A proposal for worldwide disarmament in which every nation in the world demilitarizes by eliminating all defense spending is considered a non-starter. Deemed impractical, impossible, and downright dangerous, global disarmament is dismissed out of hand by the very people responsible for creating peace and security in our world. Diplomats, politicians and military professionals insist that we must invest in defensive weapons to protect ourselves from present and future threats. There will always be bad guys, they tell us, who for no good reason will seek our destruction. And so they protest that disarming the world’s good guys is naïve and little more than a utopian fantasy.
Unfortunately for the future of our planet, this defense of defense spending is worse than naïve. It flies in the face of the evidence and creates the very bad guys it insists it wants to eliminate. Allow me to explain.
Illogic of Militarization
A cursory examination of human history reveals the illogic of militarization if your goal is the sustainability of your nation. Civilizations falter and fail despite a heavy reliance on violence. Ancient Greece, Rome, Assyria and Babylon, Holy Roman Empire, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union could not forestall their demise by accumulating more and more weapon systems, building higher walls or murdering their so-called enemies by the millions. While each of these cultures and many others I have not named have their own unique histories and reasons for rising and falling, it cannot be denied that no amount of military spending could have protected them from failing. In fact, it can be argued that by diverting resources to militarization they hasted their failure by depriving their society of more productive investments of time and treasure.
As long as we retain a commitment to militarization for ourselves, it makes perfect sense to arm our allies as well. But in a dizzying paradox, our allies often turn out to be culpable of atrocities we would easily condemn in our enemies. For example, we have given material aid to despotic regimes with very public records of savage brutality against their own people. You will recognize these names from a list of 10 despotic dictators and I hope feel shame at having aided and abetted their abusive regimes: Augusto Pinochet (Chile), Manuel Noriega (Panama), and Ferdinand Marcos (Philippines). And please remember that both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were once supported and directly supplied with money and arms when they were fighting against our enemies (Iran and Soviet Union, respectively) only to turn into enemies themselves. If we pause for a moment to reflect on these glaring ethical lapses, we need not wonder why we have so many enemies. We have, however blindly, given the victims of our flawed foreign interventions ample reason to hate us and seek our downfall.
Militarizing our own country cannot forestall our own decline and assisting in the militarization of others creates the very enemies we then spend billions to defeat. The diplomats, politicians and military professionals who insist that there will always be bad guys are more responsible for that reality than they have the courage to admit.
Our Global Religion: Faith in Good Violence
But, you will argue, surely real bad guys exist, honest to goodness enemies that threaten to destroy us. The need to defend against such enemies cannot be denied, I agree. However, very few such enemies exist that were not of our own creation. And of those that do exist, it is our disconcerting resemblance to them that threatens global peace, not the differences we proclaim from our self-righteous soapboxes.
The differences are boringly familiar: in economic or political systems, in approaches to religion in the public sphere, in cultural norms towards women, and so on. These differences are no threat at all unless they are coupled with one deadly article of faith: that violence is justified in the defense of our cherished difference but not justified by our enemies in the defense of their cherished difference. We and our enemies both hold this truth to be self-evident, and so we each justify our violence while condemning the violence of the other. In other words, our violence is always good, defensive and measured while the violence of our enemy is bad, aggressive and disproportionate. This faith in a category of good violence is so deeply ingrained in our thinking that no matter our language, religion or nationality, we rarely question it.
This shared faith in good violence contributes to our failure to achieve peace for two reasons. First, it defies common sense and basic ethics to claim that there is anything “good” about violence that, let’s say, destroys a village. Whether the bombs were dropped by good guys or bad guys, the death, destruction and human suffering they cause is the very definition of bad. Equally untenable is the naïve claim that our buildup of weapons is for defensive purposes only, as if that will reassure the world of our innate goodness. Why can’t we see that the world reacts to our weapons systems the way we react to theirs: with suspicion and fear? Second, the shared delusion that peace itself is a product of “good” violence produces an insurmountable obstacle to peace. If peace depends on “good” violence, then we set ourselves up for a devastating catch-22 in which violent people are obstacles to peace but the violence of good people is the necessary condition for peace. Such a belief may be evidence of global insanity, a mental illness that must be cured for peace to become a possibility.
It’s Resentment, Stupid
Why do we argue with, fight against and seek to destroy another? Please do not fall into the trap of articulating a list of differences again. They are no more the cause of an escalation to violence than an explanation for it. The reason we seek to destroy another is resentment.
It’s easiest to understand this by looking at a well-known example from ancient history. Recall the story of Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships that began a ten-year siege of Troy. Most of us have a vague memory of this myth – that Helen was captured by a Trojan named Paris and the Athenians waged war against Troy in order to return Helen to her husband. The myth would have us believe that the war was over the most precious of objects, the possession of the beautiful Helen. But the truth is rather more pedestrian. As dramatized by Euripides in his last play, Iphigenia at Aulis, it was petty resentment on the part of Helen’s husband at having been cuckolded, coupled with his own and his brother’s lust for glory that launched the devastating war. Early in the play, the brothers confess that Helen was a bad wife and that there are plenty of women much more worthy of admiration who are available for marriage, if a good wife is indeed what is desired. Of course, that is not what they desire at all. The brothers and the soldiers gathered to sail to Troy want revenge on what they call a primitive and savage people for daring to insult their honor.
By revealing that the uniquely beautiful object, Helen, was not the true cause of the war, Euripides reveals that scarce objects are like false flag operations. Scarce objects do not trigger violence, they simply deflect attention from the truth of our own resentment. Saying that the Trojan War was fought over the possession of Helen is the mirror image of saying that wars are fought for possession of land or access to water or trade routes or oil or an endless list of sacred objects we seem willing to kill and die for. Wars are not fought over things. Wars are fought to satisfy the demands of wounded pride and simmering resentment. Period.
Disarm or Die
The apocalyptic literature in the Old and New Testaments have been incorrectly interpreted as a prediction of future divine violence. In fact, it is a revelation of the very thing humanity refuses to believe in: the self-defeating trajectory of its faith in the goodness of its violence. Unless we begin to see the idea of global demilitarization as the only sane option in the pursuit of peace, we will remain enslaved to a blind, unexamined, irrational faith in violence that can lead to only one outcome: the apocalyptic violence foretold by the biblical prophets and warned against by Christ himself. The expulsion of the Bible from our global conversation about peace and violence is nothing less than the expulsion of its diagnosis of our insanity. To reject crucial knowledge about ourselves because it has been delivered to us in a religious context is the height of stupidity and tantamount to signing our own death warrant.
Given that the cause of violence is resentment, the cure must be found in a proven response that defuses resentment. Such a response is also readily available to humanity, albeit in a religious context. Religious traditions across cultures and spanning millennia routinely classify pride as a sin and humility as a virtue. Why? Because wounded pride is the cause of resentment and the only healing response is humility. What would humility look like, for example, in our current conflict with the self-proclaimed modern caliphate, ISIS? Rather than condemn their violence even as we inflict our own violence without moral qualms, we might try respecting their desires, their version of their own history, and even humbling ourselves enough to accept their critique of Western history. We might even admit that we could learn something from them and their history.
Agreeing with our accusers has the unexpected effect of rendering their accusation moot, for if we protest we prove their point: we are as arrogant, morally corrupt and condescending as they say we are. But if we agree, ah, then we send a different message, that we consider them worthy partners and honest brokers. Resentment will evaporate under this sort of consistent return of respect, the only response that has a chance of giving peace a chance.
I hope I have made the case for the sanity of seriously exploring global de-militarization as the only viable path to peace available to us. I am not so naïve as to ignore what I think may be the biggest obstacle to my suggestion: the economics of the global arms trade. The world spends some $1,000 billion annually on the military and the U.S. has a 44% share of that business. What would happen to the world economy, I wonder, if we stopped disrupting the economic development of other countries with violence and war in the name of preserving jobs in our military industrial complex? What is noble or good about keeping other people unemployed and economically crippled in order to sustain our own economic advantage?
And what would happen to the balance of power if we embraced humility as the cornerstone of our international policy? The balance might tilt against us, no doubt about it. Fear of losing our dominant place in the world keeps the fires of war burning. And yet, if we refuse to lead the world toward realizing the goal of global demilitarization, our hold on power will evaporate as surely as all the dominant nation-states that came before us. If we could lead the world in a policy admission that all violence is wicked, even our own, perhaps we will make a startling discovery: that the truly good relinquish their right to violence, no matter the cost. That would be a revolution in global leadership that could cure our collective insanity and alter the course of human history. Nothing actually stands in our way except a lack of courage and a failure of imagination. If we fail to end the scourge of violence, good people will have no one to blame but ourselves.