Last week saw two devastating reports on the American way of waging war: a Washington Post special feature on the failures of the post-9/11 security establishment and the shocking disclosure of 92,000 documents from soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.
Over nine years in Afghanistan — making this the longest war we have ever fought — we have sacrificed nearly two thousand American lives, caused untold Afghani and Pakistani deaths, and spent at least $300 billion. And the Taliban are stronger than when we began. Meanwhile, in Iraq, one commander reported, “We are making terrorists faster than we can kill them.”
* * *
How could all this have happened? Or rather, how could it not? When has violence ever won friends? The real purport of these disclosures is that destructive energy does not bring peace.
What might? In the early 1950s there was a severe famine in China, and enormous food surpluses were being destroyed in the United States. Some genius realized that by offering our surplus food to China, we could possibly reduce tensions between us and the Chinese. A campaign was soon mounted to send miniature grain bags to the White House with the message from the Book of Isaiah, “If thine enemy hunger, feed him.” 35,000 Americans (including the senior author of this article) complied. No response. Or so it seemed. Years later the story came out: at a critical moment the Joint Chiefs of Staff tried to get President Eisenhower to start bombing across the Yalu River into China to prevent China from supporting North Korea (an act that according to some may just have precipitated the Third World War). Casting about for a counterargument to what he rightly perceived would be an act of supreme folly, Eisenhower said, “Gentlemen: 35,000 Americans think we should be feeding the Chinese. This is hardly the time to start bombing them.” It had worked.
The limitations of human vision are such that virtually everything we do has unintended consequences. But of one thing we need not, and must not, remain unaware: when we use the wrong means — that is, violence — most of the unintended consequences will be harmful. And when we use the right means — that is, some appropriate form of nonviolence — they will be beneficial. The all-too-common unintended negative results of CIA actions — such as arming Osama bin Laden — are called “blowback” (see Chalmers Johnson’s book by that title). By the same logic, we could be calling the largely unforeseen consequences of positive acts “blow forward.”
Right means present themselves when we start from a right understanding of security. Nuclear proliferation, capital punishment, and bloated military spending are based in a paradigm of domination resting on the assumption that human beings can never be won over by reason. Yet in the rising tide of nonviolent movements around the world, that is exactly what happens. The growing field of common security and related concepts draws on the primordial instinct we all share to enjoy free, meaningful lives without the looming threat of domination or fear. In this view security comes when we do not pose a threat to others and can deal in a creative, mature way with the threats that are nonetheless offered us, even if it means showing the courage to endure suffering and trying to understand its human cause. Nonviolent movements around the world are teaching us that when we come together under a common desire to reshape our political and national landscapes, the power in people, not power over people, starts working to restore just relationships and move us toward the haven of a robust, mutually reinforced peace.
This kind of security — the only kind worth striving for — does not live in gated communities, behind walled borders, at airport checkpoints; it does not come from guns in every home, elaborate alarm systems, bulging prisons, and nations staggering under the burden of their own armaments. It comes from tools like restorative justice, unarmed civilian peacekeeping, mediation, diplomacy, and general trust in the often-hidden capacity for empathy that recent scientific studies are uncovering in human nature.
The lesson of these shocking reports — which seems to have escaped our congressional representatives so far — is not that we should reform the national security apparatus or our occupation of Afghanistan but find an entirely new way to security and peace based on the reserves of courage and compassion in every one of us.
Michael N. Nagler is professor emeritus of classics and comparative literature at UC Berkeley, where he founded the Peace and Conflict Studies program, and president of the Metta Center for Nonviolence. The author of the award-winning Search for a Nonviolent Future and other works, he lives at the headquarters of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in Marin County, California.
Stephanie Van Hook is a returned Peace Corps volunteer who holds an MA in conflict resolution from Portland State University. She is a board member of the Peace and Justice Studies Association as the representative for issues related to women and gender. She serves as the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Berkeley, California.