The gruesome nature of contemporary war and violence
It would be hard to challenge the proposition that violence has been on the increase in our times. This is not to glorify the past. The brutalities of ancient wars, with corpses littering the battlefields, half alive half dead, are nothing to celebrate. What differentiates the modern from the ancient is the globality of war, and its ‘instantaneous’ and ‘total’ character. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a post nuclear age phenomenon. Also violence has intensified almost at all levels – global, regional, national and local; it has increased as between races, religions, gender and cultures. And above all, violence has increased not only among humans but also between humans and other forms of life, including nature itself. How, then, is it realistic to reverse what appears like an inexorable human-led escalation of violence? *
The question of why violence has become so much more intractable in our times is deep and difficult. Among other things it has to do with increasing injustices (in the plural) and decreasing prospects of removing their causes. Some writers, with much force to their argument, have blamed it all on Capitalism. But this is a bit too simple, and reductionist. Wars and violence have predated and will, for sure, persist beyond capitalism, unless violence is understood in its many dimensions. It has to do with the interplay between many historical, social, political and technological factors. It seems to me that as we humans develop our creative productive forces to make life more comfortable (for a tiny fraction of the world’s population), we seem also to be creating even more destructive forces of violence. Or to put it differently, the very forces of production are also used as forces of destruction. The search for nuclear energy had its origins for positive human development. But it had its gruesome destructive side that led to the nuclear holocaust in Japan. Science – even the seemingly benign science of communications and the internet – is a dual purpose tool. A tool of communication can become a weapon of mass control.
Can war and violence ever be justified?
Nations argue that violence is justified to protect their survival or security. But then, are those who commit violence in the name of ‘national security’ any better than those that do so in the name of protecting their religious or other identities? Who is to say? Are the drones dropping bombs from the sky on innocent civilians any more justified than the killing of innocents by Jihadist ‘freedom fighters’? Who is to say? Is state violence any more defensible than violence committed by individuals? Who is to say? These raise complex philosophical questions about the moral interface between ends and means.
The woeful inadequacy of global peace apparatus
The United Nations, and especially the Security Council which has the responsibility to decide on matters of war and peace at the international level, is woefully inadequate to determine one way or another on the above questions. Over the last over half century the character of wars has changed fundamentally, both in their causes and in their consequences. The United Nations was founded to respond to wars between nations – the type of wars that the two World Wars represented. But there are now much more complex forms of warfare and violence than wars between nations. This is a significant reason for the Security Council’s increasing irrelevance.
This is not to dismiss the United Nations. Inadequate as it is, it is the only institution we have where such matters can be discussed at the global level. Nonetheless, there is no gainsaying that the U.N.’s Security Council has not kept pace with the shifting dynamics of global power politics or public morality. Furthermore it has been abused time and again by the big powers that control its decisions, with the result that it has lost much of its credibility and moral weight. Worthy principles such as human rights and ‘the responsibility to protect’ have been seriously compromised; they have become pretexts for global imperial interventions. Institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) have criminalized African leaders like Bashir but not western leaders like Blair. The world badly needs a new United Nations and a new set of rules for global governance that are more closely aligned with the current world situation than with the world of 1945 or even that of 2000.
It is the combination of these factors – the changing character of the causes and consequences of wars, the increasing irrelevance of the Security Council, and the almost total subservience of principles and institutions and global governance to service corporate and imperial interests – that makes the question of justice and violence so critical in our times. These matters have now become an open agenda for every mature and responsible human being to exercise their critical faculty of mind and conscience. It is encouraging that there is increasing awareness of violence against, for example, women and children, against the ‘first nations’, and against nature. But we need to go beyond awareness-raising to concrete actions.
How to move from violent to non-violent forms of struggle
The first step is to recognise that no description of a conflict is neutral. No narrative is non-partisan. In our times, the dominant discourse against ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ as a justification for the ‘war on terror’ is one-sided and not helpful to resolve conflicts. I would argue that it is very important – indeed essential – to listen to the storyline of ‘the other’. Of course, nobody in their right mind would condone, for example, the September 2013 raid on Nairobi’s Westgate shopping centre by Al Shabaab. I would argue nonetheless that it is necessary to try and reach out to them to understand why groups like Al Shabaab are driven to do what they do. And the answers are likely to be much more complex than made out by the dominant Western narrative.
The second step is to analyse every conflict situation from a political-economic and historical perspective. For example, in the case of Somalia, does the illegal fishing by European-American-Japanese fleets and the illegal dumping of toxic (including nuclear) waste, devastating Somali coastal resources and people’s livelihoods have anything to do with the sudden appearance of the Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean? If so, are not the ‘fish pirates’ as culpable as the ‘ship pirates’ (‘You loot our fish, and we loot your ships’)? Has the imposition of an order from outside Somalia in the form of Ethiopian-Kenyan-Ugandan troops and the forcible removal of the Union of Islamic Courts that for a period brought some peace to Somalia in 2011-12 anything to do with the continuing strife in the whole region? If so, are not the neighbouring countries of Somalia as culpable as the feuding warlords of Somalia? Are the neighbouring countries fighting proxy wars on behalf, for example, of the United States in the latter’s relentless ‘war on terror’? If so, are not the East African governments culpable for putting their innocent civilian populations to the risk of violence?
The third step is to ask who takes decisions about what form – violent or non-violent – the struggle should take in fighting injustice. In India, Gandhi provided the leadership towards a non-violent struggle against the British Raj, and although not all followed his path, most people did and were generally united on this course. In South Africa, for nearly half a century the people struggled through non-violent means. The youth opposition to apartheid in 1970s was non-violent. Then in the mid-1980s, the liberation movements decided to go for armed struggle. Why? Was this inevitable, unavoidable?
In Palestine, the ‘First Intifada’ beginning December 1987 was a spectacular act of peoples’ – including women and children – non-violent resistance against Israeli occupation. The PLO leadership was then in exile in Tunis. The Palestine Authority did not exist. What is now clear from hindsight is that the First Intifada alarmed the United States and the European Union. A ‘people’s war’ is not what they wanted to see at their doorstep. It was far better to put in place a ‘government’ of Palestine which they could control. So the ‘international community’ organised a ‘peace process’, first in Madrid in 1991 and then in Oslo in 1993. These were critical game changers. They totally transformed the nature of the struggle in Palestine – from peoples’ non-violent struggle to a futile ‘peace process’ interspersed with violent military and ‘terrorist’ confrontations, fuelled by U.S. military aid to both sides. Later, President Bill Clinton was to blame the PLO leadership for the failure of the Camp David ‘negotiations’ in July 2000. And yet nothing was done to check the illegal encroachments on the lands of Palestine by Israeli ‘settlers’ (colonisers). This, then, set the context for the Second Intifada, also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada. In the Second Intifada that was led mostly by men, the form of struggle became more violent. Why did the Palestinian struggle change its character from the First to the Second Intifada? Was this inevitable?
I cite South Africa and Palestine only as illustrations to argue that the reasons why violent methods overwhelm non-violent ones have a lot to do with global imperial and corporate interests using the tactics of divide and rule over subject peoples that are for the most part dispossessed, disempowered and impoverished. The powerful cynically abuse the powerless for their selfish ends.
By way of conclusion
Concerned peace activists need to work out a strategy that addresses not only immediate issues of violence but also the long term issues of injustice that provoke violence. The ‘wretched of the Earth’ are enlisted in the service of local, national, regional and global political and military self-serving interests. Women get raped and children go hungry as global corporations siphon away the natural resources of the area. And then the United Nations steps in to provide ‘humanitarian assistance’ to the victims of wars, displacement and dispossession. What kind of strategy is this? What kind of morality is this?
A second point is that there is no reason to believe that violent or armed struggle is superior or any more effective than non-violent peoples’ struggle. The method of non-violence that engages the entire population in resistance against oppression and injustice may be slow but it can be more effective.

Time is against us. Human suffering through wars and violence against Nature has to stop.

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