By Winslow Myers
During the long period of tension between the United States and the former Soviet Union, the futility of the superpower nuclear arms race became clear to many in both countries. Albert Einstein’s statement from 1946 seemed ever more prophetic: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev realized that they faced a common challenge, one that could only be solved by a new “mode of thinking.” This new thinking allowed fifty years of cold war to come to a surprisingly rapid end.
An organization for which I volunteered for 30 years pulled off a significant contribution to this momentous change by doing its own new thinking. We arranged for high-level Soviet and American scientists to meet and work together to write a set of papers on accidental war. The process was not always easy, but the result was the first book published simultaneously in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., called Breakthrough. Gorbachev read the book and expressed willingness to endorse it.
What kind of thinking allowed these scientists to break down thick walls of alienation and enemy-imaging? What will it really take to end war on this planet? Living Beyond War explores these questions in depth. It is set up interactively, with topics for dialogue at the end of each chapter. This enables small groups and organizations to think together about the challenge of ending war.
The premise of the book is a hopeful one: humans possess within themselves the power to move beyond war on every level from the personal to the global. How is this power unleashed? By knowledge, decision, and action.
The knowledge piece, which occupies the first half of the book, explains why modern war has become obsolete—not extinct, but unworkable. This is obvious on the nuclear level—“victory” is an illusion. But a quick glance at Syria or Iraq in 2014 shows the futility of conventional as well as nuclear war as a viable means of resolving conflict.
A second essential awareness has been revealed and emphasized by the climate instability challenge faced by the planet: we are all in this together as a human species, and we must learn to cooperate on a new level or our children and grandchildren will not flourish.
A personal decision (“de”-“cision,” to cut away from) is required, one that cuts away from seeing war as an undesirable, tragic but necessary last resort, and sees it for what it is: an untenable solution to the conflicts with which imperfect humans will always have to contend. Only when we say an unequivocal no to the option of war will new creative possibilities open up—and there are many. Non-violent conflict resolution is an advanced field of research and practice waiting to be applied. The question is, will we apply it in all cases?
There are deeply personal implications to the reality that on this small crowded planet war is obsolete and we are one human species. Having decided to say no to war, we must commit ourselves to living a new mode of thinking, one that sets a high but not impossible bar: I will resolve all conflict. I will not use violence. I will not preoccupy with enemies. Instead, I will maintain a consistent attitude of good will. I will work with others to build a world beyond war.
Those are some personal implications. What are the social implications? What is the action? What do we do? We educate—at the level of principle. There are many ways to bring about positive social change, but education is the most meaningful, in some ways the most difficult, but ultimately the most effective way to nourish real change. Principles are powerful. War is obsolete. We are one: those are fundamental principles, on the level of “All people are created equal.” Such principles, spread deeply enough, have the power to bring about a change in the global “climate of opinion” about war.
War is a self-perpetuating system of thought driven by ignorance, fear, and greed. The opportunity is to decide to move out of that system into a more creative mode of thinking. In this more creative mode, we can learn to transcend the kind of dualistic thinking that is implicit in such phrases as “you’re either with us or against us.” Instead we can exemplify a third way that encourages listening for understanding and dialogue. This way does not stereotype and preoccupy fearfully with the latest convenient “enemy.” Such “old thinking” caused a fatal over-reaction on the part of the United States to the tragic events of 9-11.
Our species has been on a very long slow journey toward a point where our primary identification is no longer with our tribe, or little village, or even our nation, though national feeling is still a very powerful part of war mythology. Instead, while we may still think of ourselves as Jews or Republicans or Muslims or Asian or whatever, our primary identification must be with the Earth and all the life on the earth, both human and non-human. That is the common ground shared by all. By this identification with the whole, an astonishing creativity can pour forth. The tragic illusions of separation and alienation that lead to war can dissolve into authentic connection.
Winslow Myers has been leading seminars on personal and global change for 30 years. He served on the Board of Beyond War and is now on the Advisory Board of the War Prevention Initiative. His columns written from the perspective of “a new mode of thinking” are archived at winslowmyersopeds.blogspot.com.