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Sign of the times

Peace, love and the important branding of a Missoula hillside

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Earlier this month, someone carved an acre-sized peace sign into the North Hills overlooking downtown. In the process, they destroyed several plantings of Missoula phlox, a rare wildflower that only grows in and around our valley. Missoula Parks and Rec will spend time and money repairing the chopped-up ground of the peace sign, but the phlox is irreplaceable.

I mention this because I was about to start a land war in Asia, but then I saw that hill. "Oh yeah," I said, casting aside my cruise missile guidance system. "Peace."

I like unique varieties of plants on publicly owned land as much as the next guy, but certain projects are more important than city property and the system of laws we use to administer it. Chief among these is to remind the motorists of Missoula to stop using war as an instrument of international policy.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact first outlawed war among the world's major nations in 1928, but with no symbol to represent it, the agreement quickly collapsed. People simply could not remember to stop murdering each other in groups—because what did peace even look like? How could you depict it on your car?

This poor branding led inexorably to World War II. The Nazis had a recognizable symbol that reminded everyone what they were about, and Europe—whose struggling symbol economy had produced only the guillotine and glen plaid—fell easily before them. The United States won that war only when it invented its own powerful symbol of international dominance, the mushroom cloud.

With no visual reminder of peace on his coffee mug or undershirt, however, President Truman immediately got us into the Korean War. Thousands died. Then, in 1958, the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament adopted what is now called the peace sign, destroying the UK's nuclear arsenal and ending war forever.

Like the cross, the peace sign only works when people can see it. In the same way that schoolchildren start rapping and impregnating one another as soon as you take the crucifix out of their classroom, people will devolve into murderous rage if there is no peace sign in their field of vision. Carving a giant one into the hills north of town is therefore an excellent use of activist hours, taxpayer dollars and nearly extinct wildflowers.

PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

I know what you're thinking: Wouldn't it be more effective to lobby our federal representatives, write persuasive arguments against specific wars or even just register like-minded citizens to vote? To which I respond: You're lucky there's no generally recognized symbol for dummies, or I would carve it into your house.

Sure, you could get involved in local and regional politics. You could pursue incremental changes that reduced incentives toward war as an instrument of foreign policy within the American democratic system, gradually remaking the world's number-one exporter of armed conflict from within. You could go to Sen. Steve Daines' Missoula office and ask why he signed a letter urging Iran to withdraw from nuclear negotiations. You could ask Rep. Ryan Zinke if he recalls any events from his life before SEAL Team Six.

But what would you look at? After you were done working for peace—after you had achieved your concrete objectives and incrementally reduced the likelihood that others would die in war—how would people know you even did that? When you think of it that way, you realize that change can wait. What's important now is consciousness.

Peace is a state of mind. It's not the absence of war. It's not citizens using democracy to make armed conflict politically untenable for their elected representatives. It's a lifestyle, and possibly a kind of music. It's going with the flow.

It's the sticker on your back windshield that says you may be burning OPEC oil, but you dream of a world that doesn't. It's knowing that war may be out there, but you're against it. Most importantly, it's making sure other people know that, too.

Call me a dreamer, but I think it's worth a few nearly extinct wildflowers to remind people that peace is an idea and you're for it. Like Martin Luther King Jr. or Do Not Enter, the symbol matters more than what any one person might do. So I would like to thank whoever carved that giant peace sign into the North Hills for telling everyone what Missoula is all about.

This town loves peace and, to a lesser extant, giant characters on hillsides. We don't give a crap about wildflowers. We want change, and we don't care what we have to do to get it—literally. Like the symbol athwart the mountainside, we know that the doing something isn't that important. The important thing is to stand for something.

Dan Brooks writes about rare plants, hippies, and their comparative worth at combatblog.net.

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