“We must do all we can to hasten the arrival of the day when the enlightened commonality of the human race assumes the lead in the work of preserving peace.”
Daisaku Ikeda, Buddhist philosopher, in conversation with Linus Pauling as quoted in “The Power of Nonviolence.”
In the journey of human becoming, one of our biggest goals must be to bring an end to war. War involves human beings killing other human beings in pursuit of some objective. Humans don’t naturally wish to kill other human beings, and obviously don’t want to be killed themselves. We don’t cherish being immersed in a state of war, it’s something we’d rather live without.
While distate for war surely has as long a history as war itself, the horrors of World War I generated an unprecedented outpouring of antiwar sentiment. Due to the use of advanced technology like machine guns and tanks, the war left an estimated 16 million dead, 6.8 million of them civilians. That First World War also produced the grostequeries of trench warfare and poison gas. The revulsion to war created by all this death and destruction forged the idea that it should be “The War To End All Wars”, a beautiful thought though a poor prophecy. Mark Kurlansky discusses some of the peace movements that arose after that war in his book, “Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea” (chapter 80.
While that wish for a war-free world has continued to this day, so has war itself. While the end of the Cold War has brought a period of lesser war, with smaller numbers of less deadly conflicts, the mentality and machinery of war certainly haven’t vanished. While it’s true that there hasn’t been a war betwe”en major powers in six decades and that there’s been no war between state armies for 11 years, “the world’s regular state armies still threaten each other, with 20 million soldiers worldwide and every conceivable weapon.”
In 2013, world military spending was $1.7 Trillion, equalling 2.4% of global GDP, according to the SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), as detailed in Wikipedia. And at the start of 2014, there were still approximately 4000 nuclear weapons, or an estimated total 16,300 if you count all nuclear warheads (also according to SIPRI).
As Allyson Stroschein, a humanitarian advisor to NATO, discusses in the nice Huffington Post piece, “How to Be a 21st Century Peace Activist”, there are 2 quite opposite points of view on the current state of war & peace in the world. One is the view propounded by Harvard Professor, Steven Pinker, in his book,.Better Angels of Our Nature, that the world has attained an unprecedented state of peace. The contrary view sees this as an exceptionally violent time.
I don’t wish to debate the relative merits of these points of view. Though I would say that both sides seem guilty of seeing the world with colored lenses. And to whatever extent we have made progress in the direction of peacefulness, it seems far from clear that all of those gains are permanent.
Recent developments in the world make it clear that the peace of this world remains fragile and precarious. The situations in Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Libya show that we should postpone any proclamations of misssion accomplished in the struggle against war.
As much as we might want to believe that another World War is unthinkable, no one can predict how the shift from U.S. hegemony to a multipolar world will change the balance of peace. As Roger Cohen’s article in The Atlantic stated: “Yes, It Could Happen Again”. Or as Graham Allison noted, in another Atlantic piece, “Just How Likely Is Another World War?”,, while saying that he thought it was unlikely, noted: “For the ‘complacent’ … the similarities should serve as a vivid reminder that many of the reasons currently given for discounting threats of war did not prevent World War I. In particular, the fact that war would be irrational does not make it unthinkable.”
Even where peace exists it often seems more an absence of war, than a state of harmonious human relations. Foreign affaris are conducted in terms of national interest employing the discourse of realpolitik. Military spending remains robust as does the research and development of ever more effective war weaponry and methodology. A vast military industrial complex still thrives on the business of war.
We continue to believe that peace must be maintained by the threat of force. This belief in force displayed itself in response to the recent outburst of wars, as William Greider shows in “The War Hawks Are Back, and They Still Sound Like Little Boys Playing With Toy Soldiers”. Even when war is in remission, its dreaming mind persists, its foothold in consciousness remains.
Because war is so embedded in the life and mind of the world, it seems to be a factuality, an inherent truth of human reality. But war is really a human construction, something that we perpetuate in our hearts, minds and actions. and maintain by our human systems and processes.
War arose in the history of human social interaction. But it doesn’t need to remain a permanet feature of our planet. War is a poor solution to the problem of humans living together in this world. It is a flawed way of being, a failure of human relations.
If war is no way for human beings to act towards each other, how do we humans move beyond war? How do we get war out of our system?
My aim here isn’t to offer a set of policy prescriptions or a specific political agenda. Though that’s not to say those aren’t worthwhile and useful in the pursuit of a peaceful world. One admirable example of that road is Paul Collier’s “War, Guns and Votes” which ends with proposals for structual changes he believes would reduce war among the violence prone countries of what he calls “The Bottom Billion” of the earth. One of his 3 proposals is creating an international mechanism of providing security to these countries, an idea which seems on the right track.
Rather than the politics, I’m more interested here in considering the phenomenology of war and peace. That is, how war comes to inhabit our minds and lives and what might allow peace to take its place.
First, I think it’s important to be clear that war is a group phenomenon. There’s a common line of thought that war is a result of humans (or men) being inherently violent. War (in a broad defintion) is the violent conflict of groups of humans. Groups fight each other, not individuals and the motivations of groups is only indirectly related to individual psychology.
Discussions of international relations and politics commonly refer to national interest and national security. War is conceptualized in terms of the perceived “interests” of a nation or group. When carefully scrutinized those national interests can often be seen to be primarily the “interests” of the elite few. Those who die in war typically don’t come from those groups who reap its rewards.
Nonetheless, we live in a world of nation-states and it is natural for people to identify with their homelands. The problem is that our attachment to nation can lead us to see those outside our nation as others, to turn other nations and the humans who constitute them into our opponents, adversaries, enemies.
At its root, the war is a tribal phenomenon founded on this sense of otherness, the separation of us and them. The “interests” of our group come to merit killing and being killed by those in other groups. In this increasingly globalized and interconnected world, we focus on national security without realizing that it ultimately depends on creating global security.
I think there are 2 primary underlying reasons that causes groups to war. In what would come as no surprise to Buddhists, they are greed and aversion. Greed corresponds roughly to the concept of national interest and aversion to national security.
By greed, I mean some wish to attain the territory and/or resources (including “human resources”) of another group or to hold on to one’s own territory and resources. This includes the naked greed of the conqueror trying to creating an empire. But this “greed” can also be driven by need, caused by things like population growth, diminished resources, drought or environmental collapse.
Aversion has 2 faces, hatred and fear, which tend to become entertwined. Group hate involves an extreme sense of otherness, where the other group is seen not only as less than human but as anti-human, as something vile and repugnant, an entity that needs to be destroyed. This kind of hatred arises mostly from recurring patterns of violence between groups.
With fear, a group need not feel hatred towards the other group, or the dislike might be much less intense. They might be willing to live and let live with the other group, but are afraid that the other group means to harm them.
As is probably most clearly seen in the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, repeated cylces of violence between 2 groups cause hate and fear to become deeply embedded, creating a system of violence, an ecology of war that is hard to unravel.
In these cases, to some degree the parties understand the futility of war, come to experience it as a burden and want to be free of its suffering. The problem is the more entrenched the conflict, the more each side finds it difficult to trust the other and to find common ground. It is the difficulty in establishing trust and commonality in these situations that causes their intractability.
In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, over the years there have been a plethora of groups and individuals (both internal to the area and external) who have tried to promote peaceful relations. Some of these groups have worked to promote dialogue between members of each side in order that they might come to see their shared humanity.
One of these groups, Parents Circle, featured in the documentary Encounter Point, brings together parents from both sides who have lost a close relation in the war. But even thogh there are many who have a good understanding of the problem and its root causes and have worked hard to bring an end to the conflict, peace there has proved sadly elusive.
One of the deep problems of war is this whole question of fear. Fear is a primal emotion wired into our neurology. The underlying purpose of fear is to protect us from danger. It arises from an evolutionarily preserved brain system that we share with all vertebrates, a system that is understood to function through the amygdala.. As Joseph Ledoux says in The Emotional Brain: “When it comes to detecting and responding to danger, the brain hasn’t changed much. In some ways, we are emotional lizards.”
Because, as Ledoux says, “defense against danger is perhaps an organism’s number one priority”, the fear system is wired to operate with some autonamy from higher cortical functions. In all animals, danger is detected and response begins before any higher level processing can take place. And though those higher level systems are connected to the fear system, and are able to modify the response, it is also true that even in humans, there are a lot more neural pathways from the amygdala to the cortex than there are in the return direction.
Further, because of the way emotional systems work outside of consciousness and because of the organic urgency of fear, fear can become conditioned to respond automatically to certain stimuli as a result of past experience, even when it isn’t relevant to the immediate situation. That is, fear structures can become embedded in our minds. And because of their primal nature, once embedded they are hard to remove. Though they can be neutralized, or papered over, they are never eliminated but remain latent possibilities, subject to being resurrected by exposure to some innocent catylyst.
This element of fear is, I think, one of the fundamental underlying dynamics perpetuating war systems. The fear of harm arouses a sense of threat, the threat of being victimized. While the history of emperors and conquerors makes clear that there can be a predatory aspect of war, war motivated by agressive intents, there is also this dynamic of mutual self-defense against the other.
These cybernetic antagonistic loops are sustained by a lack of trust. Once this dynamic is in place, this primal feeling of fear creates barriers to trust. Trust might lead to injury, to being taken advantage of by the other. The fear of trust is a fear of letting down one’s guard, a fear of becoming vulnerable.
These fear-distrust loops are clear in places where there is an ongoing history of hostility, in particular, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While a mental energy is devoted in these types of confict to constructing arguments for blaming one side or the other, I think it is more useful to try to understand the minds of both parties and to try to mentally walk in their shoes. Though sometimes that can still lead to trying to make one side more conscious of the harm they are inflicting on the other, as with the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
But I think this dynamic of fear and distrust can be extrapolated beyond particular regional conflicts to the whole realm of global international relations. Much of the militarization in the world, the global spending on armies and firepower comes down to this fear of what would happen if you didn’t maintain your national “defense”.
In the political press, particularly on the conservative side, there are continual comments about not appearing “weak”, a need to maintain a “strong” posture. This line of thinking, which likes to invoke the spectre of “appeasement” and the Chamberlinian response to Hitler, often campaigns for “agressive action”, the thought that a good offense is the best defense.
But it should be apparent that an agressive approach can only lead to ongoing cycles of violence. And if all attempts to pursue a peaceful approach are seen as exposing weakness and engendering appeasement, then how is a peaceful world ever possible. The attainment of world peace surely won’t be a result of amassing the most formidable arsenals and being locked into agressive postures.
I think there are 2 major flawed premises in the global cognition of war and defense. The first is that people and peoples are predominantly self-seeking creatures who are primarily motivated to aggressively pursue self-interest. The second (which might be considered a corollary of the first), is that force is necessary for maintaining human social relationships.
But I think that those who have thought deeply about violence, war and peace have seen clearly that force can’t be the true way to peace. The problem with force is that it leads to counter-force, it creates cycles of agression and systems of hostility. The peace won by force is a victory by domination, not the peace of mutual understanding. You can’t create a garden of peace by planting seeds of violence. True peace must come from a shared regard and acceptance of all by each.
The concept of nonviolence gained a lot credibility in the 20th century through figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King and their successful movements. Mark Kurlansky summarizes the history of non-violence in his book: Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. According to Kurlansky, “the early Christians were the earliest known group that renounced warfare in all its forms and rejected all of its institutions.”
The book details a number of situations where nonviolence produced positive results, perhaps the most interesting being the Parihaka movement in New Zealand led by Maori leader Te Whiti in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Kurlansky also gives some interesting speculates on how nonviolence might have been effective in situations where it wasn’t much of a factor, like the American Revolution and the Civil War.
But I’m not a pacifist, as much as I might wish to be. As Linus Pauling says in the book, The Power of Nonviolence: “What are absolute pacifists to do in a world that is not populated by absolute pacifists?” Peace, unfortunately, can’t always be a unilateral decision, it requires the participation of all parties. There are still agressive actors in the world willing to kill others to acheive their goals, as the recent mass killings by the group ISIS show.
Maybe those who favor absolute nonviolence have a more enlightened perspective, but it seems to me that defending those in danger of being slaughtered by agressive, hostile parties is the most human response. As long as predatory actors exist, some capacity for defensive actions will remain necessary. Defensive violence, though, can be a slippery slope that can easily twist towards self-interest and agression.
Still, the challenges of peace shouldn’t allow an acceptance of war. We must stay clear on the atrocity of war. Consider the actual human suffering in Gaza if you need a reminder of the ravages of war and the emotional wounds that it inflicts. We need to focus on the horrors of war whenever we hear the war trumpets sounding.
Too many lives have been lost, too much blood spilt, too many bodies maimed and too many minds scarred. War is an activity that is harmful to humans, it’s contrary to how we want to live our lives. War is antithetical to the striving for human fulfillment, it hinders the flourishing of humanity.
We need to transcend being a dysfunctional human family. War isn’t something we need to endure. Life is precious. Human beings aren’t disposable. War just isn’t worthy of us.
Biology classifies modern humans as homo sapiens sapiens, meaning doubly wise humans. If we are to live up to our name we will learn to outgrow the folly of war. For those whose vision constrains the world to how it appears today, war might appear a sad but inevitable fact of life.
But we no longer hold throw people to lions, draw and quarter them or burn them at the stake (though unfortunately there are still some places where stoning is legal, including Pakistan, where a woman was stoned by order of a tribal court for having a cell phone). Slavery is no longer legal anywhere on earth (though it’s estimated that 30 million humans are currently enslaved) and apartheid has been abolished in South Africa..
Colonialism has receded into history, imperialism has slimmed down to neo-imperialism. Germany and Japan are the friends of the U.S. The cold war ended and the Berlin Wall tumbled. Europe is no longer an arena of antagonists but a union in progress.
One of history’s greatest examples of a transformation to peacefulness is Ashoka (or Asoka), the Indian emperor of the 3rd century B.C. Ashoka began his reign as a harsh emperor immersed in a series of wars. But after the extremely bloody conquest of the Kalinga empire (with over 100,000 killed and more than 150,000 taken captive), Ashoka had a change of heart. Influenced by an exposure to Buddhism and apparently distressed by all the suffering caused by the Kalinga war, he renounced war in favor of peaceful co-existence with neighboring states.
In addition to abandoning further conquest, Ashoka’s reign was inspired by the Buddhist concept of respect for all living things, and advocated vegetarianism . He also promoted right conduct via his own formulation, The Law of Piety which involved giving respect where it is due and humane and just treatment to all. He issued a series of edicts which were inscribed on rocks and pillars throughout the kingdom, edicts intended to improve both the material and spiritual well-being of his people.
An article in the International Review of the Red Cross refers to Ashoka as “one of the great moral reformers in the history of civilization and a precocious pioneer of humanitarian values.” Ashoka is an illuminating reminder that even inside the worst bloodshed and cruelty there always lies a seed of peace harboring its silent wish to bloom.
So how do we disarm the tragic logic of war that still entangles the world?
For one thing, we need to move past seeing ourselves primarily in terms of tribal identities like nation, ethnicity and religion. Instead of being fixated on thoughts like national interest, we can focus our concern on what is in the human interest.
Once we can look beyond limited views of ourselves, we can begin to envision ourselves as part of the unfolding of humanity on this planet, and appreciate that this condition of our being human is what really matters. Then we can realize that being human together is the most fruitful way for us to move forward towards fulfilling the profoundest possibilities of humanity.
Ultimately, a world of being human together would be a world without others. A world where there are no chasms between us and them so wide that we would be willing to harm another over them. A world without others isn’t a world where we’re all identical, but a world where we all equivalent, of equal dignity, regard and value. A world of billions of unique humans striving towards their individual bliss and the common flourishing of the world.
It would seem that any significant effort towards ending war must eventually involve on the structural side some ceding of national sovereignties to some form of global accountability. This doesn’t have to mean a centralized one world government, a concept with a lot of downsides to it; I like to think that we can evolve towards some form of decentralized networked process for being human together. But clearly, to end war nations must give up the perogative of force, with some form of global mechanism for protection from predators, until the thought of agression becomes as incomprehensible as cannabilism seems to us today.
Any movement towards national demilitarization will require developing processes of international conflict resolution that don’t involve force. Just as all but a very small percentage of us don’t kill someone we think has cheated us, but rather take the matter to court, we need to create global forums of conflict resolution that all parties will accept, respect and abide by. We are already in the process of starting to create some of these structures in entities like the International Criminal Court and legal treaties covering various areas of world commerce.
Establishing peace will require more than just methods of conflict resolution. We will also need to reduce the inequalities that exist between and within nations. True peace involves more than the absence of violent conflict, it means having peaceful relations. For peaceful relations (rather than those imposed by force) all parties must feel that they are treated justly and fairly; they are relations where humans don’t exploit others, but work together mutualistically for their common benefit.
Getting to this peaceful world that might be will entail healing those parts of the world where peace doesn’t prevail and where trust is a scarce commodity. Dissolving these aversions might be the most challenging aspect of the striving for peace. In the confines of this piece, the most I can do is to propose that we look at efforts to cultivate forgiveness in conflict situations like those discussed in the excellent book, No Enemy To Conquer by Michael Henderson, including the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee, established to help salve the wounds caused by apartheid.
One good place to look at, in particular, for efforts to bring peace where there are cybernetic loops of hostility are embedded is to consider the story of Jo Berry and Patrick Magee as detailed in the Huffington Post piece, Love Thy Enemy (also discussed in Michael Henderson’s book and in an excellent documentary Facing The Enemy, which is available on the Docurama channel on Roku, but might otherwise be hard to find).
Patrick Magee was an Irish Republican Army member convicted in the bombing of the Grand Hotel in 1984. Jo Berry’s father, Sir Anthony Berry, a member of Parliament, was killed in that bombing. When Magee was released from prison in 1999 as part of a peace agreement. In her quest for her own personal peace, Jo Berry was motivated to make contact with Magee.
The initial conversation was based on Jo’s attempts to understand and accept Patrick’s actions from his point of view without necessarily forgiving them. “Jo’s ability to listen deeply gave Pat the space to tell a personal story about his response to the oppression experienced by himself and his community.”
The first conversation led to an ongoing dialogue between the two based on a willingness to find common ground, a relationship that Jo Berry has been willing to call a friendship. Jo Berry went on to found the organization, Building Bridges for Peace. Patrick Magee became involved in Irish reconciliation groups and in efforts to bring together other former combatants and victims. They also often speak together at various forums regarding peace and reconciliation.
The dialogues with Patrick Magee has led Jo Berry to a place where she says: “My deeper aim is to be part of a world where violence is never used because we recognize the other person as being connected to us. We know your story can be my story if we work together to find solutions, and be alert to conflicts before they happen. I believe empathy is the biggest weapon we have to achieve this.”
Bringing peace in those troubled areas of mutual antagonism requires sufficient trust between parties. There can hardly be a better way to begin than through the mutual regard and willingness to listen to the other displayed by Jo Berry and Patrick Magee.
Also helpful are efforts to have both parties work together on common projects like the cooperative projects between Israelis and Palestinians noted int the article How To overcome the logic of war by Volker von Prittwitz of the Democracy Institute Berlin. As von Prittwitz says these efforts must “have one central point in common: Strict reciprocal respect of the involved humans.” The results being that “wherever people intensely work and live together, they tend to get used to it.” Which is at least a good place to start.
Beyond the above initiatives, we also need to increase our aversion to war. Though I’ve said that nonviolence may not yet always be the best answer, it should always be the preferred answer. We need to develop a disdain for using force, aggression and violence for solving human problems. War, and force in general, should only be used reluctantly and only as a defense against predatory action. In all cases, the possibility of nonviolence should be seriously contemplated. And if we feel obliged to resort to force, we should strive to do as little harm as possible, and to maintain compassion for those we may fight.
As we can begin to wean ourselves away from the use of force, the law and order mentality, we can begin to invest some of the resources we devote to militaries, police and prisons to cultivating the conditions of peaceful and harmonious human existence. Imagine what might be possible if we devoted the same time, energy and wealth to building peace that we do to war and “defense”. Imagine the world we could achieve if we worked together towards the common flourishing of all humanity and the greater realm of life we are a part of.
By nature, we would rather not be in conflict with others, but would rather just go about our own pursuit of happiness. Being in conflict takes up precious time and energy and detratcts from our well-being. Conflict mostly arises out of fear, a felt need to protect ourselves. But we are happier when we are in peaceful and harmonious relations with others. We would rather live in peace with each other, like the Jerusalem Youth Chorus of Israeli and Palestinian kids who would rather sing than fight.
Humanity is capable of living in peace. Peace (like compassion) is something that must be cultivated, nurtured into being. It’s not like flipping a switch but rather something that we must evolve towards. The first step is to disbelieve in the necessity of war, to affirm the possiblity of peace. In essence, we must be willing to give peace a chance.
The way of peace entails expanding our feelings of goodwill towards all of humanity. If we can learn to embrace ourselves as a global community of human beings, we can draw the curtains on the tragedy of war. Then we can share the planet instead of battling over it.
The end of war is possible because we humans are blessed with the gift of consciousness. Our robust minds allow us to not accept the world as it is but to imagine what it might be. War is a human arising. It’s demise will result from the process of human becoming; a becoming that will be a human (re-)coming together through our learning to be for each other on this earth.
The end of war will emerge from humans learning to how to more fully realize the possibilities of being human, to actualizing the potential of consciousness, of matter privileged with awareness of itself within the unfolding of life in the universe.
- Ways of Being For The World
- A World of Humans