As a pacifist, one of the most frequent criticisms I face is that I am advocating “doing nothing” in the face of atrocities near and far. There are just bad people in the world, the argument goes, who will kill you and take all your stuff if you’re not careful. And so violence is required in response, because the only alternative is to “do nothing” and “let it happen”.
This reality frustrates me for a variety of reasons, but the biggest is probably that it demonstrates how locked into fight-or-flight thinking we still are, despite several millennia of post-evolution attempts at being civilized. We are willing to apply all of our creative genius as a species to developing more sophisticated and efficient ways of killing each other, but refuse to spend any of that energy on developing meaningful alternatives to violence as a response to violence. The rapid development of technology in the last 150 years has only heightened this problem as we now believe that we will magic our way out of problems by developing ever more advanced technology, so we spend even less time considering problems of human mindset and organization. Most people who believe the extant models of catastrophic climate change seem to believe it’s more likely we’ll find some near-magic solution through technology than that we can alter our ways of thinking about societal structures to literally save the planet and everything on it. We’ll see, but my bet is not on technology that, throughout history save maybe the last thirty years, has failed to consider its planetary impact whatsoever.
Part of the problem is that humans tend to assume the way things have been is the way they will continue to be, despite all evidence to the contrary. We believe that the models that predicted the last election will accurately predict the next one. We believe that people will continue to feel as they felt before. We believe that our society will be just as stable and whole and coherent as it was in past decades. The obvious reality is that almost all conditions are fleeting and almost all of these things change, often with little warning. But that reality is unsettling so we prefer not to consider it, instead continuing to invest in the longevity of the status quo. Some of us get lucky and live in an ongoing status quo for most of our lifetime. Most of us are not so rewarded for our natural complacency.
Nonetheless, these assumptions of stagnation lead to further assumptions of greater stagnation. For example, humans have always done violence, so it’s inescapable. Humans have always eaten meat, so we can’t stop now. Humans have always been selfish, greedy bastards, so the best we can do is put systems in place that reward that behavior and steer it to be more profitable. There’s always going to be someone to mess it up for everyone else, so let’s construct society on the assumption that everyone is The Worst.
Not only do these assumptions ignore fundamentally good qualities of humanity, like charitable behavior and compassion, but they ignore really seminal events in rapid positive change. The rapid rise of the gay rights and gay marriage movement is an excellent example of something that was far more ludicrous than non-violence just decades ago, and has now become codified law in many leading societies. We do not have a long and storied history of religions and advocates noting how important freedom of sexual orientation is, yet now it’s come to be predominantly (though not entirely) accepted. Even the existence and proliferation of Wikipedia defies commonly understood norms about human behavior, the innate selfishness and money-motivation of humans, the inability of a democratized system to advance expertise and knowledge. And yes, technology played a role in the creation of Wikipedia, but it’s really more a restructuring of how we think about human structures and behavior that is the real catalyst. After all, there’s also a bunch of capitalist garbage on the Internet. Very little about the technology is innately egalitarian. What we assume will always persist as negative and necessary truths about humanity is just as valid as most of our assumptions about people.
That’s all part of it, these false assumptions. But I think the other part of it, and the one that I hope to address here in this post, is that people just don’t consider non-violent alternative approaches to violent situations that ameliorate them or minimize the loss of life. Other than King and Gandhi, basically no one has ever even attempted them in collectively remembered history. And despite the fact that those were super-effective models for creating revolutionary change in the face of overwhelming force, the next problem is always faced with the presumption that those were non-repeatable quarks, not blueprints for a better way.
One of the reasons for this is the old hammer-and-nail adage (“when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). In the United States, we spend more on “defense” (the military) than anything else in the budget, than everything else in the budget combined. We spend more than the next twenty countries behind us combined. We spend so many resources, people, political capital, and propaganda on having the mightiest fighting force the planet has ever known so we can use it to dominate global politics and influence events through what is functionally a might-makes-right paradigm. We are living in an era of one of the greatest proliferations of the concept of rule by violent force in human history. Even though it’s tagged as democratic and wears a smile and isn’t overtly conquering the rest of the world via armed invasion (only with ideological demands backed by implied threat), it’s still fundamentally about the force. And in this context, this world, especially when 9/11 quickly replaced the void left by the Cold War (a void that provided great opportunity for non-violent creativity because we had our mandate to live in fear briefly suspended), it’s hard to think of any thoughtful or creative ways of helping people avoid violence that do not cause violence.
This is all the more problematic because of how obviously flawed our violent solutions are. You don’t have to be a pacifist to recognize that almost every military intervention conducted by the United States in the last sixty years has been an unmitigated disaster. Vietnam, a seeming outlier of embarrassing defeat for the US military at the time, has ushered in an era where local insurgent fighters have the upper hand in every conflict and essentially make it impossible for any outside invading force to ever truly conquer a country. In a world where people learned quickly from their mistakes, this reality would be a recognized godsend, because we would realize that each nation has true sovereignty over their own affairs and that outside imposition by force is a fool’s errand, thus understanding that change requires more delicate and dignified approaches. Instead, we’ve continued to drop the hammer on a variety of nails that ultimately penetrate our own skin, from Latin America to Africa, Iraq to Afghanistan to Iraq again.
And where we have not directly bombed and invaded, we’ve meddled in violent ways that only escalate chaos. In the name of “regime change”, we armed bin Laden, Hussein, and ISIS, not to mention countless forgotten warlords and would-be dictators who seemed to align with our slightly preferred interests at the time. We gleefully drop drone strikes into Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan with only the vaguest understanding of the geopolitical situations there or the ramifications of turning yet another far-flung nation into a fiery fearful hellscape. For thirty years, the primary US intervention in other nations’ affairs has been to sell arms to rebel groups of some kind, just betting on the idea that more arms for more violence and chaos will destabilize the bad guys enough to make something better. It literally never works. Never. There is no instance where the US has fomented a violent revolution through arms sales and covert operations to spur a change in regime from something ruthless and dictatorial to something open, democratic, and truly free. It simply doesn’t happen. The situation is always more complicated, rights always get trampled in the few instances where the revolution is successful, and the backlash is always fierce and bloodier than the initial terror of the regime we’re trying to replace.
You can say it’s all motivated by money, a horrifically powerful military-industrial complex that profits on blood money worldwide, often selling the same weapons to both sides of the conflict. You can say, conversely, that it’s all totally innocent, that we really sincerely believe we can arm the rest of the world into oblivion and the right people will always win and the next time will be the precedent that proves it. Ultimately, I’m less interested in which side of it you believe. The reality is that it’s one of the most long-running and ineffective campaigns imaginable. If I were ever to advocate for continuing a set of policies and actions half that ineffective, you can only imagine how much flak I’d get for being a wide-eyed dreamer. But because their solutions involve guns and bombs, which we associate with “realism” somehow (does it all just devolve into macho stereotypes?), an utterly failed approach to the world that kills hundreds of thousands is reaffirmed as the only rational approach.
So what are the alternatives? Whether or not doing literally nothing would be better than throwing guns, drone strikes, and occasional full-scale invasions around (I think it clearly would be), are there actual concrete steps that can be taken that are both non-violent and would improve the situation?
Let’s look at Aleppo.
The whole world is watching Aleppo now, watching tragic videos of people holed up and facing their impending death as the last major rebel stronghold in Syria falls under the regime’s brutal re-conquest. It is impossible to be a compassionate person and not feel torn apart by the news reports of slaughter, by the plaintive cries we can see on social media, then to immediately feel remorse at not doing more to help prevent this situation, to help come up with some way that all these innocent people didn’t have to die so horribly.
(Last little soapbox note here: It is of primary importance to remember these victims in Aleppo the next time we contemplate the US dropping the bombs or going house to house with military force. Just because the videos of victims of American drone strikes do not tend to go viral in America does not mean we are not directly causing lots of little Aleppos all over the globe. And often these victims have no warning, no time to prepare a farewell. They’re just snuffed out as irrelevant collateral in our quest for dominance. The scale of magnitude may be less than Aleppo, but the principle is the same.)
Diplomatic solutions are the traditional alternative that people would expect from someone like me. And I do believe there’s more – much more – we could have done through traditional diplomatic channels. Just as the US and Russia were able to swiftly work with Assad’s regime to destroy his chemical weapons stockpile, so too were there many times when Assad and Russia were willing (indeed eager) to come to the bargaining table to negotiate ceasefires and eventual peace. It was primarily our own stubbornness that Assad should not be part of any peaceful solution that facilitated where Aleppo stands today, at the bottom of a massacre. In demanding that we got to play a role in picking the ultimate winner of the conflict, we ensured our ultimate defeat and perhaps a million innocent Syrians are paying for that mistake with their blood.
I should be careful and clear here. Obviously the primary person responsible for the slaughter is Assad himself. In my haste to point out our own culpability, it sometimes can sound like I’m blaming the US for foreign atrocities more than those actually firing the weapons or giving the orders on the atrocities. I am not doing that. There’s plenty that we are primarily uniquely responsible for (e.g. drone strikes, see above) that I don’t need to lay the entirety of Aleppo at the feet of the US. However, I feel like the US had the power and placement to negotiate an end to this conflict that would have prevented this kind of horrific worst-case scenario. It’s hard to say whether the mistake was prompted more by hubris at assuming “our” side would eventually win and defeat Assad or by indifference to the fates of those who would lose the most if we were wrong.
But if nothing else, our own crimes against humanity should be evidence that a standard of us refusing to negotiate with dictators or terrorists or murderers is just laughably impractical. For coming from the school of so-called realism, it’s frighteningly unrealistic to just refuse to talk to some people because they’re so bad for killing innocents, especially when we kill our own fair share of innocents. Especially when the ability to talk would save innocent lives, which is supposed to be what it’s all about. There were ways to work out a compromise in Syria that spared both the Assad regime and most of the rebels, that could have avoided mass recrimination and punishment of rebels now being gunned down in the streets. That would have actually stabilized Syria and restored infrastructure to a people who have been suffering for several horrible years.
But let’s say you don’t buy that. You believe that the US did all it could, or for some reason Assad going was more important to stick to in principle than saving hundreds of thousand of lives. You believe that Assad would have just slaughtered everyone anyway after the peace deal. Whatever it is, you just think diplomatic solutions were a no-go. Surely no alternatives but bombs and guns then, right?
Wrong. The United States has an enormous navy. We have a huge disciplined fighting force that is advertised on American televisions and movie screens as a mere search-and-rescue team. It’s a feel-good story that usually doesn’t bear out in practice. But it could have.
The area controlled by Syrian rebels was in the extreme northeast area of Syria, running up from the coast to the Turkish border and then about seventy miles inland to Aleppo. They held this territory for years during which the conditions were deteriorating. The fact that the Turkish border was not hostile to these rebels is a big part of why so many refugees were able to escape through Turkey and head north to Europe.
So here’s what you do. You send the American fleet (not all of it, but a lot of it) to the coast. In the earlier years, you could have parked it on actual Syrian (rebel) territory, but later you’d have to use the extreme southwestern Turkish coast instead. And you tell everyone in rebel-controlled Syria that you will evacuate them, no questions asked. And you set up a US-run refugee camp somewhere. It doesn’t have to be the US, though that would be ideal, but you might have to pay an ally a billion dollars (you know, the cost of two state-of-the-art bombers) to set up the camp in their territory that’s ideally closer to Syria to save on transportation costs. And then you just run it, using the full force of the American military and all their logistical expertise, to ferry all the civilians out of harm’s way.
Any soldiers that hit the Syrian beach to help load up refugees don’t bring weapons with them as a show of good faith. You don’t send people further inland than the beach, though you provide logistical support and advice for how to set up the human caravan to get people out safely and quickly. You work with Turkey, an ally, to set up the pipeline through their territory, monitoring and stabilizing and helping all the folks along the way.
You think once you’ve started doing that that Syria or Russia are going to risk a war with the US by interfering with this operation? That they’re going to risk the PR nightmare of firing on the soldiers conducting a purely humanitarian mission, much less one of the ships? There’s no way.
At that point, rather than chaotically distributed refugees all on their own harrowing journey of woe, many of them drowning in the Mediterranean after handing their entire life savings to a smuggler, you have an organized camp somewhere safe and stable and you begin processing the refugees for eventual long-term placement. At the point when the US has stuck its neck out so far to help these people, it’s pretty impossible for Europe or other rich nations to just turn a blind eye and say they don’t have to help. You work with Germany, Canada, whoever will help, to safely process and transfer refugees. You take in a lot of them in the US. You meanwhile keep the diplomatic channels open to try to influence the eventual stable Syria so there’s a chance a lot of these folks can go home someday, will want to. But you set up a contingency for the idea that they’ll never be able to and that it’s obviously better to live free in the West than die captured in Syria. You recognize that if one or two ISIS fighters get caught up in the camp and end up committing an atrocious act of violence in the camp or Berlin or Iowa that it’s an acceptable price, that it’s still so much better than the human cost paid of actually doing nothing.
There’s the human benefits, sure. Totally enormous, incalculable. But if you want to be selfish, if you want to be a realpolitik American who cares only about America, here’s what else you get: the greatest optical boost to the US in seven decades. Suddenly, the US, target of terrorists around the globe and would-be forceful hegemon, has expended enormous human and financial capital in conducting the largest humanitarian rescue operation in human history, to save innocent victims in a Muslim country. Can you imagine? Can you imagine how that would change how we’re viewed in the rest of the world. Best of luck to al-Qaeda and ISIS recruiting new anti-American suicide bombers after that story sinks in across the planet. Oh yes, there would be propaganda and spin for a while that we were actually squirreling them off to live in human slavery or that the camp was a concentration camp. But in a world of social media, that spin would have a pretty short shelf life as pictures came back of a clean, well-maintained, well-organized camp meant to hold people only briefly before they were sent off to a new viable, safe life in a new nation.
Within a few years, any threat of terrorism against the United States would be gone. That single act of humanitarianism would erase decades of wrongdoings, bury so many hatchets and such ill will. It would be ludicrous to paint America as anti-Muslim, purely militaristic, hell-bent on world domination. The snowball effect of this great charitable act would allay nearly every fear we currently feel we face, roll back every doomsday clock to a comfortable hour.
Wouldn’t you rather live in a country that did things like that? Wouldn’t you rather vote for leaders who advocated such bold grand moves? Wouldn’t that news two years ago be better than today’s news out of Aleppo?
It doesn’t just apply to Aleppo, of course. The coast is convenient, but it probably would’ve been even easier to do something like this for Rwanda. Just paratroop some folks in to set up safe houses. You think people with machetes are going to attack uniformed US personnel keeping watch over safe houses? They don’t have to fire a shot, just be present. I would posit they really wouldn’t even need to bring weapons or be military personnel – we could have sent a corps of volunteer observers over there and accomplished the same results. Would-be genociders would never run the risk of provoking the most powerful country on the planet.
And this is where the great opportunity exists for American power. I ranted in my last post about how it’s never used for good and has been amassed for, at best, thoroughly selfish ends. But now that we have all this power and wealth and influence, we could use it for good. We have the power to mitigate and prevent the worst atrocities on the globe. But to do that, we have to stop leading with force first. We have to stop seeing ourselves as just part of the super-militaristic rat-race that everyone’s engaged in, because that only allows us to commit more violence, not bring more peace. After the ravages of ISIS across norther Iraq, even the most diehard neocon can now recognize that the Iraqi people have spent the last 13 years worse off than they were under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Our military policy makes the world worse: more dangerous, less stable, more prone to failed-state quagmires that fester in war and decay for decades. But the power we’ve put behind it, the power and capital and leverage we have across the world, it’s almost limitless raw potential to do and be good.
All we have to do is apply the same creative vision and risk-taking we laud in the corporate or military world and apply it to curbing the impact of violence non-violently. When stacked against profit or selfishness, it should seem infinitely more motivating. When stacked against decades of failed efforts to change regimes and quell countries through violence, it should seem infinitely more practical.
So what’s stopping us?
This is the kind of thing I hoped Obama meant by “we are the people we have been waiting for.” Despite his Nobel Prize, this has nothing to do with what he meant.
Obviously, I know Trump doesn’t have big plans to use American power in this way. But neither did Clinton.
We need leaders and leadership that have the courage to use our power to heal, not hammer. Until then, we have to look at the images of Aleppo, weep, and feel a tremendous guilt at our collective lack of imagination.