Sunday, July 15, 2012

By the ounce or by the pound?

Conflict prevention is a less costly policy than intervention after the onset of armed conflicts.
--Oliver Ramsbotham, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall (2011, p. 140).
 Preventing armed conflict is an activity that can almost never be proven, since so many armed conflicts appear inevitable and then do not occur for one reason or another--and there is usually no valid method to tell if the belligerent parties were serious and intentional about launching armed attack. Playing poker assumes the occasional bluff and pounding chests may not necessarily indicate a plan or intention to resort to violent attack. Conversely, an armed attack may appear to be a bolt out of the blue--unexpected and not preceded by the usual increase in war drum volume. Peace science is robust but never perfect.

Still, there are reasonable arguments for investing much more in certain types of conflict prevention as far more sustainable and less costly than merely amassing a deterrent force of overwhelming firepower and global reach, as the US has done. Indeed, with the exception of 9.11.01, that mighty military model may be regarded as effective in some regards--there is very little bloodshed from foreign attack on US soil--but how sustainable is it? How effective is it at protecting other people, not just Americans? Might we find other methods that are just as strong in benefits and much lower in costs?

Nota bene: The following chart is radically conservative; for instance, I claim low benefit for human life in nonviolent conflict, but that is compared to doing nothing, not to violence, which has a very high cost in human life. A table or graph measuring the differences would look far more favorable to nonviolence, wouldn't it? But the journalist and academician in me wants to avoid hyperbole and the possibility of validity threats, so this chart is defensible in all aspects as a minimal portrayal of costs and benefits in categories we rarely see examined.

The way we have thought about this in our past has been far more simplistic, ignoring every component except human life, and that has been defined as American civilian life until the Vietnam War, when the peace movement lobbied and wrote and protested in favor of, for once, valuing American soldiers. It is bitterly ironic to most of us from that era who are retroactively accused of abusing vets when they returned, as the actual abuse of them started and ended with their own government, from sending them off to an illegal, immoral, imperialistic war against a nation that had fired not one bullet at the US, and all the way through to some horrendous medical neglect for veterans once they had returned. The VA is much better nowadays, due in large part to the vets joining with the peace movement to insist on improving all aspects of vets' health care. During the Vietnam War and in the years after, my father, a psychologist, gave most of his pro bono services to vets through the VA at Fort Snelling in Minnesota, since the budgets were woefully inadequate and counseling professionals were unable to meet the needs. Indeed, when Bush the Elder started the first phase of the war on Iraq back in 1991 my father's first response was, "Hell, they start a new war and we haven't fixed all the damage from Vietnam yet."

Even the aspects of violent conflict that are of high benefit are dubious. Technological spin-off benefits are a mixed picture and resource capture at gunpoint delivers high profits to corporations but is not sustainable, as it ultimately engenders insurgency of some sort at some cost, sometimes far greater than the benefit, and it's similar to hegemonic power.

Costs and benefits are also a murky picture unless we can identify the dealbreakers. If we ruin the environment, nothing else matters, and yet the environment is most often not a consideration and is under threat more from our conflicts than from anything. So in the end, in our coming period of resource depletion, overpopulation and slipping economies, there is literally nothing more important than fixing our conflict management methods. Nonviolence is the new evolutionary imperative, the new realpolitik. Let's try to help our 'leaders' wake up and smell the conflict transformation.

Ramsbotham, Oliver, Woodhouse, Tom, and Miall, Hugh (2011). Contemporary conflict resolution (3rd ed.). Malden, MA: Polity Press.

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