Why Talk So Much About War?

Why Talk So Much About War?

I begin this post with a series of personal admissions: I am not a badass. I am not tough, I am not built for speed, I can’t shoot worth a damn, I’ve never been so much as a Boy Scout, and the only weapon I’ve mastered is a chef’s knife. As much as I believe in self-improvement and the acquisition of new skills and abilities: I’m very much okay with all of this. I abhor violence, and consider it to be an option of extreme last resort. I’m fairly certain that faced with the option, I’d rather die than kill. I find I have a hard time hating people, even people who have certainly done wrong, and constantly struggle with the question of whether anger can serve a noble purpose. So if I’m no tough guy, what’s with the posturing? Why the belligerent metaphor? The answer is that it’s not a metaphor, war is an incredibly literal reality for anyone opposing the state regardless of their methods.

All resistance, all non-violent resistance, all violent resistance, all civil disobedience, all terrorism, all protests, all demonstrations, all underground publication, all anonymous leafleting, all strikes, and all boycotts have one thing in common: They are a form of asymmetric warfare. The list you just read is full of tactics and methods commonly associated with non-violent resistance in addition to unquestionably violent ones. The former is rarely characterized as a form of war. Yet all non-violent resistance has casualties, objectives, resource allocation, tactical innovation, and strength considerations. It is a weapon of the weak against the powerful. It is coercive, it threatens power structures, and it can end the reign of a leader just as surely as an assassin’s bullet or an invading army. What else would you call that?

This idea was not born from the mind that writes this blog, which isn’t clever enough to have conceived of it. It is based on published research and informed scholarship¹. It was not invented here. Militaries, increasingly finding themselves in police roles occupying the land of an unwilling populace, are coming to slow, gradual realization of this fact, and this is apparent in the manuals published by armed forces², though their primary priority and focus at this time is violent resistance. Political scientists and those who study the dynamics of war and peace have found that it is meaningful and useful to characterize non-violent resistance as asymmetric warfare³. There are non-violent analogues to violent means, and often times the state is sufficiently violent towards dissidents that issues of defensive and offensive posturing, and territory controlled, are sometimes the only meaningful way to describe events.

This blog, from its conception, has always been committed to non-violence, and its symbol has been a unlit bomb with a rose on the side. However it is not yet well understood, even among some veterans of leftist activism, that warfare is an appropriate framework for non-violent methods. Some doubtless do understand this since again, this framing does not originate here. However the broader left must come to the realization, and quickly, that it is convenient to use this framework. This is because numerous tactics, strategies, and philosophies of war have been developed over the course of human history, and within that vast body of old knowledge, new non-violent weapons, tactics, and methods can be rapidly developed and outpace the means and methods of the powerful.

At this point, some may read this and grow weary. War was a fine idea, but this sounds like peace, like weakness, like lying down and waiting for the next genocide. (Though the preceding link confusingly conflates certain non-violent or mixed status events with violent ones.) There are elements of the American left slowly starting to resemble the right in certain values, structures, and beliefs. This goes beyond the common criticism of tactic choice, and goes to a creeping trend in a philosophy that has attempted to keep up with tactic choice. This trend, which I fear may be too late to stop, is born out of fear and desperation.

I cannot offer encouragement to those who wish to engage in violence, I cannot offer them advice, and worst of all, I cannot offer them hope. There is rarely hope in violent resistance. I have learned this over the course of my life as a person of Palestinian descent. I have constantly been frustrated by the use of violence on the part of Palestinians, even as I understand the pain and heartbreak that inspires it. This violence leaves me bitter and resentful of its perpetrators even as I feel their justified anguish over demolished homes, broken bodies, dead family, and shattered dreams. It is not because I believe that violent resistance necessarily diminishes the rights of the resisters, or the inherent correctness of their cause. Instead, it is because I very sincerely believe, with every fiber of my being, that violent resistance is not optimal.

Why I believe it is less effective is not the mere fantasy of a moralizing coward. Though my bravery has not been tested, and though I suspect myself a true coward at my core, it is not my heart that tells me this, but my mind. Over the years I’ve watched causes falter and die in violence. Worse than the violence is the victory, twisting people into vengeful paranoid ugly shapes on the inside as residual blood-lust sours the fruits of their liberation⁴. My instincts would be confirmed as I studied the relative successes and failures of violent and non-violent resistance. But, there was always doubt in my mind, and a desire to find a real answer to the question: Is violence effective? The answer was complicated and difficult to understand, until I realized I was asking the wrong question. The question all along was, “Compared to what?” Once I asked that question, I realized that I had my answer. Non-violence is more effective. The ways in which it is an improvement on spilling blood is for another time. However, understand that this blog and its writer are committed to methods and means of non-violence. Our war is inevitable, but our monstrosity is not.

This post, and to some extent this blog, owes a debt of gratitude to Mindy Clegg. She inspired research that ultimately made possible much of the theoretical underpinning that sustains this endeavor.

1. See the excellent work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan on this subject.  For a case study in particular, see Stephan M., Mundy J. A Battlefield Transformed: From Guerrilla Resistance to Mass Nonviolent Struggle in the Western Sahara. Journal of Military and Strategic Studies. Spring 2006. Vol. 8, Iss. 3. pp. 1-32. [PDF]
2. Such as the now very well known, and highly regarded despite its flaws, US Army publication FM3-24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies. Sometimes referred to as COIN-FM.
3. Supra, (1).
4. Sagan S., Denny S. Re-Education In Unliberated Vietnam: Loneliness, Suffering, and Death. The Indochina Newsletter. October-November 1982. [Link to text]