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Towards a Practical Peace Movement

By Isaac May

This past year, as the United States seemed to be ready to leap into the conflict in Syria, there was a small gathering on Boston Common to oppose American intervention. At this rally, representatives from several anti-war groups spoke, from the well-known, such as the American Friends Service Committee, Green Rainbow Party and its leader Jill Stein, and Veterans for Peace, to small and newly established groups, including the Pacifism and Nonviolent Association, a student group that I founded and currently direct as a student at Harvard Divinity School. Yet for all the star power of the organizations and the speakers, for all the gravity of the event, it was clear standing on Boston Common that day that the modern peace movement suffers from serious flaws and that it is far less effectual than its forerunners earlier in the twentieth century.

You could sense the irrelevance of the demonstration merely by observing the crowd. Of the barely 100 or so people who gathered, a significant minority of those attending were bedecked in Soviet paraphernalia of various kinds, not only the ubiquitous Che Guevara tee shirts but also ones with images of Stalin and Mao. Many in the crowd seemed more drawn by the chance to distribute their own pamphlets than by the cause of peace. … From the sea of grey hair in the crowd one could not escape the conclusion that for many present, this was an attempt to recapture the youthful radicalism of the 1960s and 70s.

While the United States ultimately decided not to intervene in Syria, this had more to do with the international outcry and a public weariness of conflicts in the Middle East than activist protests. Many peace groups since the Vietnam War have embraced problematic perspectives, buying into the myth that the societal issues of violence and an aggressive foreign policy can be solved through personal activism. … The harsh truth is that to speak of “local” or “personal peacemaking,” to delude ourselves that our grassroots efforts make a more just world and reduce conflict merely because they are our efforts, and not because they effect concrete political and economic change, is at best a harmful construction. Just as an act of charity to a beggar does not eliminate poverty, attending a rally or signing a petition does little to end the scourge of war.

War and military action are more of a threat now than they have ever been. Although war between nations has in fact been in steep decline, technological development now means a single conflict between world powers has the potential to be far more devastating than any in the past. … A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, for instance, could, by virtue of smoke and debris created by burning cities, lead to a global climate shift that would cause an estimated two billion deaths, and, according to a recent report, “effectively end human civilization.” While such apocalyptical musing might seem the stuff of science fiction — after all, few think a war between industrial powers likely — the situation is remarkably less stable than the geo-political order before World War I. As historian Margaret MacMillan observed recently at a forum at the Brookings Institute, the world today in “too many ways — unsettling ways — resembles that lost world of the years before 1914.” …

Religious organizations at present seem less invested in trying to end war than those originators of such impressive past legacies. In 1926, Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the single most influential religious leader in the United States, could stand up and publicly denounce war from his pulpit. He thundered that violence and horror caused by modern conflict were incompatible with Christian life, and a nationwide audience listened through his radio show and read his books.

Today such an idea would be unthinkable. Working towards peace now means doing things unconnected to actually preventing conflict. In addition to my studies, for example, I work in a Just Peace Ministry of the United Church of Christ operating a homeless shelter. While the charity work that the shelter does is admirable, it still shows that the UCC, perhaps the most liberal of mainline denominations, has shied away from proclaiming the need to end war. Now “peace” as a ministry merely means handing out meals.

If commitments towards “peace” today mean commitment to charity, it also seems to imply a commitment to pluralism and diversity. While these things are admirable, they are not the same as working towards ending violent conflict. All the evidence we have suggests that merely increasing understanding and communication may actually do very little to further the cause of peace. It is worth remembering that area studies arose as a tool of imperialist domination. At Harvard I have witnessed classes and events about Islam which are thickly attended by those whose interests are in the national security field, and who seek to follow Sun Tzu’s dictum to know their enemies.

Even if these measures do in some way foster peace, they steal the thunder from the political movements which work directly to end violent conflict. Organizations dedicated to pacifism have all but disappeared in the United States. It is politically astute to be against “the war” (almost always now meaning Afghanistan,) but to be against war and for peace as a practical and sustainable goal is a more controversial stance. Even my own denomination, the Religious Society of Friends, has grown increasingly critical of backing the idea of peace. For many Quakers, adherence towards our religion’s traditional peace testimony, which requires us to “resist not evil,” has started to simply mean supporting an agenda of liberal internationalism. Sitting down with the Executive Secretary of New England Yearly Meeting, the body of Quakers that I belong to, I inquired if we might at least note our stand on Syria. “What exactly should our stand be?” he asked, indicating that opposition to conflict is no longer automatic to Friends if they support the politicians that order it. The Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Quakers’ main lobbying organization in Washington D.C., has at times endorsed the idea that the United Nations has a “responsibility to protect, and despite its commitment to nonviolence, raised questions about whether using military force to protect civilians might be acceptable.”

At first this may seem innocuous. What monster could oppose stopping genocide, of turning our guns to protect human rights? Time and cultural amnesia paper over the fact that the cry of humanitarianism often camouflages the worst kinds of abuses. During the 1960 crisis in the Congo, that was the cover that led blue-helmeted UN troops to assist the Belgians and the United States in unseating and killing the democratically elected Prime Minister of the Congo while securing access to that country’s mineral wealth. The pacifists of the past remembered that many of them had thought World War I was the great fight for democracy, a struggle to end war itself. The sad truth is that most wars seem to be just wars to those who fight them.

Secular peace groups today have also echoed the idea that we should support “good wars.” When I formed my student group at Harvard, I went immediately to the Quaker chaplain. What peace groups in the local area might be willing to work with a student group opposed to war and violence, I asked him. To my surprise he explained that Veterans for Peace would be hostile to us, because they do not oppose all war, only “bad wars,” and support the concept of armed interventions. It is not as if the pacifists and peace activists of the past did not face such choices. Most of them chose to decry all violence. Contrary to the reconstruction of history that developed after World War II, these pacifists actually had remarkable success, and their commitment to nonviolence did work. In the 1920s, for example, there was a naval arms race between the United States and Britain. The two powers created war plans against each other, and while each spoke of friendship, they stood ready to fight over their imperialist ambitions abroad. The United States drew up plans to invade Canada, while the British prepared to send a battle fleet to strike at the continental United States.

Battleships were the most important element in military hardware of the era, a nation’s prestige and power were measured in the size and numerical strength of their fleets. They were pivotal to the potential war plans of both sides. The costs of constructing and maintaining these vast fleets were enormous; the United States spent more on its navy after the First World War in a year than they had spent in running the entire government before the war.

Yet thanks to the pressure of the peace lobby, the great powers of the world which met at the Washington Naval Conference restricted the tonnage of battleships that could be built. This was a remarkable act, far more military and politically significant than any of the nuclear weapons treaties that have ever been conducted. There were problems and debates, and nations tried to skirt the treaty and build submarines or more powerful ships, yet the treaty was effective…

It might be charged that decrying war, and the argument that a past age did more for peace then the present, is nothing more than a Jeremiad. Yet the prophet Jeremiah was faced only with the destruction of one state and one people. As children of the modern world, where the ever-growing capacity for destruction allows the extermination of most of the human race in a handful of hours, we have every reason to engage in grand rhetoric.

Yet unlike Jeremiah, for us the proper course is not to restore “faith” in anything. In fact, the notion that peace is a kind of personal duty, part of a radical chic, is exactly the problem. Instead a modern peace movement must above all be effective. Perhaps our greatest example in this could come from someone like turn-of-the-century AME Bishop Reverdy Ransom, who would inspire Martin Luther King, Jr. Faced with the problems of lynching and segregation, Ransom understood that the answer for the African Americans was not education or building culture, but securing rights through political effectiveness. Having impressive rhetoric and feeling the moral righteousness of one’s cause were important, Ransom explained, but if a movement was not successful at generating change then it was a failure. The modern peace movement likewise should be known for its fruits, not its ambitions.

The single most important task which faces those interested in creating a viable modern peace movement is giving such a movement intellectual respectability. Without the support of intellectuals, any idea advanced about foreign policy or diplomacy can only sound crazy to the public. While there are a handful of theologians such as Stanley Hauerwas and the late John Howard Yoder who have notable books on pacifism and peace, in other scholarly disciplines, perspectives critical of militarism have disappeared. There used to be a robust field of peace history which studied peace movements, but many of its most prominent practitioners, like Merle Curti, Charles DeBenedetti and Peter Brock, have died and no one has taken their places. In the discipline of “International Relations,” different schools of realism or aggressive liberal internationalism reign supreme, with only a tiny number of scholars even suggest limiting international military interventions.

The academic and political community has seized on the idea that so long as politicians and soldiers obey “Just War theory,” a rather byzantine set of conditions about when and how to go to war, the morality of war itself is beyond question. At Harvard I attended the only course that the Kennedy School of Government offers on the morality of war. The students, who will go on to become the next generation of policymakers around the world do not argue about how to stop war; a pacifist or even an outspoken peace advocate would not be taken seriously in the room. Rather, Kennedy School students wonder if war could even be limited. They do not ask if using a bomb is moral, for they have already concluded that it is. They ask instead if using a tactical nuclear bomb is moral. They do not wonder if civilian loses are acceptable in war; they are, they insist. They speculate in turn on how many civilian loses are acceptable. …

Any modern peace or pacifist movement must also have a broad appeal. Peace activism is associated mostly with a population of baby boomers who have persisted in the activity since the end of the war in Vietnam. Their admirable dedication nevertheless lacks resonance with other generations. I have been at talks where speakers told crowds of how we “struggled against Reagan alongside our Latin American brothers and sisters,” a statement that only makes sense if one assumes that the intended audience is at least almost two decades older than I am.

There is no simple solution to this age gap. Organizations that make an effort to recruit the young and to be “hip” are likely to see that strategy backfire. The limited success of the Occupy movement may initially give the impression that all peace groups need to do is wait for young people, coasting on a wave of activism created by social media, to come to them. Taking away this message would be a dire mistake. Occupy failed, unable to achieve any concrete political goal. It remained an ideological blank slate, and often its adherents embraced violent tactics. Pacifists and peace groups cannot afford to act like this. They need to have concrete ideals and policy objectives, and attract a population of young people who will spend the years necessary locked in legislative battles to realize a pacifist vision.

Transforming the peace movement is partly about changing its aesthetic. The White House Peace Vigil, for example, is made up of crude poster boards and a tent, a presence which has stayed relatively consistent since it was erected thirty years ago. While the principle and effort of the volunteers who run the vigil are laudable, we must question whether the vigil has had any effect in fostering peace in a meaningful way. Young people will not support, let alone be a part of, an organization that does not appear reputable and established.

Further, peace organizations need to work harder to train younger leaders. When peace movements were at their most effective, organizations like the Fellowship of Reconciliation employed young people, preparing them to engage in effective organizing. Major Civil Rights leaders like Bayard Rustin came through the ranks of these organizations. One could fill volumes with the names of staff members of peace organizations who began their involvement in political action through their encounter with AFSC work camps or relief programs during the 1920s and 1930s. Generations before that, in the campaign against slavery and the work undertaken by the American Peace Society, lecturers and other advocates were employed to spread these organizations’ messages. Today, while some organizations offer week-long summer programs to train college students in lobbying and unpaid internships (which ethically are questionable themselves,) the opportunities they offer to improve the skills of young people are much more limited than they were in past decades.

Beyond tactics and organizational strategies, the modern peace movement needs to internalize the reality that change is political and social. Supporting peace is not a way to alleviate notions of our own national or personal sins or a kind of clothing to wear. It is measured in the lives that are not expended in war, the dollars not spent in conflict. To be an effective pacifist, to embrace peace, must mean being pragmatic.

This was perhaps the single greatest failure of past generations of activists. In moments like the passage of the Kellogg Briand pact, the failed attempt to outlaw war before World War II, pacifists gave themselves over to utopian ambition and mistook the will to make a more peaceful world with the work of doing the same. As the present reality of the peace movement shows, it is far easier to praise a supposed moral commitment to peace than it is to actually act.

Abraham Johnson Muste, one of the leaders of the Fellowship of Reconciliation who worked on noble causes from abolishing nuclear weapons to winning a living wage and civil rights, declared that his pacifism meant that “if I can’t love Hitler, I can’t love at all.” One can admire or fault Muste’s dedication to a moral ideal of “love thy neighbor,” but it was not his rhetorical commitment that mattered. It was the fact that he organized, that he did more than preach or think, that he understood that peace was something that had to be created.

Muste understood that a peace movement was something that, like any other political or social gain, has to be won. In the present, when the threat of war brings the prospect of mass death that is literally beyond human comprehension, we need to seize hold of this same insight. Peace is a lofty ideal, but achieving it starts here in the mud and grit of the world.