Book review: Perspectives on Peace

February 28, 2009

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Perspectives on Pacifism: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Views on Nonviolence and International Conflict, by David R. Smock, is a short publication by the United States Institute of Peace summarizing a symposium held in July 1993 on religious perspectives on pacifism. I checked it out from the library in the hopes that it would provide an alternative viewpoint to the one offered in Arguing About War. In fact, it did offer some direct compare and contrast between just war theory and pacifism, and in this sense I was more satisfied with it than A Strategy for Peace (which I had also hoped would provide this alternate perspective).

The book was a quick read (only 63 pages), and it left me wishing I could hear the full discussion that went on at the symposium, where various individuals had presented papers and then others responded to them. The book basically summarizes what was said in each of the papers (directly quoting at times) and highlights the main responses. I felt that because of this format and the fact that it was summarizing, the presentation in the book jumped around a bit. It perhaps would have been helpful to have sections within each chapter instead of just switching to the next paper with a new paragraph. It also, necessarily, only touched on each issue raised rather than exploring it in depth.

The discussion of how each religion views pacifism was interesting to me, as I am not especially familiar with the doctrine of any of the three Abrahamic faiths. I felt that the book did a good job of presenting and summarizing what the mainstream viewpoints within each religion are. I was most interested, however, in the two chapters addressing what sort of concrete non-violent actions all three religions could pursue together, especially in relation to contemporary conflicts (of the time, which was the early 1990s). One of the most compelling arguments to me in favor of nonviolence is that these conflicts are hundreds of years old, and we cannot expect to fix them in just a few months or years: “World leaders prefer quick and simple solutions to the world’s problems, and the nonviolent way is rarely quick and simple. The military approach is seductive because at first glance it seems quick and simple.” One attendee referred to a statement by Theodore Roszak that “people try nonviolence for a week and if it does not ‘work’ they go back to violence, which has not worked for centuries.”

Finally, I was particularly inspired by the vision of John Paul Lederach, who at the time the book was written was a professor of sociology at Eastern Mennonite College:

I would argue that contemporary conflict calls for the development of a framework for sustainable transformation that builds across the population and in many instances from the bottom-up or the middle-out. “Transformation” refers to movement and change. In the context of conflict it suggests movement away from relationships dominated by fear, animosity and threat and toward those dominated by understanding, cooperation and mutual respect. This includes the traditional concepts of ceasefires and top level negotiations, but goes beyond, encompassing the relational concept of reconciliation. “Sustainability” suggests the concern not only for how to initiate such movement but how to create a proactive process capable of regenerating itself over time. As a framework, sustainable transformation suggests the needs to establish an infrastructure for peace within a setting, the promotion of citizen-based initiatives as legitimate and necessary at various levels, a long term commitment to relationship building and a willingness to seek out and root peace activities in the cultural context of the conflict.

Reading this book helped me clarify further my own perspective on pacifism and just war. The question of whether there are some situations where war is in fact the best answer is not the one that draws my focus. I would like to believe that there is not, because at my core I do not believe living in peace with each other and using violence against each other are ever compatible, and therefore if violence is at times the best answer that implies that peace is never possible. I prefer to remain optimistic about the possibility of peace and the potential of humans. However, the question of whether a situation exists where violence is justified is too centered on violence. Our society as a whole is eager to use violence and eager to justify it, and therefore it is extremely difficult to answer this question with any degree of neutrality on the topic – most of us are much too biased towards violence; it is the norm. Thus, I think we need to change the focus to nonviolence. We should be working on finding creative, alternative approaches to violence, and opening up the realm of possibilities. Violence has been tried over and over; it is time to try something new.

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Book review: A Strategy for Peace

February 9, 2009

Note: I cross-posted this at my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I chose to read A Strategy for Peace: Human Values and the Threat of War, by Sissela Bok, because I was looking for a book that would offer an alternative to the perspective of just war theory. I specifically wanted a book that addressed the topics of war and peace in the same philosophical vein as Arguing About War, including a focus on morality. This book seemed like a promising choice: the author has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University and the title and book jacket description emphasize moral values. As it turned out, the perspective that Bok offers is not necessarily contradictory with just war theory, but, unlike just war theory, it does focus on the goal of one day eliminating war. Overall, I found the book more dense and less accessible than Arguing About War. It took significant attention to take in what I was reading, and I found myself reading entire pages and realizing that I hadn’t quite registered what I had just read. This perhaps contributed to the fact that I did not get as much out of the book as I hoped I would.

Bok’s premise in A Strategy for Peace is that we must make a directed effort towards peace in order to avoid destroying ourselves in a nuclear war. To do this, she proposes a practical strategy that can and should be followed by both nations and individuals. She draws on two seemingly opposite philosophers to develop her strategy for peace: Kant and Clausewitz. She proposes that in order to take steps towards peace, we need both a moral framework to guide us and a clear strategy to follow. From Kant, she gets her moral framework, drawing in particular on his work “Perpetual Peace.” Kant lays out four moral constraints that must be adhered to in order to reach peace, and all of which are fairly universal across cultures and religions, to at least some degree: constraints on violence, deceit, betrayal, and excessive secrecy (which correspond the the positive moral principles of nonviolence, veracity, fidelity, and publicity). From Clausewitz, who wrote On War, Bok takes a sharp strategic sense. She suggests that the work towards peace should be approached as a “war” on war; that is, instead of nations warring against each other, they are together waging a war against a common adversary. When looked at in this light, it becomes clear that many of the stragies used during war apply equally to the fight for peace, as Bok explains:

A strategy of peace directed against such a threat [of world-wide nuclear war] is no longer opposed to the wisest military strategy, including that of Clausewitz. It requires the same long-range planning and coordination of efforts as the most intricate military campaign. And it calls for the same coolheaded skepticism about the rhetoric of trust, harmony, and peace that Clausewitz evinced about that of glory, honor, and invulnerability.

An important overarching theme in A Strategy for Peace is that of trust. Bok emphasizes that distrust between nations contributes to an atmosphere ripe for war. At the same time, she reassures the reader that “healthy” distrust is necessary to avoid being taken advantage of:

The second distinction is that between rational and irrational distrust. Everyone needs a measure of distrust to be able to discern and evaluate dangers and to guard against them while there is still time to do so. It is when such distrust veers toward paranoia or invites excessive, damaging distrust from others that it becomes unreasonable and, in the end, self-distructive.

She also points out that it is possible to have rational distrust without increasing your adversary’s distrust:

…there need be no automatic link between exercising rational distrust and behaving in such a way as to intensify distrust on the part of one’s adversary. It is when the two are seen as linked and stimulate one another that partisanship is most likely to reach the point of pathology and to encourage a spiral of escalation.

I think this is a very important point; so often it seems that a nation claims it is only “defending” itself, but it is doing so in such a way as to appear offensive and thus threatening to other nations.

A Strategy for Peace offered a new perspective to me. Although the question of trust is one that I have thought about before, Bok draws out its nuances quite clearly. The idea of laying out a firm moral framework that governments and individuals should adhere to was mostly new to me, and Bok has persuaded me of its importance. I do not like the language of approaching peace as a “war” against war, but I agree for the most part with the content of this approach: that we need a strategy for peace, and much of this strategy is in fact not so different from military strategy. However, although I find Bok’s arguments persuasive, I did not come away from the book feeling especially inspired or hopeful. Instead, I find myself harboring doubts. Is it really possible for governments to adhere to a moral framework? Is it really possible to move from our current atmosphere of immense distrust between nations to a more trusting one? I do not feel after reading this book that I have a clear sense of how exactly we can go about making changes for the better, even though she seems to be proposing a definite strategy. I have a sense that something more is needed that what Bok proposes – that everything she discusses is necessary, but it is not enough. I have not, however, clarified in my mind what that something more might be.


Working towards Israel-Palestine peace

February 8, 2009

Perhaps some of the ideas I proposed in my post “Violence is not the solution” are not so far off. I was inspired to read an article in my local newspaper this morning about a couple who lived in Israel and Palestine for many years and now do peace work in the region:

The couple, who moved from Israel to the Foothills west of Boulder in 1994, are planning a three- to four-week trip to Israel next month to present their conflict resolution training to peace workers at Neve Shalom, an Arab and Jewish cooperative community outside Jerusalem.

I looked up Neve Shalom and it sounds like an incredible community doing important work. The name means “Oasis of Peace” and their homepage defines them as:

A village, jointly established by Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, that is engaged in educational work for peace, equality and understanding between the two peoples.

They have many wonderful projects, and one that caught my attention is The School for Peace, which has programs for adults:

Our goal is to develop participants’ awareness of the conflict and their role in it, and enable them to probe and construct their identity through interaction with the other; our orientation is shaped by the quest for a truly humane, egalitarian and just society.

Their staff facilitates encounters that stress dialogue in a safe environment. Reading about this program, I feel that this is the sort of work I would like to do: facilitating dialogues and deep, meaningful interactions between people. Some people from the program have written a book about their approach, Israeli and Palestinian Identities in Dialogue: The School for Peace Approach, by Rabah Halabi and Deb Reich. I definitely want to read it!


A critique of just war theory

February 6, 2009

Note: I cross-posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Arguing About War, by Michael Walzer, is a collection of essays on the topic of just war theory. The first section of the book contains essays on the theory of just war, the second section looks at specific wars in the 1990s and early 2000s through the lens of just war theory, and the third section contemplates what the best form of world government would be. Walzer’s perspective is a philosophical rather than a political one: he analyzes the morality of war.

I chose to read Arguing About War because I feel that to fully understand and argue my own pacifist position I need to consider arguments for why war is sometimes necessary and just. I admit, therefore, that I came to the book with a bias: I did not expect to, nor did I want to, be completely convinced by his arguments. However, I feel that I have read his work critically and have not blindly tossed it aside due to my biases.

My understanding of just war theory is that it is a moral framework for examining war critically. For a given situation, it asks whether choosing to go to war was or is the correct moral choice. It also looks at conduct during war, holding up each action taken during a war to moral critique. In Walzer’s words:

The theory of just war…is, first of all, an argument about the moral standing of warfare as a human activity. The argument is twofold: that war is sometimes justifiable and that the conduct of war is always subject to moral criticism.

Walzer is careful to point out that a true application of just war theory should not be to “excuse” a war:

Just war theory is not an apology for any particular war, and it is not a renunciation of war itself. It is designed to sustain a constant scrutiny and an immanent critique.

He also clarifies the use of the word “just,” and admits that all war is in some senses “unjust”:

But just is a term of art here; it means justifiable, defensible, even morally necessary (given the alternatives) – and that is all it means. All of us who argue about the rights and wrongs of war agree that justice in the strong sense, the sense that it has in domestic society and everday life, is lost as soon as the fighting begins. War is a zone of radical coercion, in which justice is always under a cloud. Still, sometimes we are right to enter the zone.

The last sentence summarizes both just war theory and my doubts about it. The basic assumption of the theory is that such a thing as a “just” war does in fact exist. I am not fully pursuaded by Walzer’s arguments that this is the case outside of the theoretical realm, but I also have not established a convincing argument for myself that one never could exist. World War II is a classic example that is held up as a just war – it was in self-defense and there was an awful genocide to be stopped – and it is certainly one of the most troubling wars to consider from the perspective of pacifism. However, regardless of how one analyzes WWII, there are many aspects of just war theory and Walzer’s arguments that I am deeply troubled by, and that I think prevent us from moving beyond war.

The assumption that just wars can exist is seemingly the base assumption one must accept to accept just war theory. However, there is another, more troubling, assumption underlying this one: that force and violence, and therefore war, is or can be an effective means of resolving a conflict. This is a belief so pervasive in our society that Walzer may not even be consciously aware that he is assuming it, but it is clearly there in his writing. I question this very assumption: as I have written in a previous post, violence is a vicious cycle; if one side uses violence, the other side is very likely to retaliate with more violence. How, then, can violence be an effective way to resolve a conflict? In order to eliminate war, we must critique this assumption rather than blindly accept it.

In defending force, and even war, there is often an argument that it is for the purposes of security. However, I think that Walzer’s view on what makes a nation secure is narrow. He claims that “The ‘reason’ of soldiering is victory, and the ‘reason’ of victory is the protection of one’s own people, not of other people.” While I agree with this statement, I do not agree with the unstated assumption that victory is in fact a way to achieve protection of one’s own people. If one nation is a victor, then another nation is the loser, and that loser will most likely harbor negative attitudes towards the victor. This is not a very secure situation. To probe this issue deeper, let’s look at Walzer’s argument about weapons inspections in Iraq:

Third, the U.N. inspections: these will have to go on indefinitely, as a regular feature of the Iraqi landscape. For whether or not the inspectors find and destroy weapons of mass destruction (some of these are very easy to hide), they themselves are a barrier to any deployment of such weapons. So long as they are moving freely and aggressively around the country, on their own time schedule, Iraq will be under increasing restraint. But the inspection regime will collapse, as it collapsed in the 1990s, unless there is a visible readiness to use force to sustain it.

Presumeably we are trying to ensure our own security by preventing Iraq from having weapons of mass destruction. However, I do not think that the permanent presence of inspectors will do much to make us secure. If the inspectors leave, Iraq will go back to its business of creating weapons of mass destruction, no doubt with more determination than ever. Therefore, our security was only temporary, only as long as we could forcefully keep inspectors in the country. Force is ineffective for permanent, long-term security in this situation because it demonstrates an immense lack of trust and serves only to antagonize the other nation further. There is only one way to build mutual security between nations, and that is by building trust. Force will always damage trust, and is therefore not effective to ensuring security.

In assuming that force and violence can be effective, it is also necessary to assume an us verus them mentality, and Walzer does so without hesitation. For example, in talking about Bosnia, he says:

We are extraordinarily dependent on the victim/victimizer, good guys/bad guys model. I am not sure that any very forceful intervention is politically possible without it. One of the reasons for the weakness of the United Nations in Bosnia has been that many of its representatives on the ground do not believe that the model fits the situation they have to confront.

Indeed, I agree that a forceful intervention is not possible without a good guys/bad guys model to back it up. But again, I ask, is this an effective way to approach situations? Perhaps the problem with the U.N. is not that they do not buy in to the us versus them model, but that they still buy in to a model of force as conflict resolution. In another essay, Walzer does not seem to recogize quite how fundamental otherizing is to war. He writes:

Wartime propaganda commonly has the same effect, demonizing the other side, even when both sides expect the war to end with a negotiated peace. Once the Enemy has been created, any of ‘them’ can be killed, men, women, or children, combatants and noncombatants, ordinary folk. The hositlity is generalized and indescriminate.

I agree with what Walzer is saying here, but I do not think he follows his own argument far enough. He recognizes that wartime propaganda can create an enemy, which leads to indescriminate killing. I would argue that the creation of an enemy is not only the result of wartime propaganda, but is in fact a prerequisite for going to war. It is not possible to send your fellow citizens off into battle unless you believe that there is an enemy to be fought, posing a threat to the security of your nation.

The entire theory of just war is therefore based on the assumptions that security can be achieved through force and violence and that it is morally correct to view some citizens of the world as the “other.” These assumptions prevent us from reaching peace. The only way that we can move beyond war is to move beyond these underlying assumptions to a world view and morality that does not legitimize force and otherizing.

Walzer demonstrates a distinct lack of imagination as to how one can resolve conflicts through a means other than force. This is particularly clear in his essay on Kosovo. Towards the beginning, he writes, “The truth remains, however, what it was before the inventions: soldiers with guns, going from house to house in a mountain village, can’t be stopped by smart bombs. They can only be stopped by soldiers with guns.” Later on in the essay, he explains the justification for forceful humanitarian intervention by using an analogy to a fire: “If the building is burning, and there are people inside, firefighters must risk their lives to get them out.” Walzer’s use of this analogy does not make any sense: I agree, if a fire is burning, you take whatever risks necessary to put it out, but last time I checked, you do not fight a fire with more fire. He might argue that there is a difference, that the fire is genocide against innocent people while the fight against it is a war fought against the country’s military. However, these two actions are fundamentally the same thing – the use of force and violence – and furthermore Walzer seems to recognize that in saying that the only way to stop soldiers with guns is with soldiers with guns. I would argue that in fact we do need to put out the fires of the world, but we need to do so in the same way that we put out real fires: with something other than fire. Trying to stop soldiers with guns by bringing in more soldiers with guns will only escalate the situation, just as trying to fight fire with fire would. If we truly want to stop the violence and descalate the situation, then we need to look further, for a means of stopping the aggressors that does not cause them to feel threatened and become more fearful, angry, and defensive.

Walzer does not even seem to grasp what peace really looks like. He writes about Iraq: “Though Iraq did not use weapons of mass destruction in the Gulf war, the peace agreement imposed after the war – which was authorized and, in part, implemented by the U.N. – included restrictions on the development and deployment of such weapons.” There is a fundamental problem with the wording in this sentence: peace cannot be “imposed.” As long as there is coercion involved, there is no peace. In another essay, Walzer derides the Peace Corps, demonstrating a lack of understanding about what they actually do: “Soldiers are not like Peace Corps volunteers or Fulbright scholars or USIA musicians and lecturers – who should not, indeed, be sent overseas to dangerous places. Soldiers are destined for dangerous places, and they should know that (if they don’t, they should be told).” First of all, Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars are not at all equivalent; Peace Corps volunteers work in devasted parts of the world specifically to improve the possibilities of peace in those areas, while Fulbright scholars take residence at a university to pursue research. Peace Corps volunteers work on fundamental issues such as education and health, and these issues are absolutely critical to a future peace. Furthermore, they do go to places that could be considered dangerous, and there is no reason why they should not. No, they are not being sent off to kill or be killed, but they are taking risks just as much as soldiers, and working more towards peace than any soldier ever could. Finally, the strongest indicator that Walzer does not fully understand what peace means is a section in his last essay, on “Governing the Globe.” In discussing the idea of a unitary version of governing the globe, where there is a single world republic, he writes: “…I don’t want to deny that something is lost when one gives up the more unitary versions of globalism. What is lost is the hope of creating a more egalitarian world with a stroke of the pen – a single legislative act enforced from a single center. And the hope of achieving perpetual peace, the end of conflict and violence, everywhere and forever.” The funadmental problem with this statement is that perpetual peace does not mean the end of conflict. There is nothing wrong with conflict; in fact, it is absolutely inevitable in any community or relationship, no matter how large or small. The goal of peace is therefore not to end all conflict, but to resolve conflicts in ways that are constructive instead of destructive.

I have one final issue with just war theory, and that is from the point of view of a realist rather than an idealist. Every war the Walzer discusses in detail in these essays was in fact not just in practice. He points out how some of these wars could have been just, if certain things had been done differently, but the fact of the matter is that these wars were only just in theory, only if something had been different. The question I have is therefore, is there ever such a thing as a just war in reality, and if not, is it useful to have a theory of just war? I suspect Walzer would argue that even if no war is ever actually, perfectly just, that just war theory is still an important framework for holding war up to a moral critique. However, I argue that it is not possible for a war to ever be completely just in practice because of the fundamental nature of war. No matter how hard we try to hold war up to a moral critique, it will not meet that critique because war itself is a flawed means of achieving the goals of security, human rights, and other things for which a “just” war may be fought. Thus, I claim that just war theory is not a useful framework for critiquing war, because it is based on the same flawed assumptions and does not question deeply enough the effectiveness of war in reaching the stated ends.

Although it was at times painful, I am glad that I read Arguing About War. It has helped me to clarify why I have always been disturbed by just war theory. It is not simply that I feel so strongly that all violence and killing is wrong (although I do), but that just war theory relies on assumptions about the world that I do not agree with. I do not think that if we truly want to work towards peace it is useful to use just war theory, because it prevents us from considering a new way of looking at the world. In our imperfect world there may very well be times when war seems inevitable, but trying to consider whether the war is just or not keeps us in the cycle of force and violence. In order to move beyond war as an acceptable option we need to break out of this cycle and imagine a different world.