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Abolishing War Part 4

A paper submitted to the Movement for the Abolition of War

Zimbardo suggests that just as the trial of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann demonstrated the ‘banality of evil’, so a survey of known good actions demonstrated the ‘banality of heroism’. He suggests that most people seem to be capable of heroism, which includes a willingness to risk social sacrifices (in terms of ridicule or ostracism or harm to one’s career) as well as physical danger, and long-term, enduring, considered action as well as spontaneous responses to unforeseen events.

What people committed to the abolition of war need to do, as well as dismantling military policies and institutions, is to increase the capacity of people both inside and outside the military to stand up for their values even in the face of ridicule, disapproval, ostracism, and damage to one’s career. What many of us find most difficult is that taking a stand on serious matters can involve status and economic losses not only for ourselves, but for our families and loved ones.

If we focus on the avoidance of physical harm, on negotiation and conflict resolution, and a reduction in aggressive language and images, this clearly addresses the issue of violence within society. On the analysis presented so far, however, it does not address the issue of war.

War today requires a huge army of people carrying out tasks that involve no physical harm to human beings, that can most efficiently be carried out through sophisticated psychological management rather than the threat of violence, and that minimise if they do not eliminate aggressive language and images.

If we think of the chain of actions that could lead to the firing of a nuclear missile from a British Trident submarine, we can see a huge line of calm, professional people raising and allocating finances; turning raw materials into some of the most sophisticated technology ever devised; training and managing sailors, technicians and commanders; and relaying orders through a well-drilled, highly-responsive, fine-tuned chain of command. It would be irrelevant, and generally counter-productive, during almost all of this process, to stir people to a murderous rage, or to practice using physical force against individual human beings. (The exception may be in a small part of the training of the sailors who are tasked with protecting the submarine.) What is required is rather the bureaucratic ideal of dispassionate excellence.

Even if we think of frontline troops in Afghanistan, it is clear that modern war is based mainly on training, on drill, on logistics, on communications, on the cool use of massively destructive technologies (perhaps while under fire oneself), on the rapid and precise execution of orders amidst the death and injury of one’s friends and colleagues. This has nothing to do with uncontrolled, spontaneous rage. It has everything to do with the careful and effective containing and channelling of one’s emotions.

It is obvious that the abolition of war will require gradually eliminating the institutions of war, including compulsory taxation for war. It is also obvious that the abolition of war will also require the elimination of the culture of war. It is not so obvious that the culture of war is primarily the culture of obedience.

Stanley Milgram wrote of experiment 18: ‘The person who assumes full responsibility for the act has evaporated. Perhaps this is the most common characteristic of socially organised evil in modern society.’ Milgram recorded the effect of bearing partial responsibility: most of those who applied the electric shocks showed nervous tension, and later described great internal anguish as they complied with the sadistic instructions of the experimenter.

Our goal must be to increase the amount of tension we feel between what we know to be right, and what we say and do, and to increase the chances that people will resolve this tension by standing up for themselves. Our goal must be to break down immoral conformism, which is undoubtedly inculcated from early childhood by both parents and schools.

In the world of business education, a new strand has emerged in corporate social responsibility. Called ‘Giving Voice to Values’, this new initiative does not focus on rather abstract ethical analysis, but on practical ethical implementation. The priority is not the academic questioning of business decisions and policies, but the personal challenge of asking: ‘What would I say and do if I were going to act on my values?’

Giving Voice to Values aims to help students ‘identify the many ways that individuals can – and do – voice their values in the workplace’, and ‘provides the opportunity to script and practice this voice in front of peers’. (See Mary C. Gentile, Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right, 2010)

If the abolition of war requires the abolition of immoral obedience, it will mean reorienting education institutions (and peace movement campaigning) to embed this kind of personal development throughout society, at every level. It is undoubtedly true that a lot of peace movement campaigning involves exactly this kind of self-reflection and self-development – perhaps most obviously in the case of nonviolent civil disobedience. However, ‘immoral conformism’ can occur even in a civil disobedience affinity group or a pacifist society.

When people say that war can never be abolished because humans are inherently violent, they are making a nonsense argument. Our possible biological propensity to violence has nothing to do with our habit of making war. What we need to abolish war is not only a society made up of people who prefer peace to war, but a society made up of people who are willing to risk social sacrifices to stand up for what they believe in.

What we need to abolish war is to somehow combine enormous social complexity with the egalitarianism of the majority of simple hunter-gatherer societies, who avoid war (but who experience murder and revenge). What we need is to somehow recreate the equality and anti-authoritarianism and inherent pacifism of the prehistoric band in modern industrial society. Only then will war truly be abolished.