By David Swanson
I wrote recently about the possibility of outgrowing the use of war. Today I got a book in the mail that makes a strong argument intended as a tool for ending war. The book is called “Will War Ever End: A Soldier’s Vision of Peace for the 21st Century” by Captain Paul K. Chappell, U.S. Army. It’s short, more of a hardcover pamphlet than a book, but it is packed with ideas.
Chappell argues that cooperation, love, and sacrifice for friends and loved ones were more necessary for human survival as our species evolved than hatred or violence, that the flight instinct is much stronger in us than the fight instinct, and that human courage — even courage in wars — is based on love. In defensive wars, protection of loved ones motivates warriors. In aggressive wars, it’s love of one’s fellow soldiers. But the common desire of soldiers, Chappell writes, is to frighten off the enemy rather than kill. As bears roar to avoid a fight, soldiers intimidate in any way they can. At the time of Napoleon, arrows killed far more effectively than guns, but the noise of guns made them the weapon of choice. Hatred, Chappell argues, is unpleasant, albeit sometimes less unpleasant than other undesirable frames of mind. And because it is unpleasant, it is not “human nature.”
Of course, as humans evolved they were necessarily violent, at least toward other animals, even if that violence was organized cooperatively with other humans. In fact, that organization provides the basic structure for war. And, while love is more pleasant than hatred, so is gorging more pleasant than rationing, napping more pleasant than working, and so on. That something is unpleasant does not guarantee that it is undesirable. In the end, appeals to “human nature” as inherently peaceful won’t persuade anyone who’s read enough Jean-Paul Sartre or Richard Rorty to conclude that “human nature” is simply whatever humans choose to make it, for better or worse.
But most people are believers in human nature, and most people believe that violence and war are essential parts of human nature. Given that state of affairs, Chappell’s little book is potentially a very powerful tool, because it lays out a compelling case that it makes at least as much sense to declare “human nature” peaceful as to declare it warlike. And it cannot hurt in winning over believers in the inevitability of war that this treatise in support of the possibility of ending war was written by a soldier.
Chappell does not believe that peace is inevitable, only possible. He offers examples from the past of states of affairs that, like war, seemed permanent and unavoidable, focusing above all on slavery. Chappell argues, accurately I think, that the end of slavery began with the spread of the idea that it was “human nature” to be free. This being the case, the beginning of the end of war can be the proliferation of the idea that humans are essentially peaceful. This strikes me as quite plausible, and as a course of education that certainly cannot hurt.
But, to play along with the “human nature” notion a little, we are left believing that for millennia people have mistakenly acted against their proper nature and can finally begin behaving like themselves by ending war, or — alternatively — people have always tended to oppose war but have somehow ended up with it anyway. The latter, of course, has a bit of truth to it. War has often been imposed on those who fight it through lies, threats, and bribery. We may have an innate resistance to violence, and yet some of us have manipulated others of us to engage in it. We have an innate resistance to poverty and hunger, too, and yet we can’t seem to get rid of them.
Chappell proposes nonviolent activism on behalf of peace, and suggests that his arguments about “human nature” can give people hope of success. I think he is exactly right. In fact, there are cultures and nations that have gone for many years without launching aggressive wars. Few nations’ populations have been more dedicated to peace during the past half century than Germany and Japan. Our bitterest supposed enemy, Iran, has not launched an aggressive war for centuries and shows no inclination to do so. We can take hope from these examples of success and turn that hope into action.
But I would quibble with a couple of points in Chappell’s proposal. He describes Socrates (possibly the originator of the hopeless quest for “human nature”) as the first martyr for peace, as if this is a good thing. I suspect, however, that the glorification of martyrdom tends to provide more support for war than for peace. Secondly, it seems to me that the focus of our nonviolent action should be on the dismantling of the U.S. military industrial congressional complex, and so I have to wonder about Chappell’s account of having wanted to end war since he was a child, but having attended West Point and participated in the latest war on Iraq without a word of regret or misgiving, and his continued “service” in the U.S. military. Chappell includes in his book a collection of quotes, all from veterans. His insights have come from the study of war, including at West Point, and we are the beneficiaries of that study, but what is gained by shamelessly providing the example of supporting the war machine and encouraging the false idea that only participants in war can question it?
The book includes an introduction by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, U.S. Army (ret.), which argues that democracy is spreading and that this increases the possibility of peace because no democracy would ever attack another democracy. Tell that to Haiti. Our democracy has a long and ongoing history of overthrowing democratically elected leaders through military action on various scales, and our democracy is also an empire with bases occupying most other democracies and lots of non-democracies. Spreading this empire is clearly a path toward provoking hatred and violence, not peace, and its spread is generally justified by the cause of spreading democracy. I support that cause, and I suspect it benefits peace, but we have to be wary, as Chappell would agree, of how we go about it. We cannot count on limited, so-called democracies of the sort that we Americans live in to refrain from attacking other democracies. Iran, like Pakistan, is not a perfect democracy, but it’s no Saudi Arabia. Israel and Gaza both elect their leaders, as do Russia and Georgia. India, too, is a democracy. But by limiting the corruption of money and media and parties and giving greater actual power to the people, while spreading the idea among the people that peace is possible, we just might save the world.