I have spent the better part of this weekend streaming a World Without War conference on war abolition being held in Washington, DC. (For those interested, the conference will continue to be re-streamed here). We heard speaker after speaker give accounts of the enormous negative impact of war our planet - the suffering of people killed and injured, the hundreds of thousands of refugees created, the economic and environmental cost of preparing for and executing war, the immorality of the arms trade, the failure of the US Congress to audit and control the Pentagon budget, the complete insanity of preparing for a nuclear war, the failure of the US to observe international law like the Geneva conventions and the UN Declaration of Human Rights - the list goes on - but these accounts were balanced by inspiring alternative nonviolent efforts to address conflict and war, a much needed positive appeal of the event.
My interest in this conference, and my commitment to war abolition, have a very personal beginning, an epiphany, if you will, that has changed my life.
Several years ago I went to the movie Amazing Grace about the 20 year struggle to abolish the slave trade in Great Britain. In spite of the horrendous suffering inflicted on the slaves, efforts to abolish slavery were defeated time and again by the combined support of Parliament and the powerful economic interests that depended on slave labor in the American colonies and the Caribbean. Finally in 1807, with the heroic efforts of William Wilberforce and others, the slave trade was finally abolished. At the dramatic conclusion of the film I found myself unexpectedly weeping so hard I couldn’t leave my seat. When I gained my composure I realized that if slavery could be abolished against such heavy odds we could also abolish war. And I came to believe that deeply. From that night on I have made it a priority in my life to work for the abolition of war.
It's indeed a big jump from abolishing slavery to ending war, but in my mind the inconceivable suffering caused by war is so much more egregious than even the immense suffering of the slave trade. When war is supported by the power of the military-industrial-political forces that so immorally support and profit from it - as did the collusion of political and economic interests in Great Britain that supported slavery - the abolition of war is obviously a considerable challenge. But I truly believe it is doable, even in my lifetime.
Most would assume that the cause of war abolition is too big to attempt, I know. The strategy means that we not only need to condemn the atrocities and injustice of war, we need to provide alternatives to validate our efforts. Fortunately, increasingly peace studies use the phrase “peace science” because the research has so conclusively shown the effectiveness of nonviolent intervention over the violence of war. I find this profoundly encouraging. Two weeks ago I wrote about the millions and millions of people across the entire globe who went to the streets on the same day of February 15, 2003, to oppose the Iraq war, and then in 2012, when given the opportunity to address the Obama administration’s intention of carrying out a “surgical strike” against Syria, thousands of the American people rallied to say no, and the bombing was called off (with the help of some timely diplomacy). In spite of the numbed acceptance of the normalization of perpetual war by many Americans, the public is beginning to realize that the lies that were used to justify the Iraq war - and many wars before and since - and their general failure to achieve any lasting positive results - only disaster upon disaster - are all making war increasingly impossible to justify and support. As former Marine Smedley Butler wrote in 1933, “War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.” What a tragic and true assessment of war this is!
War is but one of the considerable threats facing our planet, and solutions are never simple, but we need to address them. Perhaps we need to start the task with the awareness that our impending environmental crisis and war are caused in large part by the harm done over years of rapacious greed and abuse of human life and our natural environment. In the field of restorative justice we ask not what law is broken but what harm has been done, and how are we to heal the harm and restore relationships. The healing process usually includes a sense of acceptance of responsibility, remorse, a willingness to make restitution, and a commitment to not continue the harm.
War is the epitome of harm and the failure of the human enterprise to create alternative means of addressing conflict nonviolently. The challenge we face regarding war is whether we have the courage to face the truth about the unspeakable harm caused by war and the tragedy of our false, socially constructed belief that war and violence are the most effective means to address conflict - what theologian Walter Wink calls the “myth of violent redemption." We now know a whole array of alternatives to conflict resolution and the prevention of deadly conflict, both at the international and national level and in our own communities and lives. The excitement during the conference was that we now have the “peace science” about how to deal with conflict and abuse in creative, nonviolent, and life sustaining ways. It is reasonable to believe that war abolition is possible if we can implement those strategies, of course, before it is too late. Momentum is on the side of possible implementation. Because of the growing interest in “peace science” tåhere are now over 600 colleges across the globe with peace studies programs, and many of us know of promising young people who are engaged in or who have completed these studies. How can we not find this encouraging?
All of us need to examine our understanding of the role of war in today’s world. Is war ever truly justified, particularly nuclear war? What are the alternatives? What are we willing to do to engage in an war abolition movement? Join me in believing the abolition of war is possible and support all those working in so many, many ways to create and implement alternatives to violence and war, in spite of, and in the midst of, this often violent world. We can abolish war. We must abolish war.