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College Quarterly
Summer 2015 - Volume 18 Number 3
Disarming Conflict: Why Peace Cannot Be Won on the Battlefield
Ernie Regehr
Toronto: Between the Lines, 2015
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

As citizens, inhabitants of this planet and educators with a responsibility to encourage some sense of moral, practical and political responsibility for our global community, it is important that we acknowledge and deal with the power structures that influence our lives as citizens and those of our students.

So far, so good.

As well, in light of the power and influence that they wield, we need to understand that top executives in agriculture, resource extraction, manufacturing, commerce, finance and the vast, multifaceted, pervasive “service” sector, as well as senior officials in government and the military have astonishingly low success rates when it comes to anticipating and responding both to major global trends (e.g., overall human overpopulation and local, regional and global demographic shifts) and to apparently sudden world-altering events. A few examples of the latter—political, military, economic and ecological—should make the point.

  1. the collapse of the USSR in 1991 seemed to be as much of a shock to Western leaders as it was to the Soviet autocrats who felt the trembling beneath their feet only after it was too late to undertake the reforms that might have prevented (or at least delayed) the implosion of the Soviet empire;
  2. the ill-considered American attack on Iraq in 2003, the following failed occupation (echoing the travails of Afghanistan a little over a year earlier) and the subsequent expansion of hostilities from Mali and Libya to Syria, Yemen and Pakistan showed that the combined leadership of the “West” failed to understand what it was doing when it initiated the now decade-old “war on terror” that still has no definable end in sight;
  3. the financial crisis of 2008 that apparently caught the American and global business communities so much by surprise that Alan Greenspan (2013), Chair of the US Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006 and arguably the most important economic figure in the USA, was forced to admit that he “never saw it coming”
  4. the ongoing resistance to truly helpful actions to combat climate change, reduce air, soil and water pollution and address the overarching problem of overpopulation that enables global warming, environmental degradation and the largest mass extinction of species since the dinosaurs took their leave a little over sixty million years ago.

These, of course, are just a few of the most obvious instances in which world elites have stumbled from crisis to crisis and put political stability, prospects for international peace, hopes for prosperity and equity, and dreams of a sustainable biosphere in jeopardy. Even a cursory glance at these blatant problems, much less the portfolio of other sources of peril, suggests than nothing short of an almost metaphysical shake-up in the way in which our species deals with looming self-imposed disasters is necessary if we are to survive in anything like security and stability.

This is not an indulgent exercise in doomsday hyperbole; it is, in fact, a rather conservative assessment of the nature of things today. It is also, however, a call to become more aware of the larger world around us. It is an encouragement to read beyond the headlines and to familiarize ourselves with writers who can bring the complexities of global relations down to our particular Earth. Ernie Regehr is one such author.

I

Disarming Conflict focuses on international relations, the military and the foreign policies of nations; so, I will at least temporarily set aside other major concerns except to say that they are all interlinked and intertwined. Nothing less than systemic solutions have a chance of success. So, whether we concentrate on recent monstrous events taking place in the mainly Muslim countries of North Africa, the Near East and the Middle East, or ruminate upon the enduring threat of nuclear warfare that is surely no less likely now than in the 1950s when children were instructed to hide under their school desks in the event that the bombs started dropping, it is plain the overriding ideology, strategic mindset or paradigm (call it what you will) does not sum up the pertinent variables in ways that allow us to properly understand and resolve existing and anticipated hostilities.

Now, as we contemplate the armed conflicts that are daily occurrences and the prospect of ever greater horrors that are the constant background noise in the nightly news, we are compelled to ask some questions about how we managed to abandon the “peace dividend” that was promised at the end of the Cold War and how we have succeeded in descending into ever more chaotic circumstances in the largely self-imposed “war on terror” that is neither a war nor much else than a prompt for ever more terror.

Who knew, we may ask, or who should have known that the massive destruction of life and the anticipation of even more “failed states” had deeper roots than the events of September 11, 2001, that the American attack on Iraq in 2003 would lead to a cycle of ruinous failure, and that (in fashionable contemporary parlance) not only was there no “Plan B”, but there was not even an intelligent “Plan A”?

Who knew or who should have known that these wholly avoidable hostilities would explode not only into an almost unfathomably complex regional conflict, but would also lead to the largest refugee crisis since World War II, promote domestic tensions throughout Europe, give rise to some excessively unhealthy forms of xenophobia in parts of North America as well as increase the likelihood of “terrorism” in any country deemed to be implicated in the multiple confrontations now erupting in Iraq and Syria?

The answer, of course, is that lots of people knew, but no one in senior positions of authority understood, chose to believe or wanted to hear from the sceptics, the critics and even the serious diplomats and intelligence experts who recognized the recklessness, irrationality or thinly veiled avarice and arrogance of the main authors of our current fate. As a result of their actions, the word “quagmire” has become almost a synonym for “foreign policy” for those countries that have consistently opted for death on the battlefield as a tactic (it doesn’t deserve the name “strategy”) for dealing with issues ranging from access to oil to elementary human rights. In fact, those issues have actually receded into false memory as hideous behaviour on all sides increasingly defines the limits of possibility for people of good and ill will alike.

We must also ask whether it benefits anyone to hold to account leaders in business, government and the military—whether Soviet “apparatchiks”, members of the Bush-Cheney “junta,” Wall Street “banksters” and corporate environmental polluters—who were so grotesquely incompetent, ideologically blinded, preternaturally immoral or just badly informed that they uniquely stumbled into sequential crises of which they had no adequate comprehension and from which they have developed no plan of escape?

Finally, in the current circumstances, we must wonder how we are best to understand and perhaps to avoid future world-historical fiascos that threaten to be even more appalling whether the predicaments are political, military, economic, ecological ... or educational.

Disarming Conflict provides a solid foundation upon which to think seriously about these issues. The framework it applies to matters of war and peace could sensibly be adapted to other crucial policy domains. It provides a way to diagnose the pathological approaches to problems that seem to distort our collective policy-making processes—especially when it comes to inherent failures of “leadership.”

II

While it would no doubt give some psychological relief to people who have been frustrated with their leaders—freely elected or ruthlessly imposed—to blame particular individuals and institutions for creating bad situations and then making them worse, the problems we face are larger than the failings of specific people and particular institutions. The crucial questions which nominal leaders seem incapable of understanding—much less answering—concern the general circumstances and contexts in which we (patricians and plebs alike) are compelled to function.

Once established and accepted as received wisdom, dominant patterns of belief and behaviour, attitudes and actions make rational, evidence-based decision making enormously difficult. Perhaps even more importantly, toxic ideologies render decision makers immune to new information, alternative explanations, competing interpretations and anything approaching a critical understanding of how their entire approach has, itself, become part of a global pathology in which all parties are implicated. Accordingly, they are left helpless in the face of immediate and decisive turns of events or impersonal yet irresistible forces that create such a climate of distress and dismay that apocalyptic thinking seems to be as rational a response to current events as any others that are available today.

However disheartened we may be at both the superficial optimism of the endlessly positive and up-beat “idealists” (the happy faces of global control) or the profoundly pessimistic and cringeworthy “realists“ (the harsher side of the coinage of social control), the fact remains that examining complexities with a combination of subtlety and sensitivity is not only more realistic, but also more honestly optimistic, than the standard fare offered by opportunists and careerists in positions of temporary power and authority.

III

In Disarming Conflict, Ernie Regehr undertakes a noble and formidable task. He addresses an entire range of issues that underlie what he refers to as “a quarter century of failed warfare” from 1989 to 2014. In focusing on this relatively short time period, he does not diminish the conflicts that preceded it. He presents no inventory of past abuse, but that is not his chosen task. He leaves it to us to remember.

Yet, we should not forget the two World Wars, the repression of postcolonial aspirations in Africa, Asia, nominally independent Latin America and what’s politely called the “internal colonialism“ of aboriginal populations around the world. In contemplating the larger context, it is also required of us that we recall the slaughter of somewhere between 500,000 and 2,000,000 Indonesians by President Suharto with the active assistance of the United States and its allies in 1965-1967 (Kurniawan, 2015) and the subsequent slaughter in East Timor with between 100,000 and 300,000 casualties beginning in 1975 (Jardine, 1999), the conflagration in Vietnam, the “killing fields“ of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, domestic terror in the Soviet Union and China, endless suppression and torture in any number of totalitarian countries and police states, the extermination of aboriginal communities and religious minorities, and clashes up to and including genocides that are now all but forgotten in the mindless, memoryless mass media. They are too often forgotten. They are “contextual“ items in an encyclopedia of human horror. In doing so, we can see Disarming Conflict as a summary text, a (desperately hopefully) final chapter in the narrative of human violence.

Ernie Regehr is here to make sense of the past, but more importantly to give a clear understanding of the present, and to help encourage redemptive steps to the future.

This is how he does it.

Regehr’s book deals with structural questions not only about how wars start, but also about how they end (not always as we might expect or like). He explains the limits of force and discusses the valiant, if not always successful, international efforts to prevent wars. He contextualizes the events in places such as Srebrenica and Rwanda and at least hints that moralistic assessments are inadequate to comprehensive, ultimately useful analyses.

Ernie Regehr offers a chapter on the control of the arms trade and he sensibly addresses nuclear armament. He explains how better to protect the most vulnerable people when prevention fails. Not only does he present a well-reasoned, well-researched and well-written report, but he does so in a way that calls to account the entire inventory of international relations experts and foreign affairs specialists in university departments of history and political science, in government, in self-serving lobby groups for self-promoting special interests that are often disguised as dispassionate and disinterested “think tanks,“ as well as in the military, the media and the arms industries that have been permitted not only to profit from, but also to guide civilian policies to date. When we are done, we will no longer be able to take seriously ruses such as Canadian Prime Minister Harper’s effort to create a “snitch line“ for citizens to report on “barbaric cultural practices“ while simultaneously selling $15 billion worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia, which beheads over 100 people a year and refuses to allow women to drive automobiles.

Criticisms of militarists, civilian war mongers and their apologists (whether avaricious and conscienceless arms dealers, overt “imperialists,“ “liberal interventionists“ or remorseless “terrorists“ whose revolutions against injustice too often beget equal or greater injustices of their own) are not new. Partisans for various sides in civil and international wars have long exposed the cynical propaganda and hideous methods of the “other“ side. Peace activists have regularly constructed moral arguments in support of non-violence. And even sizable numbers of academics have done what they thought was possible to describe, analyze and explain local, regional and global violence in the hope that empirical studies would allow evidence-based policy making to prevail over prejudice, arrogance, cupidity and just plain evil (Rummel, 1997). None of this, however, seems to have worked especially well. What distinguishes Disarming Conflict is its rigorous argument about the abject futility of violence.

The idea that “war is hell“ is not new. Savagery and suffering in pointless battles are well enough known. What is different here is the strength of Regehr’s argument, which is rooted, perhaps, in C. Wright Mills’ attack (1956) on “crackpot realism,“ but which is applied more comprehensively and in greater detail by Regehr. Mills was among the first to identify the preference of leaders for the simplicity of a known catastrophe over the ambiguity of prolonged anxiety. Their mental set, he argued, made it possible for them to “still believe that ‘winning’ means something,“ even in the context of modern, technological instruments of annihilation. Mills was followed by brilliant, angry writers such as James R. Newman (1962) and others who were mainly engaged in the logic and perceived inevitability of nuclear war. They were, of course, confronted by the entire range of intellectual and political authorities who dismissed them as doe-eyed idealists.

Henry Kissinger (1957), for example, was able to use his prestigious academic credentials and political influence to steer US foreign policy toward the menace of mass destruction and, in one of the Nobel Prize Committee’s darkest exercises in humour, pick up the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for his troubles (his co-winner Le Duc Tho of Vietnam honourably declined the award since, as he readily acknowledged, there was no peace). Kissinger and lesser members of the breed wrote forcefully and sneered openly at critics who, they insisted, simply did not understand human nature or, less grandly, the “reality“ of international relations in the modern world. Such warriors would do well to read Disarming Conflict. They, of course, will not. So, it falls to us to do so in order that the next generations of decision makers will at least have a well-informed opposition when they next choose (perhaps for the last time) to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Regehr brings irrefutable evidence to the conversation that mass conflict does not and cannot secure a lasting peace. Gore Vidal popularized the phrase “permanent war for permanent peace” as a way to encapsulate and satirize foreign policy in the middle of the quarter-century upon which Regehr concentrates. Regehr fills in the rest of the story. Ernie Regehr exhibits a measure of humanity that is absent from much of the thoughts, words and deeds that flow from our political leaders. Nothing less is required of a scholar and a public intellectual. Nothing less can be accepted, especially as our civilization is presented with the opportunity to open itself up to possibilities of constructive social change, but especially in the event that it does not.

References

Greenspan, A. (2013). Never saw it coming: Why the financial crisis took economists by surprise. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved July 12, 2015, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2013-10-15/never-saw-it-coming

Jardine, M. (1999). East Timor: Genocide in paradise, (Monroe, ME: Odonian Press).

Kissinger, H. (1957). Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

Kurniawan, E. (2015). Beauty is a wound. (Trans. A. Tucker). New York, NY: New Directions Publishing.

Newman, J. (1962). The Rule of Folly. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Mills, C. W. (1958). The causes of world war three. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Rummel, R. (1997). Power kills. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Vidal, G. (2002). Permanent war for permanent peace: How America got to be so hated. New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press.


Howard A. Doughty, teaches Cultural Anthropology and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com