Facilitators have a saying that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And so you hammer the nail. In so many ways, that sums up the military response to the ‘war on terror’ that followed 9/11. Bombs, drones, ‘boots on the ground’.
I read a moving post on Facebook the other day, in response to the attacks in Paris. In essence, the post said that we must stop what we are doing because it hasn’t worked. The author didn’t know what we should do – just that doing what we were doing was not working.
And I just read an Al Jazeera story that quoted a blogger in Syria as saying that bombs were falling on abandoned buildings, not armed combatants, and a report from Physicians for Social Responsibility that tries to tally up the numbers of civilians – ordinary people, trying to live their lives, work their land, raise their kids, share with their friends – killed in the ‘war on terror’.
It has brought back for me memories of Bosnia, Serbia, Libya, Sudan, Congo – especially of Bosnia in 1996. For me, that was the first time I had ever seen face-to-face what war does to a society, to communities, to people, to the land. It haunted me then, and it haunts me now – as I think it does so many other outsiders who were in Bosnia after the terrible war of the early 1990s.
I saw land burned black by retreating forces…roads, bridges, land mined, often by the kind of mines that jump up and hit a person in the stomach….abandoned houses and villages….cemeteries full of new graves…houses with black splotches above the window, caused by the explosion when an ordinary household gas cylinder is left open with a burning candle nearby….refugees who could not go home….destroyed bridges, forcing new roads to be cut into the hillside.
I remember talking to a young Serb woman in Foca, whose family had left Srebrenica, helped by Bosniak neighbours. She knew that it would be decades – if ever – before her family could return home. Even though there wasn’t a wall between the two entities that made up post-war Bosnia, there might as well have been.
People in Northern Ireland know about those kind of walls, and how hard it is to bridge the differences they reinforce. They create safety, indeed, but they also reinforce difference and separation. The work to remove those walls is long, hard, difficult – it is a one-by-one, community-by-community effort that can only begin after the formal end of active conflict. It is often one step forward, two steps backward, because – when people have experienced conflict – personal safety is a paramount concern.
One of the effects of conflict is to separate neighbours and communities, destroying the kind of inter-village connection and commerce that once existed. When people are afraid, they no longer cultivate their land, they no longer forage for food in nature, they no longer have anything to trade at local markets – and food insecurity is a result. The social rituals that once linked communities disappear; neighbour-to-neighbour support disintegrates and disappears. We become afraid of one another, ready to strike first before the other can strike us.
When outside forces bomb countries in conflict, they devastate the local infrastructure. In fact, it is a military strategy – to effectively destroy the ‘nerves’, the ‘neural network’ of a society – its physical infrastructure, its communications, its factories, its roads and bridges. Terror is only a side-effect. ‘Collateral damage’ – that terrible phrase that denotes civilian casualties – is a side-effect – unless you are underneath those bombs.
Increasingly, we are recognizing that ‘collateral damage’ is not just about the ‘other’ – the person and people we never see, except possibly on television news reports. We know that many of the young men we send to fight come back damaged in soul and spirit, even if not always in body. We expect them to carry the emotional burden of the results of what we have asked them to do for us, of being an armed stranger in a land that is not theirs, of trying to carry out by war what many of them know would best be done by peace.
And we also know that ‘us’ – the people who live in our societies in North America, the UK, and Europe – are increasingly experiencing what it feels like to be ‘collateral damage’ in someone else’s conflict, someone else’s war.
Truly, it is time we tried something different – something more akin to the strategy that the ‘military-industrial complex’ has used to entrench itself deep into US society, by splitting up contracts for defence procurement into such tiny pieces that every congressional district has a stake.
BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, chose a different way to proceed after civil conflict in Bangladesh, by rebuilding in a people-centred, community-centred way. It has worked, it has created work for many people, it has built peace where there was conflict, and it has happened in a way that builds community cohesion – and necessary services and infrastructure – from the ground up. It is participatory, people-centred, and self-financed. It works.
This kind of practical participatory approach also has worked on both the large scale, and the small, in other parts of the world. Hundreds of people, in small villages, have created peace with their neighbours. What they needed next was a small amount of support to begin recreating the social and economic infrastructure that had once existed – and from that, they could begin building participatory and responsible governance (as people have done in Somaliland). But rarely, if ever, did they get that support.
If instead of putting so much money into financing war, we had put that money into the peaceful reconstruction of communities, led by local people themselves, we would likely now be talking about how we could invest that ‘post-Cold War peace dividend’ into our own neighbour-to-neighbour, locally led development, at home.
I do not believe we will defeat evil like suicide bombings, murders, ‘terror’ attacks, and genocide, by replicating those same tactics. I do not believe we do it by repelling those people who are willing to risk their lives to escape the kind of conflict that is caused by those tactics. I do not believe we do it by demonizing the ‘other’. I do not believe we can achieve peace by bombing, no matter how surgical or clinical bombing might be.
We do it by neighbour-to-neighbour development, sharing our problems and our solutions together. We do it by reaching out hands, not dropping bombs. We do it by taking care of each other. We do it by helping people re-establish law and order in its truest sense (as the Australians did in Baidoa in the early 1990s), bringing criminals to justice, and only then starting on reconciliation. We do it by helping them learn and then use the tools that they can use to make governance participatory, not autocratic.
It is indeed a big task. But I believe it offers us a different future than the one we are heading to if we continue on the track we are on.