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Peace activism enters the mainstream

By Keith Suter - posted Monday, 13 January 2003


What happens if they give a war and no-one turns up? Some Western governments (including Australia's) are trying to whip up public opinion in favour of a war against Iraq. But they are not having much luck. In Britain (where I have just been) the main supporters of Mr Blair's military ambitions are in the opposition Conservative party; many of his Labour backbenchers and most of the media are - at the very least - sceptical of the need for a war.

This is not just an issue over Iraq. I believe there has been a major social change in Western countries towards the "peace" issue. After all, during the Cold War peace groups were branded as unpatriotic and "Moscow fronts". Now "peace" is respectable - it can even be displayed on the Sydney Harbour Bridge on New Year's Eve as a greeting to the world.

This helps explain what has happened to the Australian peace movement. It seems to have disappeared just when it is needed. The government is gearing up for a war against Iraq but there is not the wide range of peace groups that operated in the Cold War years.

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Instead, the peace movement has become mainstream, middle-class and middle-of-the-road. It is now respectable and its values permeate all sections of society. There has been a quiet social transformation.

This change in values may be seen in four ways. Most noticeably, there is a lack of support for a war against Iraq. The media and many parts of the general public are sceptical. This is not from any love of Saddam Hussein but from a general sense of combat fatigue. Conventional military operations do not seem to be so effective as in the past. After all, there was a war against Saddam Hussein 11 years ago but that did not solve the problem. Meanwhile, the US-led operation in Afghanistan has still not brought peace to that country. Wars do not seem to settle anything - they only lead to fresh wars.

Second, there is increased interest in the roots of war and more imaginative ways of settling disputes. If conventional military forces do not work, what could? On Afghanistan, for example, imagine what the situation would have been like if the US had poured foreign aid into the country in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union withdrew its forces, so that the country became a flourishing pro-Western state. This would have prevented any scope for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden to take root in the country.

Third, many of the erstwhile "militaristic" segments of society are less militaristic. The ANZAC Day memorials are attracting larger numbers of people, not least young people. But the activities are not a glorification of war - more a regret at the tragic loss of life. It seems that the grave loss of life of young people in April 1915 resonates with the fears of young people about their own future and how a group of old men can still ruin lives.

Meanwhile, military institutions are re-inventing themselves. For example, on November 11 2002, Remembrance Day, the Imperial War Museum in London hosted the 1995 Nobel Laureate Sir Joseph Rotblat speaking on "A World Without War. Is it Desirable?"

Fourth, the Australian Defence Force now enjoys the highest level of public support since World War II. In particular, its peacekeeping operation in East Timor is seen by peace activists as redeeming Australia's tarnished image created by the pro-Jakarta Australian governments from Whitlam onwards. Thus, peace activists have had to re-evaluate their own attitudes towards the military and so recognize that they do have an important role in this new era of peacekeeping.

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Therefore, there is a greater sense of "peace" among the previously differing segments of society and a greater willingness to work together. The old feuds between "warmongers" and "peaceniks" no longer make sense. The new era of warfare requires new ways of thinking.

Warfare used to be international and conventional. Now it is increasingly internal and guerrilla. Large fighting formations no longer bring lasting peace (as both the Soviets and the Americans have found in Afghanistan). Instead, military operations have to be seen in the broader context of not only winning the war but also winning the peace. This means co-operating with international relief organizations and non-governmental organizations. It also means trying to find other ways of settling disputes. We are all "peace activists" now.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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