"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
                      Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Promote Nonviolent Conflict Resolution

The Nature of War

War has addictive properties that are compellingly described and illustrated in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning.1 The warriors' experience is profound. It includes great emotions, comradeship, the sense of sacrifice for something greater than self, the opportunity to prove and feel manhood. And above all, it includes excitement: combat provides the biggest adrenalin rush most men will ever experience. It provides entertainment, as the genre of war movies and books attests. This is all the stuff of addictions, and war is a cultural addiction. Its negative consequences inevitably outweigh the positive for the defeated, but even the victors pay what many feel is an unacceptable price in debt, waste, and personal losses.

So how do we wean ourselves, men especially,2 from war's exciting, addictive allure?

We begin by understanding that a future without war doesn't mean a future without conflict or hazard.

A Warless Future Will Not Be A Future Without Heroes

A future without war will hardly be a bland and unexciting place with no challenges, dangers, or perils. Or a place with no need for heroes. Natural disasters, accidents, and the challenges of exploration will always present endless opportunities for daring, courage, and self-sacrifice. Life in a dangerous world presents humanity with more than enough trials—car crashes, hurricanes, floods, fires, landslides, volcanic eruptions, natural gas explosions, miners trapped hundreds of feet underground. We don't require war to build character or bond us together in the face of disaster.

A Warless Future Will Not Be A Future Without Aggression

Nor will a future without war be a place filled with flower children and saints, loving and sharing without complaint—a place that would eventually bore most of us. We're social animals. Most of us not only enjoy living with others, few of us could survive without community, and living together guarantees that we'll always have conflicts, large and small, when the needs or wants of one person conflict with the needs or wants of others. We thrive on social interaction, including social conflict.

Indeed, social conflict is one of the spices of life, and it is an expression of the aggressive component of our biology. Aggression is a fighting instinct directed against members of an animal's own species. What underlies actual fighting is this aggressive drive. Aggressive drive is also the basis of assertiveness, and when two individuals who have different views or needs assert these needs, conflict results.

Aggression (more accurately, an aggressive drive) is also essential for desirable human qualities such as achievement, friendship, love, and laughter.3 Art, from books to paintings, thrives on the study of conflicts. No great feat is accomplished without push by someone with an aggressive drive.3 

Psychologists will tell you that argument is one of the pivotal ingredients for forming long-term friendship bonds. After having an argument, people who become fast friends reconcile. It is the very act of reconciling after disagreement—saying I'm sorry and/or agreeing to agree over differences rather than to break the bond—that cements the bond. No aggression, no reconciliation, no long-term friendship.  

Achievement. Friendship. What about laughter? Comedy, and the laughter it provokes, depends upon the aggression that pokes fun at human foibles. We chuckle over the slip on the banana peel or the pie in the face or the embarrassment of being caught in a lie. We can't eliminate our innate aggression, nor would we want to. Too much that we value that makes us human would be lost.  

Using What We Know To Promote Nonviolent Conflict Resolution Rather Than Fighting

We need our aggressive drive, but we don't need wars. We can benefit from the experience of those who have seen the destruction and killing. Their stories about the evil of war should be so vividly and often told that they become the stories that make our children shudder around a campfire. A Navy Seal once described his life in the service, smiling as he recalled all the plusses—the bonding, the excitement, the sense of competence and accomplishment, even the fact that it made him a "babe magnet." But he ended by saying, with a frown, "The price is too high."

"War is at best barbarism ... Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is Hell."
                                William Tecumseh Sherman
Graduation address at Michigan
                              Military Academy, 1879

What next? We can put into practice what we already know about nonviolent conflict resolution—negotiation, mediation, win-win conflict resolution, compromise. These means are all well known and understood. By looking at various strategies and outcomes, comparing Hawks and Doves in games of war or competition, Game Theory provides theoretical insight into why these methods lead to solutions that are more inclined to last. The winning strategy over the long haul for players who interact repeatedly and who remember, as humans do, their opponent's previous moves is some form of win-win resolution. Wars, win-lose outcomes, only evoke retaliation.

Psychologists and sociologists have made major contributions, allowing us to understand what is necessary for opponents to feel that they have won what they need and can live with.  We now know that mutually agreed upon compromises, when enforced, foster stability. The tools of diplomacy are well understood from practical use. What we need is the will to apply what we already know.  

The question then immediately arises as to why, if these means are less destructive and favor stability, the world hasn't long since settled upon the unwavering use of nonviolent conflict resolution? The difficulty is that these approaches, while they can clearly be used by men, are not always the ones favored by men. They certainly are not the ones to which men in general are naturally drawn.

In general, men have been setting the rules for group-level conflict resolution throughout recorded history. With the exception of a rare occurrence of a Queen, until as recently as 100 years ago, women have never wielded significant power at state level. Because of their biology, men tend to approach conflicts in a way that emphasizes dominance and creates so-called win-lose conflict resolution.2 Individually and at state level this is often achieved through armed combat. It also foments anger and resentment in the losers, not satisfaction. Anger and resentment become the nutrient soup that feeds future conflict.

One of our greatest needs is for a critical mass of leaders who embrace the vision of a future without war and understand that nonviolence is ultimately the only path to lasting success. Not fewer wars. Or fewer dreadful wars. We need leaders who commit themselves, their lives, and their resources to a future without any wars and make clear through policy and action that they will not tolerate violence (see The Vision Thing).

Enforcing Nonviolence

Present reality is that too many countries today are led by men who are perfectly willing to use force. Consequently, sometimes force will be required to contain them (see The Vision Thing and Provide Security). The future we want to build, though, is one in which we resolve conflict using nonviolent, stability-producing means without exception.

As this is written, in 2005, an immediate step toward embracing and enforcing nonviolence is for the world's superpower, the United States, to renounce the Bush Administration's policy of preemptive war. This policy was a grave mistake that should be rectified immediately. It is antithetical to America's values and America's history, and it is profoundly antithetical to any effort to end war. America's founding fathers and every subsequent administration took the non-confrontational position that America would not launch war unless attacked. The new policy of expedient war whenever an administration claims that an enemy is contemplating aggression is a recipe for a nightmare future of invasion and retaliation if all states embraced it. If the world community is to forbid lesser nations to launch wars, the United States cannot be an exception to the rule. America will only generate enormous resentment with a "do as I say, not as I do" policy. Other nations will not accept any American claim that she is above the rules that every other country must follow and will arm themselves accordingly.

Old ideas of National Sovereignty must be reexamined in the light of new realities.4 A war in Rwanda, Malaysia, or Kashmir affects us all if for no other reason but that the resources wasted promoting and fighting such wars are subtracted from activities that could promote nonviolence and peaceful conflict resolution. The United Nations should be given enhanced and effective authority to intervene between combatants. Peacekeeping is fine. But the United Nations should also be given Peacemaking ability. Former U.S. Senator Gary Hart described a United Nations with armed and well-trained offensive troops that are able to put down fighting anywhere.4 We are one world, one community. We need to make Peacemaking a united action.  

Teaching an Ethos of Nonviolence

What else is essential to making this great change in our psychological and practical approach to conflict? We need to be aware of what we are doing.

Children learn how to live by observing what they see modeled for them. Currently the prevailing global ethos is that of the "warrior culture;" one that uses violence or threats of violence when conflicts are brewing as an early choice, not as the last choice. The tales we tell our young often glorify the warrior over the peacemaker (if the peacemaker is mentioned at all). Violence is often the preferred alternative. Our leaders, writers, artists, as well as our educational and entertainment media ought to model nonviolent ways and honor them highly.  

Art reflects culture, but it also reinforces it. Being aware of this, we should honor most highly—with our money at the box office and video checkout stand and with attention in the media—those artists among us who give us visions of a better and nonviolent future. Artists have often been among the world's dreamers for a better, less violent world. They are a national treasure for any people.

We must be skillful users of the media. The powers of the-way-things-have-always-been-done will not give in easily, and they will tenaciously resist the campaign to end war. Let no one be naive. And the media are tools in propaganda wars. To end physical war we must be savvy users of all possible media, every bit as savvy and committed as those individuals and groups who are determined to cling to the past.

We must recognize and honor our heroes. No great revolution has ever been bloodless (see How Far We Have Already Come). Gandhi understood this, as did Martin Luther King. Our biggest heroes in this campaign will be those who master nonviolent techniques and use them to good effect. While we continue, rightly, to honor those who fight and die in physical battles when necessary to protect our freedom, we must equally honor those nonviolent protesters who die, unarmed, in the battle to end armed conflicts.

Finally, on a personal level, we must think about how we respond to the violence and conflict seen by our children. What do they see us do in our daily lives to resolve conflicts with the people we know? What do they see modeled in TV shows and movies, and how do we respond to those influences? Do our children hear us laugh at patently slap-stick violence but hear sadness in our voices when we talk about the gratuitous violence during a conflict? What do they see in school from their teachers? What do the adults around them find amusing, entertaining, exciting to watch, and what do those adults find disgusting?

We need to be aware of what we are doing personally.

Cultural Norms Can Change

Is it possible to embrace a culture of nonviolence? Don't all human cultures regularly use striking, spanking, beatings to regulate their interactions? Do not all cultures regularly engage in wars? The answer is no: unless there is outside provocation, they do not.5,6,7,8,9 Many human groups have evolved a peaceable way of life. There may even have been a state-level culture that rejected war.2 The Romans enjoyed watching the slaughter of animals and people in their arenas. We no longer find such behavior entertaining. For thousands of years, slavery was assumed to be normal and natural. Cultural norms can be changed.

A warrior culture that embraces violence may be deeply rooted in today's dominant societies, but nothing prevents us from changing if we choose. We live, and our young die, in violence or in peace because we accept it.

"The world does not grow better by force or by the policeman's club."
William J. Gaynor

Another page on this site addresses the secret, essential ingredient required to catalyze the shift to this nonviolent preference (see The Secret Ingredient).


1  Hedges, Chris. 2002. War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. NY: Public Affairs.
2  Hand, Judith. 2003. Women, Power, and the Biology of Peace. San Diego, CA:
     Questpath Publishing.
3 Lorenz, Konrad. 1974, c 1966. On Aggression. Translated by Marjorie Kerr Wilson.
     NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
4  Hart, Gary. 2004. The Fourth Power. A Grand Strategy for the United States in the
     Twenty-First Century
. NY: Oxford University Press.
5  Sanday, Peggy Reeves. 2002. Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy.
     Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.
6  Waters, Frank. 1963. Book of the Hopi. New York: Penguin.
7 Crocker, William H., and Jean Crocker. 1994. The Canela: Bonding through Kinship,
     Ritual, and Sex
. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
8 Fry, Douglas P. 2006. The Human Potential for Peace. An Anthropological Challenge to
     Assumptions about War and Violence
. NY: Oxford University Press.
9 Peaceful Socieites. Alternatives to Violence and War.


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