War and Planet Earth: Toward a Sustainable Peace

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I will meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about
language, ideas, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
— Rumi

Toward the end of Homer’s Iliad, a formative work for the military ethic of the West that was to extend its influence for nearly three thousand years to the present day, the gods hold council to respond to a shocking event taking place on the plains of Troy: the hero Achilles has tied the body of Hector, his most recent victim, to the back of his chariot and is dragging him around the walls of the city. In the course of this debate the god Apollo delivers a famous line:

“For he [Achilles] is torturing the mute Earth in his fury.” (Il. 24:54)

It is important to awaken this sensibility now, among us—and bring it up to the present century. Homer wrote long before artillery barrages and poison gas devastated the landscapes of Europe; before plutonium, depleted uranium, Agent Orange, white phosphorous and other horrors revealed (to those with eyes open to this truth) that war knows no limits in its attack on life and the earth that sustains our life. Moreover, as Apollo’s line indicates, it knows no limits as to where its violence will fall. “Total war,” not unknown in the ancient world, is commonplace in our own, and the percentage of civilian casualties in war has soared since the Second World War, reaching 90 percent already in Vietnam (unmanned drones are no solution, as many tragic “mistakes” have shown).

The word we have translated from the Iliad as “torturing” above also means “humiliating, defiling, shaming.” In this sense, war constitutes an attack on, and a defiling of, the environment in many ways. (The head of Air Force Military Science, formerly Air ROTC, on the UC-Berkeley campus once confessed to Professor Nagler that a single sortie of a B-52 bomber uses more fuel than would be used in the entire lifetime of a Volkswagen; in toto, we observe that the U.S. military as an entity is the single largest consumer of fossil fuels on the planet.) War and environmental degradation have a common cause that lies deeper than any of these statistics, one that Homer was trying to express in his poetic imagination. That cause must be addressed, or nothing we can manage to fix on the symptomatic level will last beyond the order of the day.

Intuitively, the longing for peace and the yearning for a sustainable environment are inextricably linked. Peace is not piecemeal, and it must be sought at all levels if it is to have meaning and tangibility as a demonstrable force for good. In this sense, the quest for personal peace is bound up with the aim of achieving a peaceful society, and this can only be attained when society as a whole is striving to exist in a reciprocal and harmonious manner with the balance of life and the extra-human world. Far from comprising some idealistic vision, this is in fact part of the baseline of humankind’s long and complex history on planet Earth, and it is only in recent times (paleontologically speaking) that we have undone the rough balance that held for eons.

At the same time, while we applaud all efforts at elucidating the connections between peace and the environment, we note that some methods of accomplishing these aims work better than others. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to environmentalists in recent years—notably to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 and Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement in 2004—is particularly problematic.

This is not for one moment to understate the inherent value of this work, but rather to recognize that the Peace Prize has become diluted in many respects (for example, by awarding it to Barack Obama on the eve of his escalation of the war in Afghanistan), and that the invocation of “the environment” in this context simultaneously distracts us from focusing on the crucial issues attendant to perpetual warfare while providing a palliative that suggests enough is being done on matters such as climate change and sustainability by virtue of these leading voices being thus recognized. Deeply concerned individuals are doing very cogent work on environmental issues, yet somehow the same energies are not as clearly brought to bear on the war system, which we note does as much as or more than any other single human activity to destroy the environment.

Five years earlier than the Maathai award, the Nobel committee had given the prize to Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She also had little enough to do with war as a formal institution but, as none other than Robert McNamara said, “she promotes peace in the most fundamental manner, by her confirmation of . . . human dignity.” In attempting to desecrate the body of Hector (and it is hard not to have in our minds here the image of a Vietcong soldier being dragged behind an American tank) Achilles is desecrating the earth from which we have sprung and upon which alone we can continue to live and progress toward our increasingly common destiny.

In this sense, our shared commitment to peace becomes simultaneously a commitment to environmentalism the minute it gets down to the root cause of both war and environmental desecration, which lies in the mind and heart of the individual person and the cultural matrix of the prevailing worldview. As Vandana Shiva has said, “if we get rid of the pollution in the human mind they will get rid of the pollution of the environment.” That “pollution” is the idea that we are separate, material beings locked in competition for scarce and ever scarcer resources. This quest for resources in fact constitutes a feedback loop in which the pursuit of material goods at all costs merely renders those materials more elusive, thus requiring even more relentless pursuit.

Perhaps we can illustrate with another example, Lieutenant Jim Channon’s proposal to form a “First Earth Battalion,” a kind of New Age army unit that would protect the environment and use pacific (and rather sentimental) approaches to enemies before resorting to physical force. In the end this scheme only promoted militarism, as some of the ‘tools’ Battalion members came up with were adopted by open-minded planners of psychological combat. In other words, by accepting the core assumptions of militarism—that others must be forced to our will in a competitive world—the attempt to create a sanitized military culture that would protect the environment backfired. The failure was not to recognize that violence cannot protect anything of value —including the minds of its perpetrators, as we now learn from the many studies on the lasting damage perpetrators of violence do to themselves in the course of doing physical or psychological damage to others, even if it is in a cause styled ‘defending freedom’ or other high-sounding euphemisms.

As activists, authors, and educators for peace, we are opposed to all types of violence, and not only to the one most spectacular form, namely armed conflicts between or within state actors that we refer to simply as “war.” Because of this deep commitment to nonviolence, we are simultaneously opposed to the desecration of the living environment, leaving aside the strategic question of which aspect to tackle first in favor of an approach that asks us to work concomitantly for peace at all levels of engagement. One way this deeper commitment shows up is in our recommendation to introduce the use of better language in discussing all of these issues. Just as “peace,” for people outside our field, can mean merely the absence of overt war (witness the U.S. Navy’s definition of ‘peace’ some years ago as “perpetual pre-hostility”), we maintain that the idea of a “sustainable environment” does not evoke the sense of a living, growing planet as the physical basis of human progress toward loving community (as does, for example, Homer’s poem). In pursuit of this aim, we would encourage a perspective that asks instead, what is being sustained and for whose purposes? War as a human activity is inherently unsustainable either socially or ecologically, and thus a vibrant peace and a healthy planet must be developed together.

In other words, our unconditional commitment to life and the inherent dignity of all forms of life applies evenly to the rejection of all forms of violence, including violence against the earth. Even while acknowledging that at this moment there is no more immediate threat to all of life than the progressive distortion of the planetary climate by human (industrial) activity, we call on others as well as ourselves to recognize that the threat posed by the war system is not to be lost sight of as a leading cause of the problem. Indeed it may well be the first issue on which to focus even though, or because, the threat to the planet’s climate is more imminent. We believe that this is true not only because maintaining the war system (largely in place to protect industrialization) is perhaps the chief contributor to climate change but because it is more obvious that deconstructing the war system will require the outgrowing of violence at all levels of engagement.

Gandhi once wrote that “we are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of non-violence.” It is precisely to make these discoveries and apply them to apparently diverse fields like human rights, militarism, poverty, and the environment that we take as our work. The eternal human desire for peace can only succeed if it strives to attain this transcendent telos both “on earth” and “with earth” as inherently interconnected aims. Today we are faced with paradigmatic crises including perpetual warfare and runaway climate change, yet in this crucial moment may we likewise rise to meet the unique challenge of understanding these as related phenomena whose mutual resolution promises an opportunity to truly usher in an era of peace and prosperity.

At the end of the day, we may even find ourselves wisely embracing an inversion of Achilles’s antipathy, and “nurturing the living Earth in our compassion.”

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