Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ecology of war and peace

If we ever culturally come to grips with the idea that our conflict management methods are not writ in stone--the normal dichotomous assumption of surrender or armed attack--we may finally begin to actually run the methods through a serious evaluative process, a sort of cost-benefit analysis. For the most part, humankind has not done this and certainly the US never has.

What are the potential strengths and weaknesses of the three basic approaches?

Surrender will usually mean survival of more of the members of a society, but at a more miserable, less free, and impoverished level.

Nonviolence will usually mean a more egalitarian outcome without economic advantage over anyone else. It may be used in a needs-based struggle but not in a greed-based search for hegemony.

Violence can win it all, lose it all, and often institute a structural violence that results in perduring inequities, with one dominant party living large and many living the impoverished lives once they surrender.

The sooner a party who is faced with overwhelming violence surrenders, the less damage they usually suffer.

Nonviolence means sacrificing time, some resources, and the ability to exact revenge or seize other people's lands or resources.

Violence requires first a huge commitment to an arsenal, recruiting popular support for the undertaking, suspension or cancellation of environmental laws with regard to military operations, and the acceptance that people will need to give their lives in the quest for victory and dominance.

Of course, most of the military costs are ignored in a country like the US, since the alternatives are not considered. This sets up a bizarre public discourse that sets aside economic and environmental costs and ennobles all the human costs, valorizing the warriors incessantly and labeling those who question the costs as agents or dupes of the enemy, or as cowards who advocate surrender, or as simpleminded windkissing naif-brains, unable to understand the real, the tough, and the requisite stomach for sacrifice and bloodshed for (in our case) 'the American way.' I've been labeled all those things over the decades.

The CBA is coming to roost, however, and the ideas of what is reality are shifting, even though there is still zero grasp of the strategic nonviolent struggle as a viable alternative--viable for defense, not to preserve the American way of ruling the world.

So, for instance, we see the economy, all hollowed out by the decades of massive military spending, finally changing the idea of reality. Little sad cracks open up, such as Senator James Webb (D-VA) opposing increases in medical support for veterans of the war he fought in--the Vietnam War--as they have long sought coverage for the illnesses induced by exposure to Dow Chemical's various defoliants, lumped in the one Agent Orange category. He votes for war at every turn, all weapons systems, every supplemental to drive more occupation and more military involvement in other people's lands, spending literally a $trillion every year, but he suddenly develops a fiscally prudential analysis when it comes to covering health conditions that are caused by exposure during war to the chemical warfare agents we used illegally against Vietnam. He says these conditions might be caused by other factors later in life so no help for the vets who contract leukemia, Parkinsons or ischemic heart disease. The new realpolitik.

A spokesperson for Vietnam Vets of America (pictured) responds well:

Rick Weidman, director of government relations for Vietnam Veterans of America, defended the potentially high costs, saying the payments should be considered in the same context as the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We would make the point that many, many times the number of troops originally estimated have [traumatic brain injury] coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan," Weidman said. "Should we not then award it because it's too many people? It's the same argument -- an environmental wound is the same as a blast wound."

Compare. Run our methods of conflict management through a rigorous, honest cost-benefit analysis. Lift a dying combat veteran onto his death bed, as I did with my brother-in-law, when that vet doesn't even reach 45 and is in pain, dying from the common exposure to these agents of empire. Look into the eyes of a working class person who did his duty as he was told and suffered scores of inoperable cancerous tumors that caused him to die in agony before his youngest daughter even graduated from high school. Tim Gilmore is dead and has been for 15 years, but his note that these barrels of chemicals were everywhere, even in the mess halls, is not forgotten. Some years later I met Vietnamese victims of our chemical attack on their poor people and their land, and realized the costs to them were infinitely higher, collectively.

Violence is good for killing. It kills people, jungles, economies, and hope. It gains opulent lives and unjust power for the elite, like the wealthy owners of Dow Chemical, who have prevailed.

The choice is always in front of us. Nonviolence is the only choice full of hope. James Webb or Gandhi? I choose the new realpolitik, strategic nonviolence, given to us with a far better cost benefit outcome.


Katy TW said...

I recognized the "Parable of the tribes" in your description of the three approaches to conflict management: Surrender, non-violence, and violence. Non-violence is the only option the does not select for power, but it is also the only option that does not "work" when done unilaterally. I put "work" in quotations because I think that the commitment to non-violence must go beyond its use as a tactic, as it is not just a means to an end, but is itself a worthy end. Ideally, it should be pursued even when ineffective in the short-term, provided it is morally right. In that event, it will hopefully be a successful strategy in the long run.

I believe the human race is capable of overcoming its penchant for greed and power, but don't think it will happen without a lot of struggle, sacrifice, and time. I'm looking forward to learning more about how to support non-violent conflict resolution in our culture.

Tom H. Hastings said...

Thanks, Katy. One of my mentors, Dr. Kent Shifferd, said many years ago that, "Nonviolence always works in the sense that when you choose it you succeed in avoiding adding to the level of violence in the world." When he said that it finally resolved all my doubts about efficacy because it made it so personal and so immediate. There are times I've clung to that almost as a psychological liferaft.