The myths that surround the military's power to do good

"We need to construct ourselves as cooperative entities, so that the way we understand belonging and identity does not have to be predicated on hostility towards others. Diana Francis talks to Vanessa Alexander and Jonathan Cohen about her latest book From Pacification to Peacebuilding.

Vanessa Alexander Jonathan Cohen
19 March 2010

Interviewer: How does From Pacification to Peacebuilding build on your previous work?

Diana: My first book People, Peace and Power was about how to get a mutuality of process and goals, which can only be achieved if there is power parity between the sides to a conflict. So in an effort to empower ordinary people, I wrote about how to make a difference in the midst of violence and injustice.

I wrote my second book Rethinking War and Peace as a peace campaigner. The urge to write it came from my experience of working in the former Yugoslav countries and my distress and rage when powerful countries that had failed to support the nonviolent resistance of Albanian Kosovars and confirmed Milosevic in power, then proceeded to launch a war against Serbia at a moment when European monitors were having some impact. Suddenly the whole human rights and peace community were a part of this militarist project. I continued to work in Kosovo, which was not comfortable, but it gave me a chance to see first hand the impact of Western policy on force.  


Int:  The cynicism that is reflected in the realpolitik you encountered is reminiscent of what happened in Iraq, which is the manipulation of a context in which states will go to war. There is a huge dilemma there, which seems central to your work as I have observed it over the years. You focus on individuality and on personal change and those individuals coming up against systems that block their capacity to change.

Diana: That’s absolutely right. I wrote Rethinking War and Peace in an effort to deconstruct the myths that surround the military’s power to do good. We do peacebuilding for lots of reasons and to many ends, but the state system seems to be about pacification or control, to create stability for ‘our’ hegemony. This, and how to change it, is the argument of my latest book. I’d like to see us begin to construct ourselves as cooperative entities, so that the way we understand belonging and identity does not have to be predicated on hostility towards others.


Int:  Tell us about the feeling of going into a community and working with people who are barely pawns in this process, people who are so often ignored.

Diana: The feeling I get at the “ground” level is that of genuine action for change. I see the best kind of conflict resolution activity as being what Ghandi called the ‘constructive programme’ in which you live the alternative. This is why I like working with ‘ordinary’ people: because they are doing on the ground the things that you are trying to bring about at the systems level.  That not only matters in itself but also proves that change is possible.


Int:  In your book you talk about facilitating and supporting people, not trying to be them but instead helping them to carry their burdens. You emphasize that peace, democracy and justice have to be home grown not imposed from outside. So, since we all have agendas, how do you manage your own agendas in your work with local people?

Diana:  Well I have a very big agenda! I don’t know how to say this without sounding terribly sanctimonious; I just love people. They somehow take you out of yourself and into their agenda. But in any case, in the campaigning and conflict transformation work you’re working to a conflict transformation brief. There is already a frame which is about nonviolence, so I don’t have to preach because that’s already a given.


Int: You mean that’s a given for you? With some of those you work with it may be a consideration.

Diana: No, I mean in the context of this work, you’re not looking for military options. The people I work with may have already taken a military option, but the work I would be doing with them would be looking at options to get out of the military set of behaviours and into a transformative or resolving set of behaviours. I certainly have to accept people’s scepticism about dialogue and nonviolence, but it seems to me that if we don’t address the global system - and this is the challenge I present to readers in From Pacification to Peacebuilding - we will fail to have the deep and lasting impact we envision.


Int: I’m conscious that there is a process of professionalizing peacebuilding NGOs, which is taking place alongside the existence of campaigning organizations with a related but different transforming agenda. What is the tension or the dilemma between these roles and relationships?

Diana: There are huge dilemmas. About professionalization: I can remember a really active village group in Nigeria who had been offered money to support their work, but with that came the demand for accountants and degrees. A few years on, none of the founders were left. Money enables but it also kills. On it’s own, money will not nurture that kind of grass-roots movement.

The other problem with peacebuilding movements, from a donor’s perspective, is the risk of turbulence. We don’t talk about conflict prevention rather than violence prevention by mistake, but because we’re afraid of conflict and confuse the two. Nonviolent action for change is very much about engaging conflict and that’s not what people want to fund because it’s risky.  Is the money really intended for radical change or is it for smoothing things over so that the show can go on? If you live in Burma, for example, and you want massive social change, you have to take massive risks – and what donor wants to be associated with those risks? There is nervousness about losing reputation or wasting money; but there are also ethical worries about encouraging other people to take massive risks. So I see the energy of movements, whose nature is to be ungoverned and ungovernable, and then I see donors who don’t want that: they want accountability, the log frame, a pretence of some kind of certainty that is, in fact, impossible.


Int: You have talked a little about how the peacebuilding field has changed, but you also gave examples – the Soviet Union and South Africa – of what you refer to as “people power”. In From Pacification to Peacebuilding you expand on this idea and refer to an “awakening of moral understanding”. Could you give some examples of what you mean by this?

Diana: I think the recent collapse or near-collapse of the great economic system of global capitalism has made people think differently about lives. There is fear about the future. There is also a growing sense of disgust with extreme materialism. Many people would like to think there is more to life than what they own and what they display.

People are trying to deconstruct this false sense of separateness and imagine something different. I would like to see much more of a sense of community between the peace movement, the economic justice movement, the green movement and the human rights movement. The response would then be as connected as the root causes.


Int: What could help facilitate that?

Diana: To bring it down a very local effort, we are about to have a meeting of different advocacy groups in my home-town of Bath, to discuss what we have in common.  It’s about having a sense that you’re walking the same road even if you focus on different issues. You can reinforce one another. It’s about knowing, for instance, that you don’t have peace if you don’t have justice, and it’s hard to bring about justice during a war.


Int: We know that the responsibility to care and protect, and by extension a respect for nonviolence, are the values that inspire you. Who are the people that inspire you?

Diana: People who know what they believe and go on saying it despite the threats against themselves. That kind of personal commitment and clarity and courage I find very inspiring.  People who come up against armies and refuse violence in the face of almost certain death. That kind of power goes beyond any other sort of power. What can militarism do? It can destroy people but it can’t actually make them think differently. So that power that refuses to be displaced by military force is what keeps me convinced and motivated.

People who have lived by violence and yet are prepared to re-examine themselves and take a step in a different direction. I find that immensely inspiring and very, very brave. I knew someone who got up and talked about his own past cruelty in the most blood-curdling way as a kind of offering to the others in a dialogue. All he had to give was this piece of personal honesty and to commit himself to working for reconciliation.

People who endlessly scrutinise their own work and ask themselves to do better and recommit themselves and at the same time talk about their own failures and confusion- that kind of persistent, reflective work I hugely admire.


Diana Francis was interviewed by Vanessa Alexander and Jonathan Cohen of Conciliation Resources 


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