It’s easy to win a war, hard to win a peace

Published 5 June 2009
ThoughtForTheDay 20200515 RabbiLordSacks mp3 image 1
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, 5th June 2009

Yesterday we had the European elections and Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo, charting a new way forward in the relations between the United States and the Islamic world. Tomorrow we’ll have the 65th anniversary of D Day and the Normandy landings that marked a turning point in the 2nd World War. And today is the anniversary of the start of the 6 Day War between Israel and her neighbours in 1967.

And if there’s one theme that links them all, it’s the difference between winning a war and winning a peace.

The European Union was created so to interlink the destinies of the nation states of Europe that they could no longer engage in the kind of conflict that led, in less than thirty years, to two world wars. Israel won a surprise victory in one of the shortest wars in history, yet still 42 years later has not found peace. And Barack Obama’s speech was America’s way of saying that wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot in themselves bring peace to a troubled region. They used to say about one of my predecessors that he never despaired of a peaceful solution to a conflict once every other alternative had been exhausted. And that is where we are in the world today.

Why is it that war, so costly in human lives, has been our preferred method of conflict resolution since humanity first set foot on earth? Why is it that peace, from which both sides gain, has proved so elusive? The answer, neuro scientists tell us, is that the rational brain is easily overridden by our more primitive reactions of fight or flight in the face of fear. That’s what leads time and again to destructive action when people on both sides of a conflict feel themselves under threat. It’s hard to defeat fear in the name of hope; it needs enormous courage to move from a mindset of us-against-them to one of all-of-us-together. Yet as our powers of destruction grow ever greater, we need that courage ever more.

The two signals of hope in my lifetime have been the creation of a Europe of peace and the mending of relations between Christians and Jews. Those are what we need to build on if we’re to make peace in the Middle East and mend relations between Islam and the West. It’s easy to win a war, hard to win a peace, but there is no alternative, for the sake of the future of the world we share.