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A New Year’s Reflection on War and Peace

Original Image by Leo Correa

A New Year's Reflection on War and Peace by Michelle Girard, an International Conflict & Stabilisation Professional

January 1, 2024, the day after the celebrations, the well-wishes for 2024, the brutal reality of yesterday is unchanged. This slaughter in Gaza must stop, the hostages must be released and the collective violence and punishment, including in the West Bank, must end. We can’t continue to operate on the irrational and destructive pattern of peace through means of violent conflict resolution. It only results in a stillborn peace.

We are experiencing a fundamental and absolute failure to recognize and embody the interconnectedness within humanity which is fomenting unprecedented levels of disconnection; polarization, hatred and violence; feeding impunity and a lack of accountability.

Everyone is seeking (and deserves) for their pain and dignity to be recognized and validated. However, when these efforts are combined with the weaponization of empathy, grief and trauma, it creates an assured pathway to continued dehumanization and cycles of violence. 

I’ve been reflecting deeply on the essay John Paul Lederach wrote in 2001 while trying to travel home after 9/11 entitled: The Challenge of Terror: A Traveling Essay. It is a profoundly prescient essay and one that we should all (re)read given its (unfortunate) continued relevancy. In it, he outlines his observations and suggestions as a mediator with (then) 20 years of experience in nonviolent change “in situations around the globe where cycles of deep violence seem hell-bent on perpetuating themselves and having interacted with people and movements who at the core of their identify find ways of justifying their part in the cycle” to advocate for action other than revenge and violence.

He opens his essay stating, “Though natural, the cry for revenge and the call for the unleashing of the first war of this century, prolonged or not, seems more connected to the social and psychological processes of finding a way to release deep emotional anguish, a sense of powerlessness, and our collective loss than it does as a plan for action seeking to redress the injustice, promote change and prevent it from ever happening again.”

Although The Challenge of Terror is written in response to 9/11; Lederach’s first suggestion to address pressing and complex (terror) challenges is to “Energetically pursue a sustainable peace process to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Do it now. … If we would bring the same energy to building an international coalition for peace in this conflict that we have pursued in building international coalitions for war, particularly in the Middle East, if we lent significant financial, moral and balanced support to all sides that we gave to the Irish conflict in earlier years, I believe the moment is right and the stage is set to take a new and qualitative step forward.” He later states, “Let’s choose democracy and reconciliation over revenge and destruction.”

It's been 20+ years since Lederach wrote this essay. The urgency we once had to engage in constructive conflict resolution seems to have been replaced, particularly now, by legal and historical justifications for collective punishment and excuses for walking away from the table, rather than sustained engagement. And, in the meantime, change-makers on both sides whose brilliance should be harnessed to find viable solutions are being indiscriminatingly killed and purposively silenced. 

The slaughter that occurred in Israel and is still ongoing in Palestine will not bring about peace, accountability or justice. It will simply breed deeper trauma, resentment, anguish and critically, insecurity. And, we know this will be the end result from 20 years of research and experience in terror and violent extremism. Our “wars on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan are only two of many examples, the former of which Lederach had valiantly tried to warn against in his essay. 

When I began asking adults as a young teen 35+ years ago about this conflict and why it has not been resolved, I often heard “it’s complicated.” At the time, there was no adult that indicated to me that it actually could be resolved due to the implied and oft-stated deep seeded animosity ingrained in both sides, despite even robust efforts. As an adult who has worked for almost 20 years directly in war and conflict environments, including Israel and Palestine, I refuse to believe the collective creativity, innovation, brilliance and compassion are not available to find a lasting solution.

I believe this not as a naïve idealist or “progressive liberal” (the new term in the US to malign those confronting the status-quo); but as someone who has witnessed the tremendous pain and suffering caused by the current approach to conflict resolution which has neither resulted in greater stability nor lasting, transformative peace. We either continue on this path of destruction and constant insecurity or radically transform our approach to resolving conflict.   And those approaches exist from peacebuilders, even within conflicts, including this one; they always have. This, too, I know from experience. We have failed to effectively harness them or uplift, protect and resource them; and often discount those calling for peace as marginal or outliers. We can and must do better.

A path to transformation will not be quick or convenient and it would deeply challenge our resolve to pursue peace rather than give into the human impulse for revenge[1]. It will require radically different pathways to justice which will demand a fundamental shift in our belief systems, social norms and narratives combined with focused efforts to heal intergenerational trauma. It will also demand vigilant individual and collective accountability and tremendous courage. It would be an heroic undertaking, particularly when the systems of violence are so well established and resourced, readily available, immediate and perversely satisfying. However, the resources do exist for nonviolent conflict transformation: the innovation, wisdom, vision, research, models and peacebuilders and organizations. The financial resources also exist, if only allocated. 

2024 will be at test of political will and visionary leadership at all levels of society. We can either continue to find excuses for why peaceful conflict resolution is impossible or commit to undertaking the heroic journey and make it possible. I generally do not believe in binaries, but in this moment of carnage, I’m struggling to find other solutions, particularly given the depth of such extraordinary human suffering which can no longer be accepted as a necessary and acceptable outcome to violent conflict resolution. Lederach ends his essay imploring, “let us give birth to the unexpected.” Indeed, for the sake of our individual and collective humanity, 2024 must be a year of radical change. 

[1] Lederach’s nested paradigm of the time dimension for peacebuilding in his book, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies written in 1997, is a 20+ year sustained endeavor with the design of social change occurring only 5 – 10 years after crisis intervention. He also includes grassroots trauma healing as critical to conflict relational transformation which the peacebuilding community needs to embrace and integrate more seriously and urgently into its work.


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