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Randall Amster

Randall Amster

Posted January 5, 2009 | 12:00 AM (EST)

Peace is the New War


What is war good for? Absolutely nothing -- unless you're a military profiteer, torture fetishist, media mogul, or fearmongering politician. I'm tempted to add Peace Studies professors to this list, since war seemingly provides a raison d'etre to our work, but that only captures half the field -- namely the basic abolition of war that we call "negative peace" -- and misses the more interesting and challenging aspect of what "positive peace" actually looks like in practice.

People across the political spectrum are war-weary by now and ready for that positive new option. Certainly we need to contest warfare and militarism, but how many different rhetorical ways are there at this point to condemn such practices? Aside from the list of beneficiaries above, does anyone still need to be convinced that war is wasteful and devastating on innumerable levels? The knowledge is solidly there; now all we need is the political will. This short list may be of service in connecting the dots from thought to action:

1) The Peace Dividend: There's much consternation about the so-called "bailout," and rightly so, but consider that the war machine sucks up nearly this much annually. Hundreds of billions of dollars each year are spent on obsolete equipment, unaccountable no-bid contracts, and implements of destruction. Imagine those resources being conscripted instead for utilization in health care, education, green energy, the arts, food security, urban renewal, and more. It's sometimes said that war is good for the economy, but as we've seen recently those numbers simply do not add up. Investing in peace, by contrast, promises to pay dividends for generations to come.

2) Moral Equivalency: Over a century ago, William James began a landmark essay with these prescient words:

"The war against war is going to be no holiday excursion or camping party. The military feelings are too deeply grounded to abdicate their place among our ideals until better substitutes are offered than the glory and shame that come to nations as well as to individuals from the ups and downs of politics and the vicissitudes of trade."

What James suggested was that we need something akin to war in its drama, challenge, and sense of purpose in order to fashion a substitute, or a "moral equivalent." It's unreasonable to expect people to abandon a familiar narrative, even one that's unpopular or destructive, without offering something in its place. James imagined a "public service" or "public works" mandate, and we can speculate about what else might fit this bill -- there's certainly no lack of an enterprising spirit in the modern marketplace of ideas.


3) All Power to the Imagination: The ways of war have been variously referred to as "a bad cultural invention" and "a failure of the imagination." War is not a path to peace and never has been -- after all, we're still fighting wars after centuries of continuously doing so -- and if war could somehow bring an end to war it would've done it by now. A.J. Muste once said that "there is no path to peace -- peace is the way," and the inverse is also true that war is a means only to its own end. Sometimes this is called "blowback;" Malcolm X referred to it as "chickens coming home to roost," Isaac Newton described an "equal and opposite reaction," the Bible counsels that "violence begets violence," and Hindus reflect on the processes of karma. Choose your guru but the message is the same: war cannot and never did bring peace, whereas peace brings more of itself. Imagine that.

4) Sticks and Stones: Albert Einstein once observed that "peace cannot be kept by force," and when asked what kind of weapons World War III would be fought with he responded that he didn't know, "but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." In this sense, war is retrogressive and reactionary; it contributes to entropy and a downward spiral of cultural evolution. Proponents will sometimes talk about technological "spin-offs" from the military as being beneficial to society -- but what one hand giveth, armaments can taketh away. There's more than enough impetus to push the frontiers of science and philosophy without war being part of the equation, and it would surely be an interesting sight to behold the innovations conceived outside the mentality of militarism.

5) The Green Revolution: I've heard that "green is the new black," and all signs point toward a "greening" trend in both consciousness and consumption. While some doubt whether late capitalism can ever be sufficiently "greened" to forestall climate change and other global calamities, many embrace the notion that a more widely held environmental ethic can be an important component of moving the current paradigm toward something more just and sustainable. A peace economy is intimately connected to a peace ecology, in the sense that the ways in which we manage our relationship to the earth and its resources reflect how we manage our interactions and exchanges with each other. People are getting this, and a sustainable worldview is emerging. War ruins not only human lives but the environment itself, and folks aren't buying it anymore.

6) Kids Are Smart: War is, like, so old school, and young people are a lot savvier about these things than we often appreciate. Despite being inculcated into a martial culture through media, education, and technology, the sensibility of the up-and-coming generations is more pacific than one might suspect. Many are more interested in exploring what they can make rather than what they can destroy. They've grown up in a post-9/11 world of financial instability and resource conflicts, and aren't anxious to extend and replicate these scenarios. As a teacher and father of two young boys, I try to see the world through the eyes of these next generations, and the dominant sense often appears to be a mixture of fear and hope. War stokes the fear and peace holds the hope, so I'm opting for the latter -- for the kids' sake and ours.

7) The Logic of Survival: Life wants to be lived and the survival instinct is innate. President Kennedy once urged that we "must put an end to war, or war will put an end to" us. Whatever your spiritual views, creation is a positive attribute and the future matters. Leaving behind a world on the path to peace, including both the tools (hardware) and ideas (software) to promote and sustain it, ought to be among our overarching missions during our brief time here. They say that "history is written by the winners," but the future is an open book that we're all entitled to take part in writing.

We can't afford to wait for the military-industrial complex to magically abdicate power. We also can't rely solely on top-down leaders to bring the change we seek, lest we wake up to a rubric that suggests "Obama is the new Bush" or "Afghanistan is the new Iraq." There's an old bumper sticker you've probably seen: "If the people lead, the leaders will follow." This is the essence of democracy, and it's our best hope for peace as well.