Can the military do peace?

I recently took part in a panel discussion at Eastern Mennonite University that addressed the question, “what should the role of the military be in peacebuilding?” The planners did a good job pulling together the panel—we had a retired Navy captain, a retired military chaplain, a professor of peacebuilding at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP), and myself. I was the only pacifist.

Our first question was about our own personal experience with peacebuilding and/or the military. I never served in the military (though, I not growing up Mennonite, I was not taught to be a conscientious objector). I just missed being drafted—the year I turned 19 was the year the draft ended in 1973, near the end of the Vietnam War. If I had been drafted at that time, I would have accepted the call. I was happy not to have to go in, but not because of my moral convictions.

Both of my parents were in the military in World War II, one of my uncles died as an Air Force pilot in Greece in the late 1940s, and my oldest sister married a career Army man. So, I grew up with a positive view of the military. But when I was 21 I became a pacifist, largely simply due to grappling with the issues of violence and warfare in light of my newly energized Christian faith. A few years later I learned about and then joined the Mennonite church near where I lived due largely to the Mennonite peace position. Eventually I became a Mennonite pastor and professor.

One of my central interests for a long time has been peace theology, working at understanding the relevance of Jesus’ teaching about love of enemies and other core convictions that lead to a rejection of violence and warfare and an embrace of a commitment to active nonviolence.

So I am very interested in question of what the role of the military should be in peacebuilding. We need to start by asking what we mean by “peacebuilding.” This term can have many meanings, from something like maintaining order (as in calling policemen and policement “officers of the peace”) to an academic discipline having to do with conflict resolution and group processing (as in EMU’s graduate CJP program and its undergraduate major in Peacebuilding and Development) to something more related to a deeper vision of human flourishing.

For my purposes in these reflections here, I would say that “peacebuilding” has to do with active participation in work to resolve conflicts, to assist people in face of major disasters, to prevent warfare and other types of violence, in general to work to cultivate the kind of social well-being that the Bible calls shalom. So, the broader more universal sense of human flourishing is at the root of authentic peacebuilding.

A key element to peacebuilding, it seems to me, is a sense of consistency—the peacebuilder seeks human well-being for all people and applies one’s moral values equally to all people. For example, if we define “terrorism” as “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes” this is true of all acts of violence and threats, whether from governmental forces or insurgents. And the peacebuilder should be equally concerned for peace in relation to people from all countries, not just one’s own or one’s allies.

It is at this point of the actual meaning of peacebuilding that we right away bump into a fundamental tension with the idea of using the military as a major player in peacebuilding work. In the world we actually live in (where there is no transnational military force but only militaries created by and subservient to particular nation-states), no military has as its mission the serving of general human welfare. Militaries serve the interests of their sponsoring states.

Then there is the question of what is the core focus of soldiers in the military? In our discussion, the two military men and one audience member who is a retired Marine all expressed doubt about about whether military people can easily shift gears from their training to kill (which of necessity involves training in “dehumanizing the enemy”—this is the language of the retired Navy captain).

One of the big issues here is the issue of “othering” the people one engages. Military training (at least in the United States) centers on treating the “enemy” as the “other.” “Kill or be killed.” There is constant talk about taking care of the “bad guys.” In contrast, at its heart, for peacebuilding there is, in a genuine sense, no “other.” The peacebuilder seeks to humanize, to overcome the problems of dehumanizing. The peacebuilder tries to find common ground in the context of conflict, to overcome enmity, and create win-win outcomes (though certainly such goals are often quite difficult to achieve). These are two greatly differing visions of processing conflict.

Another way of raising this issue of the differing visions is to ask about the role of violence. Training in the use of violent methods is inherent in the military. Can peacebuilding involve violence? In general, violence is the problem a peacebuilder seeks to overcome. Peacebuilding sees itself as an effort to provide alternatives to violence, to overcome the consequences of violence, and to remove the causes of violence. Hence,  it would seem that there would be a strong bias against using violent means for peacebuilding. So, we must wonder whether military peacebuilding could possibly be a contradiction in terms.

So, several reasons we have good cause to conclude that the military and the work of peacebuilding are at odds with each other:

(1) Peacebuilding is based on a kind of universalism, that sees all human beings as of equal value and seeks to serve the well-being of all people regardless of their differences. In contrast, militaries serve specific national interests.

(2) Peacebuilding seeks to overcome the very dynamic of “othering” that is central to the military modus operandi. Whereas, soldiers are trained to de-humanize, peacebuilders seek to re-humanize.

(3) Peacebuilding is grounded in a fundamental commitment to nonviolence; the military has at the core of its mission the use (or threatened use) of death-dealing violence.

Are there ways to do peacebuilding apart from being a member of the military? Of course. So it would seem that the prospective peacebuilder has many options for engaging in this work—probably each more worthy of their energies than military service.

However, for the purposes of conversation, let’s still accept the possibility that in the “real world,” some military involvement may be appropriate for serving the relative good (though this is not my personal view). What then about the military of the United States? That is, even if we could imagine a role for military forces in peacebuilding, can we imagine a role specifically for the U.S. military?

It is difficult to be very optimistic about the peacebuilding potential of the U.S. military given  the consistent failure of the U.S. military to serve genuinely democratic ends for the past 66 years (see these three chapters from my manuscript on the moral legacy of World War II: “Pax America,” “The Cold War,” and “Full Spectrum Dominance”).

How important a role in our consideration should the role of corporate America in shaping U.S. military practices be? That is, who is the “our” when we Americans talk about “our” military—has the American military genuinely served the interests of American people as a whole or more the American power elite?

Is the idea of involving the military more in “humanitarian” and “peacebuilding” work about moving the military away from violence—or is it about militarizing peacebuilding? What about the possibility that most of all we are witnessing a kind of PR effort to obscure from popular consciousness in this country how in this age of deep, deep cuts in governmental spending (including now talk of gutting social security and medicare), the military remains almost untouchable, even as the U.S. spends about as much on military and related budgets as the entire rest of the world combined?

5 thoughts on “Can the military do peace?

  1. I tried to “like” this but it won’t let me. Very helpful thoughts for me as I continue in an ongoing discusion I’m having with a patriotic American Christian who recently asked me, after reading some of Origen, whether I could at least pray for a US military victory, even if I would not fight in the military.

  2. Ted,

    What about middle axioms with the US military? Do you think they may be possible? For example, wouldn’t US military humanitarian aid in catastrophic disasters be a middle axiom?

  3. It is now 2015, and I am only now seeing this post you made in 2011. As I have noted before, it is concerning to me that these posts on your blog often refer to conversations we have had, but do not refer to me by name. As with other Mennonite women, we receive no credit for our intellectual work, while you freely cite Mennonite men and credit them.

    To set the record straight, I am the professor at CJP who hosted this event and I am most certainly a pacifist and have written extensively about being a pacifist, about the theology that underlies my peacebuilding and about how working with the military is a natural extensive of Anabaptist peacebuilding.

    1. Actually Lisa, the CJP faculty member I refer to in my post was Jayne Docherty—who stated in her comments at that forum that she wasn’t a pacifist. The forum was organized by undergrad Peacebuilding and Development students as part of a class they were taking from Gloria Rhodes.

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