether, The Glorious Art of Peace provides an important and much-needed divergence from the standard way of approaching history. In showcasing the history of peace from ancient Greece and China through the Crusades, the Enlightenment, and up to the present, Gittings provides an timeless reminder of one of the Vietnam War’s great lessons: War is “rarely worth the price paid for it.”

—Dale Sprusansky

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