A Welcome to Diana Francis’ reflections: Conflict Transformed

This new generation missed out on the US civil rights movement, where nonviolent direct action was employed brilliantly and strategically in the service of change. Now it’s time for all of us to respond to the ultimate challenge of how warfare dominates our discourse

Paula Green
18 December 2009
from War to Peace logo

Like the author of Conflict Transformed, I have participated in movements for peace and justice as they arise and fall away in our own time, including those for civil rights and women’s liberation in the US. We served together on the Steering Committee of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, where we cheered the Filipino nonviolent revolution, watched the Berlin Wall tumble, and identified ourselves as supporters and trainers for active nonviolence, inspired by the quest for justice and the matching of means and ends.  At that time, less than twenty years ago, there were few graduate degrees in peace and conflict, and we seemed to be activists and advocates in nonviolent social change rather than professionals in peacebuilding.

Somewhere in that time a new professional field arose, and Diana and I, along with thousands of others, are part of it. We have participated in the emergence of MA and PhD degrees in peace and conflict, in careers to be pursued, and in the integration of perspectives on war and peace from subjects as diverse as law, economics, psychology, human rights, gender studies, political science, etc.  Many of us have chosen to describe our work as “conflict transformation,” based on our understanding that individuals and groups must transform oppressive and prejudicial attitudes and behaviors, and simultaneously the unjust structural systems that support oppression must also be transformed. We have come to see that peace must be pursued, and its aims owned, by all members of a community, from the politicians to the most marginalized, from the aggrieved to the silent bystanders. Anything less creates outsiders who become tomorrow’s spoilers.

We have also learned that the end of armed conflict is not a guarantee of peace. Enemy images linger, passed down through the generations. Hatred and enmity are not easily erased, and old habits of discrimination do not fade away without new laws, reinforcement from media and government, and conscious relational practices of connection and the development of empathy. New skills and approaches to inter-communal dialogue allow conflicting communities to air grievances and misperceptions, sometimes leading to improved levels of trust and mutuality. Communities emerging from conflict may easily slide into future cycles of revenge if the impulses to strike back are not replaced with a stronger need to end violent reprisals and seek the common good.

Innovative processes of post-conflict reconciliation and forgiveness are emerging from national experiments, most notably the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Despite their TRC being emulated around the world, South Africans now recognize that only extensive economic justice, including education, housing, and employment, will enable citizens oppressed by past exclusion to reap the benefits promised by the end of apartheid.  Attitudes, opportunities, and laws feed and stimulate each other in the process of post-conflict peacebuilding. The past does not disappear; legacies of dehumanization and violence must be examined, with responsibility owned and acknowledged, for a secure future to be possible.

As it has grown, the field of peacebuilding has learned to be self-reflective and to examine its principles and practices. Members of this community wrestle with issues such as terminology and its relationship to our aims and approaches, with insider/outsider status, with western domination, and with evidence-based evaluations. We have learned that the field of peacebuilding does make modest contributions but research shows that they do not “add up to peace writ large.” Given the size of the military budgets of the world, there is no relational scale between the instruments of warfare and those of peacebuilding, and expecting peacebuilders to help nations to prevent or truly recover from armed conflict on bake-sale sized budgets would be preposterous. An excellent state of the field report, expanding on many of these points, is available from US Institute of Peace (USIP) Current Challenges to the Field of Peacebuilding Work.

However, as Diana Francis writes, if we really want peace, we must attend more fully to the scourge of war, out of which more endless cycles of suffering, enmity, trauma, and impulse to revenge are born and perpetuated. We do rationalize, justify, and glamorize war, and in the US we can hardly run our economies and manage our employment levels without it. Some of us, Diana believes, might fruitfully remember our roots in the advocacy-based movements of nonviolent social change. My students sometimes tell me that nonviolence is “old fashioned” and that Gandhi is “out of date.” This new generation missed out on the US civil rights movement, where nonviolent direct action was employed brilliantly and strategically in the service of change, and similarly have not lived through any massive campaigns of nonviolent advocacy in their own countries or communities.

As much as we need the worthy contributions of professionals in peacebuilding, perhaps, Diana suggests, we also need citizen activists to organize protests against war that are sufficiently visible and consistent so that our leaders pay attention. Our officials may be entrenched and obligated to the systems that support them, but our citizens have considerable freedom and mobility. We might wonder what prevents fervent citizen mobilization. Noam Chomsky once called it “tranquilization by the trivial,” and I wonder now if our relative passivity is also because we in the US fight wars on distant shores by women and men who come from marginalized populations within our society. These are not the middle class white college students whose draft numbers caused the massive resistance of decades ago. I find it so easy to click petitions for peace, yet I know much more is demanded of me. Neither advocacy campaigns online or on the streets, however, will sufficiently impact the entrenched interests that allow warfare to dominate our discourse, and that is Diana’s ultimate challenge to the reader.

Diana is inviting a dialogue, urging readers to confront the global militarization and the chronic warfare that plague the planet and in which we engage to protect our so-called national or regional interests. As a global community, she argues, we have no consensus that we must develop other ways to manage our differences, despite the cries of “never again” with which we end each conflagration. Even with our networked globalized commons and our increasingly precarious shared environment, we have yet to crack the delusion of separateness that causes humans to pit themselves against others. We have yet to manage the greed that keeps us on the wheel of self-protection, or to overcome the fear of strangers with their seemingly inscrutable customs and cultures. We have yet to demilitarize our minds and to dismantle our walls. What will it take?

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