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Shall We Study War or Peace?

In January, we at PFN published a book, Making Peace: Healing a Violent World. It's a book about people making tough choices on how to respond to violence—to a murder, to an assault, to a crime, to a war.

The authors in this book show with moving clarity that, while we humans may not be able to prevent all violence, we can choose how we respond when it occurs. We can give in to our lust for vengeance, to our fear of appearing weak, to our instincts to fight. Or we can reach deep into our souls for a stronger response, a response that avoids the cycle of violence and brings about healing. We as humans have the capacity for that choice.

At about the time our editors were selecting the articles for Making Peace, Vice President Dick Cheney was reading a book with a very different message. According to Newsweek, he was reading An Autumn of War, a collection of essays that military historian Victor David Hanson wrote shortly after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Hanson's message is the mirror image of that of Making Peace. For Hanson, when a great evil occurs, there is no reasonable response other than the use of overwhelming force. He alludes derisively to modern efforts at conflict resolution, to the United Nations, and to appeals to reason and moderation. Those are the responses of the weak—responses that only invite further attacks. War, when waged for a moral cause, is to be welcomed as a desirable means of achieving a greater good. Great leaders understand this and are not fooled by utopian visions of world peace.

For Hanson, the current U.S. president clearly fulfills the requirements of a great war leader. He carries the needed unwavering moral conviction of the righteousness of his action and the unflinching willingness to use overwhelming force. Hanson is surely feeling fully vindicated by the defeat of Saddam Hussein's regime.

I read Hanson's book with care. He makes compelling arguments for the use of force. But for me, the book's fatal flaw is that nowhere does it raise the most fundamental questions: What are the grounds for determining that an evil is great enough to apply overwhelming force? Who gets to decide? When might something less than overwhelming force be the better response? And how do we lay the groundwork so that the use of overwhelming force becomes unnecessary?

The world view—and the questions not raised—in Hanson's book are important because they appear to be the same world view and the same unraised questions that underlie current U.S. policy. According to Newsweek, Cheney told an aide that Hanson's book reflects his own philosophy, a philosophy that seems to form the basis of the vision put forward by the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) of which Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other prominent members of the current administration are a part.

PNAC envisions the United States constantly under threat, and therefore constantly at war. That means that the U.S. must have the military might to pursue war in several theaters at once, while also occupying territory already vanquished. The U.S. must be willing to strike its adversaries pre-emptively. And it must be capable of striking simultaneously from land, sea, air, and space.

It is a nightmarish scenario of a world continually embroiled in violence and destruction, ruled by power, not law. The vision assumes that a few leaders in the world's only superpower can determine who and what is evil and that the identified evil must then be crushed, regardless of the cost in lives, money, nature, and the structures that bring us together.

We don't have to accept the world view of An Autumn of War or PNAC's horrific vision of our collective future. We can instead follow the kinds of actions and values portrayed in Making Peace. And increasingly the world knows it. In the months that preceded the war on Iraq, millions of ordinary people and numerous political leaders around the world saw, perhaps more clearly than ever before, the fact that war is not inevitable. It is a choice.

The protests created a global conversation about the very legitimacy of war. When is war necessary? What is a just war? What are the long-term consequences of war? What structures do we need to settle conflicts without war?

Everywhere people raised the very questions not raised in An Autumn of War. We now have a worldwide communications infrastructure that links millions of people into a powerful force for change. We must continue the conversation—continue to raise the unasked questions and put forward the options that make for peace. The world is awakening to the fact that the choice for war or peace is ours to make.

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Fran Korten is Executive Director of the Positive Futures Network.  Email Signup
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