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Nonviolence on Veterans Day?

By Greg Moses, Peacefile

In a few minutes I want to speak about nonviolence.
But on Veteran's Day, allow me to speak first about
the truth, goodness, and beauty of violence; because
if violence could be none of these things, how would
Hollywood bake its bread?

I have sometimes confessed to the joys of war games on
computer, so now I admit to the thrill of action
movies, whether lo-tech Westerns or hi-tech
Terminators. In Westerns, violence of the false, bad,
and ugly kind gets sprayed onto our faces early in the
show, so that a more satisfying violence may follow.

Thousands of frames must be exposed to the
construction of villains, proving them incorrigible
and irredeemable in this world, the better to
experience salvation in the moments their celluloid
bodies are shot to the dirt. But in order for
cinematic killings to achieve that cheering
experience, nonviolent alternatives must be thoroughly
discredited and the villain must always pull his gun

For the lone gunman who faces the villain, moreover,
the issue must ever exceed the crucial matter of mere
self-defense. In the killing by which he saves
himself (sic) the hero also redeems the rule of law
and preserves some innocent community from black
clouds of dread. Whew. For the audience,
perspiration gives way to relief in the last
millisecond of a villain's life, as the eyes of a
human monster register mortality realized too late.

In the Terminator versions, the formula is only
slightly adjusted. A beautiful and vulnerable woman,
veritable vessel of truth herself, must be proved to
have an array of enemies who, again, can neither be
redeemed nor deterred. As the biceps of the hero bear
the responsibility of mega-caliber arsenals, we wish
only for the kills to come a little quicker than they
do as Hollywood stretches out our pleasure time.

These are the archetypes that also inform our passions
on Veterans Day. We speak of heroes who were dropped
to death by incorrigible forces of evil during great
confrontations between darkness and light. They died
so that other heroes could prevail. So far as that
archetype goes, it comes empowered with force
irresistible. I make no pretense to immunity.
Nonviolence does not require me to pretend.

And when it comes to the right of self-defense or
defense of the innocent, the power of the hero proves
that there can be no moral culpability in necessary
violence of this sort. For oneself alone, one may
renounce self-defense as a pure matter of conscience,
but it is a rare pacifist who would argue that anyone
is compelled to surrender one's own life by some other
kind of higher law. At any rate, such pacifism I
could not believe. Self-defense is something like an
inalienable right. While in the case of aggressive
violence, you have a right to expect others to
refrain, there is no similar moral obligation that you
can place in the way of someone else's right to a
violence of self-defense. Nonviolence does not
contradict this.

But if nonviolence can neither deflect the power of
the hero nor refute the inalienable right to
self-defense, what's left? And here we begin to leave
Hollywood and the purity of its archetypes behind.
Because we can't be caught forgetting that the
cheering experience of a happy Hollywood killing rests
upon a precisely scrubbed image, created from scratch
in the interplay of light, lens, film, and artistic

So the first problem we face as we hit the light of
day with nonviolence is our addiction to the image of
the incorrigible villain. If we are going to continue
enjoying our participation in violence, we need him;
but nonviolence denies the incorrigibility of the
human spirit, period. So the dynamic of our process
in nonviolent struggle is the reverse of Hollywood
manufacture. Instead of refining a character down to
an incorrigible core, the nonviolent activist looks
for glitches of complexity and contradiction. In
every which way possible we set out to multiply
dimensions of character.

Maybe this is difficult sometimes, to pick out
transformative shreds of possibility in a living human
being. Everyone has their favorite example. I
remember a civil rights activist telling me that
extensive research into one president of the USA
yielded a core personality of no commitment
whatsoever. It was chilling to hear this as memory;
it must have been terrifying to discover it in action.
But even a power-monger has some sense of
self-interest, which brings us to the second problem
for nonviolence by comparison to Hollywood scripts.

When it comes to imagining nonviolent alternatives to
terrible situations, illiteracy is what we share. Of
the hundreds of nonviolent tactics actually used
already in history (as documented by Gene Sharp) who
can name more than five? Requirements for the time
limits of your average Hollywood film would discourage
getting very entangled at this stage of nonviolent
activism. Negotiation, information gathering,
organizing, education, and mobilization require
Soap-Opera-like patience, not feature-film impact. So
if we are used to seeing action films (and playing
action games) we have grown quite used to feeling that
alternatives to violence are neither very numerous nor
effective in resolving actual conflicts of real life.

Yet Veterans Day reminds us of the price we pay for
failing to do better in the nonviolence department.
If heroism is an archetype of Veterans Day, so is
abject loss of life; death come knocking; lives and
loves interrupted forever. War on film may be a stage
for heroic character, and on-screen killings might
provide certain air-conditioned thrills, but war lived
through is horror by the second, and the sight of an
authentic human body etches the mind. Veterans Day
therefore is a most logical time to decide that we can
create better arts of peace.

A failure of American literacy contributes to the
2,000 sons and daughters whom we now add to the rolls
of Veterans Day. As a people we never demanded
serious attention to the corrigibility of our
opponents. The image of the Muslim Terrorist fits our
minds like a snap top. Where there is such a thing as
a Muslim Terrorist, a suspected Muslim Terrorist, or a
possible ally for a suspected Muslim Terrorist, our
imaginations lock down into scrubbed stereotypes of
villainhood. Yet if we do not learn to look for
corrigibility, fallibility, and real human
individuals, we will continue to set death traps for

A powerful political strategist accuses peaceniks of
preferring indictments and therapy in the aftermath of
9/11, and we certainly preferred arms inspections
during the run-up to war on Iraq. In retrospect, we
can claim that peaceniks were only exposing their
literacy in matters of nonviolence. Who actually
agreed or disagreed back then is no longer important.
But it is crucial to never forget that we as American
people never demanded a serious nonviolence debate.
We could not weigh with any patience the costs or
benefits of alternatives to outright war. Racism
played a decisive role in this, as we usually stand
willing to sweep with broad suspicion any image of
threat from the pan-Muslim world.

Not that we have to learn to disengage ourselves from
images of violence, but we must learn how to engage
those images in more complex fields of understanding,
where they are connected to histories of real people
like us.

This is the meaning of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s
insistence that human equality is an essential value
for nonviolence. In the being and actions of others
we must learn to see people equal to ourselves, and in
the glaring inequalities of social practice we must
learn to feel the outrages of injustice that will
sooner or later erupt among peoples whose equality has
been denied.

Afghanistan showed America clear examples of social
inequality. The poverty and rubble of that country
spoke with glaring images of international gaps. Yet
the overwhelming sense of inequality between
Afghanistan and the USA was massaged for us into an
outrage at the inequalities between Afghan women and
men. If the treatment of women in Afghanistan was an
outrage (as it was) then how much of an outrage was
the treatment of Afghanistan by the USA?

In the opening days of the so-called war on terror
those who jumped on board were separated from those
who jumped off, and the key to understanding the
difference in those days of division was how people
were reading the history of inequality between the USA
and Afghanistan. Simply put, the pro-war faction
attributed Afghanistan's inequality to Afghanistan
itself (supported by the shocking images of soccer
field executions). Here were an incorrigible people,
locked into their own tight circles of madness, there
was no way to think of nonviolent alternatives, etc.

On the other side (one would like to say 'of the
debate' but there was no debate) was a very different
reading of the history of inequality in Afghanistan-a
history of corrigible people who once lived under
constitutional rule, but who were trounced into rubble
by deliberate politics of belligerence that included
yes the recruitment, care, and feeding of Osama bin
Laden by the greater CIA network, and the nurturing of
religious fundamentalism so crucial to lockstep social
totalitarianism in Baghdad and Houston alike.

So from the start of the so-called war on terror
(which has become a war for terror everywhere, with my
deepest apologies to our soldiers for saying this) we
have had the resources to deliberate this predicament
nonviolently. But as the scandal over the Downing
Street memo suggests, from the top of the start, it
was war more than anything that was wanted, and our
vaunted democracy could speak barely a peep about
peace. We have to admit what this proves: we are not a
very peace loving people; because love is best known
during the testing times, and our love of peace
collapsed right away when times got tough.

Based upon glaring inequalities that we witness
between the USA and other states, nonviolent inquiry
demands us to seriously investigate structural
features that perpetuate these tawdry affairs. And
very likely we have reason to believe that structures
on the international scene are not that much different
from the inequalities we find in our own cities at

Racism, poverty, and war were structures that King
identified. They are structures because they are not
disconnected from the very mechanisms of production
and wealth as we know them. Racism toward the
pan-Muslim world functions with the same purpose as
racism toward peoples of the EastSide, or SouthSide,
or whichever side your favorite city chooses to
ghettoize the lowest-paid workers who provide the
necessary conditions of wealth.

Briefly returning to the question of self-defense: in
a conscious, militant confrontation with structure,
the nonviolent activist gives up this precious and
necessary right as a matter of personal conscience.
One does not give it up absolutely. For example, yes,
King collected signatures from fellow protesters
pledging not to use violence (not even the violence of
self-defense) during organized demonstrations. But at
the same time, King insisted on responsible police
protection from vigilante action.

King never said, let anybody do anything at any time,
and that's okay. While he set out to break the will
of law enforcement to stand in the way of freedom, he
campaigned for equal protection against discrimination
and vigilante action. In this context, he gave up his
right to self defense, and he encouraged others to
join him in a brotherhood and sisterhood of
conscience. This was his morality, and his
shrewdness. We know how his life ended. But how much
sooner would it have ended had he decided to pack a
gun? Against the grimly structured powers of the USA,
the chances of struggle do not necessarily increase if
you announce that you are arming yourself or your
movement for self defense.

At home and abroad, nonviolence must focus its
struggles against structures of racism, poverty, and
war; not against so many pawns in the game ( Dylan).
>From the nonviolent point of view, structures must
remain in focus, because when structures come down,
equality liberates love between corrigible people and
we find ourselves more free to care about each other,
rather than the structures that hold us apart.
Wherever you find a world structured around racism,
poverty, and war, there love has become unwise. On
Veterans Day why shouldn't we be encouraged to mutter,
enough is enough. Why not give nonviolence another

Note: thanks to Matthew Daude and Kitty Henderson at
the Ethics Resource Center of Austin Community College
for the invitation to deliver remarks about pacifism
on Nov. 11, 2005. Greg Moses is author of Revolution
of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the
Philosophy of Nonviolence. He can be reached at



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