Why the peace movement needs to shift focus, and fast

Traditionally the peace movement has focussed on holding states to account for their injustices through tactics that rob them of their moral authority and social support. Think Ghandi. Think Martin Luther King. This tradition is outdated. Here’s why:

The rise of non-state actors

The first reason traditional pacifism is outdated is this, we are no longer dealing exclusively with states. Increasingly the actors in war include terrorist networks, insurgent movements and technologically empowered individuals. This has been variously labelled as the rise of asymmetric war, the globalisation of civil war and the fourth generation of war. Many forcasters are in fact seeing this as the future of war in a globalised, technologised society.

I remember the moment I realised that peace efforts aimed at preventing pre-emptive war in Iraq were doomed to failure. It was the moment I realised that we had no positive agenda for dealing with terrorists. We only had a plan for state actors. We had no plan for countering the violence of violent non-state actors. This doctrinal vacuum made it easy for states to demonise pacifists as terrorist sympathizers. In the years since not much has changed. If peace movement wishes to be relevant for a wired world it needs to adapt. It needs to make this demonisation more difficult. It needs to develop counter-terrorist de-escalation capability. It needs to challenge violence in all its forms.

The rise of non-enlisted warriors

The second reason traditional pacifism is outdated is this, we are no longer dealing exclusively with professional soldiers. Concurrent with the rise of non-state actors has been the rise of non-enlisted warriors, of military contractors (aka mercenaries), child soldiers and territorial warlords who lack the soldier ethos. These are people who fight for reasons other than national defence and national pride, who may be utterly uninterested in issues of moral authority, who may be immune to shaming via media exposure, who may be fighting for profit or mere survival. This again points to the need for new tactics.

The rise of non-human soldiers

Beyond the rise of non-enlisted warriors, we are also facing the rise of the machines. Military robotics is spreading like wildfire with technology transfers to police forces and even Hezbollah well underway. How can nonviolent activists appeal to the humanity of soldiers when they are no longer human? This is an even more serious challenge, but we need to catch up and fast.

Non-lethal weapons

Finally we also need to come to grips with the emergence of non-lethal weapons. Ironically, their very non-lethality makes soldiers less hesitant to use them. In fact, there have already been instances of police using military grade sonic weapons on civilian protestors as a form of crowd dispersal. Conversely, protestors are already working on neutralisation technologies. But I’m nervous about this. Is it wise to enter into a de facto non-lethal arms race? Have we thought where this could be taking us?

So basically we need a new pacifism. Hopefully this has provoked some reflection. Particularly amongst peace churches and pacifist Christians. But hey, I think there are issues here for just war Christians as well. Maybe you have some answers? Maybe you have better questions?

13 thoughts on “Why the peace movement needs to shift focus, and fast

  1. Matt, you ask some of the best questions out there, bro. Keep it up … I, however, do not have any answers. I’ll let you know if anything brilliant occurs to me. ;^)


  2. Oh, and look what I found in the Sydney Morning Herald just now at http://www.smh.com.au/world/americas-deadly-robots-rewrite-the-rules-20100212-nxjk.html
    “Consider: for the first time ever, a civilian intelligence agency is manipulating robots from halfway around the world in a program of extrajudicial executions in a country with which Washington is not at war.”
    Non-enlisted warriors engaged against non-state actors using non-human drones. Three of the four conundrums in just one article.
    And the problem transcends party politics:
    “And there is this: despite decades of American disquiet about assassinations abroad and a shrill Republican critique of him as a security wuss, the professorial Obama is the new killer on the block, authorising more drone attacks in the first year of his term in office than Bush did in his entire presidency.”
    So much for the Nobel Peace Prize. The old ways of containing violence are failing.


  3. Excellent, your questions deconstruct the foundational ‘go to’ philosophy for the peace position and the just war thought and make require them to connect to our world as it stands today. Not just as it was 1600-1980. Once again excellent!


  4. Simon, this wikipedia entry ain’t a bad summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peace_movement
    In essence, I am referring to the loose global affiliation of activists and interest groups seeking to de-escalate world conflicts. Think Greenpeace, think Christian Peacemaking Teams, think of various movements through history which have sought to end violent oppression and unjust war nonviolently.
    My call here is principally directed at pacifist Christians, but I think it has equal relevance to just war Christians and non-Christian pacifists, so I’m really talking peace movement in its broadest possible sence.


  5. Chris, yes well I must ask what it means to ‘go to’ when the distance between the gun and the trigger can be thousands of miles, when war is outsourced to secondary agents who have limited public accountability, where just finding combatants (where’s Osama!) has become a primary military objective.
    The warmakers are in a flurry at the moment, having realized they need to adapt rapidly. Do peacemakers think they can just carry on as normal? At the very least we faced with a change as profound as the mechanization of warfare back in WWI and WWII. But as these changes involve a shift in not only ‘how war is carried out’ but ‘who is carrying it out’, many are saying it is far, far more profound than that.
    The state / church relationship has guided many of our reflections on war in the past. We now need to think through the implications of states (and indeed humans) being only part of the equation.


  6. Actually, maybe I need to get down deeper in to the nitty gritty of practical application. Try this question on for size:
    For how much longer do we expect the ‘human shield’ tactics to work for?
    Autonomous boarder guards, that fire automatically on approaching targets unless they have a disarm code, have already been deployed in places like Iraq and Korea. What good is human shielding in a situation like that?


  7. I think the term ‘peace movement’ as you’ve defined it is too broad to be useful here. It would be more useful to focus on particular campaigns or strategies and why they do/don’t work given the changing culture and circumstances. Otherwise you’re sweeping up Christian Peacemaker Teams with the Ploughshares movement with Smash EDO with the Stop the War Coalition and the Socialists.
    Actually I think the technology thing is a bit of a furphy. Unless we’re worried about a Terminator-style future where robots have minds of their own, we’re still ultimately working with people who operate these machines. Yes, it’s a challenge because they’re one step removed from the process (arguably the bigger shift was from hand to hand combat to dropping bombs from 40,000 ft), making it easier to dehumanise targets, but people are still people.
    That’s not to say that tactics don’t need to change, but I don’t think it’s quite as drastic as saying “everything is outdated, change it all”.
    In actual fact on your first point, it’s not the peace movement that needs to shift, it’s the state actors, which are still stuck in state vs state military thinking (Iraq and Afghanistan are cases in point). States are still catching up with terrorism shifts.
    I disagree that we have no positive agenda for dealing with terrorists, and I disagree that that is the reason preventing the Iraq war failed. It failed because too many people said, “Not in my name” and not enough said, “Over my dead body.” It’s not enough to have an opinion, or even to merely voice that opinion. An empowered citizenry who embody their beliefs is the only way to real democracy.
    The other thing I’d say is that it’s impossible to divorce the “peace movement” from the “anti-climate change movement” or the “anti-poverty movement” or other justice movements (I put those in inverted commas realising they are not whole/united movements any more than the peace movement is) – such that any criticism of one applies to the others. Which means that the changing challenges that apply to the anti-climate change movement also apply to the peace movement.
    Anyway, any discussion of where the peace movement needs to go is welcome, so thanks for initiating it. One word of caution: it’s difficult to do so from a standpoint of mere academic discussion. Opinions need to be embodied, otherwise they have little bearing on reality. The more embodied, the more real.


  8. Simon, I have defined the peace movement broadly because the military shifts I’m talking about are so broad that they’re set to effect everything and everyone to greater and lesser degrees. Terminator-style is no longer future, crazy as it sounds even to myself. Some deployed systems are already fully autonymous. Yes, humans are still in the loop, but the loop is streeeeetching. It’s not simple black and white, loop or no loop any more. What we need to recognize is that there is a big difference between a seldom and hesitantly used “don’t kill” veto power and a repetatively required “do kill” command that implies more intense human oversight. I would hate to be a human shield encountering the former type, yet the former type already exists, and noncombatant deaths have already resulted. Human shielding is set to become a hell of a lot more dangerous and dehumanized than it is already.
    And the non-human developments are, as I’ve said, only part of the equation. Military contracting is another way of “distancing”.
    For most peace activists though, the nonlethal weaponry will probably be the most up front and personal change. For instance, I recently discovered Taser are developing micro hover drones equiped with, you guest it, tasers. For what use? Policing and crowd control. Could make demonstrations a whole lot more exciting. Coming soon to a city near you!
    Even so, please understand I am not saying every tactic is outdated in every situation. What I am saying is more a case of: we now have a whole bunch of new situations for which we have no effective tactics for and that changes the whole equation. What I am curious about however, is where you think we are being effective against terrorists. Please elaborate. I agree not enough said “Over my dead body” but who did they say it too? I only saw it being said to states.
    As for bringing the anti-climate change and anti-poverty movements into the picture, well now, that’s going to make it bigger than Ben Hur 🙂
    I agree opinions need to be embodied, which is why I am now in the process of organizing a local information evening on child slavery, to raise awareness of child soldiering amongst other things, as well as the mapping out of military robotics developers in Sydney with a view to possible future nonviolent direct action. In fact, only last night I wrote to Greg Combet, Minister for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science, who is sponsoring the Multi Autonomous Ground-robotic International Challenge (MAGIC 2010) in Australia later this year. On the non-state actors side I’ve also been dialoguing sporadically with militant Hindus in India, with Hindu-Christian relations being a particular concern of mine. As you can see, a mix of traditional and new. But I’m only just beginning to feel my way. I don’t pretent to have all the answers yet, I’m just wanting to draw attention to these issues and hopefully stimulate wider exploration, conversation and action.


  9. Thanks Matt, hope I didn’t come across as harsh, I just think it’s a good principle to live by.
    Are you asking what a nonviolent response to terrorism might look like? Well I’d say listening to the Muslim world would be a start, and hearing their (often legitimate) grievances and critiques of the West. That might mean changing some of the things we do, particularly in terms of colonialism, exploitation and cultural destruction. That wouldn’t hurt. Regardless, I wouldn’t preempt their response, otherwise it wouldn’t be listening.
    And I’d say that there were such voices calling for asking “why?”, even immediately after 9/11, but they were drowned out in the demand for retribution. America’s honour had been offended, and it needed to take an eye for an eye. And here we are 8 years later, continuing to create terrorists.
    I think it’s easy to be overwhelmed by technology, but technology frequently fails to live up to expectations. All the high tech surveillance and security couldn’t keep four unfit activists out of Pine Gap, or three guys out of the Waihopai spy base, or a dozen or more of us from Shoalwater Bay Training Area (and once in they couldn’t find us unless we showed ourselves). And frankly, technology failed us too! So it’s possible to put TOO much stock in technology, and to trust the authorities’ claims to invincibility (a very middle class trait – I have it too). The more I’ve done, the more I realise they’re actually pretty inept, we just don’t try stuff often enough to demonstrate it.
    Kudos to you for what you’re doing, keep it up and keep us informed.


  10. Listening to the Muslim world would indeed be a start, and I am aware of some peace activists being in dialogue with Muslims. But again, I think we need to go further, we need to be in dialogue with the groups actually involved in the conflict. That is, we need to be non-violently engaging with the violent militaries on both sides, and not just their non-military religious namesakes.
    In that respect, I note with interest that some activists are now calling for the Taliban to be welcomed to the negotiating table in Afghanistan, in recognition that a cease fire will be impossible to negotiate without both sides present, but this is still early days.
    As for the technology, it is precisely because it fails us that I’m concerned. There are many reasons to suspect it will increase collateral damage and make it easier to go to war, and the killing of multiple civilians by predator drones operated by US paid mercenaries in Afghanistan only last week does little to lessen those concerns. I’d just like to challenge Christians and Muslims on both sides to consider the ethics of these sorts of conflicts.
    But before we can hold even our own governments to account, the extent to which this is going on needs to be exposed.
    For future reading on recent developments:


  11. Actually, to add to this, it was suggested elsewhere that maybe the peace movement should stage mass rallies against Taliban violence as well as US violence. Now, while I have some doubts as to the effectiveness of this (because I doubt it would get much air time on whatever passes for Taliban TV, amongst other things), I do believe the Taliban needs to be challenged in some concrete way by peace activists if the peace movement is to have credibility as being universally against violence and not just anti-American.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s