Opinion: The cycle of war


Published: 12-03-2023 7:00 AM

John Buttrick writes from his Vermont Rocker in his Concord home: Minds Crossing. He can be reached at johndbuttrick@gmail.com

After a three-generation family Thanksgiving meal, some of us settled down on the couch and comfortable chairs to catch up on our various ventures over the past few months. (Our children’s homes are scattered across the country). Listening to our conversations you would quickly learn that our family is not shy about topics of religion and politics. One of my daughters shared with me her experience of difficult conversations with some friends over the violent outburst in Israel, Gaza, and the occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank.

She relayed a discussion that included the point of view that Palestinians and Hamas should be non-violent in their protests against Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory and against the blockade of Gaza. My daughter had taken the position that it was unjust to require only non-violent behavior from people who were powerless under the violent administration of the Israeli Defense Forces.

It seemed uncharacteristic for my daughter to consider violent action as an instrument of justice. However, it became clear that she was empathizing with a people who have been suffering under the oppression of Israeli military domination for more than fifty years. She was clear that she did not advocate armed resistance. But she was also clear that we who live in a country dependent upon a powerful military are not in a position to demand from Palestinians only non-violent ways of existence under military force. Even though it may be risky to revolt from a powerless position, my daughter asserted that the Palestinians are within their rights to stand up for themselves. We did agree that international law allows for armed revolt against an occupying nation.

However, it is painfully obvious, watching the war between Israel and Gaza, that war is not the answer. Both sides are losing lives, homes, infrastructure, and livelihoods. Yet, war continues to break out in so many places around the world. According to the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, conflicts have resulted in a 28-year high of 237,000 battle-related deaths worldwide. The wars that cost the most lives in 2022 were in Ethiopia and Ukraine. Battle-related deaths exceeded 100,000 in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and 81,000 in Ukraine. Over 15,000 have so far been killed in the war between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

James Fearon, a Stanford political scientist, lists three ways wars begin. One is where one side misrepresents private information to the other side, by bluffing for example. A second way is when one or both parties have an incentive to renege on terms for keeping the peace. A third is where the parties can’t compromise by splitting the prize down the middle because the prize is indivisible – Israel and Palestine for example. Finally, wars sometimes continue for years because war breeds mistrust in the other to abide by a peace agreement.

The war between Israelis and the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank developed through miscalculation and misinformation. No war can be justified when the cause is a diplomatic stumbling over flawed communications. There is no justice in a war that is sparked from the saber rattling of a powerful country threatening the powerless. There is no justice in a war where the response to atrocities is to commit even harsher atrocities. There is no justice in a war of revenge. There is no justice in war that pretends to be sanitized with rules of engagement. War is raw unrestrained power.

The only place to break into the cycle of war after war is for countries with abundant coercive power to begin preparing for peace rather than preparing for war. Rather than letting other countries fight wars for U.S. security through funding and supplying armaments, we should advocate for the powerless and encourage humility and trustworthiness among the powerful nations. Those nations must become wise enough to know that the death and destruction in war always corrupts the winner’s prize. If Russia or Israel reach their objects through war they will only be rulers of rubble, the result of destroyed cities and countryside.

The inevitability of war must be replaced with war as the very last resort, acknowledging that “the good that I would, I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”

My conversation with my daughter led to this uncomfortable reality: war is never the right way even when there seems to be no other way. However, guided by the option for freedom and in our human frailty, choosing to fight for justice for the oppressed and powerless seems the lesser of two evils. However, the primary responsibility lies with the powerful.