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The release of Norman Kember and two Canadian fellow-members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams group (James Loney and Harmeet Singh Sooden) from kidnappers in Baghdad after 119 days in captivity was followed by a mixed public reaction. There was widespread welcome and relief; renewed sadness at the murder of their American colleague Tom Fox, who had been seized with them on 26 November 2005; yet also (in Britain at least) instant criticism of Kember in many sectors of the media.

The criticism was on two counts: Kember's tardiness in offering thanks to the troops who freed him, and his and his group's supposed naivety. The first criticism was met by Kember's statement on his homecoming from Iraq, but the second is part of a more enduring outlook: that Kember and people like him are foolish amateurs interfering in a conflict-zone, putting themselves at risk, and getting in the way of military professionals doing a far more important job (see Andrew Mueller, "'Getting in the way'": Christian peacemakers from the West Bank to Iraq", 5 December 2005).

Norman Kember and others on similar journeys of commitment riposte forcefully that military action is reinforcing rather than resolving a situation where scores of Iraqis are being kidnapped or killed every day, and that intermediation in the cause of peace can play a valuable role in addressing the roots of such violence. Much of the press in turn treats such views with contempt; pacifists and their ilk, it contends, have little or nothing to contribute in difficult situations where well-meaning but misguided naïfs should make way for those playing by "big boys' rules".

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This populist view is by no means shared by all professional military people, especially at a time when there is an increasing questioning – which reaches even into senior military circles in Britain and western Europe – about the viability of current United States policies. At the same time, the populist approach reflects a brutal "realism" in relation to Iraq and to George W Bush's wider war on terror that remains deeply lodged in media discussion and establishment thinking: that there is no real alternative to current policies.

Reality against realism

Any detached analysis is likely to see the same "reality" in a very different light. The Iraq war is now into its fourth year with no end in sight. In March 2006, attacks against US and Iraqi government forces are at a similar level to a year ago; there has been a substantial increase in sectarian attacks and violent criminality; the security situation across Iraq has become demonstrably worse in this period; and the United States is progressively withdrawing from financing reconstruction, leaving this to an Iraqi administration that faces a crippled economy and persistent sabotage of oil production.

In the course of these three years, war has killed at least 35,000 Iraqi civilians. The Americans have lost 2,325 killed and over 17,000 wounded in action; among the latter, nearly 8,000 have been so seriously wounded that they are unable to return to duty, and many have been maimed for life (see Martin Sieff, "Benchmarks: US Casualties Stay High" UPI, 22 March 2006). Meanwhile, more than 160,000 coalition troops are tied down in Iraq as the country becomes the new jihadist combat training-zone, replacing the Afghanistan of the 1980s. These troops killed or detained more than 48,000 presumed insurgents in the two years to December 2005, yet the insurgency continues to grow.

In Afghanistan, the war is heading towards its sixth year as the Taliban spring offensive gets underway. 35,000 coalition troops are deployed there, violence is rising and thousands of civilians have been killed. Pakistan has lost control of its own border regions, and districts such as North Waziristan and South Waziristan have become home bases for Afghan and other militias.

In the global war on terror, of which Iraq is a core part in Bush's worldview, at least 90,000 people have been detained without trial, some of them for four years or more. Torture, rendition and prisoner abuse are widespread. There is more anti-Americanism in the world, across the Islamic world in particular. The view that al-Qaida has lost much of its leadership and been thoroughly disrupted is assiduously cultivated; yet the movement and its wider associates have been extraordinarily active, with numerous attacks across the world since 9/11: including Djerba, Bali, Mombasa and Karachi (2002), Riyadh, Casablanca, and Istanbul (2003), Madrid, Khobar, Taba and Jeddah (2004), London, Sharm al-Sheikh, Aqaba and Amman (2005). Donald Rumsfeld now announces that the world faces a "long war" (see "The World as a Battlefield", 9 February 2006).

This hardly adds up to a spectacular success for the conduct of the war on terror, even as its proponents insist that it is unavoidable. This view in turn is part of a widespread belief that the western security paradigm has to be based on keeping control of a fractured and disparate world. In the final analysis, military power is the only option and any other approach – especially if it involves the likes of pacifists – is a waste of time.

A different path

In one of those welcome coincidences that form their own comment on the orthodoxies of the age, a book was launched in London only a few hours before Norman Kember and his colleagues were freed that serves as a remarkably powerful reminder that policy alternatives to situations like Iraq do indeed exist. The book is People Power and Protest since 1945: A Bibliography of Nonviolent Action (Housmans, 2006) and available for the astonishingly low price of £7.50 (including delivery). Its central theme is the power of non-violent action and the extraordinarily wide range of instances where this has effectively aided peaceful social change.

The co-authors (or "compilers" as they describe themselves) are in different ways experts in the theory and practice of non-violence: April Carter, one of the world's leading academic specialists on the subject; Howard Clark, former coordinator of War Resisters' International and long-time campaigner for non-violent alternatives; and Michael Randle, a dedicated peace activist and academic with a remarkable record of engagement from the "Committee of 100" (a vigorous part of the anti-nuclear weapons movement in the early 1960s) to the present day.

On the surface, People Power might seem little more than an annotated bibliography of books, articles and other sources of information on non-violent action. In reality it is very much more – indeed it could well be one of the most significant books to be published in this decade. It reviews over 900 sources of information on non-violent social change, covering a huge range of movements across the world and bringing together a wealth of experience that will be an eye-opener for many people.

The terms "people power" or "non-violent action" will make many people think of Gandhi or Martin Luther King; a few will recall the end of the Marcos regime in the Philippines in 1986; others will be reminded of the fall of the Berlin wall and the radical changes across east-central Europe in 1989. Yet most, and even a majority of activists and others involved in peace action and movements for social change, may have little knowledge of the theories of non-violence and still less of the huge number of non-violent initiatives taken in many diverse countries and circumstances across the world.

This is where People Power is a valuable resource that provides brief but succinct assessments of ideas and experiences, and presents abundant evidence of the effectiveness of non-violent strategies. Its many sections emphasise the applicability of these strategies to contexts as wide-ranging as the late colonial period, the former Soviet Union, campaigns for indigenous rights, feminist protest, environmental actions and many more.

The book is a guide and a digest rather than an encyclopedia; its main job is to review and condense a vast field of writings available only in scattered form elsewhere. In this, it draws on exemplary work such as April Carter's own Direct Action and Democracy Today (Polity, 2004) and Michael Randle's Civil Resistance (Fontana, 1994).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05, is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)

People Power does not evade some of the problems associated with the activity it exists to support. The exuberant spontaneity of some of the variously coloured revolutions in ex-Soviet states has been complicated by the backing received from the CIA and other western government agencies; some fundamentally non-violent campaigns have been accompanied by violent action on the part of a minority; and some movements have been split by competing political motives. This acknowledgment too is part of the book's quality. In its depth of information and sense of responsibility, People Power offers an impressive, even inspiring response to shallow, shrill criticisms of people such as Norman Kember.

In its existence and in its publisher's imprint, the book also represents a marvellous memorial to another gentleman: Harry Mister, a conscientious, life-long worker for peace who was the mainspring of Housmans for many years. Harry died in January 2006 aged 92. I was privileged to work with him more than twenty-five years ago when we began to develop the publishing programme of Bradford University's department of peace studies.

Housmans itself is a remarkable institution, just around the corner from Kings Cross railway station in London, and always worth a visit for anyone passing through. One of the unexpected delights of the huge redevelopment of the Kings Cross-St Pancras complex to create the new Channel Tunnel rail link, is the survival of this indomitably radical bookshop at 5 Caledonian Road, right in the middle of it! Harry – just – lived to see this transformation. He did not quite live to see the publication of People Power, but he would have relished it as a potent demonstration of the value of non-violent social change: its integrity in theory, its potential in practice, and its relevance to the transformations to come.


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