Mother’s Call to End War

by Tom Ewell

One of the great, passionate statements opposing war was created by Julia Ward Howe following the Civil War and delivered on September 11, 1870, as an “Appeal to Womanhood Throughout the World.” Her initiative led to a commemoration of Mother’s Peace Day in 1872, and President Wilson eventually established America’s official commemoration of Mother’s Day in 1914, again as our country was about to absorb the reality of the terrible carnage of WW I. It is well to remember that Mother’s Day originated as a declaration against war.

Howe’s declaration stated in part: “We will not have great questions [of war] decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!” The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war. Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God.”

I would like some day to again see us honor Mother’s Day as a time for all mothers – and all their sons! – to rise up, as Howe envisioned, to deplore the pain inflicted by war. It could also be an annual opportunity to express with great sadness that the world, particularly the U.S., continues to condone and prepare lavishly for war and allow its industries to make massive profits from arms sales that are considered a cornerstone of the American economy. It might be a time to promote a deep resolve to prevent wars in the future such as creating a cabinet position for a Secretary of Peace. During the current surge of spending for infrastructure and human needs, we are now seriously beginning to engage in a critical discussion about how the Pentagon squanders precious funds and resources that will be needed to support the Biden administration’s proposed billion-dollar programs.  

There is a close, often unspoken, association between war and motherhood. I heard an Iraqi war veteran give a speech a number of years ago about his participation in that war. He said that although he could speak to large audiences about his experience, he admitted that sadly the one person he could not share his experience with was his mother. And we really do not need to ask why. And I am told that a most common call from the wounded on the battlefield is not surprisingly “Mama, Mama!” 

It is becoming abundantly clear that the world is tired of war. On February 15, 2003, for example, “the day the world said no to war” in the largest protest in human history, some 10-15 million people in over 600 cities across the globe, marched to stop the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. But it often seems surprisingly difficult to effectively engage in conversations or write about the tragedy of war. There is a preference to somehow tolerate the horrors and turn instead to giving attention to the valorous sacrifices of our soldiers. But for those who have known war, those who have fought in it, those who have paid the price for its economic and environmental impact, for those who have witnessed the death and the physical and psychological injuries created, war is personal, especially for the mothers and wives of a wounded or dead soldier. 

So now that Mother’s Day has become primarily a sweet opportunity to honor mothers with flowers, candy, and gratitude, it seems awkward to recall its original intent. Whether or not Mother’s Day will ever again be commemorated as a day for lament about the tragedy of war, in any case it is important to heed and honor Julia Ward Howe’s powerful summons to “Disarm! Disarm!” and work to abolish the terrible evil it represents. Perhaps as women continue to rise in leadership in our nation and across the globe, they will be more adept and committed to guiding us away from the folly of war into a greater commitment to examine the origins of war and work to prevent it.