Michael N. Nagler | From Churchill to Petraeus

“I have not become her Majesty’s first minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire.” It was hard not to remember this proud declaration of Winston Churchill, as wrong headed as it was confident, when General Petraeus argued last Sunday that he had “not come to Afghanistan to preside over a graceful exit.” Can we, unlike many, unfortunately, who will be persuaded by his reasons to delay withdrawing troops from Afghanistan until the “job” is done, draw some lessons from the instructive parallel?

What was Churchill’s mistake? I believe there were two of them, or perhaps more accurately, one big one showing up on two levels of reality. Churchill notoriously missed the source of Gandhi’s power and the depth of determination he had roused in the Indian people. At a dinner party in Cairo, the South African leader Jan Smuts, reflecting on his own defeat at Gandhi’s hands, said the reason they had failed to stop him was that they had been unable to appeal to people’s religious feelings. Churchill, always obtuse on this point, is said to have snorted, “Nonsense; I have appointed many bishops,” and went on to preside over precisely what he denied would happen.

But there is a deeper lack underlying this one: ignorance of the fundamental fact of human nature, that violence is the wrong way to build democracy, win friends or stabilize anything worth keeping. Destructive means – and no one can deny that military means destroy people and property, indeed the planet itself – do not bring to pass constructive ends. That seems to be an underlying law of human dynamics that we ignore at our peril. General Petraeus and everyone who still dreams of a military resolution to the horrors that militant means have created in Afghanistan seem to simply miss this.

What could work? It’s only good science to hypothesize that if negative energy (like violence) has negative effects, then positive energy (like nonviolence) could have positive ones. And much evidence supports us in entertaining it. Over half the world now lives in a society that has seen huge changes – almost all of them positive in nature – emerge in the wake of a nonviolent uprising or movement of some kind; what Jonathan Schell calls “the unconquerable world,” the will of aroused people, is quite real.

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That process has not happened yet in Afghanistan; but we must remember that the second greatest nonviolence advocate in Gandhi’s train, sometimes called “the Frontier Gandhi,” was Badshah Khan who raised an “army” of over 80,000 Pathans – the very people whom we are now fighting – pledged to complete nonviolence of behavior and played a great part in dislodging British control in what was then the North West Province of India. How would it work today? This much we know: the “wrong stuff” is not working, and the “right stuff” – nonviolence – is there to be developed. As it stands, however, those who call their use of violence a “job” are keeping themselves and all of us from carrying out the real job of every person alive: discovering how to live in peace by creative, nonviolent ways of dealing with one another and our difficulties. From Winston Churchill to four-star General Petraeus, we need to question and confront the overconfident leaders who seem to be oblivious to any other form of power than militarized empire.