Peace Activism: What Is It Good For?

Assessing the Peace Movement's Influence

Andrew J. Bacevich

From time to time over the past decade, I’ve visited precincts that I might once have considered alien territory. More specifically, I’ve spoken to any number of antiwar groups.

Recently I visited with one such group in Maine. Those in attendance reflected the standard “peace & justice” demographic. For starters, they were almost entirely white. More or less evenly balanced in terms of gender, they were also long in the tooth. The mean age of the audience had to be well above sixty. If they exuded a faintly countercultural sensibility, it was gentle and polite rather than in-your-face. Whatever the proportion of aging hippies to straight-laced citizens, they came across as earnest, well-informed, and articulate. They listened intently, asked good questions, and did not hesitate to express opinions, which were invariably thoughtful. They were, in short, admirable in every way.

This time, however, the evening concluded with an unexpected twist. After we adjourned, a member of the audience approached and asked me to respond to something that had troubled him for quite some time. Wasn’t it the case, he asked, that peace activists were actually “enablers”? However well-intentioned, didn’t the puniness of their protest serve inadvertently to lend a simulacrum of legitimacy to the very policies to which they objected?

My instinctive reaction was to disagree. Not so, I replied. Bearing witness to truth is itself a worthy act. Whether or not truth prevails as a consequence is not the issue. The main thing is to keep faith with principle.

However vaguely, I had in mind the position staked out by Dorothy Day in charging Catholic Workers to remain steadfast in the face of disappointment. “Success, as the world determines it,” she wrote in May 1972, “is not the criterion by which a movement should be judged.” For Day, what mattered most was fidelity. “We must be prepared and ready to face seeming failure,” she continued.

The most important thing is that we adhere to [Christian] values, which transcend time and for which we will be asked a personal accounting, not as to whether they succeeded...but as to whether we remained true to them even though the whole world go otherwise.

So too, even if making little apparent headway, present-day peace activists ought to persevere. Constancy satisfies the demands of honor and duty. Do your utmost and leave the rest to Fate or Providence or God. So at least, as I hastily gathered my things, I tried to persuade my interlocutor.

Yet throughout the long drive home, his question nagged. And the more I reflected on my own response, the less convincing it became.

For Dorothy Day, the unfolding of salvation history may have provided an appropriate context in which to situate the Catholic Worker movement (or Christianity as a whole). In that context, the timetable may be unknown, but the outcome is predetermined. The Good News ultimately culminates in good news. Hence Day’s counsel of patience.

For the peace movement, however, it’s what happens in the meantime that counts. Whatever may await humanity at the end of time, afflictions endured in the here-and-now matter a great deal. Peace activists cannot state with confidence that history will ultimately yield a happy verdict. The persistence of large-scale political violence suggests grimmer possibilities.

Viewed from this perspective, does the present-day peace movement serve any practical purpose? In terms of influencing U. S. policy, not that I can see.

Evidence that grassroots agitation against war is making the United States any less warlike is hard to come by. The militarization of American statecraft, an outgrowth of the Cold War, continues apace. In the decades since the collapse of communism, the nation’s infatuation with military power and its penchant for military intervention have become, if anything, more pronounced. In Washington, “All options remain on the table” is a common refrain. As peace activists see it, a critical evaluation of basic U.S. national-security policies might deserve a place on that metaphorical piece of furniture. But that’s one option that seemingly qualifies as too heretical even to consider as far as the nation’s political leaders are concerned.

Division and dysfunction pervade our political system. Yet in the realm of national security, if nowhere else, consensus prevails—indeed, is taken for granted. Purportedly favoring small government, Republicans love a big Pentagon and reject suggestions that its budget might be trimmed a wee bit. A once-dovish Democratic Party has long since become a nesting place for hawks. (My favorite recent news story recounts the vigorous efforts by Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, the U.S. Senate’s one and only socialist, to cajole the Air Force into stationing a batch of new F35s not far from downtown Burlington; sure the noisy, expensive F35 shows signs of being a gold-plated dud, but fighter jets mean jobs.)

The women finally finding employment in the upper echelons of the national-security establishment nevertheless further cement this consensus. Today, Washington’s power elite accommodates and even welcomes members of the sisterhood, a development widely hailed as indicative of “progress.”

Arguably, however, this much-celebrated empowerment of women has produced results other than those inspiring Jane Addams back in 1915 to found the Women’s Peace Party. “As women,” the party platform declared, “we feel a peculiar passion of revolt against both the cruelty and the waste of war. As women, we are especially the custodians of the life of the ages.” Observers may differ in their assessment of how effectively Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton, and Susan Rice have performed their duties, but no one will charge them with translating the goals of the Women’s Peace Party into public policy. Among the priorities to which politically active women subscribe today, removing barriers to women serving in combat rates higher than promoting alternatives to war. To share Addams’s conviction that women might have an innate aversion to war now qualifies as a form of sexism.

Not inconsequentially, the agenda-setting press validates and supports this consensus. The editorial pages of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal are reliably bellicose. Although editors of the New York Times expressed regret for the paper’s part in promoting the bogus case for toppling Saddam Hussein, they have long ceased crying over milk spilt a whole decade ago. As Times columnist Bill Keller, now keen to topple Bashar al-Assad, recently wrote, “Getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.” Peace activists might think it a tad premature to confer a general grant of absolution on all those implicated in that prior debacle. Keller replies, in effect, “Who asked you?”

Why does the mainstream media collude with the state in propping up the reigning national-security paradigm? Why is the peace movement’s critique of that paradigm so easily brushed aside? Not because that paradigm works, as least not if we tally up the costs and consequences stemming from U.S. policy.

Of course, the national-security apparatus seldom bothers to assess costs and consequences. By comparison, the Catholic Church represents the very model of accountability. Members of the church hierarchy have repeatedly apologized for the clergy sexual-abuse scandal. When will the military hierarchy apologize for bungling the Iraq War? Bishops at least have the decency to express contrition. Admirals and generals acknowledge no comparable obligation—nor are they expected to.

The manifest shortcomings of existing U. S. national security arrangements—too many wars fought at too high a cost with too little to show in terms of results—would doom any “real world” enterprise to failure and collapse. These arrangements persist for one overriding reason: Among the majority of Americans, they command broad, tacit assent. By and large, Americans are pretty much OK with how the Pentagon spends its money and what it does. Peace activists might get all hot and bothered by evidence of ineptitude, malfeasance, and morally dubious undertakings, but most of their fellow citizens do not.

Peace activists want fundamental change: fewer interventions, leaner military budgets, greater attention to fostering peace instead of fomenting wars. Yet they’ve not succeeded in persuading others to endorse those propositions. Taken together, the worldview shared by those granted access to elite policy circles, the public’s casual acceptance of hitherto proscribed practices such as assassination and preventive war, and the widespread belief that civic duty extends no further than offering vapid expressions of support for “the troops” constitute a rolling verdict of sorts. It’s democracy in action, with the warmongers rather than the peaceniks claiming a clear majority of the vote. Sure, the activists are out there making their case—organizing, protesting, signing petitions, holding meetings—but what they have on offer isn’t selling.

In that regard, peace activists do, even if unintentionally, function as enablers. Democracy needs losers who accept outcomes they deem unfavorable, their acceptance bestowing on the system the appearance of being licit. This describes the de facto function of the present-day peace movement. By their very actions, its members sustain the pretense of a functioning democracy that in matters involving war and peace actively invites people to choose between distinct alternatives. In reality, alternatives are ignored or suppressed. What’ll you have? Coke or Pepsi? Missile-firing drones or SEAL Team 6?

Whatever its relevance to individuals, Dorothy Day’s charge to remain steadfast even though “the whole world go otherwise” cannot provide the peace movement with an adequate basis for self-evaluation. A movement accepting such a definition of purpose will languish as little more than a fading symbol of futility, tainted with complicity while being simultaneously ignored.

As things stand now, if the peace movement ceased to exist, how long would it be before anyone noticed? Who would care?

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (Metropolitan Books).

__________

R. Scott Appleby

Andrew Bacevich’s essay is confused—theologically, conceptually, and factually. As a result, it delivers half-truths, not least regarding “the peace movement.” Let’s begin with the theological. Dorothy Day is not our only option for gauging the impact of peacebuilding. Indeed, Bacevich’s version of Day is not even a recognizable theological option. Contra Bacevich, Kingdom of God theology—what he refers to as “salvation history”—hardly ignores “afflictions endured in the here-and-now”; nor does it pospone the pursuit of justice and the repair of the earth until “the end of time.” The reason Day and her followers concentrated on the works of mercy, prophetic witness, and solidarity with the victims of structural, cultural, and physical violence is that such actions constitute participation in God’s redemptive presence now, here, on this earth. Living as the poor and among the homeless, eschewing all forms of violence, railing against militarism—these were not futile acts or hollow metaphors but primary symbols, fully participating in the reality to which they refer. People are really fed, housed, clothed, stuck up for—in a word, loved. When the followers of John the Baptist asked Jesus if he was the Messiah, he did not reply: Just wait until the end of time and see. Rather, he pointed to the restoration of wholeness in the here-and-now: the blind see, the lame walk, the good news is proclaimed to the poor.

And yet...while on earth, they are loved “in the ruins.” The world continues to groan under the weight of sin. The signs Jesus invoked were eschatological—anticipatory of the time of fulfillment, glimmerings of the “already but not yet” paradox in which we Christians find ourselves embedded.

Bacevich is understandably restless; he wants more, as do we all. By focusing exclusively on the “not yet,” however, he mistakes the part for the whole. God’s will is done on earth (by the meek, the pure of heart, the merciful and, yes, the peacemakers), if not quite “as it is in heaven.” In heaven, presumably, the unjust structures and the evil in men’s hearts are no longer obstacles to realizing the profound and enduring peace we seek.

And so the prophet’s question, which is also the hopeful theme undergirding Bacevich’s eloquent jeremiads, remains central: How do we transform the sinful structures of earth into the righteous society of heaven, or at least nudge them in that direction? Certainly not by caricaturing the peace- and-justice-oriented generations emerging from universities, faith communities, civil-society organizations, and conflict zones. Herein lies Bacevich’s second confusion—presenting the good and “admirable” burghers of Camden, Maine, as representatives of “the peace movement.” Bacevich knows better. He has met the dedicated young professionals with expertise in conflict mediation, human rights and international law, economic development and, yes, grassroots political activism. He has taught and mentored some of the young men and women who now serve in government, in nongovernmental organizations and in the private sector, crafting alternatives to military intervention. Like so many of our colleagues in the academy, he knows firsthand that a vital, moral, imaginative, and relentless cohort is being unleashed on unsuspecting colleagues and superiors. Conceptualizing “the peace movement” as a band of aging hippies simply won’t do.

Is this generation of professional peacebuilders what Bacevich call “the peace movement”? No, although one might trace familial, religious, and some ideological continuities across generations. The peace movement to which he refers, I suspect, has a long and varied heritage, from the conscientious objectors and “draft dodgers” of the 1960s to the antinuke activists of the Reagan era and beyond. Widespread opposition to the Vietnam War limited U.S. war-making options and ultimately forced the withdrawal of American troops. The disarmament campaigns of the 1980s created a climate of support for arms control that contributed to the end of the Cold War.

While these activists did not succeed in eliminating nuclear weapons or stifling our political leadership’s appetite for war, they did raise awareness and provided Americans and Europeans with a vocabulary and a vision of international cooperation, trade, and arms reduction with which presidents, including the current occupant of the Oval Office, have been forced to grapple. Change comes slowly to a people steeped in war; the impact of social moments is measured only after decades, and “prevention” is impossible to prove (the bomb that didn’t explode).

And, not least, seeds sown by Cold War peace activists may be bearing fruit in today’s proliferation of human-rights organizations, relief and development agencies, and peacebuilding NGOs. Indeed, the facts point in the direction of progress. Obama was elected with a mandate to end the Iraq War, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan is welcomed by a majority of Americans. The defense budget remains a sacred cow, but these creatures are being sacrificed, left and right, in our era of fiscal austerity. Restore the draft and watch the bandwagon against war roll; even nationalism ain’t what it used to be. Role models abound, from Pope Francis to the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates to, well, Andrew Bacevich. The globalizing world is no picnic, especially for the underclasses. But from my glass-half-full perspective, a new generation offers genuine promise for rebooting the national and global moral imagination.

This emergent “already” is also part of the big picture, along with the persistence of unbridled militarism; let’s keep working on the “not yet.” In doing so, why dismiss those who share the vision and who kindle young and old imaginations? In this battle for alternatives to constant war, we need all the friends we can find. 

R. Scott Appleby is professor of history and director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

 

Published in the September 27, 2013 issue: 

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country. R. Scott Appleby, director of the Kroc Center for Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, is co-editor of Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics and Praxis.

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