"We utterly deny all outward wars and strife, and fighting with outward weapons,for any end, or under any pretence whatever... Therefore we cannot learn war any more."
— A Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God called Quakers, presented to Charles II by George Fox, 1660.

A Quaker in the Military

Reflections of a Pacifist among the Warriors

Loren Cobb

My first serious exposure to the "Harmless and Innocent People of God called Quakers" came when I was about 14 years old. At the time, I was living in Lahore, Pakistan, where my doctor father was working for the Ford Foundation on population research. My father, who had been a conscientious objector and ambulance driver during World War II, was invited to attend an international peace conference organized by the Quakers in Dharmsala, India, the new home of the recently arrived Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan refugees. As well as meeting the Dalai Lama, an honor I accepted with the casual thoughtlessness of a 14-year-old, I also encountered for the first time the profound dedication of Quakers to the cause of peace, and their particular style of being in the world: meditative, mystical and moral. In the high, clear mountain air of India, I felt an inner response to a spiritual purpose that was larger than any I had encountered before. Later, while enrolled in a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, I resonated strongly to the spiritual mysticism and the silent meeting for worship, and I loved the absolute rejection of war, slavery, and corporal punishment. From that time I began to identify myself as a Quaker, even though I have since come to accept that traditional Quaker morality is not free from ethical problems.

There is an old joke about Quaker pacifism in action. It seems there was once a Quaker farmer who could not get his mule to move, no matter how he cajoled, pushed, or pulled. Finally, he looked the mule straight in the eye and addressed him by name. "Josiah," he said, "Thee knows I shall never curse thee, and thee knows I shall never strike thee; but if thee doesn't start moving this very instant, I shall sell thee to a Baptist who will!" Of course, the mule began moving immediately, being an animal of great wit and sagacity.

Like all good jokes, this one works because it contains a germ of truth. Quaker pacifism is founded on a bedrock of personal nonviolence, but Quakers live in a society that uses both violence and threats of violence as means of social regulation. It is simply impossible to live in a human society and not to participate in its violence. For centuries, we Quakers have papered over this ethical dilemma in three ways: by personally refusing to be violent, by being a witness for any and all acts of violence and oppression, and by working tirelessly with the victims of violence.

In Pakistan we lived literally around the corner from a refugee camp. From the older people in the community, I frequently heard stories of the War of Partition, when violence between Hindus and Muslims drove some ten million people from their homes. Entire trains filled with Muslim refugees arrived in Lahore station with only the engineer left alive, trailing unspeakable carnage behind him, and similar atrocities occurred to Hindu refugees traveling the other way across the new border between India and Pakistan. These stories and countless others like them demonstrated to me that violence and warfare were always just under the surface, barely under control, constantly threatening to break out into the open.

Portrait by Frank V. Szasz
© The Creative Process
Portrait of Gandhi by Frank Szasz

As a young adult I too started out in the Quaker way, becoming a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War; but I wondered whether some critical element might be missing. As a political tactic, the Quaker approach is only occasionally successful; as a method of social change, it is generally a failure; and from an ethical point of view, it has unfortunate elements of hypocrisy. I hoped it might be possible to find a better way, but at the time I had no idea what that might be.

I began to get an inkling when, later in life, I picked up the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, once more returning in my mind to the complex atmosphere of the subcontinent. In contrast to the stark black-and-white thinking of Quakers on the subject of nonviolence, Gandhi had a subtle and nuanced approach. "Nonviolence of the strong" was his lifelong theme, and by strength he was thinking of several things: spiritual development, psychological fortitude, and political strength. He was certainly not thinking of military strength, but one can extend his ideas into this area. For example, he wrote, "Man for man, the strength of non-violence is in exact proportion to the ability, not the will, of the non-violent person to inflict violence." This is a remarkable statement for any pacifist to make, and it bears close study. On the surface, he meant that the political impact of nonviolence is greatest when practiced by those who could be very violent if they chose. At a deeper level, I think he believed that any movement which gathers political strength, psychological fortitude, and spiritual development simultaneously develops the ability to act powerfully, in either a violent or nonviolent mode. The essential question is how to tip the balance in favor of the more difficult choice: nonviolence.

For Gandhi, the key to this conundrum was spiritual development. Many times he wrote that when oppressed people lack spiritual development, they may use violence to free themselves. In fact (and surprisingly to me when I first read it), he was scathing in his criticism of passive or subservient nonviolence as a response to oppression, which he found unacceptable at any time. He said, "It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become non-violent. There is no such hope for the impotent." In Gandhi's view, every person and every nation should use active methods appropriate to their level of spiritual development. He hoped that his beloved India would become the first example of a nation to free itself from a foreign oppressor entirely without violence, drawing upon his spiritual doctrine of ahimsa, or nonviolent action. As we know, India did succeed in this sixty-year effort, ridding itself of British colonial rule without warfare — although Gandhi, who died in 1948, sadly considered that he had failed when more than a million people were killed immediately after the partition of India and Pakistan.

A Personal Journey

About 20 years ago, after I was well established in a professional career as an applied mathematician in a medical school, a very strange thing happened. A mathematical paper of mine mentioned an application in nonlinear social change, and this attracted the attention of someone in, of all places, the CIA. One of that exotic tribe of analysts in suits appeared in my office, took me out to a slightly surreal lunch, and offered me a job in their analysis wing — the non-covert branch of the agency, I hasten to add, very different from the undercover espionage operations. I quite happily turned them down, only to be approached next by the U.S. Office of the Joint Staff for help with a project in Europe. NATO had been running computer simulations of a Soviet invasion through the Fulda Gap in Germany, and every one of their projections ended in worldwide nuclear holocaust. Analysts at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe) wanted an explanation for this ultimate disaster, and they wanted me to help analyze their data. For a mere college professor with exactly zero prior military experience, this was heady stuff, and best of all it seemed to provide a way to contribute materially to the cause of peace. I accepted the job.

It soon became clear to me that my nonlinear mathematical models could not help us to understand the nuclear holocaust problem, and I told them so. The root cause lay elsewhere; it turned out that the use of tactical nuclear weapons was destabilizing the battlefield and leading to an unstoppable "tit-for-tat" escalation. In the end, my only contribution was merely to help validate a theory they already had, but my honesty apparently impressed them. I began to receive a steady stream of military research contracts, all dealing with the dynamics of war and peace, and with the instabilities of conflict and social development. Eventually this led to full-time work developing mathematical simulations of UN peacekeeping and disaster relief missions, a topic that has led me ever more deeply into the heart and soul of the military, and to a personal confrontation with the same ethical dilemma that has plagued so many Quaker pacifists for so many centuries.

In 1994 I was asked to work with U.S. Southern Command, the somewhat notorious American military organization responsible for Latin American and the Caribbean. They were developing a new series of multinational military exercises in UN peacekeeping operations. My role was to support these exercises with a simulation of the fictional society in which the operation would take place. This meant writing the software which predicts the social consequences of actions taken by all parties: massive refugee flows, political and ethnic polarization, civil unrest and violence, epidemics, economic collapse, etc. In effect, I and my computer program were acting as the role player for the entire population and society of the fictional country in which the operation was taking place.

Coordinating a peacekeeping operation: a meeting of the UN leadership (SRSG Margaret Anstee) with military observers, civilian police, the humanitarian coordinator, and election observers. (Exercise PKO North 2002 in El Salvador)

A lifelong pacifist, I now found myself part of a military team, interacting with mid- and high-ranking military officers from all over the hemisphere, and an alphabet soup of UN agencies and civilian nongovernmental organizations. Although the purpose of the exercises was training in "military operations other than war," or MOOTW as the military insists on calling it, I still felt somewhat uncomfortable working so closely with warriors. I remember the disbelief that I saw in the faces of members of the Albuquerque Friends Meeting when I first described what I was doing in my professional life. Quakers find it easy to forgive an individual who enlists as a soldier to defend his country, but in a time of peace to help US Southern Command? The Pentagon? NATO? Unthinkable! Needless to say, I have a different view.

From the very first exercise, it was apparent that one of the greatest problems was, and still is, communication between military and civilians. Even when two people speak the same language (not always the case in these trilingual exercises), each has enormous difficulties in understanding the other across the military divide. I quickly found myself becoming an informal liaison officer, right in the middle of that intense three-way nexus between the military command staff, the UN leadership, and the civilian NGOs. In the process, I learned a great deal about how the great international institutions of the modern world work — and how they fail to work.

During this time, I also became aware of a different form of pacifism — one that I never knew existed. This is "military pacifism," a phenomenon that sometimes occurs among officers who have experienced combat and know the price of war. It turns out, to my surprise, that a significant minority of American military officers are absolutely passionate about peace and nonviolent conflict resolution, even while serving an institution designed for war. Their politics and personal ethics differ from mine, and they are clearly prepared to obey all legal orders, but it would be the height of foolishness to discount them. The military "pacifists" that I have met are informed and intelligent people, whose unusual views are seldom expressed in print. They form a fascinating but hidden military subculture, and led me even more to feel that strict black-and-white thinking about war vs. peace can blind us to the subtleties of understanding and communication that are necessary to finally achieve an end to war.

The Causes of War

I have come to believe that war has causes on three levels: personal, psychological, and institutional.

The "personal" level is the level of personal choice, in which every citizen chooses his or her own degree of involvement in acts of war. Quaker pacifism is focused like a laser on this level. It is vital and necessary work, but spiritually incomplete and utterly inadequate for the task of eliminating war, since as long as there is a majority, or even a substantial minority who opt to fight, pacifists are left standing on the sidelines with limited influence.

Secondly, there is the deep psychological level, where transgenerational epidemics of child abuse and domestic violence lead to powerful unconscious urges towards violence, war, and genocide. Ironically, centuries-old Quaker efforts to eliminate slavery and domestic violence, and to establish the rights of women and children, may have done far more to eliminate the causes of war at this level than any Quakerly effort to inspire pacifism. This work affects the deepest psychological levels of a society, freeing the next generations from the hidden but deeply damaging effects of early childhood trauma and neglect. The more that parents can understand the effects of trauma and violence on children, instead of denying and belittling these insights as many still do, the better will be our chances for a peaceful future.

Nevertheless, the immediate cause of the outbreak of war is most often an institutional failure, a breakdown that occurs within the institutions responsible for conflict resolution. In the world of today, these institutions include the United Nations, regional organizations such as the Organization of American States and Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the World Court, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and many more. In civil wars the breakdown occurs within national institutions for conflict resolution. The American Civil War, for example, was triggered by a disastrous decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case, and the subsequent failure of Congress to resolve the constitutional issues.

At the institutional level, pacifists are conspicuous by their absence. All too many peace-oriented organizations work well with the victims of oppression, but very poorly with their institutional perpetrators. I prefer to concentrate on the institutions that cause the problems in the first place: court systems, legislatures, civil services, armed forces, police, unions, political parties, and education systems. This work could perhaps be called nation-healing. The Hebrew phrase tikkun olam, "repairing the world," comes closer to the intended sense, because it includes the idea of institutional as well as individual healing.

I believe that there is a powerful connection between spirituality and nation-healing. Institutional decisions are made by individuals who must act in the interests of the institution or face expulsion, loss of power, and even death. This is the institutional imperative — the force which, in a sick institution, coerces individuals into acting in ways that are contrary to their personal ethical standards. There are only two ways of overcoming the institutional imperative of a corrupt organization: legal pressure from an external system of justice, or internal spiritual strength. The essence of nonviolent action as taught by Gandhi is the creation of revealing situations that allow spiritual values to gain ascendancy over the institutional imperative. For example, a well-timed hunger strike by a single respected person can halt an entire nation in its tracks by virtue of the moral force of the act and the spiritual dilemma that it reveals. Similarly, a single investigative article, published in a free press, can shame authorities into actions that are contrary to their institutional imperatives, and which then permit structural reforms of the system itself. Gandhi entitled his autobiography "The Story of My Experiments with Truth" because his career was, in fact, a long series of spiritual experiments that he hoped would reveal profound truths to authorities and people alike, and thus initiate irreversible institutional reform.

I often wonder what Gandhi would have thought about modern United Nations military peacekeeping operations. This is a use of military force that he never saw and probably never imagined. When hostile armed forces in a civil war are separated by lightly armed UN troops, whose presence has been approved by representatives of all nations, does this operation fall within ahimsa or not? Quite likely it does, based on the premise that if the United Nations is not sufficiently developed spiritually to be able to go into such a situation unarmed, then it is better to go in lightly armed. But what about heavily armed "peace enforcement" operations, taken under Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, by order of the Security Council? This is quite another matter! I am not at all sure what Gandhi would have said, but I am certain that psychological and spiritual development is still the key. As the world community matures spiritually and heals psychologically from centuries of war trauma, it will require less and less military force to resolve conflicts. Perhaps we can then allow the resources currently spent on military might to diminish as the institutions of global society strengthen — the very institutions whose present weaknesses are the direct and immediate cause of outbreaks of war. This means that the international system of justice could gradually grow to include binding arbitration between nations, and deliberative bodies like the Security Council could gradually shoulder the responsibility for enforcing decisions taken by majority vote.

Referring to India, Gandhi once said, "[Our] non-violent revolution is not a program of seizure of power. It is a program of transformation of relationships, ending in a peaceful transfer of power." The world has changed enormously since that time. In our world today, ahimsa is a program of transformation of institutional relationships, ending in a peace made durable by a system of checks and balances between the democratic organs of government and society.

The Road to Peace

Many nations today are trapped in states of poverty by multiple vicious cycles that involve their critical institutions. Corruption weakens the institutions of government, which are then less able to suppress organized crime in all its many forms. Organized criminal industries directly foster corruption, and the cycle repeats. Similarly, a weak government cannot take the steps necessary to reduce poverty, and poverty itself breeds corruption. These two vicious cycles reinforce each other, and, taken together, form the core of the poverty trap.

Through many years of international work, I have come to realize that a surprising number of national governments of poor countries are little more than organized criminal operations, in which the government as a whole is effectively "owned and operated" by a small group of elite citizens for their own financial benefit. Around the world today, there may be as many as fifty such national governments, in addition to a small collection of collapsed and dysfunctional states like Somalia and Haiti. Is there a greater threat to the collective security of the people of this planet? I don't think so. Not even nuclear or biological weapons pose as great a danger, in my opinion. Wars are fought and millions of people suffer and die every year because of governmental corruption and institutional weakness.

At the same time, momentum is gathering for an international reform movement. The so-called "civil society" of international NGOs is gathering strength and moving in this direction, while the individual agencies of the UN are acting more like a world government with every passing year. We have several international courts in operation, now capable of prosecuting government leaders who engage in genocide and other international crimes. We have seen the harbingers of an international police force in three areas: the emergence of an international civilian police organization for use in peacekeeping operations, the rapid growth of cooperation between national police forces, and coordination between national intelligence agencies in the fight against terrorism. Finally, as the war in Iraq showed, it has become the norm for international military interventions to require permission and sanction from the Security Council of the United Nations, despite all imperfections of the system.

In my view, all of these developments are merely the latest and most visible steps in a long evolution towards worldwide integration that began during the Napoleonic Wars, about 200 years ago. The world has become smaller as technological development has increased the speed of communication, the volume of transportation, and the lethality of military weapons. Thus, the nations of the world are increasingly enmeshed in each other's business. The consequence is necessarily greater cooperation and integration, with episodes of war declining in frequency and severity. The speed of technological change is actually accelerating, which means that the pressure on governments and institutions will double and redouble in coming years. We can expect extremely dramatic changes.

The next step in this evolution, whose beginnings are already visible, will be a serious international effort to effect institutional reform within nations trapped in the vicious cycle of corruption and poverty. Initially this will be voluntary, in the sense that it will be an international service that governments can request; but ultimately I expect it to become legally sanctioned. Just as individual states of the American union cannot long remain egregiously corrupt without federal intervention, so corrupt or tyrannical national governments that cannot reform themselves will be forced to submit to reform under the supervision of the UN — which itself will undergo major structural reform. To my mind, this will be the single greatest step towards peace that the world will ever have taken.

A Last Word

The last word belongs to Jeff (not his real name, of course), a retired army colonel. Some years ago we met in a bar in Rio de Janeiro, on Copacabana beach. Jeff needed to drink and wanted to talk, so I listened and bought him beer after beer. I heard hair-raising stories of night flights of helicopter gunships into El Salvador, unexpected encounters with massively armed narcotraffickers in Colombia, and psychological warfare against rebels in Perú. The night wore on, and we fended off yet another approach by ladies of the night. I heard about his childhood, when he watched terrified as a man was murdered in his own kitchen. I heard about his struggles with alcohol, his difficult marriages, and the journal that he kept through all the years of pain and trauma.

Long past midnight we went out to walk the beach under the stars, and our conversation turned to the future of the army. Like many military officers he was well read in history, and acutely aware of the changing role of the modern military. "Loren," he said, "The greatest battle of the American military is being fought right now, within the inner rings of the Pentagon, between the ‘warfighters’ and the 'peacemakers.' The warfighters have the upper hand, but they know they are losing a little more every year. The world is closing in on us; the days of million-man armies surging across Europe are gone forever. We have already changed so much and so fast, our own public doesn’t know what we do or how we do it anymore. We don’t even have good words to describe our new missions; we mess around with wretched phrases like 'civil affairs' and 'information ops.' Where are we going with all this? All I know is that war isn’t going away, and peace isn’t arriving to take its place. They are both changing so fast we can hardly keep up."

This is based on a talk given to the Unitarian Church of Glenwood Springs in March of 2003. Many thanks to all who wrote with comments and suggestions! — LC.

For related essays by Loren Cobb, follow these links to Ætheling.com and The Quaker Economist.

Copyright © 2003 by Loren Cobb, all rights reserved.