The Path to Peace

through Social Transformation

James Michener tells the story of a man, an American of the early 1930s who read the newspapers of his day very carefully. His reading of the news gradually convinced him that the world was heading into dangerous times, that a new war might engulf the entire northern hemisphere. He studied the globe, looking for a place where he and his family might be safe and secure. After several years of deliberation he finally made a decision. He moved himself and his family and everything he owned to a safe little island tucked away deep in the South Pacific, a little island so remote it would never be attacked, an island named… Guadalcanal.

If the name 'Guadalcanal' means nothing to you, then you need to know that it became the scene of a three-month-long horrific battle in 1942, a battle that killed 25,000 Japanese and Americans on a tiny dot of land, way out in the middle of lonely nowhere. I try always to remember that poor guy and his family. For me the lesson is this: even if think you see the danger of war more clearly than anyone else, you might still end up doing exactly the wrong thing.

I have been a pacifist my entire life, which for me was easy because my father was a pacifist too, having been a conscientious objector in both World War II and the Korean War.

Tel el Toot, Syria (copyright © 2002 by John Candler Cobb)
As his alternative to military service, he drove an ambulance for the British Eighth Army as they chased Rommel all across northern Africa, then through the Middle East, the landing in Sicily, and up the coast of Italy. He was a journalistic photographer at the time, so he developed his pictures in a makeshift darkroom in the back of his big Dodge ambulance with the huge Red Cross on its side. I grew up looking at his now-famous photo collection, inhaling stories of British military life among the Arabs, and developing an early fascination with and appreciation for all things military.

Pacifism is traditional among the Religious Society of Friends, a small denomination of Protestants who are known more commonly by the name Quakers. The concepts and spiritual basis for pacifism permeated the little Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania that I attended, back in the 1960s. Though I am not a member of any particular Quaker meeting, I am happy to identify myself as a Quaker, a grateful follower of George Fox.

However! The pacifism that I have followed in my life lies far from the traditional path. Traditional pacifism starts with an individual decision never to participate in killing or warfare. In this form it is truly an individual matter, quite independent of anything that society might want or command, which is why so many pacifists end up in jail for extended periods. Many of those who incorporate pacifism into their lives generally end up working for peace — and it is this precisely this effort that has taken me down some strange and unexpected pathways.

Quakerism, unlike most forms of Christianity, is largely a meditative and mystical practice. In many meetings for worship there is no service, no minister, no scripture, no sermon, and seldom any music. It is primarily meditation, for about an hour. A few Quaker meetings are absolutely silent, but most are not: they are punctuated from time to time by a member who feels moved to stand and speak, communicating as best he can an insight garnered from the inward journey. Like most forms of deep meditation practiced over many years, in both Eastern and Western religions, the inward journey leads most people to what I can best describe as a direct personal experience with that deep connection that exists between all people, a timeless ocean of common humanity that lies far below the sense of having an independent self. For me, and I think for many others, this timeless place is the only true reality, and the feeling of separate individuality is just an illusion. Needless to say, it is difficult indeed to engage in violence or warfare when this is your reality. That is why I call this experience the spiritual basis of pacifism.

During the Vietnam War, my draft board approved my application for status as a conscientious objector. I was on the point of being drafted into alternative service when President Nixon suddenly introduced the draft lottery, and I was excused from service with a very high lottery number.

In my mind, the spiritual basis for personal nonviolence is as clear as crystal, as deep as the human soul, and as warm and rich as all humanity. But — and this is a very large but — there is more to peace on earth than personal decisions for nonviolence. I want now to explore the problematic areas with you, the question of how best to advance the cause of peace on the social, political, and military levels. This is where the hard problems really begin.

There are those in the peace movement who adhere to a very simple faith: that if everyone were to refuse to participate in war, then we would have peace. I am not one of these people; in fact I think this idea is dead wrong, a sociological impossibility. In my view, wars begin because of institutional weakness. When I use the word “institutions” I am referring to such things as churches, states, courts, corporations, and schools. Nations do not simply wake up one morning and decide to go to war. Instead, there is a long period during which the institutions that normally resolve conflicts between sovereign states begin to fail, generating more conflict and more institutional failure, until finally war is the only recourse left for conflict resolution. I know that sounds hopelessly abstract, but the core idea is that it is weak institutions, not weak or evil people, that cause wars. The descent of the United States into civil war is an excellent example: it was a process that dragged itself out over many decades during which our highest institutions, namely Congress, the Supreme Court, and five sequential administrations, tried and failed to resolve the underlying conflicts between northern and southern states. The ultimate failure belonged to the Supreme Court, whose disastrous decision in the Dredd Scott case pushed the country over the brink.

Ten years ago, in the early 1990s, I had the incredibly good fortune to get a real opportunity to do something about these institutional causes of war. Ironically enough, it came from a military source. US Southern Command, the part of the US military that is responsible for security in all of South America and the Caribbean, asked me to write a computer simulation of a typical third-world country in the aftermath of a civil war, and to use this simulation in large-scale military exercises in Latin America. These military exercises, which we have been running twice a year ever since, are designed to educate and train Latin American military organizations in how to do UN peacekeeping, and more generally how to engage in what are called “military operations other than war,” a category that includes disaster relief and complex humanitarian emergencies. In contemporary international terminology, a humanitarian emergency is “complex” when it includes fighting. The idea was, and still is, to offer Latin American militaries an alternative to their traditional but unhealthy focus on internal politics and coups d’etat. For an unconventional pacifist like me, who believes that the single greatest threat to peace is weak or sick institutions, this opportunity was truly a gift, a chance to work with military organizations whose past behavior has been problematic, to put it mildly.

I have been working as a consultant with the military ever since — and not just the American military. As the work has grown, I have become involved directly and personally with most of the military institutions of Latin America, and with UN military peacekeeping personnel from the all over the world. Frankly, all of this is personally a little overwhelming for little old me, a Quaker pacifist who never imagined working for the military in any capacity, but I’m trying to make the best of it.

The most exciting development for me is a new project we have, called NationLab. This is a project originally proposed in 1996 by the Bolivian school for higher national studies (Escuela de Altos Estudios Nacionales), an institution that is the rough equivalent of our National Defense University. This school is for civilians, military officers, and police commanders who are on the fast track upwards towards high positions in the national government. It is the only school in Bolivia that teaches national strategy and national security. Interestingly, this school has long defined the primary threats to national security not as potentially hostile neighboring countries, like Chile for example, but instead something quite different. According to this school and indeed the whole Bolivian government, the primary threats to their national security are poverty, corruption, and organized crime. NationLab is a strategic role-playing exercise, designed to test policies and strategies for overcoming these problems.

We now have NationLab exercises in half a dozen countries, facilitated by a US team consisting of just myself and an exceptionally talented retired colonel. Each NationLab is a customized exercise in which the students role-play all the major roles in government, including the national bank and heavy international institutions like the IMF, and, of course, the leadership of cocaine cartels, radical opposition groups, and political factions in the legislature.

International Negotiations during RegionLab 2003
In this way students are able to get a realistic exposure to the difficulties of decision-making at the highest levels of government, and to test out their favorite policy innovations to see if they might perhaps work, and we all see where the institutional weaknesses really are and how they work to inhibit the development of the country.

This year we experimented with a regional version of NationLab at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, DC. The theme of the game was the conduct of international negotiations in the resolution of a severe refugee problem. This experimental game was so successful that we are now committed to a three-nation South American version next year, to be called RegionLab.

From these projects I have learned a lot of things. One is that there is a lot more going on in the world than is reported in the news. Television news seems always to be dominated by the latest catastrophe or disaster, and does a remarkably bad job of revealing long-term trends and changes. Newspapers are only slightly better. My view of what is happening out there is quite a bit different, far more hopeful and positive.

Where many Americans think that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, I see extraordinary signs of progress, strength, and hope. Globalization, broadly interpreted as the penetration of the rest of the world into our narrow parochial affairs, has forced sovereign nations into levels of accommodation with each other that were simply inconceivable one hundred or even fifty years ago. We are rapidly growing a new crop of international institutions, and improving our old ones with impressive speed. I’m not merely referring to the century-long development of institutions at the highest level, like the United Nations, the World Court, and the World Health Organization, powerful as these may have become. I’m also thinking of the countless treaties, agreements, and agencies of civil society that monitor and govern everything from space to radio frequencies to airline traffic to deep-sea fishing. This is where institutional growth is really happening, far under the journalistic radar screen. These are developments that will ultimately secure the peace, by reducing and resolving conflicts between nations before they ever get a chance to snowball.

Within Latin American and Asian nations too, I see growth and progress. For example, several years ago my wife and son and I traveled to Guatemala to study Spanish. The plane landed on the island of Flores, where the last functioning Mayan temple was destroyed by the Spanish in 1697. From Flores we took a water taxi across Lake Petén to the Mayan village of San Andrés. This village operates a little open-air school for foreigners who want to learn Spanish while living with a Mayan family. There on the edge of that beautiful lake, in a village with no cars and only episodic electricity, we saw Mayan herbal healers living and working in harmony alongside Catholic priests and evangelical Protestant missionaries. We saw a school without walls, but with phones, computers and a modern website. Our instructors were equally at home discussing the ancient Mayan religion, the scientific ecology of the rain forest, or the moral implications of the death penalty. It was an eye-opener for me, an extraordinary glimpse of an emerging modern synthesis between old and new.

Lake Petén Itza, Guatemala

Within the armies of Latin America it is a similar story of change. Memories and remnants of the vicious old days of military dictatorships and midnight death squads are still all around us. In a park in downtown Asunción, Paraguay, there is a statue of an angel embracing a youth. The plaque says this: “To the youth of our country who defended social justice, democracy, and liberty. They were persecuted, tortured, and killed in the terrible days of the dictatorship of General Stroessner, 1954-1989.” But throughout Latin America, with only a few exceptions, there are heroic efforts underway to reform the militaries and militias that brought so much pain to so many people. Human rights are now taught to every officer. Women are now allowed to become officers. Military coups are now strongly discouraged, and military units now work to prevent smuggling and contraband, and to assist in the fight against organized crime, narcoterrorism, and corruption. This is a profound change in attitude, a change that is still ongoing and incomplete, very much a work in progress.

In many states of Latin America, civil wars of twenty and thirty years’ duration have recently been wrapped up and resolved; the former warring factions are now busily transforming themselves into political parties. Where once the national militaries occupied themselves with repressing peasants and overthrowing governments, they are now engaged with internal reform and international peacekeeping for the United Nations. For example, we have had Argentines serving the United Nations in Croatia, Uruguyans in Cambodia, Brazilians in Angola, the list goes on and on. When they return from these UN missions, soldiers and officers bring back an invaluable international perspective, and an unwillingness to tolerate repressive practices that once were common in Latin America.

El Salvador is another country that recently wrapped up a long-standing civil war, the roots of which go back to the disastrous legal decree of 1880 which blocked the ownership of land by Indian communities. For more than a century El Salvador has been ruled by a small but wealthy elite, with periodic bloody rebellions by impoverished peasants. The latest ended in 1992 with a peace agreement negotiated by the UN. At our recent NationLab exercise in El Salvador, we had among our participants several former left-wing FMLN guerrillas, one now a police commander, the other a legislator. In the course of the exercise the FMLN came to power, and we had a chance to see just how far this country has come in its ongoing evolution towards democratic institutions that successfully resolve conflicts, and away from the old autocratic institutions that have caused so much pain. [I have to stress that the FMLN came to power only in the exercise scenario of 2003. In the real-life presidential election of 2004, the FMLN was defeated.]

The Latin American exception to this positive trend is Colombia, where powerful left-wing guerrilla armies have largely abandoned their liberation politics and have converted themselves into a private army for the multi-billion-dollar cocaine industry. This is an industry that is just now regenerating itself after its cartels were smashed into a thousand independently-operating pieces a few years ago. And in Perú there are signs that the ultra-violent Sendero Luminoso movement may be headed down this same dark path. Yet even here there are robust signs of progress. Perú has its very first president of indigenous origin, and also a remarkable economist named Hernando de Soto, who is now in line for a well-deserved Nobel Prize. In Perú, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay the native peoples are stirring, finally learning the modern techniques of political power. Practically every government in Latin America now recognizes the incredible toll that corruption exacts from its economy and political life, and they are moving to heal this centuries-old social illness. Times will be tough, disasters will happen, but the long-term trend is very clear: the countries of Latin America are transforming their institutions as we watch. I believe that peace, both domestic and international, will follow.

With the exception of Central Africa, almost the entire developing world is following this path towards economic growth and stronger democratic institutions. Military organizations are changing fast too, including our own. Nation-building and international peacekeeping, two ideas that were not long ago derided by ultra-conservatives, are now recognized as absolutely essential for our own security and for world peace generally. I believe that Afghanistan and Iraq have now proven that to all but the most diehard of nationalists. The top levels of our military are now closely engaged in a tough debate between the “war-fighters” and the “peace-keepers.” That this is happening at all is remarkable, but even more remarkable may be the synthesis between the two that I see emerging as the new strategic model for the American military of the future.

In my personal view, the recent string of insane acts of terrorism by al Qa’eda have done more to further international cooperation and integration than any amount of peace activism emanating from the left. Justice systems the world over are coordinating like never before, financial systems are increasingly subject to audits and controls, and on the political front the United Nations is actually stronger than than it was before 9/11. NATO is, in effect, being tested for use as the military arm of the United Nations in Afghanistan today; if it passes this test then it will likely receive other peacekeeping assignments in service to the world community. To me, this would be a very positive development: it would greatly reduce the temptation for the United States to try to play the part of an international Lone Ranger, a force outside the law, perpetually riding forth to wreak frontier justice upon wayward nations. A little adult supervision will take us a long way towards stabilizing this situation.

Just as the spiritual basis for personal nonviolence is the deep timeless spiritual identity and connection between all people, so too there is a spiritual basis for peace between nations: it lies in our contacts, friendships, and relationships with people in countries the world over. These are increasing and even accelerating, and as they increase so will grow the pressures for peace, until the momentum becomes unstoppable. We are almost there, my friends, almost there.

Loren Cobb, 2003.

Updated April 2004.

An early version of this essay was first delivered at the Aspen Chapel, under the title "Spiritual Creativity in Peacemaking". The current title is more descriptive of the expanded contents.