Kathy Beckwith - Breaking the habit of war

Can Stock Photo
Can Stock Photo

Have people given up on “Peace on Earth?” When January rolls around, do we pack the words away with the decorations for another year, and assume it’s a nice, but unlikely, concept? Perhaps even an impossibility in today’s world?

I propose that it is not a holiday nicety, but a responsibility we each hold as individuals who share Earth with others, to do our part to figure out how to stir up some peace. Though there is surely more to peace than the absence of war, war is a good place to start, because it has a nasty way of affecting other things that eat away at peace – attitudes, expectations, resources, frustration levels, justice, homes and families, morals, fear.

By engaging in conversation about war, we avoid apathy toward a bad habit that, for America, started in 1776. Oops! That year is sacred. The Revolutionary War is sacred. It’s treading on dangerous ground to critically examine the war that birthed a new nation and brought with it liberty and freedom.

People say “freedom is not free” and “we have to fight to protect our freedom.” I’ve been doing some research about America’s fights and the freedoms those wars brought, and for whom. Oh, I studied U.S. history in school, and got good grades. But what I’ve learned recently — of what is now known about both sides to the conflicts, and about alternatives that were available but not chosen — has shocked me.

Guest Writer

Kathy Beckwith is an author, a mediator with Your Community Mediators, and a school mediation trainer/coach. Her book, “A Mighty Case Against War: What America Missed in U.S. History Class and What We All Can Do Now,” was published by Dignity Press in December. Kathy lives on a small farm outside Lafayette with her husband Wayne, and his five mules.

I knew I’d find a difference of opinions about the Gulf War, and Afghanistan and Iraq, because I lived through those times and had family and friends in those wars. I had a hunch I’d find things about Vietnam that I heard about only after the war was over. I was in college, then living in India, when that war unfolded, and I hadn’t engaged much with it. But, from Vietnam back to our beginning as a nation, I didn’t know what I’d discover in my studies. I love my homeland, but what I found was not a pretty picture. Patterns emerged: problems that led to war not resolved by the war; more conflict arising, sometimes another war; conquest for land and resources; devaluing human life over benefits, often economic; launching war with high and noble words, carrying it out with acts increasingly more hideous as technology advanced; fear used as a motivator; consequences often predicted — incorrectly; misinformation and propaganda presented as flawless fact; environmental damage; costs of war in lives lost and in dollars. 

I started a list of freedoms protected resulting from the wars we fought. That one from 1775 to 1783 included the freedom to give up on the amazing, nonviolent revolutionary work by colonists pursuing independence, including boycotting, networking, refusing to cooperate with injustice, creating alternative products and markets, and to instead exercise the freedom to settle it with guns. That war cost thousands of lives and millions of dollars ($2 billion in current value), resulting in a huge war debt on both sides of the pond that led to heavy taxes (ironically, one of the reasons for going to war). Continuing through history, the Indian Wars and treatment of American Indians here in Yamhill County and in Oregon was absolutely shameful. The War of 1812 included a glitch of timing that could have prevented the war entirely. The Mexican-American War was nearly unbelievable in its grab for Mexico’s land. People believe the Civil War was all about slavery, not politics and economics, yet no other nation had to slaughter one another to end slavery. The Spanish-American War had much to do with political power and economic control in Cuba and led to the Philippine-American War, which could be dubbed disgraceful and outrageous, at best. World War I and II and the Korean War are tied closely together in cause and effect. The justifications for war pale dramatically as history and alternatives are studied. And then there are the “secret wars” and acts of war. While studying one — the Tampico Military Action of 1914 – I was flabbergasted! In the end, a bleak picture emerges, contradicting America’s “noble cause” and “fighting for freedom” justifications for war.

But why then does war continue to sell if the record is so bleak? That’s a question deserving our attention, and the answers are easily available and illuminating if we look. But are there alternatives to war that really work? Work better? I say yes. And, again yes, if they are sought out and used. But they often remain ignored as the drums for war beat loud and colorfully between TV ads.

Because governments claim the right to resolve conflict by war (by destroying, burning, bombing, mangling, crushing, killing, tearing apart, wreaking havoc, homelessness, despair, hopelessness), does not mean that it is right for them to do so, any more than it would be right for doctors to poison children or school janitors to burn down schools. Because those groups have access and ability to carry out the named task does not mean it is logical or wise or moral. We would declare it absolute insanity in the case of the doctors and janitors, but we are numb to and overlook the insanity in the case of governments. We stop demanding, “What else can be done?” Yet we are horrified when individuals or groups decide they can do what governments do and wreak havoc with their own destructive means.

Habits are hard to break. Fear is tricky to shake off once it’s been instilled. But all that is needed is for one international conflict to be resolved without violence to open the way for another, and another ... one at a time. Soon we would recognize war for what it is: destructive, wasteful, cruel, unnecessary, foolish, and then — obsolete.

Free from war we can get on with the fun and creativity, community building and sense of adventure, passion and deep joy to be found in all the multitude of ways that grow “Peace on Earth.” Even in January, when the decorations are in the attic.

What would happen if we studied the stories of nonviolent conflict resolution around the world, the really tough cases? We could learn about the Kellogg-Briand Pact, still the law of the land in the United States of America. Our nation agreed with others that we would settle all disputes — of whatever nature or origin — by peaceful means. War was outlawed. Let’s hold our leaders and ourselves to that standard. 

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