Visions of war’s horror lie behind creation of the new Peace Institute and its first Fall Peace Festival
Chicoan Jim Reis, a combat engineer in Gulf War I, remembers driving by Third and Main Streets on a Saturday just after returning from the Persian Gulf and seeing the peace protesters with placards and thinking to himself, “What’s wrong with these people? I went over there to save these people!”
He added ironically, “Nine years later I’m on the corner myself!”
Reis grew up in a family that was patriotic, even “jingoistic,” as he put it, and like many 18-year-olds he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life at the time. It seemed natural, as it had for so many other young men before, that he enlist.
“The possibility that it could be a mistake was unthinkable at the time.” It wasn’t until he got back that “certain things didn’t make sense” to him.
“I implied earlier that joining the military was a mistake, but actually it wasn’t, because it created a person who is very critical of military power,” Reis explained.
Understanding exactly what is meant by peace while residing on American soil, which has not experienced the horrors of combat since the Civil War more than 140 years ago, is not easy. Most if not all people want “peace,” but there are many and conflicting views on how to achieve it. The word long has been charged with connotations of political naïvetà, romantic idealism, elusiveness, failure, controversy, irony or spiritually remote perfection, as verified by the stock of common phrases and images: “Peace on Earth,” “peaceniks,” “peace through strength,” “Give peace a chance” and so on.
Those who have experienced the violence of war or terror overseas are valuable resources for turning these oft-repeated concepts into something immediate and real.
In the spirit of taking back the word and saying exactly what they mean, a group of Chico State University professors and other local citizens have come together to create the Peace Institute, whose first order of business is production of the first annual “Fall Peace Festival: Building Communities of Hope,” beginning Sunday, Oct. 17, on the university campus.
The week-long festival will bring together several distinguished peace researchers and practitioners from around the country, local academics, musicians, poets, artists, other concerned citizens and, perhaps most important, veterans of conflict for lectures, panel discussions, dialogues and entertainment.
The impetus for establishing the Peace Institute was set into motion after the catastrophe of 9/11, when several professors, their spouses and friends decided to form a monthly book club wherein they could freely process the tragedy and talk about possible peaceful and constructive responses, since the rules of public discourse had been re-written literally overnight.
“After 9/11, the word ‘peace’ seemed to be the equivalent of the word ‘communist’ in the ‘50s,” recalls Mary Ann Latimer, a Chico State English instructor and book club member from early on. “It was a huge relief to have a time and place to go every month where I was comfortable talking about history, and life in general, in a context of peaceful solutions rather than violent solutions.”
Local educator Diane Imhoff, who with her husband, Chico State philosophy Professor Tom Imhoff, initiated the monthly book club, said that the idea for the Peace Institute crystallized after several members of the group attended “an amazing talk about the Ireland peace process” by peace activist, Emmy Award-winner and Chico State alumnus Kelly Candaele (who will be present at the inaugural fest) a few years ago.
When the United States invaded Iraq in March of last year, the group decided it was definitely time to act.
The festival lineup offers a wide variety of approaches to the subject of peace. Beginning with an inaugural chamber music presentation by the School of the Arts, the festival moves on to presentations by faculty members, lectures by visiting scholars and screenings/discussions of the films Full Metal Jacket and The Fog of War.
Two of the more high-profile presentations are Candaele’s PBS documentary on the life of Nobel Laureate Olaf Palme and Notre Dame philosophy professor and visiting Presidential scholar James Sterba’s lecture, “The War in Iraq: A Moral Assessment.”
Given the political polarization in the country, the Peace Institute should be an “inclusive place” that could “bring about reconciliation by bringing people with disparate views together,” said Chico State philosophy Professor Ron Hirschbein.
In the spring of 2003, Hirschbein, who designed the “War and Peace Studies” theme for the CSUC general-education requirement and had been teaching a course on “The Roots of War” for 20 years, joined the book club with his wife Lee.
Sitting in his small, book-cluttered Trinity Hall office, Hirschbein pooh-poohed what he called a pervading “futilitarianism” that makes people believe there’s nothing they can do to make a difference. Citing recent historical examples, he championed the “hope that lies in the unexpected.”
He wondered how someone in the 1980s might have been received if, “like a modern Nostradamus, they told you that the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact would soon dissolve overnight,” or that not only would Nelson Mandela be “let out of jail” but that he would subsequently “become president, too!”
Hirschbein is the one who broached the group’s idea for the Peace Institute to Chico State’s dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, Sarah Blackstone, who not only has helped move the proposal along (the institute will exist within her department), but has joined the book club as well.
From her spacious, well-lit office in the Performing Arts Center, Blackstone emphasized that the function of the institute, as well as the annual peace festival, is to offer a forum for a “multiplicity of views.”
She added, “My job is not to decide how to achieve peace in the world; it’s to provide a forum for this discussion.”
The institute’s draft charter is ambitious and visionary. Besides sponsoring an annual peace festival and bringing researchers and workshops to campus year-round, it proposes establishing both a peace studies minor and major; mentoring services for other educational institutions in the area that want to develop peace education curricula; a speakers’ bureau; internship opportunities for students; and the promotion of interdisciplinary studies campus-wide that integrate war and peace research, genocide studies and conflict resolution.
Also notable is the affiliation nationwide with other peace research institutes, as well as with Shasta College in Redding, where instructor Pamela Spoto and colleagues there are coordinating speakers, films, and workshops in tandem with the institute and creating a peace studies course that would be transferable to the peace studies minor at Chico State.
Spoto, like everyone else involved with the Peace Institute, is excited about its potential. “For some reason, talking about peace seems to frighten some people,” she wrote by e-mail. “I believe we need to stop celebrating violence and war. We need to hear all voices; no voices should be silenced. We need to start celebrating peace and putting all our energy, money and time into creating peace.”
While academic minds are ruminating about peaceful ideals, there are many Americans who have either experienced warfare first-hand or have family members who are vets and whose views on war and peace are therefore tempered in the crucible of experience.
On the Thursday of the festival, combat veteran Les Orme and conscientious objector Tom Reed will conduct a dialog on ‘Reconciliation.”
Orme, who served in Vietnam (1968-69), first as a sergeant in the infantry and later in air reconnaissance, asserted in a telephone interview that it is precisely because he knows the hell of combat that he opposes the current war in Iraq.
‘[In Iraq,] as in Vietnam before, the American people [are being] lied to. Young men and women are being put in harm’s way because of the confabulations of this administration, which has an agenda that has never been truly articulated.
‘We talk about bringing democracy to the Middle East, but they’re suppressing it here at home. If we’re going to preserve democracy, we have to have tolerance. And without tolerance, we’re looking fascism square in the eye. If I’m going to fight for democracy, I certainly want to live in one.”
As for supporting the troops, he stressed the ‘need to separate the war and the warrior. These young people didn’t sign up to go to war; they signed up to protect our country. To utilize them in a war that does not meet that end is a breach of trust.”
Orme recalled growing up in a ‘right-wing family in Southern California.” His dad was a WWII vet, and young Les was captain of the wrestling team and an Eagle Scout who gave speeches in high school about the ‘evils of communism.” When the Vietnam War heated up and he became of age, he naturally enlisted, having ‘bought the ‘domino theory.'”
'When I got there, reality struck," he said. ‘There is no glory in any war. … [War is] messy business."