We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Nature of War
War has addictive properties compellingly described and illustrated in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges (2002). The warrior’s experience is profound. It includes great emotions, comradeship, a sense of sacrifice for something greater than self, the opportunity to prove and feel manhood. And above all, it includes excitement: combat provides the biggest adrenalin rush most men will ever experience. It provides entertainment, to which the genre of war movies and books attests.
This is all the stuff of addictions, and war is a cultural addiction. Its negative consequences inevitably outweigh the positive for the defeated, but even victors pay what many feel is an unacceptable price in debt, waste, and traumatic personal losses.
So how do we wean ourselves, men especially, from war’s exciting, addictive allure? How do we promote an equally addictive love for nonviolent conflict resolution?
We begin by understanding that a future without war doesn’t mean a future without conflict, hazards, and yes, heroes.
A Warless Future Will Not Be A Future Without Heroes
A warless future will hardly be a bland and unexciting place with no challenges, dangers, or perils. Car, train, and airplane crashes, hurricanes, floods, fires, landslides, volcanic eruptions, natural gas explosions, miners trapped hundreds of feet underground. We don’t require war to build character, challenge our creativity, or bond us together in the face of disaster. The challenges of exploration on this world or others will always present opportunities for daring, courage, and self-sacrifice. There will be endless vistas for excitement and accomplishment…without killing and destruction.
The idea that war is actually “good for us” because it builds character or brings out wonderful traits and creates heroes to admire is a twisted excuse propagated by those who wish to wage war and must convince others that doing so has merit. At the very most cynical, think money-making and “the war machine and war industry” as cheerleaders for war (Butler 1935).
So a first step in promoting nonviolent conflict resolution is to disabuse citizens of the notion that war is an indispensable, desirable character-revealing noble behavior that brings glory to its participants. The old idea of the “glory of war” needs to be debunked. In many ways it is fading fast as television and other modern media make its results evident to the masses. In the past, even at the beginning of WWI, warriors and soldiers went singing as they marched off to war. This is a rare occurrence now.
A Warless Future Will Not Be Without Aggression
A second step in weaning us from an attraction to war would be to properly understand the role of aggression in our lives. We need to be realistic about our capacity for aggression and it functions, because there are positive as well as negative ones. A future without war will not be a place filled with flower children and saints, loving and sharing without complaint—a place that would eventually bore most of us to death.
We’re social animals. Most of us not only enjoy living with others, few of us could survive without community. And living together guarantees that when the needs or wants of one person conflict with the needs or wants of others there will be conflicts, large and small. And conflicts trigger aggressive emotions.
Aggression is a fighting instinct. It is directed against members of an animal’s own species. Aggressive drive underlies actual physical fighting. Aggressive drive is also the basis of assertiveness. What is at issue is how to deal with social conflicts that can trigger it.
We thrive on social interaction, including social conflict. Indeed, social conflict is one of the spices of life, an expression of the aggressive component of our biology. We need to appreciate how aggression (more accurately, an aggressive drive) is essential for desirable human qualities: achievement, friendship, love, and laughter. No great feat is accomplished without push by someone with an aggressive drive (Lorenz 1974). Art, from books to paintings, thrives on the study of conflicts.
Psychologists will tell you that argument is one of the pivotal ingredients for forming long-term friendship bonds. After having an argument, people who become fast friends reconcile. It’s the very act of reconciling—saying I’m sorry and/or agreeing to agree over differences rather than to break the bond—that cements the bond. No aggression/conflict, no reconciliation, no long-term friendship.
Achievement. Friendship. What about laughter? Comedy, and the laughter it provokes, depends upon aggression that pokes fun at human foibles. We chuckle over the slip on the banana peel or a pie in the face or the embarrassment of being caught in a lie.
We can’t eliminate our innate aggression, nor would we want to even if we could breed or genetically engineer it out of us. Too much that we value that makes us human would be lost. But we absolutely have the capacity to eliminate the horror that is war, and it would require embracing an ethos of nonviolent conflict resolution…because there will always be conflicts.
Spreading an Ethos of Nonviolent Conflict Resolution
Children learn how to live by observing what they see modeled for them. Given that we’ll always have conflicts, to make a great transition to a warless future a great change must occur across the globe in psychological and practical approaches to resolving differences. Arguably the place to begin spreading the ethos of nonviolent conflict resolution locally and globally is with our children. That can only happen if we are made aware of what we adults are currently doing and of what needs to change within our societies and personally.
What We Are Doing
The global warrior ethos - currently we are enmeshed in a prevailing global ethos of the “warrior culture.” This ethos often uses threats of violence against others when conflicts are brewing, and too often we use violence as an early choice to resolve differences, not as the absolute last resort. And we accept this as “just the way things are.” It is the major global working paradigm.
The tales we tell our young often glorify the warrior over the peacemaker (if the peacemaker is mentioned at all). In the world’s dominant cultures government leaders, writers, artists, as well as educational and entertainment media repeatedly and often celebrate warriors.
To end war, a conscious effort would have to be made to celebrate equally and enthusiastically the thousands of individuals, past and present, devoted to making peace, maintaining peace, and ending any ongoing war anywhere on the planet and doing so guided by an ethos of nonviolence…the peacemakers. Yes they are celebrated….but not remotely equally.
Art and Media - art reflects culture, but it also reinforces it. Blockbuster movies and videos that influence the minds and hearts of millions including our impressionable children and teens are disturbingly often drenched with violence. Violence not just by the “bad guys,” but also by the “good guys.” Good guys who out-violence the bad guys.
This will not soon, if ever, change. But being aware of this, we should honor most highly—with awards, our money at the box office or video purchases, and with our attention as we choose to attend all kinds of events—those artists among us who offer up visions of nonviolent alternatives, of a better and nonviolent future. Of heroes who succeeded nonviolently. Any nation’s artists—painters, musicians, poets, writers—any of our culture creators who provide visions of a better way, of a less violent world, are a treasure to be celebrated. Their works should be consciously sought out, emphasized, and promoted.
Propaganda – powers invested in the war industry especially will continue to use various media to offer reasons for why ending war isn’t necessarily desirable, and in any event, impossible. They promote the idea that nonviolent approaches to establishing peace are less effective than war, or that nonviolence movements are absolutely incapable of establishing and maintaining peace. Not so, as demonstrated by the many successes described in a large study of nonviolent movements by Stephen & Chenoweth (2008)! These successes need to be taught in schools beginning in grade school so that young people internalize knowledge of the power of nonviolent conflict-resolving behavior.
Let no one be naive. To abolish war, women and men must be every bit as savvy and committed users of all possible media as persons and groups determined to resist change.
The superiority of using nonviolence in movements for positive social change is most compellingly demonstrated when a nonviolent movement is well strategized and planned by leaders skilled in its many tactics. The writings of Harvard professor Gene Sharp explore the nuts and bolts of successful nonviolent social movements and how they differ from those which were less successful (e.g., Sharp 2005). The media should search out and showcase the inner workings of the successes.
Heroes and nonviolent struggle – while we continue, rightly, to honor those who fight and die in physical battles to protect the freedom and human rights characteristic of liberal democracy when battles are unavoidably necessary, equally should we honor nonviolent activists who, for their cause, suffer physical violence, imprisonment, and sometimes death, unarmed. Great social revolutions have virtually always required sacrifice, and the heroes of those revolutions served to inspire the revolution’s necessary warriors.
Sacrifice would be equally true of a revolution that embraced the cause to end war using nonviolent means. Heroes model for us how to fight well.
In a campaign to vanquish war the biggest heroes will be individuals who have mastered nonviolent techniques and use them to good effect, because skill at using nonviolent conflict resolution doesn’t come naturally to humans. We learn them as children from our parents, friends, and the larger community, or later in life in workshops and classes dedicated to teaching them, or by example from skillful users like Mohandas Gandhi (India), the American suffragist Alice Paul USA), Martin Luther King, Jr. (USA), Nelson Mandela (South Africa), and Nobel Peace Prize winners like Mairead Corrigan McGuire and Betty Williams (Northern Ireland), and Lehmah Gbowee (Liberia). Their actions show us how it’s done.
Personal responsibility – finally—or perhaps first of all—promoting nonviolent conflict resolution begins on a personal level. Adults wanting to build a better, less violent future for the future’s children and want to do so without using violence must think about how they themselves contribute to spreading an ethos of nonviolence. When today’s children are watching them, how do adults personally respond to instances of both violence and conflict?
When watching parents in their daily lives, what do children see their parents do to resolve conflicts, large and small, with the people they know? What do the children see modeled in TV shows and movies, and how do they see adults respond to what is shown there? Do children hear adults laugh at patently slap-stick violence but hear sadness in our voices when we talk about portrayal of gratuitous violence? What do they see in school from their teachers? What do adults around them find amusing, entertaining, exciting to watch, and what do those adults find disturbing or disgusting? What do adults accept as normal.
Humans living together, in a home or on a planet, will always have disagreements. These can be resolved peacefully out of love. They can also be resolved peacefully simply out of wisdom (being smart) about what kind of resolutions lead to harmony and long-term positive relationships. And they can be resolved out of the desire to control and dominate, to “get our own way” by using violence. We need to be aware of what we are doing because that’s what the children are learning.
We will always blame and condemn those we feel are responsible for wars and social injustice, without recognizing the degree of violence in ourselves. We must work on ourselves as well as with those we condemn if we wish to move towards peace. Thich Nhat Hanh, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King Jr.
Cultural Norms Can Change
I am an optimist, but also a realist. I have asked myself, “Is it remotely realistic to think that citizens of twenty-first century Earth can create a culture of nonviolence?” Don’t all human cultures regularly use striking, spanking, beatings to regulate their interactions?
And what about war? Don’t all cultures regularly or at least now and then engage in wars? The answer is no: unless there is provocation, all cultures do not (Waters 1063; Crocker & Crocker 1994; Sanday 2002; Fry 2006, 2007, 2013, 2017; Hand 2014; www.Peaceful Societies.org).
Now it may seem universal, but war does not occur everywhere. In The Human Potential for Peace (pp. 63-65, 92-93), Douglas Fry lists over 80 cultures anthropologists classify as nonviolent/and or/non-warring. The website www.peacefulsocieties.org describes twenty-five such cultures.
They are not Utopias. They are human beings who have arguments and conflicts. Sexual jealousy can be a problem. So can general “trouble-makers.” For example, in Beyond War (pp. 148-165), Fry describes how social conflicts are resolved in several “peaceful” societies, even including rare instances of homicide. Using physical aggression, however, is uncommon or even rare. And in the societies described, war is absent.
Some of these nonviolent societies are fairly familiar: the Amish, Hopi, and Sami (Laplanders). Notably and importantly, in The Human Potential for Peace (p. 63), the very modern and sophisticated Norwegians are included in the list of internally peaceful societies. The response of Norwegians to the 2011 killing spree of 77 people by a fascist fanatic, most of the victims being young people at a camp, is a study in how a modern society that embraces nonviolence might look (Lewis & Lyall 2012).
Sadly, in the United States and I suspect elsewhere, the existence and nature of nonviolent cultures is, with rare exceptions, not taught in schools. By omission this conveys the impression to children that war is part of human nature, for they certainly learn about a lot of wars.
Non-warring religious groups (e.g., Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’i, Mennonites, Hutterites) live within a state-level, warring culture, but they create a way of life that avoids war, or fighting in wars of groups around them. Their existence also offers proof that making war is a bad—arguably evil—cultural phenomenon, not a genetic inevitability.
The Romans enjoyed watching the slaughter of animals and people in their arenas. We no longer find such behavior entertaining. For thousands of years, slavery was assumed to be normal and natural; e.g., the Bible enjoins slaves to obey their masters. Although it is still with us in modern forms, we know it is not moral and it is outlawed. For a time in Europe burning “witches” was considered righteous behavior, and drawing-and-quartering a justifiable punishment for wrongdoing. Torture is now prohibited by international law and considered barbaric by most people, although some still embrace it and laws are required to provide constraints. A bottom line reality is that where the will exists cultural norms can be changed. Within countries enlightened laws can be enacted. Between nations treaties can be made to prohibit our worst impulses. A warrior culture that accepts, tolerates, or promotes an ethos of violence may be deeply rooted in today’s dominant societies, but nothing prevents us from changing if we choose. We live, and our young die, in violence because we accept it.
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