Warfighting vs. Peacemaking

A sermon presented to the Lafayette Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

26 November 2006

Reading #1

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

 Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

— William Butler Yeats

Reading #2


  • determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and


  • to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors, and
  • to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
  • to ensure that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest,


— Charter of the United Nations

The two readings for today present quite a contrast, do they not? I chose the first reading, by William Butler Yeats, not because I agree with its mood. Far from it! I neither believe that the center cannot hold, nor that mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. Quite the opposite, my sentiments lie with the second reading, from the preamble to the Charter of the United Nations.

I will admit that current events make it hard not to agree with Yeats: The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Sounds like today, does it not? Still, I think this is an illusion. We are just too close to current events to make an accurate judgment.

I have come here today, to this House of Peace, to offer both news and words of hope from the front lines of an ongoing conflict. I am not referring to the current war in Iraq, or the genocide in Darfur, but instead to a larger, older, and more sublime conflict: the struggle between those who work for peace, on one hand, and the dark faceless forces that drag us back, over and over, into a state of war on the other. Dark faceless forces... my goal today is to try to give a face to these forces.

Perhaps I should introduce myself. I am, and have been for most of my life, a Quaker. I lived a large part of my youth near a refugee camp in Lahore, Pakistan. Like most Quakers, I am a pacifist. Perhaps paradoxically — or perhaps not — I am also proud to be a full-time consultant to the armed forces of the United States, with an academic position at the National Defense University.

For the last ten years I have worked with governments and military organizations all over Latin America, on topics ranging from the training of military officers for service in peace-keeping operations, to national strategic policies, to government reform and the fight against corruption and organized crime.

I specialize in role-playing exercises, in which we constitute a government, with role players for the president, vice president, cabinet, loyal opposition, radical opposition, and even the International Monetary Fund. We play forward 15 years into the future, experimenting with new policy ideas to see what will work and what will not. In this way we offer the future leaders of a country the opportunity to test their policy innovations as if in a laboratory, before trying them in the real world.


Quakers are fond of saying, "There is that of God in every person." This was a radical idea four centuries ago, when the Religious Society of Friends was founded, and many Quakers paid for this heresy with their lives. Nowadays some of us go further, holding that God exists only within that deep spiritual sense of oneness that we share with all people, with all living things, indeed with all of Nature herself. But whether one follows the old formulation or the new, this idea lies at the core of the Quaker Testimony of Integrity, and it is the basis for our centuries-long commitment to peace, to non-violence, to freedom from bondage, to the respectful treatment of prisoners, and above all to the truth however it comes to us.

When it comes to war and peace, the truth as it comes to me is, I must admit, somewhat different than that perceived by most Quakers, not to mention most Unitarians. The Quaker Testimony of Peace is an individual moral refusal to participate in war. I want to stress here the word "individual." The hope implicit in this moral stance is that if enough individual people were to take this position, then warfare would cease. As the saying goes, "What if they gave a war, and no one came?"

While I recognize the moral power of this position, it is not mine. In fact, I think that it is the shallowest and least effective part of Quakerism. In contrast to so many other aspects of Quaker testimony, I think it has been a spectacular failure.

Over the centuries, we led the movement to abolish slavery, and we succeeded. We showed the way to the equality of the sexes, and that battle is largely over. We led the way in human rights, and in rights for prisoners of all kinds, with significant success. But warfare rages on, despite fifteen generations of heartfelt Quaker witnessing. Where did we go wrong in this our first and most important goal, the spiritual quest for peace?

In the Days of the Vikings

For an answer, let us step back one full millennium and take a look at the problems that beset northern Europe in that violent age. Unlike Scandinavia of today, which has been at peace with itself and the rest of the world for almost 200 years, the medieval lands of the Vikings were in perpetual turmoil.

There were famines in those days, sweeping over Europe every few decades. Epidemic diseases seemingly came out of nowhere, killing millions and then vanishing as mysteriously as they came. Every mother could count on losing more half of her children to one form of death or another, before they reached adulthood. Water was polluted and deadly, so everyone drank crude beer, wine, or mead. Not to put too fine a point on it, adults and children alike were sloshed most of the time.

As if the constant drumroll of natural death were not enough, every Scandinavian community was wracked with blood feuds and endless cycles of violence and revenge. The "Rule of Law" in those days was a pale shadow of its future forms, so weak that no one depended upon it to stand in the way of murderous behavior. Trial by jury did exist, and was used,  but the courts did not enforce their verdicts: that was left to the families of the injured parties. You can guess how that turned out.

We know that social institutions of conflict resolution were weak and ineffective — the Norse and Icelandic sagas and legends of that period tell endless tales of injustice and revenge, followed by courage in the face of dreadful fate.

I have often wondered, what was it like to have been a child in those days? Pretty tough, I would say. Poverty, hunger, disease, violence, revenge, constant death... children experienced terrible things, over and over. This was a climate out of which modern psychologists would expect massive epidemics of psychological distress.

Two forms of distress in particular were almost inevitable: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, which I am sure you have all heard of, and another that is perhaps less familiar: reactive attachment disorder, or RAD. The latter came mostly from neglect, as hard-pressed and hard-drinking parents left their young children unguarded or swaddled for long hours at a time, day after day. The adult consequence of RAD is some degree of sociopathy, an inability to feel empathy for the feelings of others.

If ever there were a time when the blood-dimmed tide was loosed, it was then. Empathy was in very short supply, young adults were emotionally numb and traumatized, violence lay but a hair-trigger away, and apocalyptic thinking pervaded society with a dark miasma of fear. All of these are consequences of widespread RAD and PTSD.

Severe PTSD has another consequence, somewhat more subtle for individuals but devastating for a society when it is widespread: the capacity to make finely-shaded moral judgments becomes impaired, as traumatized people restrict themselves to simple black or white reactions. When this happens then you begin to see others as either good or evil, as either friend or foe, with no middle ground. When it happens to an entire society, then war is coming:

Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned.

Is it any wonder that war was about as commonplace as breathing in Europe of the Middle Ages?

Where War has Ended

If there is anywhere on this planet where it can be said that the threat of war and civil war has ended, it is in modern Scandinavia. Though there have been invasions from abroad, the nations of Scandinavia have neither attacked each other nor any other nation, nor have they fallen into civil war, since 1814. This is an enviable record, close indeed to the Quaker ideal of peace, yet these are not Quaker countries, nor do they espouse any moral or religious equivalent of the Quaker Testimony of Peace. Prior to 1814, as far back as history allows us to see, there has been war in Scandinavia. After 1814 there is none. What happened? What was the cause of this profound change?

I have two answers, one psychological and the other institutional. Let's look at psychology first.

The industrial revolution and improvements in public health gradually reduced infant mortality and the severity of epidemics from the 18th century onward, particularly in Scandinavia. Alcoholism slowly receded, the education of women improved, and children were no longer whipped daily on general principles. Because these changes happened first in Scandinavia, it was this region that became the first to experience a decline in PTSD and RAD from near-universal levels.

Perhaps due more to good luck than anything else, Scandinavia escaped the Napoleonic Wars almost unscathed. In contrast, the populations of all other nations of Europe from Spain to Russia suffered terribly. Scandinavia remained largely uninvaded and militarily uninvolved for the rest of the century, while a succession of deadly wars ripped back and forth across the continent. In addition, there were bloody revolutions and civil wars in at least half the countries of Europe. For every military casualty, there were ten civilian casualties. This was a time of intense and unremitting trauma, from which only the Nordic peoples escaped.

As if awakening from an episode of universal sleepwalking, the collective psyche of northwestern Europe slowly began to become aware of the human toll of violence. With each new level of awareness and empathy came a corresponding movement for greater rights: first an end to serfdom, then an end to slavery, then the right to vote, universal education, women's suffrage, animal rights, civil rights, the emancipation of women, the rights of criminals, and finally, the rights of children. In each step a group that had been seen as disposable property came to recognized as fully human and endowed with a complete set of rights.

I believe that this psychological transformation prepared the way for and made possible equally important changes in social institutions.

Throughout this period the political structure of society never ceased evolving under the impetus of growing psychological awareness. Political power was gradually diffusing downwards from the absolute power of kings and feudal lords. Parliaments emerged to take control of the national treasury. City and village councils asserted their rights. Merchants emerged as a powerful force that no aristrocrat could safely ignore. Systems of justice slowly acquired powers previously held only by kings. To make a long story very short, northwestern Europe embarked on a three-century period in which all of the modern institutions of justice, economy, and government gradually emerged into the light of day.

Here is the good news: in every part of the world, nations are now moving briskly along this path. Some are just beginning to come to grips with the first stages of public health, some are deep in the process of institutional reform and development, while others are working at the frontiers of law, mental health, and social welfare.

Best of all, the entire world is building institutions of planetary conflict resolution. The United Nations came first, but now we have many others, including new international courts for trying war criminals and miscreant national leaders.

The Real Avenue to Peace

Well, I have tried to paint on a broad canvas a thousand years of human history, using just a few brush strokes. This has been a very concentrated dose of "the world according to Loren." I hope it has become clear how I think peace can be achieved. Let's recap.

  • First and most important, an entire nation must begin to emerge from its fog of medieval trauma. The frequency and severity of psychological dysfunction due to trauma and childhood neglect must come down, or no progress is possible.
  • Second, as insight and awareness grow, so will the political will to start institutional change. The centuries-long process of power diffusion engenders profound structural changes in society and government, and these in turn make possible rapid improvements in prosperity and health.
  • Third, with stronger institutions of conflict resolution and improving mental health, the likelihood of war, conflict, and domestic violence sharply diminishes. This removes the last remaining sources of PTSD and RAD, and the grand cycle is almost complete.
  • Fourth and last, as threats of war diminish — both real and imagined — the role of the military undergoes a natural transition away from an offensive force: first to defense and then to positive contributions in the international arena. Chief among these are peacekeeping missions for the United Nations, and disaster relief operations of a size and scale that private industry simply cannot match.


Military peacekeeping, as the world knows it today, comes in two very different varieties. Under Chapter VI of the Charter of the United Nations, lightly armed symbolic forces can be invited into a country to separate forces that have already agreed to move away from a state of war. This is the form of peacekeeping that most are familiar with.

Chapter VII of the Charter describes an entirely different form of peacekeeping, known as peace enforcement. This is peacekeeping "with teeth." Under this chapter, the Security Council can authorize an armed force to intervene to stop an ongoing conflict, without the invitation of the warring parties. Such a force is necessarily heavily armed, with rules of engagement that allow for serious fighting.

The NATO forces from Europe and Canada that are now in Afghanistan are pursuing a form of peacekeeping that closely resembles a Chapter VII intervention. Chapter VII assignments from the UN may well be the future of NATO, all over the world.

Scandinavia stands out as the first region to embark on this path, and it is the region that has advanced the furthest. Set foot into almost any of the sixteen ongoing peacekeeping operations of the United Nations, or the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York, and you will find military men and women from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland occupying key roles.

When I began helping to train Latin American military organizations in UN peacekeeping, back in 1994, the hope was that once a nation's armed forces had experienced the international prestige and responsibility that comes with service abroad for the UN, they would be much less likely to revert back to  their traditional habits of meddling in civilian politics and plotting their next coup d'etat.

This hope has been amply fulfilled. To the best of my knowledge, no Latin American military has ever executed a coup after involvement with the UN. Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Guatemala are all serving at this moment in Haiti, while Uruguay, Guatemala and Bolivia are serving in Congo. From personal observation, I can attest to the pride and honor that comes with UN service. Truly, it has to be seen to be believed. It is a transformative experience.

The Future of the Military

Let us now change gears, and look to the future. The United States accounts for half of the entire world's military expenditures, and it has by far the strongest, best trained, most effective armed forces in the world. We also seem on the verge of having to orchestrate an ignominious retreat of our forces from Iraq, as a result of losing control of the post-conflict stabilization process. What then shall we do?

First, let us recognize that our troops have been traumatized, just as were those who served in Vietnam forty years ago. They need to be warmly welcomed home, and many of them will need treatment. We don't want to have veterans of Iraq homeless and hiding out as hermits in forests, or living in cardboard boxes in the streets, feeding yet another American cycle of PTSD and social dysfunction.

Second, I urge that this church, and indeed every liberal peace-loving church, reach out to all levels of the military heirarchy, even the highest, and listen to what they have to say. Members of the military are prevented by law from taking public political positions, yet you can learn a lot by "reading between the lines." What you hear will probably surprise you.

This is not your Daddy's army! It is an organization that is in constant flux, as it tries to cope intelligently with the ever-accelerating pace of change in the world today. Among middle- and high-ranking officers, there is great concern for the proper role of a modern military. What are the true threats that we face, and which are just phantoms? Should we train for warfighting, or peacekeeping, or peace enforcement, or nation-building, or what? Is nation-building even within the purview of military action, or is it not? These are some of the questions that are of constant concern and debate.

In my experience, a large minority — perhaps even a majority — of all American officers are deeply committed to the cause of peace, and are not at all comfortable with empire-building and military adventures abroad. Unfortunately, there is a wall of suspicion between the American military and most American citizens, and it is caused by our failure to listen. We need to listen often and carefully.

Finally, I want to return briefly to the intimate relationship between war and experiences of childhood neglect and trauma. As a lifelong sufferer of PTSD myself — from school experiences — I think I can say with good confidence there is no greater contribution to world peace that you can make, than to help eliminate domestic violence and child neglect. It begins at home, in your own home with your own family, and it continues in schools with the prevention of bullying and hazing.

If you have ever wondered why the nations of the world return over and over again to war, as though drawn by a mysterious dark force to spasms of mindless destruction, here is my answer: It is not evil, it is not Satan, it is not greed, and it is not hot-blooded passion. It is the age-old hidden epidemic of violence and neglect suffered by children everywhere. It is a problem we can address.

Loren Cobb
Louisville, Colorado

Related Readings

The Persistence of War, by Loren and Barbara Cobb. Louisville, CO: Ætheling Consultants, 2004.

"Beowulf: A Poetic Weapon for Peace," by Loren Cobb. Louisville, CO: Ætheling Consultants, 2000.

"Iraq: The War of the Imagination," by Mark Danner. The New York Review of Books, 2006.

Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, by James Gilligan. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse, by Philip Greven. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

A World Lit Only by Fire, by William Manchester. New York: Little Brown, 1992.

For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence, by Alice Miller. New York: Noonday Press, 1983.

A History of Wealth and Poverty, by John P. Powelson. Louisville, CO: The Quaker Economist, 2005.

The Trauma Spectrum, by Robert Scaer. New York: Norton, 2005.

Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay. New York: Scribner, 1994.

Copyright © 2006 by Loren Cobb. All rights reserved.