What if they held a war and no one came? No one was out in the streets, no one paid the "big speech" much mind, no one asked for permission to protest, no one wrote an open letter to the President. No one enlisted for it, no one paid for it, and no one watched it on television. Perhaps the powers-that-be would take this as a sign to invade and/or escalate conflicts even further, although such non-actions would surely place some serious constraints on the ability to openly wage wars of conquest and adventurism.
So once again, we face an escalation of warfare thanks to President Obama’s "troop surge" in Afghanistan. This plan was met with occasional protests including street theater, holding rallies and forums, screening informative films in our communities, signing petitions, and writing blogs. As one who regularly participates in such activities, I have to acknowledge a sense of choreography and even at times futility in these standard modes of opposition. Why do we keep going back to tried and true methods that have yet to actually stop our nation from making war?
It’s partly a function of a uniquely American view that nonviolent protest is a reactive endeavor rather than something undertaken in the normal course of our lives for positive aims. Nonviolence in particular is more often seen as a tool for resisting oppression and injustice than as a practical philosophy for promoting right relations at all levels. By waiting for something to oppose, we put ourselves in the "anti" or "stop" camp and wonder why it’s hard to motivate people under such a negativist umbrella.
All of this countermanding activity certainly needs to be present in a healthy democracy. But in many such instances we find ourselves caught up in a debate whose terms have already been set by forces more powerful and better organized. When the inevitable invasion or escalation arrives over our objections, the debate is effectively ended. And it doesn’t seem to matter who is in the White House, because the same folks are in the Pentagon and no one was ever asked to vote on their exercises of power.
I’m not suggesting that we ignore issues in the belief that they will magically go away. I am suggesting that we consider putting the same creative energy and dedication into building a pro-peace movement by framing the terms of the debate proactively and not reactively, toward peace and not just away from war; taking the time to deeply articulate what we’re for and not just what we’re against; and building a world where war isn’t just something to contest when it threatens to break out but one in which it is literally unthinkable and unconscionable, a world where those who suborn warfare must protest in the streets on an anti-peace platform and thus be the ones in the oppositional minority.
Simply put, we need to reframe the discussion at a basic level and struggle for peace with every fiber of our being if humankind is to survive. As Martin Luther King, Jr., observed in 1964 upon accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, peace must be both the means and the end of our visions and actions alike: "We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say we must not wage war. It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war but on the positive affirmation of peace. We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war."
We can make peace the baseline of our lives and our nation’s foreign policies. To do so, we need a peace escalation movement here in the United States. We need a conception of nonviolence that is more a way of being in the world than merely a tactic to be used when things go awry. When the war planners announce their intention to send 30,000 more soldiers half way around the world, let’s announce a new educational initiative to welcome home 30,000 potential peace agents when they return from their deployment. Let’s plant 30,000 trees, create 30,000 jobs, or raise $30,000 for a good cause. Let’s become the norm that we already are, and let others be the loyal opposition for a change.
It’s time to escalate the peace. Let’s wake up tomorrow and set our sights on doing something to make the world a better place, calling upon the best instincts of those around us to do the same. Ride a bike, teach a child, feed the hungry, speak the truth, sing a song, love your family, forgive a debt, smile at a stranger, overcome a fear, mend a fence, rescue an animal, write to an Afghani, take a walk, fund a scholarship, call an old friend, look at the stars, read a book, dig in the earth, weave a dream. Above all strive to be peace, and the struggle is won right there, as Thich Nhat Hanh counsels:
"In the peace movement there is a lot of anger, frustration, and misunderstanding. The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter…. Can the peace movement talk in loving speech, showing the way for peace? I think that will depend on whether the people in the peace movement can be peace. Because without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people to smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement."
Peace, the near-universal aspiration of human desires, is before us for the taking. We can, as Gandhi once said, "be the change we wish to see in the world," not just by opposing war but by promoting peace. As recent events once again make clear, we can and we must do this … no matter what the anti-peace agitators say.
Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College and serves as the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).