How to Totally Misread John & Yoko’s “War is Over (If You Want It)”

At Christmas or the start of every new year, Yoko Ono takes out a full-page ad in The New York Times bearing the words “War is Over (If You Want It).”

Baby Boomers and Beatles fans know this slogan as the central message of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1968–1969 peace campaign: that of the famous “bed-ins” and the anthemic “Give Peace a Chance.”

In 1968, the “war” referred to the Vietnam War, with a clear implication: if enough people mobilized influence on politicians and war profiteers, then the war could end.

“War is Over” was not a facile plug for peace: it was an indictment of anyone who said they wanted the Vietnam War to end but did nothing to help end it.

If you think “War is Over” refers only to military war or Vietnam, then you’re misreading it. There’s a deeper message of “War is Over,” one that presents a more personal challenge.

We all know people with whom we’re in conflict. We disagree with them, or there’s a history of hurt. They “make us upset.” Maybe we’re clearly in the right, and they’re clearly in the wrong.

Making enemies of people allows us to indulge in the illusion of being superior to others, with a bonus: we get to complain a lot and nurse grievances that we use to get attention and pity. We turn friends and families into allies who are on “our side” — the right side.

“War is Over” challenges us: How can you say you hate war and fighting in the world when you permit it— even embrace it — in your own life?

“War is Over” challenges us to make peace with people: living or dead, present or past. And not just wish for peace or pray for peace: make peace.

It’s no mystery or secret, how to make peace. We let go of past injury; we extend an olive branch; we forgive; we love; and we treat and talk to others how we ourselves would wish to be treated and spoken to.

Some people in our lives may insist on fighting. Why? Maybe they can’t imagine what peace looks like, or they’re too attached to their sense of injury. Maybe they antagonize us not entirely because of anything we’ve done, but because of hurt, anger, and fear in their lives that has nothing to do with us.

For these people, we might recall the title of an article that poet Charlotte E. Keyes wrote for McCall’s magazine in 1966: “Suppose They Gave a War and No One Came.”

Someone wants a war with you? Don’t go.

You are free to refuse to engage in the endless conflict other people insist on having. When they insult or accuse you, don’t respond; when they try to make you upset, don’t be. Avoid them entirely if you must, and in your heart, sincerely wish them health, happiness, and peace of mind.

And we may find, if we reach out, that the other person really wants peace as badly as we do.

Finally, if you do nothing to end the war that you know, you are left to ask, “Do I love war more than peace? And why is that?”

Then you have hit the real target of “War is Over”: your own heart, where all peace must begin.

Hence the hymn: Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

The war you know — the conflict with others, the conflicts within yourself — it can all end, and it can end today.

If you want it.