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Peace movements: violence reduction as common sense

If one thing holds the overall movement of peace movements together it is the goal of violence reduction. There’s a shared conviction that violence is a choice, that there exists, much more often than commonly supposed, a more violent and a less violent course of action

Can we justifiably speak of a global movement against war? News reports from many countries suggest that anti-militarist activism is widespread and varied. In Britain, Stop the War Coalition is currently mobilizing against the threat of Western aggression against Iran. We see reports of Israeli school-leavers refusing military service. In recent weeks there’ve been stories and photos of robed Catholic priests and other brave South Koreans cutting razor wire and paddling kayaks to stop the dynamiting of bedrock in preparation for a new US naval base on the island of Jeju. 

But how coherent, how cumulative, how continuous is all this resistance? Is it irreversible, irresistible? That was what I was asking myself, and others, as I trekked from country to country in the last three years carrying out the research that was published this month by Palgrave Macmillan in a book with the title Antimilitarism: Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements. The actual questions I asked of course were nowhere near as ambitious as these. I didn’t want to hear, “Dream on!”. More soberly I set out to examine in careful detail, in a number of locations, the objectives, methods, analyses and values of certain organizations, movements and networks. To wonder: what do they add up to, what divides them?

I went to Japan and made contact with activist groups opposing the US-Japan Security Treaty and the many military bases that weigh down the little islands of Okinawa. But the peace movement in Japan is complex. There are groups defending the Peace Constitution, against the push of right-wingers to turn Japan into a warrior state once more. There’s rage against nuclear weapons - and who has more reason than the Japanese! And, besides, much of the movement is markedly aligned in socialist and communist wings. In South Korea too the movement is characterized by distinctive tendencies. Some groups focus on reunification of North and South Korea, aiming to turn 1953’s armistice into actual peace. That means turning a blind eye to North Korea’s bomb, meanwhile. Others, in a different vein, campaign for demilitarisation of both Koreas (and the region). Particular historic moments bring together groups whose perspectives at other times divide them. In midlands England at that moment when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead against the people of Gaza – it was the winter of 2008/9 - many organisations came together to oppose the aggression. But they are variously Muslims, Christians and secularists who at other times chant from different hymnals, if they’re not singing the lyrics of Richard Dawkins or Antonio Gramsci.

Some chapters in the book on antimilitarism report on studies I made of transnational networks. War Resisters International, founded soon after the First World War, brings together groups worldwide of conscripts refusing military call-up. An interesting tension has always existed in this movement between a profound, principled pacifism (their membership pledge goes ‘We… are determined not to support any kind of war and to strive for the removal of all causes of war’) and the rousing aim of ‘the supercession of Capitalism and Imperialism by the establishment of a new social and international order based on the principle of co-operation for the common good’. Er? Yes: revolution. But nonviolent revolution. WRI insist on the irreducible necessity of fundamental change – nothing else will bring peace. And they elaborate the means – see their Handbook for Nonviolent Action But this tight and narrow path is strewn with drop-outs, the ones who in desperation picked up a weapon, the ones whose refusal to shed blood ended in settling for piecemeal reform within the system.

Violence, not merely as problem, sometimes as activist method, is a tendentious issue for antimilitarist movements, as it is for the anticapitalist and altermondialiste left generally. In Antimilitarism I describe a major demonstration against NATO in Strasbourg in 2008 in which ‘black block’ activists in an otherwise orderly crowd retaliated against police teargas and shock grenades by torching buildings and hurling concrete, putting other demonstrators’ safety at risk. The incident gave rise to heartfelt debates within the movement. Our peaceful protest showed up on Europe’s TV news that evening as pure mayhem. How had we allowed this to happen? On the other hand shouldn’t we recognize that working class youth have a strong case against the state and, after all, “boys will be boys”?  We are likely to see more of this home-grown violence around the NATO Summit in Chicago in next month.

The great majority of peace activists, logically enough, exclude violence from their repertoire of action. Those most likely to endorse it are certain sections of the left, including anarchist groups. But violence by no means defines these, as is sometimes carelessly assumed. Anarchism has strongly pacifist expressions, as well as that which deems violence liberatory and effective.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know whether a given organisation or network should be termed “anti-war”, “anti-militarist” or “for peace”. Violence as method can perhaps be seen as a watershed in this varied landscape. Whatever the cogency of the argument for violence in the context of movements located on anti-militarist or anti-war terrain (and it’s not great), it clearly fails entirely in the field of “peace” movements. In general I’ve found that, if one thing may be identified as holding the overall movement of movements together it is a broad goal of violence reduction.

Few in the movement are utopian enough to believe in the possibility of a totally violence-free world. And they would not be in the movement at all if they were pessimists enough to believe violence is human nature and we’re stuck with it. Rather, there’s a shared conviction that violence is a choice, that there exists, much more often than commonly supposed, a more violent and a less violent course of action. There’s more than one policy, programme, stance, gesture, turn of phrase,  and we can prefer one over the other. The cabinet can choose to cancel the contract for the aircraft carrier. The man can choose to put down the gun. The woman can choose not to slap the child. Violence is discretionary.

But what’s that about the woman and child? Can violence in household and school, street and community, be discussed in the same breath as armed conflict? There’s a growing and vocal sub-set of anti-war, anti-militarist and peace movements that’s feminist, and a lot of women activists argue that the violence of peace and war can and must be considered a continuum. Movement organizations are mainly led by men, but women are often a substantial part of the membership. Some break away to form women-only organizations, like Women in Black and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, in which they can develop a distinctive theory and practice.

Women who are caught up in militarisation and war can scarcely overlook the gendered realities. Not only are war-makers and war-fighters predominantly male - even when women are recruited it does little to change armies. The values that govern states and militaries continue to be those deemed masculine. Women and men do different things in armed conflict, are tortured by different means, die different deaths – or survive into different futures. War is gendered through and through.

Not only gendered but sexualised. One striking aspect of the continuum of violence running through pre-war, war-time, post-war and supposed peace-time is the prevalence of rape. Rape is an exercise of power, an expression of aggressive sexuality overwhelmingly enacted by men on women – though it may also be used to humiliate other men. But the cut and thrust of combat, as those who study it can demonstrate, is also experienced by many men and boys as erotic. A banal reminder is the attractiveness of realistic war video games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 which recently set a new sales record. How many boy children last Christmas were sitting on their sofas, delightedly, onanistically, obsessed, shooting Afghans with realistic assault rifles?

A well-organized feminist element in peace movements world wide is therefore contributing a fresh analysis of the sources of war and what we must do to end it. Women are saying, yes, capitalism is a cause of war – the competitive thrust for control of oil, minerals, markets. And yes, nationalism is a cause of war, the mobilization by elites of culture, religion and identity for the control of territory and resources. But, we are saying, hey, look as well at the patriarchal sex-gender order we live in. It’s a power system like those others, indeed inseparable from them. And it’s a cause of war too. The way this malign gender power relation shapes men and masculinity, women and femininity, predisposes us to war. It makes war for-ever thinkable, for-ever likely.

That being the case, feminist work for gender change, the women’s anti-war movement argues, has to be recognized as peace activism. A major step towards realizing the potential for a coherent global movement against militarism and war, one with counter-hegemonic reach, would be an uncoupling of men and masculinity from violence – culturally, conceptually and actually – both in the world and in our movements. This is not to suggest we should slacken our struggle against capitalism, nationalism and other destructive -isms. It’s simply to pay due attention to the fact that the “we” who have to cohere in an unstoppable peace movement, while undeniably challenged by the power differentials of class and ethnicity, are even more seriously, and intimately, riven by gender oppression. It’s a power relation we actually have the tools to dismantle. And who’s better placed than men to pick up the spanners and get to work?

This article is one of a series of articles addressing  themes for discussion at the 12th AWID International Forum Transforming Economic Power to advance women's rights and justice  which takes place in Istanbul, April 19th -22nd

Cynthia Cockburn's new book  Antimilitarism: Political and Gender Dynamics of Peace Movements is published this month by Palgrave Macmillan









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