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All We are Saying, Is Give Just Peace a Chance

What do covert operations, rocket equipped drones and nuclear weapons have in common? The hope – or illusion – that peace can be secured through the use, or threat to use, either overwhelming violence or highly personalized targeting of enemies at little cost to those launching the weapon. Mass destruction, covert ops, and so-called surgical strikes have been the contribution of the major powers to the quest for peace and security in the 20th and 21st century. Hasn’t worked very well, has it?

Following the carnage of the First and Second World Wars, nuclear weapons seemed to be a solution to putting soldiers at risk in long, drawn out conflicts. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did end the war quickly and avoided an assault on Japan proper. American lives were probably saved, traded for a holocaust that consumed over one hundred thousand Japanese civilians. The ongoing cost, of course, has been enormous, the illusion of security ephemeral, the promise of peace empty. The world has lived at the edge of nuclear catastrophe ever since.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports that currently there are approximately 16,300 nuclear weapons located at some 98 sites in 14 countries. Roughly 10,000 of these weapons are in military arsenals; the remaining weapons are retired and waiting to be dismantled. Approximately 4,000 are operational, and some 1,800 are on high alert, ready for use on short notice. Meanwhile, armed conflict of various sorts has remained a fact of life around the world. The US dropped over 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos between 1964 and 1975 according to historian Howard Zinn. This spring we will observe the 40th anniversary of our chaotic evacuation from Saigon with all its sad, iconic photos. The U.S. alone has spent well beyond one trillion dollars on warfare in Iraq, leaving less security and peace behind when it left than when it arrived. Bombed or frightened into peace hasn’t really worked.

During the Cold War covert action combining paramilitary activities of intelligence services, foreign proxy armies, and compliant dictators became a method of choice for American policy makers seeking to advance security, at least for the U.S. and its allies. President Eisenhower was particularly fond of this, though the legacy of this approach has endured through successive administrations. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen at the CIA were Ike’s mentors in this, hatching plots in Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Congo, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cuba to name a few. Few American lives were put at risk which appealed to Eisenhower who had seen more than enough death in Europe during WW II. But the legacy of their mischief haunts us to this day in most of the countries named. (For a disturbing but fascinating history of this, read The Brothers by Stephen Kinzer.)

Now we are in the era of drones carrying weapons that can be guided from control rooms thousands of miles away. The lure of this approach, of course, is that it is “surgical.” In other words, only the targeted victim is killed. Or at least that’s the theory. It doesn’t always work that way as countless civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen have discovered, leaving a trail of grief and rage and providing terrorist organizations ample recruiting propaganda. In January, 2014, the British based Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported over 2,500 killed in President Obama’s five year drone campaign. As any surgeon will tell you, every surgical procedure damages healthy tissue. “Surgical” strikes by drones are no exception. Dangerous actors may be killed, but the long term impact on peace and security is anything but benign.

There are many moral arguments to employ against the use of weapons of mass destruction, covert operations, and drones. But leaving them aside, the argument from outcomes is compelling. They have been grand failures in the quest for security and peace. Their legacy is suffering on a massive scale, profound insecurity, and anything but peace. There must be another way.

In 1985 the United Church of Christ proposed “Just Peace” as an alternative to the traditional ethical approaches – pacifism and “just war.” Instead of either absolute and immediate prohibition or providing a rationale for the use of military force, just peace offers a set of practices that provide building blocks of peace based on international structures of friendship, justice, and common security from violence. Just peace doesn’t ask the question, “Is military force justified?” Instead, it asks, “What must we do – individuals, faith communities, nation states, international organizations – to create sustainable conditions for justice and peace?” Just peace is not a moral theory but a set of moral practices designed to effectively bring about peace with justice.

Isn’t it time to try something new? The old approaches repackaged in new technology continue to fail us. Just Peace offers a way forward. Susan Thistlethwaite, professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary was a member of the working group that developed the Just Peace approach. Now, thirty years later, along with colleagues from a number of different religious traditions, her Just Peace working group has adapted the practices to the challenges faced in the 21st century. If you’re tired of tired approaches that inflict untold pain and suffering while accomplishing little good, explore the practices of Just Peace. The UCC and CTS now offer a self-directed course online on Just Peace. Check it out at https://ctschicago.edu/about/cts-whats-next/829-introduction-to-just-peace. Give peace – with justice – a chance.

John H. Thomas
October 30, 2014


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