Shifting the Dialogue: Caution about War Equals Strength, Not Weakness

February 07, 2012

By Jill Welch

The criticism aimed at President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel, for possible reluctance to use force highlights a deeply troubling and largely unnoticed problem in our public psyche. We have slowly, and unknowingly, slipped into a mindset of perpetual war. Peace has become such an anomaly that we have forgotten that the use of force was once viewed as a last resort.

What we need is a national effort to shift the peace and security conversation in America. To help foster that dialogue and advance our national thinking, NAFSA is working with The Alliance for Peacebuilding, The Peace Alliance, and 3P Human Security to prompt the nation and its policymakers to confront the question of whether the United States is in fact more secure in a world of permanent war.

>We need a national conversation on peace and the ignorance of a fear-based policy that is too focused on counter-terrorism and reliant on overuse of military force. Asked whether he thought that Hagel’s combat experience in Vietnam would make him more cautious in the use of force, Vietnam veteran and author Tim O’Brien said in a Jan. 31 interview on PRI’s The World:

When I hear that (one) is being criticized as possibly too cautious, I want to yell at the top of my lungs. How can one be too cautious? You can’t be too cautious. What else should you be cautious about if not killing people? And not having your own people die?

When someone like Hagel has had personal experience in combat, as an enlisted man,“I think you return from an experience like that with the knowledge that bullets and bombs and artillery shells can kill the enemy, but…can also manufacture an enemy. A bullet strikes a 6-year old kid in the head…the multiplier effect is enormous. It can be counterproductive, not achieving the goals you want but instead manufacturing problems,” O’Brien said.

For much of our nation’s history, peace in fact was the norm, and war was an aberration. However, after the September 11 attacks, this changed, without debate or conversation.

As NAFSA Senior Adviser for Public Policy Vic Johnson aptly put it, “The construct of counter-terrorism has overturned decades of policies that viewed a more peaceful world as a fundamental U.S. security objective. The same counter-terrorism polices have also denigrated and marginalized the international institutions (which are largely U.S. creations) that for decades were considered indispensable for supporting American values and security. As a result, huge swaths of issues are swept into the counter-terrorism rubric, and once they reside there, we are relieved of responsibility for calibrating our responses. It becomes axiomatic that we will pay any price to fight and defeat terrorism and address our suspicions that another attack is just around the corner.”

Whenever I talk with those who serve in the military, they are often the biggest champions for peace and for seeking nonviolent solutions to the world’s conflicts. As O’Brien said, “War can have the effects that are precisely the reverse of your intentions.”

We seem to unconsciously be sliding further into a mindset in which we question whether a potential nominee for the Secretary of Defense will be quick enough to use force. In honor of the men and women who serve in defense of our nation, I would think that caution should be praised, not questioned.

Jill Welch is the deputy executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.


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