Nonviolent Civilian Defense

University Essays: Lesson 13, Reading 3

By Liane Ellison Norman

You want us to lie down and let the Russians trample over us, critics say of peace workers. There’s some justice in this view: we’ve opposed particular wars or preparations for wars. But we’ve not sufficiently explored ways to replace warfare, which has historically been the principal recorded means whereby nations, states, princes or parties within states have contended for both noble and ignoble ends— defense as well as conquest, liberty and justice as well as hegemony and despotism. In our hatred of war, we’ve ignored the needs it has satisfied.

War at its Old Germanic linguistic roots means confusion, discord and strife. But war is also associated with splendid panoply and poetry. “Once more into the breach, dear friends,” urges the warrior King Henry V, appealing to the tradition that burnishes the reputation of battle. Our culture tells us that though war is hell, it is honorable. It occasions solidarity, heroism, spectacle, comradeship, self-sacrifice and vitality.

War is thought to work, despite evidence that there’s always at least one losing side, that each war concludes by making the next more likely. And when, for participants, experience tarnishes war, culture tells us that there’s no other way to pursue certain objectives. Long-standing ambivalence about war has tightened like thumbscrews since 1945, when it became evident that nuclear weapons could do in seconds die damage it had taken decades—even centuriesto do in earlier times; could destroy not only populations and their works, but the very environment on which life depends. We who deplore violence have seized on each new piece of evidence that war is insupportable to make our point. But, say the dubious, so long as the world is not made up of saints, you cannot dismantle arms nor do away with war.

It’s worth listening to our critics. History suggests it’s realistic to be concerned about both conquest and tyranny. If we had neither weapons nor soldiers, what would we do if an enemy tried to conquer us? What would we do if our government suspended civil liberties, imprisoned, tortured and executed people like us? Women know that to accommodate bullying makes them silent partners in violence.

Peace, given such realities, smacks of weakness, cowardice, appeasement and submission. Our language both reflects and shapes the problem. Peace means the absence or cessation of war, a negative definition. How can we have both peace and the power to stand up to conquerors and tyrants?

I ask my students to draw a picture of peace, not an easy task, for while we use the term “power” with confidence, it’s an elusive idea. One student draws God threatening a father who has his arm raised with a club to beat his son—my student. This picture crudely expresses a common notion about power: that in the nature of things, power resides at the top of some kind of hierarchy and that it involves the ability to hurt and/or humiliate. Those with high position have power because they can do violence. Parents, teachers, religious leaders and employers can make us do their bidding because they can punish us if we don’t. This view of power is a widespread article of faith.

Looked at more closely, however, the power exercised by those in power is both dependent and fragile. No head of state governs single-handedly. She has aides and advisors to help formulate and transmit policy to bureaucracies; secretaries to answer the telephone, write letters and file records; tax collectors to provide revenues; experts of all varieties (planners, economists, engineers, construction crews, garbage collectors, mail deliverers, cooks, cleaners); police to enforce and courts to interpret the laws; and citizens, who by and large obey the laws, cooperate, submit to the general order.

The power to govern depends on the willingness of people to be governed. If they withdraw their consent, even in significant part, no head of state can govern. In other words, citizens provide their leaders with power and can regulate its use. Those in power can use sanctions against the dissident and disobedientor at least a representative samplebut even sanctions require obedience to carry out.

For example, the federal government says Central American refugees are illegal aliens and requires that law-enforcement officials help catch and punish them. But a large number of cities have declared themselves sanctuaries, which means that city employees will not assist the government in carrying out its policy. The New York Times (December 27, 1985) proclaims editorially that “Cities Can’t Make Immigration Law.” But cities, along with individual citizens make law all the time when they comply with it. “If the law displeases them, let them petition Washington,” scolds the Times, which nearly always reinforces the view that power rests only at the top. The cities, like the churches which have offered sanctuary, like those who once harbored runaway slaves en route to freedom or those who made white lightning during prohibition, refuse obedience to the federal government and laws they judge to be oppressive. Government is limited by the power of the people.

What really frightens power-at-the-top people is that citizens and localities may discover how powerful they are. However, with the discovery that they can resist the policies of their own government comes the insight that the same citizens and localities can formulate a defense that does not depend upon the kind of organized, legalized violence we call war.

To design a nonviolent defense requires thinking about conquest, victory and defeat. Though it seems to be about battlefields, war is really about who is to govern what and how. Conquest is meaningless unless the conqueror is able to govern: victory means that one or more of the contending parties acknowledges defeat, concedes the right of the victor to govern. One army may rout another, but unless the population represented by the defeated army permits itself to be governed by the conquerors, there is no conquest.

A conqueror can punish or kill thoseor some of thosewho resist, just as he does in battle. But conquerors do not bring with them whole regimes to govern, enforce and implement: even if they had the requisite human power, newcomers would not know how to make a conquered system operate. The conquerors, instead, have to persuade local people to run things for them by intimidation or reward. If the “conquered” refuse, braving threat or punishment, the “conquerors” are stymied. Increased oppression meant to persuade the population to obey may backfire: any regime that has to rely on excessive punishment to govern loses legitimacy and increases resistance.

Precisely the same general principles apply to domestic tyranny as to foreign imposition: dictators, wherever they originate, rely on cooperation and consent, whether given with enthusiasm or fear. Nonviolent defense strategy is to deny enemy objectives, to make the task of controlling a population and its institutions impossible. Historic instancesof the Danes and Norwegians in World War II, of the Czechs in 1968, of the Indians under Gandhi, of many others as documented by Gene Sharpare more suggestive than conclusive: they represent spontaneous rather than well developed strategies, relying more on ingenuity and courage than preparation and discipline. But that very spontaneity, ingenuity and courage suggest that with preparation and discipline, with advance planning, with reinforcement by education and popular culture, nonviolent strategies can provide defense against both foreign conquest and domestic tyranny.

Nonviolent defense strategies cannot be used against nuclear weapons: but then, neither can violent defense strategies. But a country that ceases to menace others while maintaining its capacity to defend itself can afford to give up its nuclear weapons, which though expensive, undermine rather than provide security. While nuclear weapons provide a fundamentally incredible deterrent, nonviolent strategies can be used to deter an enemy by making clear in advance that the nonviolently-prepared country will make the task of conquest and governance costly, impossible and unpopular.

But nonviolent defense cannot be perverted to offense. While a country, region or people can protect themselves using nonviolent means, they cannot invade and intimidate using the same means.

A nonviolent defense strategy does not require that other nations relinquish violence: it can be used against violent, brutal and ruthless enemies. Nonviolent combatants need not be nice, cussedness being more to the point than saintliness. The effectiveness of their strategy does not require the moral conversion of the enemy. However, by depriving enemies of the arguments they rely on to justify otherwise outlawed acts of brutality, nonviolence undermines their conditioning. Recognizing that adversaries also have the power to withdraw their consent humanizes them, offering them options they may, as individuals, not have considered. This is what the advice to love one’s enemies means in tactical terms.

Young men have to be broken of their humanity to be made soldiers. Nonviolent defense requires no such rupture of human inclinations, but rather a strengthening thereof. Nonviolent civilian, or popular, defense does not delegate society’s dirty and dangerous work to adolescent boys, but relies on people to defend themselvestaking their share of casualties. Such strategies do not require temporarily setting aside civilian values, but fortify them. Violent revolutions habitually fail because the arts of war are ill-suited to post-revolutionary order: violent revolution spawns counterrevolutionaries eager to avenge their losses, and those who win by violence can rarely be kind. Nonviolent defensive and revolutionary strategies are inherently democratic, for those doing the defending learn the skills, develop the stamina and support systems necessary to the withdrawal of consent not only from foreign tyrants and their agents but from tyrants closer to home as well. Thus nonviolent policies demand legitimacy now rather than eventually.

Further, nonviolent strategies promote the continuous renewal of democratic principles, relying on the genius and know-how of ordinary people and providing them with the means to rectify wrongs long before desperation makes them reckless.

Most societies teach people to be powerless. This is convenient for those who want to wield power over others, but is in the long run self-defeating because it prepares them to submit. The more powerless people think they are, the more easily they can be conquered. The New York Times sees no recourse but courteous petitions to those in power: the same habit of mind might well lead the Times to defer to a conqueror. The cities which defy the federal government in the matter of sanctuary are better prepared to resist foreign or domestic tyranny. Few parents, frustrated by a two-year-old resisting a snowsuit, teach the child to note and learn from that exercise of power. Few teachers, faced with students coughing in unison, use the occasion to teach the lesson of resistance and solidarity. It takes confident, secure adults and leaders to teach power and the discernment to use it well. However, violence springs from insecurity and the sense of weakness rather than security and strength: Rambo is a fantasy of power, not the real thing.

Some say that there’s no evidence that nonviolent strategies for defense would work. It’s true that we haven’t tested such strategies consciously enough to know for sure whether they would always do the trick: nor does warfare. It’s also true, however, that we have tested organized violence, and while wars have won some gains, the price has been terrific. Part of that price has been die failure to develop other means of serious struggle.

And so we find ourselves in a corner: war has become too dangerous to use and we haven’t as a civilization developed an alternative. But we have the opportunity, even this late in the day, to work together, hawks and doves, each with our partial understanding of the truth, to develop the means to make peace strong and strength peaceful.

from “Peace Through Strength,” Civilian Based Defense. Vol.3, No.2, March 1986. Reprinted as “Nonviolent Civil Defense” by permission of the  author and the Civilian-Based Defense Association

This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372


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