‘War Is Over! If you want it. Happy Christmas, John & Yoko.’ Billboards in eleven world cities showed these words. It was 15 December 1969 and The Beatles singer John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono launched the peace campaign War is Over (if you want it). The peace message appeared on buildings and walls in the streets of London, New York, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, Toronto, Athens, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Berlin and Tokyo. At that time the Vietnam War was raging on with no end in sight.
Not just advertising, the couple must have thought. John and Yoko’s message was accompanied by a Peace For Christmas concert in London to which famous musician friends, such as George Harrison and Eric Clapton, contributed.
Fifty-three years and some wars later, not much has changed. We may disagree on an aweful number of political issues, no one wants war. In the last month of the year, there is no prospect of an end to the war in Ukraine, which was unleashed by Russia’s invasion at the end of February this year.
After two difficult and uncertain ‘pandemic years’ for many, 2022 has also by no means been a jubilant year. First, the outbreak of war on the European continent, not even that far from our safe havens. Second, all sorts of crises, such as the energy and Dutch nitrogen crisis, which have created chaos and uncertainty among countless (Dutch) citizens. And leaders don’t seem to know the way out of the chaos and noise.
As facts have become opinions and opinions have become facts, the social climate is unstable with ever-increasing strife. What is truth? For instance, climate change, besides natural climate change also at the hands of humans, is for some a leftist ideology, a belief. And a belief, of course, only serves to instil fear. If it isn’t the earthly sacrifices for a place in heaven instead of hell, it is the hell and damnation hanging over us if we do not act now. Fear as a driving force, in other words. Don’t fall for it, say the deniers. As if the unprecedented, apocalyptic floods that hit Pakistan this year and the ongoing drought and water shortages in southern Europe in particular, were not clear signals that we must start living differently.
Rather, we war – between the believers and non-believers, the liberals and conservatives. Not bombs and grenades as war language, but rather moral superiority for instance in the battle over climate, one of the main subjects of the culture war which blew over from the United States. According to the non-believers, we can sit back, nothing is wrong. With Christmas just around the corner, the steaks and pork tenderloin are served in large numbers because “they won’t take that away from us”. Some think we will soon find ourselves in such an unlivable world that freedom no longer has much value and others think our freedom is being taken away under the guise of climate change.
‘War is over! If you want it’ fifty-three years later is not just about the war in Ukraine. It is also about the culture wars that divide countries and families and friends to the bone. Verbal violence may one day no longer be the only weapon.
John Lennon said the following about the campaign at the time: “When we stick posters around saying, ‘War Is Over – If you want it’, we’re trying to promote an awareness in people of how much power they have, and not to rely on the government, or leaders, or teachers so much that they’re all passive or automatons. They have to have new hope.”
For hope and confidence in the future, we do not depend on governments and leaders. A universal and timeless message. A billboard can’t change that wars will always be there, I hear you thinking. By the way, the campaign is still running – after all, the desired result is still lacking – and posters can be printed from a website to stick on your windows. I once saw such a poster on a window in Amsterdam and I had to take a picture of it. It may be just a seed, a pebble that ripples in the river as soon as it hits the surface of the water. But that seed grows and the ripple effect reaches further than you think. If enough people want something, it happens. The idea of the billboards was to make people aware of this power. Enough people actively wishing for peace can make war stop, John and Yoko thought. Naive? Maybe, yet we all know what King and Ghandi set in motion.
Anti-war Christmas song
Two years later, the War is Over slogan turned into a Christmas song with an anti-war message, Happy Christmas (War is Over), and – it took a while – eventually became a worldwide Christmas classic. And every time, the images of the music video give me goosebumps.
‘So this is Christmas and what have you done.’
In spring 1969, John and Yoko proclaimed their peace message at the Amsterdam Hilton from their hotel bed. For a week between white hotel sheets, the famous hippie couple called for world peace. For this, they invited photographers and journalists to spread their message. “It didn’t smell to fresh in there,” said Henk van der Meijden, a tabloid reporter at Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, and John’s hair remained unwashed. A crazy idea, but the bed-in got a lot of publicity and worldpeace became a mantra – without, incidentally, the desired result.
Flowerpower may be decades past, but wouldn’t it be nice to hear a similar message from contemporary musicians? The time is now I tell you! Just like Band Aid at the time. Musicians coming together to record a song with a (political) statement? As happened in 1984 with Do they know it’s Christmas to raise money to fight famine in Ethiopia. Later in 1985, USA for Africa followed with the legendary song We are the world.
Music connects and makes hope come alive. I can only think of old(er) rockstars, like Bob Dylan, Bob Geldof and Bono, who remind us – through music – of the power of the individual to start a movement that can make a difference. Is the power of the individual perhaps weakening in individualistic times we live in? Are today’s famous artists too busy with themselves?
Concert for freedom
U2’s singer and guitarist Bono and The Edge played at a Kiev metro station in May this year, at the invitation of Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, in solidarity with the citizens of Ukraine. A concert for freedom.
John & Yoko’s War is Over, Band Aid, USA for Africa, U2 for freedom, that is what I want for Christmas. Europe for Climate maybe. Who will lead the way? You don’t have to be a floating hippie or a sentimental old geezer to know that music is the catalyst for change and connection. It is a primal feeling and I dare say it’s what we all crave so much.
Merry Christmas! 🌟❤️🥂🎄
Beautiful essay. I wish I could say that humanity’s prospects are beautiful too.
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Thank you. Let’s have new hopes for the new year!
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