Tikkun Magazine, March/April 2006

The Art and Ethos of Enduring Peace

by Sharon D. Welch

We are, at long last, in the midst of a vigorous and comprehensive critique of the U.S. war in Iraq. People throughout the world decry the horrendous loss of lives, both civilian and military, and are critical of the arrogance and poor planning in this administration's attempt at "regime change" in Iraq.

It is vital that we in the peace movement continue our criticism of this war and its enormous costs. It is equally important that we realize that criticism alone is not enough. A strong sense of the folly and cost of this war and this imperial misadventure will not necessarily translate into opposition either to war per se or to American imperialism. We need instead to find a way to talk about alternatives to war in a language that will inspire and mobilize our fellow Americans.

Recognizing A New Vietnam

While many in the democratic party are now critical of the war in Iraq, they do not necessarily renounce either military force or American imperialism. Robin Toner of the New York Times, in her article "Democrats Are Advised to Broaden Appeal" discusses a report prepared for the Third Way, a political and policy group for centrist Democrats. The authors of the report, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck, call for a foreign policy that "emphasize[s] the importance of the American military as a potential force for good in the world, and in so doing [engages] 'Michael Moore Democrats' who instinctively view American power as suspect."

I am a member of a research team at the University of Missouri affiliated with Global Action to Prevent War, an international coalition-building effort to implement nonviolent alternatives to war and internal armed conflict. We have found that the failure of political strategists to imagine a non-militaristic foreign policy resonates with our work with conservative and moderate students.

In the spring of 2003, as the war in Iraq was getting underway, we found an unsettling juxtaposition of seemingly contradictory ideas. While most of our students thought that the war in Iraq was just, most also believed that the war in Vietnam was a clear example of an unjust war. All, Republican and Democrat alike, could recite the same critique of America's folly in Vietnam: our government lied to us, there was no just cause for the war, and there were too many U.S. casualties. This substantial critique of the war in Vietnam did not translate, however, into a critique of either the justifications for, nor the execution of, the war in Iraq.

Why is it that wars begin like World War II and end like Vietnam? Author and media critic Norman Soloman describes two common themes in presidential justifications for war: the "benign and even noble intent" of the U.S. government, and the confident assertion that "the latest war is as good as a war can be—necessary, justified, righteous and worth any sorrows to be left in its wake."

How Moral Clarity Can Lead to Violence

How do we address powerfully and clearly the illusions of beneficence and inevitability that justify war? How do we learn to see both the costs of war and our culpability as a nation in excessive and gratuitous violence?

Social psychologist Albert Bandura has described how easy it is for moral clarity and absolutism to lead to cruelty and violence. Bandura describes several dimensions of moral disengagement, the process by which decent human beings commit and justify behaviors that they would otherwise recognize as morally abhorrent.

Bandura has identified five elements that are especially pertinent in the current situation. The first factor is being convinced that one is the bearer of a just cause, and that coercion is required to protect and advance that cause. A second dimension is avoiding the negative consequences of one's behavior through the use of euphemistic language, for example using the term "collateral damage" for the death and injuries caused to civilians, or the terms "professional interrogation techniques," or "softening up" prisoners for interrogation to refer to physical and psychological torture. Third, when the severity of the consequences can no longer be avoided, one dehumanizes and/or demonizes the victim: the victims somehow deserve the negative consequences because they are all "terrorists" or are motivated by an irrational hatred of us. The fourth step is disadvantageous comparison: our violence pales in comparison to theirs. Recall Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' response when challenged by Senator Lindsay Graham to decisively condemn the use of torture by U.S. personnel: "While we are struggling to try to find out [what happened] at Abu Ghraib, they're beheading people like Danny Pearl and Nick Berg. We are nothing like our enemy." The fifth step is a diffusion of responsibility: one was only following orders or acting as can only be expected in "the chaos and fog of war."

How do we learn to see moral disengagement when we are enmeshed in this process of rationalization and justification? We who are progressives can easily craft arguments exposing this Orwellian logic in ways that we find persuasive. That is not the problem. How do we find the logic, the examples, the metaphors, and the stories that can engage in self-critical reflection those who do not agree with us while affirming, not denying, their capacities as moral agents?

Alternatives to War

A second challenge facing the peace movement is that of conveying the plausibility and feasibility of alternatives to war. In his forthcoming book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right, Michael Lerner describes a strategy of generosity, a vision of military and economic policy that begins with an acknowledgement of two factors: our "mutual interdependence" as human beings, and the tragic and self-defeating costs of military and economic domination.

People throughout the world share these convictions and are working in numerous ways, large and small, to implement nonviolent alternatives to war. There are, for example, three promising developments at the United Nations: the ratification of the International Criminal Court; the implementation of a Post-conflict Peacebuilding Commission; and planning for an emergency peace service.

Furthermore, as described by Camille Pampell Conoway and Anjalina Sen in a document prepared for Global Action to Prevent War, people throughout the world are involved in traditionally defined conflict prevention measures (early warning and early responses to escalating instability) and in structural prevention, which aims to establish the institutional and cultural building blocks of sustainable peace (such as "negotiating and maintaining peace agreements, promoting human rights and good governance, enhancing justice and reconciliation and facilitating sustainable socio-economic development").

While there are many practical alternatives to war, we have encountered a threefold challenge to engaging people in critical involvement in these measures. First, although we provide ample information about forms of nonviolent action and conflict resolution, many of our students and many people in our community do not find these strategies either credible or satisfying. For many people in the United States, "real" power, whether human or divine, is expressed in the decisive defeat of enemies, not in mutual transformation, healing, and reconciliation.

In the face of grave threats, war, with all of its costs, is still the preferred option, and forms of nonviolent action and conflict resolution and prevention are seen quite baldly as "doing nothing" or as appeasing dangerous enemies. The successes of the Civil Rights movement and Gandhi's nonviolent campaigns are thought to be unique, dependent on the beneficence of the British and U.S. citizenry, and not indicative of the response to be expected from implacable enemies.

A second challenge to persuasively conveying alternatives to war concerns our own actions and behaviors. Just as many of our students suspect that we underestimate the perfidy and resolve of those perceived as enemies, so they suppose that we overestimate the virtue and competence of peace activists and peacekeepers.

How do we hold together hopes for a world without war with a recognition of the ongoing tendencies, even among peacemakers and peacekeepers, toward error, domination, and violence? As the sexual abuse of women and girls by UN peacekeepers has demonstrated, the peacekeepers must also be carefully trained and policed!

Those of us who are working for peace are not a righteous vanguard; we are as flawed and partial as any human being. We can, and will, abuse cooperative power and need our own Trickster stories to remind us of our flaws and excesses. There is no multitude, no group any less likely than others to abuse power—as Fanon knew well and as revolutionaries of all sorts forget to their peril. Wisdom, ongoing self-critique, and accountability are required of all of us, not just the imperial others, in the exercise of social, cultural, economic, and political power.

Finally, how do we actively encourage the nonviolent actions of others? Along with providing alternative information, we are trying to find the right language with which to frame our arguments and aspirations. The metaphors that we use for our visions of peace and justice may not resonate with the deepest longings and hopes of large numbers of people. We have yet to find a language that challenges the status quo and evokes commitment to a different form of world order.

Finding a Language for Peace

What words do we use for our work as finite and fallible peacemakers: "the abolition of war," "the prevention of war," "human security," "global security," "conflict resolution," "conflict prevention," "enduring peace," "sustainable peace"? What are evocative metaphors for compassionate, self-critical, and creative engagement? Our goal is neither the ultimate defeat of evil nor fundamental and permanent social change. It is simply (but significantly?) a less destructive way of playing who and what we are.

We have in the past found metaphors for working toward justice, that, although partial, were evocative: "sisterhood is powerful," "workers of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains," "a dream deferred is a dream denied," "let justice roll like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

How do we express most vividly our appeals now, not just to sisterhood or to workers, but to all humanity for sustainable peace, for justice attained without violence, for global security, and for nurtured dreams? I do not know the answer, but conclude with a metaphor for the task that is ours: let us be artisans of hope and of wonder, working with the clay of human striving; of our capacities for exclusion, vengeance, and fear, as well as our capacities for generosity, courage, forgiveness, and resilience; crafting together flourishing communities of honesty, inclusion, self-critique, and hope.

Sharon D. Welch is professor of religious studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia and the author of After Empire: the Art and Ethos of Enduring Peace (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).

Source Citation

Welch, Sharon D. 2006. The Art and Ethos of Enduring Peace. Tikkun 21(2):45 

tags: War & Peace, War on Terror  
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