By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, September 23, 2023
Welcome to NoWar2023, World BEYOND War’s annual conference. This is our eighth annual conference. Though we have existed for almost 10 years, we began these conferences exactly eight years ago. We’ve had two conferences in Washington, D.C., one in Toronto, Canada, and one in Limerick, Ireland. We’ve now had four online.
I’m wearing my sky-blue scarf. If you have one, please wear it. If you requested one when registering for this conference just recently, it is indeed in the mail to you. The scarf means that we all live under the same sky on a planet we are working to rid of all war and bring to a just and sustainable peace. Learn more at worldbeyondwar.org/blue
World BEYOND War is growing, and becoming more effective. But so is war propaganda. Over the three days of this conference, we want to address the most powerful argument for war.
As you know, our website and other publications and countless events have made the case that war is immoral, that it endangers us rather than protecting us, that it erodes liberties, promotes bigotry, wastes our wealth, and threatens our environment, that it is not inevitable, beneficial, or even justifiable.
It’s relatively easy for us to show that war is a choice made by humans, not an outside force, that various human societies have existed without war, and that any particular war could have been avoided with wiser choices in the years leading up to it. Our book on A Global Security System outlines a world in which structures of law and conflict resolution, economics and enterprises could render war highly unlikely instead of — as today — the end goal of vast efforts and energies.
The best answer to “What should people do when a military attacks them?” will always be to create a world in which militaries don’t attack you. But that hardly helps anyone in the moment of the attack. For decades now, in my experience living in the nation that launches the most wars, the mere act of thinking about alternatives to militarily fighting back against an invasion is almost universally frowned upon. In fact, a common argument for militarism by leftists in the U.S. is “How dare you tell victims of the U.S. what to do?” And it’s no step at all from there to “How dare you tell victims of Russia what to do?”
Twelve years ago, Erica Chenoweth came up with data suggesting that nonviolent revolutions are on average far more likely to succeed than violent ones, and the successes far longer lasting. This didn’t mean any of the familiar misunderstandings such as that violent revolutions have never succeeded or nonviolent ones never failed, or that nonviolent revolutions don’t confront violence from the other side, or that nonviolent action cannot be used for evil ends. But what did it mean for “What should people do when a military attacks them?”? Most of the examples were overthrows of domestic tyrants or unjust policies, not responses to foreign invasions.
Well, we started putting together a list of the most relevant examples, which you can find at worldbeyondwar.org/list
When French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr in 1923, the German government called on its citizens to resist without physical violence. Through nonviolent noncooperation, people turned public opinion in Britain, the U.S., and even in Belgium and France, in favor of the occupied Germans, and the French troops were withdrawn. In the final years of German occupation of Denmark and Norway during WWII, the Nazis effectively no longer controlled the population. Nonviolent actions led by Mohandas Gandhi and by Bacha Khan’s unarmed peace army were key to removing the British from India. When the Soviet military invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, there were demonstrations, a general strike, refusal to cooperate, removal of street signs, persuasion of troops. Despite clueless leaders conceding, the take-over was slowed, and the credibility of the Soviet Communist Party ruined. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia freed themselves from Soviet occupation through nonviolent resistance. In fact Ukrainian students nonviolently ended Soviet rule over Ukraine. In the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s to early 1990s, much of the subjugated population effectively became self-governing entities through nonviolent noncooperation. The Liberian Civil War of 1999-2003 was ended by nonviolent action. Etc.
There are many examples, including the nonviolent ousting of colonial rulers in Africa, and including the nonviolent liberation of occupied towns in Ukraine between 2014 and 2021, as well as of course numerous nonviolent overthrows of military dictatorships — which are what successful military invasions create. Many examples on our list are outright successes. Many are partial successes suggesting the potential of a tactic that in not one single case ever has shown its maximum power as easily imagined but never established. The question “What should people do when a military attacks them?” remains for the moment “What should people who have not been thoroughly trained in unarmed resistance do when a military attacks them?”
Of course the difficulty of what they can do is impacted by what the rest of the world does. If the options available include making use of hundreds of billions of dollars worth of free weapons, then they could include making use of hundreds of billions of dollars for something else. An invaded territory could quickly be provided not only with endless weapons but also, or instead, with a trained team of unarmed peacekeepers and trainers. Money is no concern, as hardly anything can be imagined that would approach the costs of militarism. Teams of many thousands from all over the world could be provided, in combination with diplomatic efforts, mediation, and negotiations, and in combination with the wildest financial incentives imaginable: new schools, hospitals, and sports complexes for every village that commits to nonviolence, tolerance, and democratic decision making. Of course, if governments were pursuing those things and putting money into something other than weapons, we wouldn’t have the wars in the first place. My point is that there are a variety of tools that could be used in response to a military invasion, and unarmed resistance is one of them. It would be better understood, and it would be more effective, if we prepared for it in the way that most of our governments prepare for war. And if the world’s media outlets celebrated it instead of focusing on violence.
It’s quite a high hurdle to appeal to a country that’s been militarily invaded — after decades of military defense (and offense) preparations and the accompanying cultural indoctrination in the supposed necessity of military defense — to appeal to said country to construct on-the-fly an unarmed civilian defense plan and act on it despite near-universal lack of training or even comprehension. We’re finding it to be a high hurdle just to get access to bring in an unarmed team to defend a nuclear power plant in the middle of a war. A more reasonable proposal is for national governments that are not at war to establish departments of unarmed civilian defense. A properly prepared unarmed defense department (something that might require a major investment of 2 or 3 percent of a military budget) could make a nation ungovernable if attacked by another country or a coup d’état and therefore immune from conquest.
This means training an entire society to resist, physically, socially, economically, and psychologically, to block streets, to not cooperate with orders, to dissuade invading and occupying troops from following orders, to shut down infrastructure, to make nothing work. These preparations should be widely publicized and totally transparent to potential adversaries.
The case of Lithuania offers some illumination of a way forward, but a warning as well. Having used nonviolent action to expel the Soviet military, the nation put in place an unarmed defense plan. But it has no plan to give military defense a backseat or to eliminate it. Militarists have been hard at work framing civilian-based defense as subsidiary to and in assistance of military action. We need nations to take unarmed defense as seriously as Lithuania, and then much more so. Nations without militaries — Costa Rica, Iceland, etc. — could come at this from the other end by developing unarmed defense departments in place of nothing. But nations with militaries, and with militaries and weapons industries subservient to imperial powers, will have the harder task of developing unarmed defense while knowing that an honest appraisal may require eliminating military defense.
I’m looking forward over the course of this conference to hearing the stories of unarmed activists from around the world. I expect they will inspire us all with ideas of what is possible and what we should be working to create in the years ahead.