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Declaring Peace

by Prof. Michael Nagler
January 18th, 2007
The Metta Center for Nonviolence Education

The new year began with a grim milestone, as the official toll of American servicemen and women killed in Iraq approached the number of Americans (and others) killed on 9/11 in 2001. This death toll, along with the passing of President Gerald Ford, reminded me of the Mayaguez incident that occurred during Ford’s presidency in May of 1975. Forty-one U.S. Marines and other military personnel died in the rescue of 39 merchant seaman whose ship, the Mayaguez, had been taken captive by the Khmer Rouge. Rumors had it that back-channel negotiations had already been underway when the attempted military rescue was launched, and that the Khmer Rouge had no interest in holding the Mayaguez or its crew.

This is how violence “works.”

But there is an alternative. There is a way to stop the war in Iraq before thousands more Iraqis and Americans lose their precious lives to no purpose. Leaders show no signs of acting, despite the recent tilt of Congress towards a less relentlessly bellicose party; but even in a regime as undemocratic as the United States has become, leaders don’t function in a vacuum. Enter Civil Society. The “Declaration of Peace” was launched in March 2006. The idea for the project built on many grassroots efforts, including the countless protests in the months before the US invasion and the Global Call Iraq campaign that called for civil disobedience around the world in an effort to stop the US military occupation. Much of the spirit of the campaign is reminiscent of the even earlier Pledge of Resistance of the 1980s when hundreds of people across the US promised to risk arrest in opposing President Reagan’s threatened invasion of Nicaragua. Within its first six months, the Declaration of Peace brought together over 500 U.S. peace organizations and thousands of individual pledge signers who have committed to engage in nonviolent witness, not excluding civil disobedience (CD). The goals of the campaign are:

  • End the occupation of Iraq
  • Bring the troops home now
  • Establish a concrete, comprehensive and just plan for peace, and
  • Oppose the current US policy of “preventative” war in other parts of the world.

Their methods have been intense lobbying at congressional offices and, when Congress failed to act to end the war by the campaign’s publicly announced deadline of September 21, public protest in the nation’s capitol and nearly 400 events around the country, including civil disobedience in which opponents of the war risked arrest for their convictions.

It’s important to realize that we are really speaking to two audiences here. The first are legislators, on whom we are calling to cut off funding for the continued (not to mention escalated) occupation. And the second are the Commander in Chief of the American military, President Bush, and his team, who are formally wedded to an overall policy of “full spectrum dominance” and a specific policy of “continuing the course” in Iraq. In relation to that second audience—and to the first if they refuse to be swayed by these appeals—it is equally important to realize that nothing short of civil disobedience can be expected to work. Gandhi defined two laws of Satyagraha in the first, South African, phase of his career, of which the one relevant here he called the “Law of Suffering.” Gandhi explains:

“Things of fundamental importance to the people are not secured by reason alone but have to be purchased with their suffering… If you want something really important to be done you must not merely satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also.”

In February of 2003, President Bush said that he did not need to listen to the 10-12 million people around the world who had just put on the largest public demonstration against a war in recorded history, referring to the masses as merely a “focus group.” It seems the President has not read his Gandhi. And yet President Bush could not have given a more classic example of the line between the phase of a conflict when you can still expect an appeal to reason to work and the phase when you must “move the heart,” if not of the President himself, in this case, then enough of the general public that he’s forced to change.

The Declaration of Peace is thus entirely correct in inviting participants to undertake civilly disobedient forms of protest – as is the Chicago-based Voices for Creative Nonviolence. To commence in February, Voices has mounted the Occupation Project, a “campaign of sustained nonviolent civil disobedience to end the Iraq war.” These nonviolent efforts that risk arrest do not dismiss ongoing efforts to persuade with words the general public, our friends and relatives, indeed, anyone who will listen. We must. But we must also carry on this “conversation” in action that the repertoire of nonviolence offers for diverting those who will no longer listen to reason from their deadly ways. Those of us who, like me, can no longer endure this war in silence must be prepared to ‘cross the line,’ to borrow a phrase from the School of the Americas Watch, from ‘head’ to ‘heart’ communication.

In fact, there is a third kind of communication that has not taken place, yet, and that is direct action to block the “operation of the machine” (as Mario Savio famously said in the 1960s), not just protest against it, which some of us will remember from the mature phase of resistance against the war in Vietnam. Indeed, it was during an attempt to do just that by sitting on the tracks in the path of a train carrying munitions bound for Vietnam that protester Brian Wilson lost his legs. Some have been arrested for blocking the operation of recruitment centers, while still others spilled blood on draft documents and put missiles out of service by damaging their nose cones with hammers.

It is surely the case that if we want this occupation to end, and end in a way that sends a loud message that similar mad schemes in Iran or anywhere else must not begin, then “tough love” in the form of civil disobedience is now called for. No one likes suffering, but there are times when we must choose between the kind of suffering that just happens and the kind that the brave undergo voluntarily to create a better world.