National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 4, 2003

History shows pacifists aren’t dreamers

In the past 20 years, nonviolent resistance has reshaped the world


Those of us who are pacifists and who opposed the war against Iraq, as we oppose all violence anywhere for any reason, are now being chided and lectured. War works. George W. Bush and the U.S. military got it done. The beast of Baghdad is gone. Iraq is free. Saddam Hussein’s statues are torn down and his henchmen rounded up.

Not so fast. No pacifist I know -- whether a pragmatic pacifist or a principled pacifist, the two kinds -- doubted the outcome of the onslaught that began in mid-March. On one side was a well-financed, well-fed, well-equipped, highly modernized military on the offensive, and with a near-limitless arsenal of bombs to be dropped by a near-limitless supply of pilots. On the other was an ill-fed, ill-equipped, poorly mechanized and often cowering military on the defensive, and lacking an air force to defend a helpless civilian population against bombing-at-will invaders.

It was Muhammad Ali in the ring against a 10-year-old schoolyard bully.

What we pacifists did doubt was the “last resort” argument put forth by the Bush war council, backed as it endlessly was by assertions that only warfare could bring on the heralded regime change and democracy.

The celerity of Hussein’s fall sustains both the delusion that war making is necessary and the myth that violence creates peace. A look at history -- fresh, in-this-lifetime history -- refutes these lame claims.

On April 1, 2001, in Yugoslavia, Serbian police arrested Slobodan Milosevic for his crimes while in office. He was brought down nonviolently -- by students, workers and a well-organized resistance movement. No resister was killed by the government during the two years its military and police might slowly eroded. It was citizen power, not NATO pilots bombing Serb civilians, that changed the regime. The tyrant is now on trial in The Hague getting due process.

On Aug. 24, 1989, in Poland, the Soviet puppet regime of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski fell. On that day it peacefully ceded power to a coalition government created by the Solidarity labor union that, for a decade, used nonviolent strategies to overthrow the communist dictator. Few resisters were killed by the Jaruzelski regime in the nine years leading to its overthrow. The example of Poland’s nonviolence spread, with the Soviet Union’s collapse soon coming.

On Oct. 5, 1988, Chile’s despotic Gen. Augusto Pinochet was driven from office after five years of strikes, boycotts and other forms of nonviolent resistance. A Chilean organizer who led the demand for free elections said: “We didn’t protest with arms. That gave us more power.”

On the morning of Feb. 26, 1986, a frightened Ferdinand Marcos, once a ruthless ruler of the Philippines but now just another powerless dictator, fled to exile in Hawaii. A three-year nonviolent revolt -- staged by nuns, students, merchants, workers -- brought him down.

In South Africa, it wasn’t armed struggle that ended white supremacy and brought former prisoner Nelson Mandela to the presidency on May 10, 1994. It was the moral force of organized nonviolent resistance that made it impossible for the racist government to control the justice-demanding population.

Who would have forecast in 1985 that these regimes, empowered with their weapons, torture chambers and death squads, would be taken out bloodlessly by the effective power and moral force of noncooperation? It shouldn’t be confused with passive resistance. It is active resistance. “It’s not a semantic distinction,” cautions Peter Ackerman, coauthor of A Force More Powerful: Century of Nonviolent Conflict (Palgrave, 2000). “People in nonviolent struggles are not unarmed. They are simply not armed with violent weapons. But make no mistake, they have formidable resources that flow from the fabric of society.”

Would the methods used in Yugoslavia, Poland, Chile, the Philippines and South Africa have toppled Saddam Hussein and brought democracy to Iraq? The question is now moot. Had the United States offered anti-Hussein dissidents financial and political support in 1991, as the Agency for International Development, the U.S. Institute for Peace and the National Endowment for Democracy helped Serb dissidents against Milosevic, results might have been different. Instead, they were abandoned and became easy prey for Hussein.

Rather than rapping pacifists as dreamers living in a fantasy world, U.S. militarists and war supporters need to confront their own dreaminess and fantasies. Since 1945, these countries have been bombed or militarily invaded by the United States: China, Korea, Guatemala, Indonesia, Cuba, Congo, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. Not once did a democratic government, respectful of human rights, occur as a direct result.

Despite historical evidence that nonviolent solutions are effective -- including the Danish resistance to the Nazis in the early 1940s -- and military solutions are not, America’s political leaders keep summoning generals, arms peddlers and bomber pilots to create peace. Their killing machine proves that Martin Luther King was correct when he said in 1967: “The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today [is] my own government.”

It also sustains the view of Hannah Arendt: “Violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.”

Colman McCarthy, a former columnist for The Washington Post, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. He teaches courses on nonviolence at three Washington-area universities and three high schools.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: