Is peace possible?

Friday September 23 2011


The words "world peace" evoke images of beauty pageant contestants expressing a naïve dream, but one former soldier believes world peace is actually possible.

Paul Chappell, author of Will War Ever End?: A Soldier's Vision of Peace for the 21st Century, brought his message to LC this month.

A 2002 West Point graduate who served in the Army for seven years, Chappell was deployed to Baghdad in 2006 and left active duty in November 2009 as a captain. What he learned at West Point and on active duty convinced him that human beings are not naturally violent.

What are people willing to die for? Family. It's not by chance that the military creates "a band of brothers." "West Point taught me that my unit is my family," Chappell said.

Even the Greeks used this technique, telling their soldiers to protect their country, their freedom, their way of life, and their families. No one has ever said they are waging war for money, gold, or oil.

Another indication that violence is not a natural human state is the fate of soldiers who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, high suicide rates, and addiction. "If human beings are naturally violent, why does war drive people insane?" Chappell asked.

After 60 days of sustained 24-hour combat, 98 percent of soldiers become psychological casualties, he said. Only 2 percent are unscathed, the same percentage who already insane or psychopaths.

"Combat is an environment that is toxic to the human brain," Chappell said.

"The single biggest problem in all military campaigns throughout history has been desertion," he said. "The flight response is more powerful than the fight response."

In combat, soldiers don't actually want to kill each other, and historically, they haven't.

During World War II, only 15 percent of soldiers in combat who had a chance to shoot at their enemy actually fired their weapons. That has changed over time. In Korea, the percentage was 55, and in Vietnam 90. Today virtually 100 percent of soldiers fire at their enemies.

What's changed? Training, Chappell said. The military uses reflex training to teach soldiers to shoot at all human targets, regardless of gender and age. "Killing is a learned behavior," he said.

Governments use three strategies to enhance the willingness to kill. First is psychological, convincing soldiers that their enemies are somehow subhuman with words like "krauts," "gooks," and "terrorists." The second device is moral distance, convincing soldiers that God is on their side and portraying the enemy as evildoers. The third technique is mechanical. It's much easier to drop on a bomb on something that looks like an ant than a human.

Chappell cited an example from World War II. Gas chambers came about because Nazi soldiers asked for an alternative to firing squads, which were far more efficient, but far more traumatic for soldiers who had to see the faces of those they were killing.

A fundamental problem with war is that there are always more civilian casualties than military casualties. Chappell quoted a commander in Afghanistan who said if you kill 1,000 Taliban and two civilians, it's a loss. People will hate us because we killed two civilians.

Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. showed us that there are alternatives to war that are far more effective. They all waged peace. In fact, almost every successful social movement from women's rights to workers' rights was waged peacefully.

Chappell said ultimately peace movements succeed because they are based on truth, while all war is based on deception, but you don't have to convince everyone. Less than 1 percent of the population was actively involved in the women's and civil rights movements.

The human toll is only part of the cost of war. Fifty-four cents of every U.S. dollar is spent on the military, and that doesn't even include the actual cost of wars, which send our nation into massive debt. He read from President Dwight Eisenhower's 1953 "Cross of Iron" speech:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

Chappell lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., and serves as the Peace Leadership director for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His talk was sponsored by the Lynchburg-based Peace Practice and the Clifton L. Snidow Lecture.