What’s the Alternative to Military Action against Iraq?

[1] Many Lutherans, perhaps a majority, feel uncomfortable with all the talk about preemptive war with Iraq, but find it hard to see beyond the two options of diplomacy and military action that dominate both official and media commentary. As Christians, our deep discomfort with violence is rooted in the repeated, explicit teachings of our Lord: “You have heard it said, an eye for an eye, but I say…”

[2] But what is the alternative, and can it be made to work on international problems?

[3] The alternative of which I speak has been almost completely absent from the public debate about Iraq, at least in any clarity or detail. Yet it is widely understood around the world as well as in sizeable networks in the US. It goes by names like satyagraha, firmeza permanente, “truth force,” or active nonviolence. The problem is that few people know much about it, and most need to get past the myths and misconceptions of this alternative before they can consider its possible utility to a problem like “What might we do with Iraq?”

[4] Let’s start with a reality check: A fifth of the world lives in countries in which, since the mid-1980s, movements of everyday people brought about major nonviolent change that was successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectations. They succeeded against some of the most ruthless regimes of the 20th Century: Marcos in the Philippines, Ceausescu in Romania, apartheid in South Africa. Most were completely nonviolent on the part of the participants. If you stretch the time frame back 50 years to include the liberation of India, the anti-Nazi resistance in Denmark and Norway, and the U.S. civil rights movement, the number of people affected rises to two-thirds of the world’s population. “All this in the teeth of the assertion, endlessly repeated, that nonviolence doesn’t work in the ‘real’ world,” as Walter Wink puts it in his path-breaking book on the subject, Engaging the Powers. Such efforts illustrate a truth about nonviolence. As Desmond Tutu put it-and it became the title of a powerful video series on the subject-nonviolence is “A Force More Powerful. . . .”

[5] Our public discussion would be greatly enriched by seeing past the misconceptions of nonviolence to its strength and sophistication. To do so, most people need to question or suspend some assumptions and spend time clearing away the remains of at least a half dozen barriers to thinking more clearly about conflict and violence in our world, particularly in relation to international issues.


1. Military power isn’t the only kind of power, or the most effective, or the most ethical.
[6] It is hard to pursue productive responses to current challenges like Iraq or terrorism if our starting point is vengeance and our only concept of power is military power. As in the interpersonal and community arenas of life, nonviolence is not passivity, but an entirely different way of struggling against injustice and violence. It offers a markedly different way of approaching conflict and a whole different grasp of the nature of power, a difference that is hinted at in such phrases “power with” or “moral power” or Gandhi’s preferred term, satyagraha, which translates literally as “truth force” or “soul force.”

2. When your only tool is a hammer, you tend to redefine every problem as a nail.
[7] The budget of the United States allocates over 200 times as much money to military options and resources as it does to all our nonviolent response to conflict combined-from State Department conflict resolution efforts and U.S. contributions to peacekeeping operations, to the research and training programs of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Even if you add all the money the U.S. spends to address the roots of conflict and violence in the world-programs like the Peace Corps and development aid-the percent of the U.S. budget devoted to nonviolent methods doesn’t come to even two percent of the money spent on military options!

3. It is an illusion that violence has worked to solve problems in the past.
[8] Our national myth of the effectiveness of violence goes back to the colonial period. In fact, a good case can be made that the American Revolution was mostly won by nonviolent means before the fighting even began. The colonists used many of the tactics later refined by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., such as organizing against oppressive British measures like the Stamp Act; holding demonstrations focused on visible symbols of economic exploitation and forced dependency like British cloth; building parallel institutions to strengthen resistance, as sources of identity and as precursors to self-government; developing independent sources of information to build support; and the use of guerrilla theatre like the Boston Tea Party to fire the imagination of the people and spark additional efforts. While some of these are mentioned in the history books, it was the war itself that was used to justify military actions centuries afterwards. It was this propaganda 100, 115, and 150 years later which imbedded in the national psyche the notion that war is an effective way, an American way.

4. War is often portrayed as patriotic or the product of our highest democratic ideals when, in fact, it is profoundly undemocratic.
[9] It has often undermined progress toward democracy, one of war’s most dangerous features. Resistance to Britain by nonviolent means in the middle part of the 18th Century was deeply entwined with struggles of poor and working people for better treatment and laws that would give them a better chance at sharing in the American dream. Their power was growing and colonial elites were getting nervous. In words that could have been written in mid-1991 or late 2001, Howard Zinn concludes,

The military conflict itself, by dominating everything in its time, diminished other issues, made people choose sides in the one context that was publicly important. . . . Ruling elites seem to have learned through the generations-consciously or not-that war makes them more secure against internal trouble (A People’s History of the United States, page 79).
5. War tends to foster and provide cover for authoritarian activity.
[10] While everyone predicted that the “war on terrorism” would result in increased government surveillance, civil liberties experts and citizens alike have been dismayed at the surprisingly broad and intrusive new powers now in the hands of the military as well as law enforcement.

6. Contrary to our rhetoric, U.S. military action has been notably ineffective.
[11] Think of all the places where the U.S. has used its military power directly, or by training and arming proxy forces to fight for us: Iran, and Guatemala in the 1950s, Vietnam, Laos, and Indonesia in the 1960s, Chile, Cambodia, and Angola in the 1970s; Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and El Salvador in the 1980s; Iraq, Colombia, and Turkey in the 1990s. The results of such interventions have so often been counterproductive that the CIA coined a term for it-blowback-which became the title of the latest in a stream of books to analyze the phenomenon, a book that virtually predicted the 9-11 tragedy a year before it occurred. Those cases that have been “successful” have often had unintended consequences or laid the foundation for future problems.

7. There is an unconscious double standard in comparing military action and nonviolence.
[12] When a few people are injured or killed or there are complications in a nonviolent action, it is quickly asserted that nonviolence doesn’t work. Yet a war can kill tens of thousands of people and produce horrendous entanglements and no one says, “this proves violence doesn’t work!”

8. Don’t ask at the last minute.
[13] It isn’t helpful to pose the question, “How would nonviolence solve this problem?” when most of the opportunities to use it are already gone. It is much less fruitful to ask, “How would nonviolence deal with Hitler?” when you mean 1939 or 1940, than to ask what might the world have done in 1931 and 1925 and 1918. And when we have some mastery of the answers to those earlier periods, we may be in a better position to come up with creative responses to the much more difficult question of what to do when a Hitler has already risen to power. Fortunately for us, despite the similarities in personality or behavior one might find between Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein, their relative ability to act in the world of power couldn’t be more different.


[14] One can examine campaigns both large and small that shed light on how nonviolence might function in a situation like we face in Iraq. It helps to begin by remembering that nonviolence requires many of the same qualities that make for military success: good intelligence, organization, creativity, leadership, and courage.

[15] Take, for example, the 1991 coup attempt in the shortly after the collapse of communism in Russia. Coup leaders had control over tens of thousands of tanks, planes, and artillery and four million soldiers. Yet a hundred thousand unarmed citizens were able to surround the White House (the Russian parliament building), protect Boris Yeltsin, and prevent the coup from succeeding. Similarly, unarmed civilians interposed themselves between government forces and the Polisario guerrillas in the Western Sahara in the 1970s and stopped a potentially disastrous conflict.

[16] The tradition of nonviolence offers many insights relevant to a U.S. response to Iraq or terrorism:

– Excessive force backfires.
– Work to discover the roots of conflict and to craft ways to interrupt, not feed, the “cycle of violence.”
– Don’t create enemies; in particular, don’t make it any easier for dictators or terrorists to recruit adherents or rally citizens whose interest is in throwing off their shackles, not defending their oppressors.
– Seek broad international support (which it seems the U.S. did only as a way to pave the way for military action).
– Utilize and work to strengthen international institutions to give legitimacy to our response and to erode the sources of support for dictators and terrorists.
– Make use of non-governmental resources through track two diplomacy, third-party mediation, etc.
– Put more attention and resources into preventive than corrective measures.
– Work to stop dangerous or criminal activity, not force a war that creates more problems thanit solves.

[17] Such insights have been a part of strategies that have shown success in the most challenging arenas of conflict today, from school violence, domestic abuse, and prison reform, to international violence. But these insights account for only part of what the nonviolence perspective has to offer. There is also a whole range of nonviolent strategies that have not been utilized by governments, or only in part, such as human rights accompaniment and nonviolent intervention. They are effective when by human instinct or nonviolent analysis they grasp the dynamics of power in the situation, understanding that political leaders, even dictators, derive their power from the people and that there are more ways to withdraw that power than to command it.

[18] Scores of movements and organizations around the world (including at least a dozen in the United States) have used nonviolent intervention in international conflicts. Many of these groups have been active for several decades and have amassed considerable expertise in the specifics of training for, organizing, leading, and implementing effective nonviolent action. Both scholarly and media reports have examined the effectiveness of groups like the Christian Peacemaker Teams and Peace Brigades International working in conflicts in the West Bank, Chiapis, Colombia, and elsewhere. The ELCA’s Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs has been in the news recently for its activity in the new Ecumenical Monitoring Programme in Palestine and Israel.

[19] In addition, several groups in the U.S. have been working in recent years to conceptualize and bring into being full-fledged alternatives to military action along the lines of Gandhi’s Shanti Sena, or Badshah Khan’s Peace Army. The most ambitious project of this type is Nonviolent Peace Force which is well along with plans to field a force of several hundred people (growing to several thousand by 2010), fully trained in nonviolent intervention, with full logistic support, able to intervene in conflicts anywhere in the world.

[20] Few governments can be expected to take the lead in such efforts. If citizens would support such experiments with even a tiny fraction of our resources that pour into military coffers, they would demonstrate what we’ve seen in virtually every part of the globe, in every historical era, and in every arena of life: citizen movements discussing, planning, training, and taking effective nonviolent action for justice and reconciliation. In the process, they demonstrate the practical and ethical superiority of “A Force More Powerful. . . .”

[21] What has been lacking in most discussions of a possible war with Iraq is any portrayal of the coherence of this perspective on power and conflict that might help us imagine and craft responses that offer the possibility of working, and working better than violence. We Christians have the spiritual resources and moral incentive to be at the forefront of such efforts.


Sources and Further Directions: A Bibliography

William Ackerman and Jack DuVall, A Force More Powerful (St. Martin’s, 2000) is the companion volume to the celebrated six-part video series narrated by Academy Award winning actor Ben Kingsley. In half hour segments, the PBS series examines six large-scale, successful nonviolent movements on five continents. The videos are available for $39.95 for all six parts from Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 800-257-5126. The book examines a number of additional case studies and provides useful background, extensive analysis, and photos.

Building Peace: 35 Inspiring Stories from Around the World (ECCP, IFOR, 1999, available at a discount from Fellowship of Reconciliation, www.forusa.org) a very well produced volume of case studies

Ken Butigan with Patricia Bruno, From Violence to Wholeness (Pace e Bene Franciscan Nonviolence Center, 1999), the best manual on the spirituality and practice of nonviolence geared for congregation use. Distributed by LPF with a 60-page LPF supplement of additional materials, in particular, resources from the Lutheran tradition.

“Filling in the Missing Pieces…” (Lutheran Peace Fellowship), a list with web addresses of several dozen outstanding articles on war with Iraq, its implications, the Peace Pledge, and other resources: www.LutheranPeace.org

Pam McAllister, You Can’t Kill the Spirit and This River of Courage (New Society, 1988, 1991), two collections of terrific stories on women and nonviolence from all over the world. McAllister also edited Reweaving the Web of Life (New Society, 1982), a rich anthology of essays on women and nonviolence.

Michael Nagler, Is There No Other Way: The Search for a Nonviolent Future (Berkeley Hills, 2001), a stimulating new overview for the general reader

Gene Sharp, Politics of Nonviolent Action (3 volumes, Porter Sargent, 1973), the magnum opus of a key figure in nonviolence theory and practice; the middle volume consists largely of a detailed elaboration of over 200 distinct tactics and strategies of nonviolence while volumes 1 and 3 include many stories of nonviolence in action

Donald Shriver, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics (Oxford, 1995), an exceptionally insightful, lucid, and unpretentious study that features five extended case studies.

Glen Stassen, ed., Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War (Pilgrim, 1998), a wide-ranging anthology covering from threat reduction and conflict resolution to direct action.

William Ury, ed., Must We Fight? From the Battlefield to the Schoolyard – A New Perspective on Violent Conflict and Its Prevention (Jossey-Bass, 2002) an thought-provoking, brief collection of essays

William Vogele, eds., Protest, Power, and Change (Garland, 1997), an encyclopedia of nonviolent action

The Wall of Hope, a Lutheran Peace Fellowship exhibit in story and picture of more than a hundred nonviolent heroes and movements throughout history. It has been a featured display at scores of schools, Youth Gatherings, GMEs, and secular conferences. A “how to” kit for a youth or group to put together their own Wall including its full text, instructions, photos, and sources is free from LPF: lpf@ecunet.org, (206) 720-0313, lutheranpeace.org.

Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (AugsburgFortress, 1992), chapters 9-13 are especially relevant; in conversations with Lutheran pastors and lay leaders in forty states over the past eight years, no book has been mentioned more often as having had a fundamental influence on their thinking and spirituality than Engaging the Powers.

Walter Wink, The Powers that Be (Doubleday, 1998), about half as long as Engaging the Powers, without the rich detail of stories or footnotes and sources, but more accessible for the general audience.

Stanley Wolpert, Gandhi’s Passion (Oxford, 2001), a wonderful new full-length biography; Eknath Easwaran, Gandhi the Man (Nilgiri, 1972, 1978, 1997), a fine brief biography emphasizing Gandhi’s spiritual roots. Especially useful collections: Thomas Merton, ed., Gandhi on Nonviolence (New Directions, 1964); Homer Jack, ed., The Gandhi Reader (Grove, 1994); web sites: www.mkgandhi.org, www.GandhiInstitute.org, www.gandhiserve.com

Stephen Zunes et al, Nonviolent Social Movements (Blackwell, 1999), an outstanding survey of examples from around the world

What obscures the potential of nonviolence?

“Budget Game” in PeaceNotes, Spring 2002 (LPF) and available on its web site, lutheranpeace.org. Figures are from the U.S. Budget, FY 2003, (U.S. Government Printing Office), print and CD form, Office of Management and Budget and at whitehouse.gov/omb. See especially, “FY 2003 International Affairs Summary” and “DoD Account Tables.” For commentary and critiques see interaction.org, bread.org, nationalpriorities.org, and cdi.org.

Chalmers Johnson, Blowback (Henry Holt, 2000). Using as his title the CIA’s own term for covert operations that harm more than help, Johnson all but predicted a 9-11-type attack a year before because of a U.S. foreign policy of “imperial overreach.” Makes a compelling case for military dominance of our foreign policy with minimal attention to the real costs and benefits. His follow-up article on 9-11 appeared in The Nation in Oct., 2001, available at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20011015/johnson.

Jonathan Kwitney’s Endless Enemies (Congdon and Weed, 1984) a credible survey of U.S. policy in the cold-war period; as a Wall Street Journal reporter for over a decade, Kwitney’s credentials are unimpeachable.

Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (HarperCollins, 1980, 1995, 1999), a celebrated effort to rediscover our country’s history from the point of view and experience of everyday people: “history from below.” See also Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution (Knopf, 1972) on the colonial and revolutionary period.

Stephen Zunes, Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press, 2002), the best of the books combining historical background, policy analysis, and alternative options

Active nonviolence in the international arena

A sampling of articles relevant to the issues raised in this section (links to all of them are on the LPF web site):

Peter Ackerman & Jack DuVall, “With weapons of the will: How to topple Saddam Hussein, nonviolently,” Sojourners, sojo.net.

David Cortright and George Lopez, “Disarming Iraq: Nonmilitary Strategies…” Arms Control Today, 9-02, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2002_09/cortright_lopez_sept02.asp .

David C. Korten, “From Empire to Earth Community,” www.futurenet.org/iraq/kortenempire.htm.

Michael N. Nagler, “Building a New Force,” YES! magazine, fall 2002, nonviolentpeaceforce.org.

Kate Rope, “Marching in Gandhi’s Footsteps,” Bangkok Post, nonviolentpeaceforce.org.

Gopal Krishna Siwakoti, “Armed conflict and non-violent intervention,” nonviolentpeaceforce.org.

Jim Wallis, “Disarm Iraq without War,” Sojourners, sojo.net.

Web sites of groups with significant programs of nonviolent intervention of various types include:

Global Exchange: globalexchange.org.

Nonviolent Peace Force: nonviolentpeaceforce.org.

Peace Brigades International: peacebrigades.org

SIPAZ: sipaz.org.

Other useful sites include:


Expecially useful book-length discussions

Robert J. Burrowes, The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach (SUNY, 1996)

Eknath Easwaran, A Man to Match His Mountains (Nilgiri, 1986), on Badshah Khan, hero of nonviolence in Islam

John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (USIP, 1997) and Journey Toward Reconciliation (Herald Press, 1999)

Graeme MacQueen, ed., Unarmed Forces: Nonviolent Action in Central America and the Middle East (Toronto: Science for Peace, 1992)

Liam Mahony and Luis Enrique Eguren, Unarmed Bodyguards (Kumarian Press, 1997), on human rights accompaniment

Philip McManus and Gerald Schlabach, eds., Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America (New Society, 1991), a superb anthology

Yshua Moser-Puangsuwan and Thomas Webber, eds., Nonviolent Intervention Across Borders (University of Hawaii, 2000) perhaps the best overview of a wide range of nonviolent options from accompaniment and humanitarian intervention to reconciliation and interposition.

Thomas Weber, Gandhi’s Peace Army: The Shanti Sena and Unarmed Peacekeeping (Syracuse University Press, 1996), the little-known story of Gandhi’s efforts to address the issues raised in this article

Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Augsburg Fortress, 1992) especially chapters 9-13.

More about the author: As national coordinator of Lutheran Peace Fellowship, Glen Gersmehl directs LPF’s Leadership Training in Peacemaking program. He serves on the ELCA Inter-unit Task Force on the Decade for Peace and on the NGO Steering Committee for the UN Decade for Peace in the U.S. and Canada. His experience working on these issues in the Lutheran Church led to his being invited to serve as one of two dozen delegates from around the world meeting in India to plan NGO participation in the UN Decade for Peace. Glen’s graduate degree in conflict and international security is from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.