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What has the peace movement achieved?

To prevent or stop wars – what can peace movements do?
New book looks at what the peace movement can learn from the experiences of past peace struggles.


On Monday 17 October, Ny Tid was present at the launch of the book To Prevent Or Stop Wars – What Can Peace Movements Do? by Christine Schweitzer and Jørgen Johansen. The two authors talked about their work analyzing what the peace movement has actually achieved in their efforts to prevent or stop war, by analyzing seven different conflicts from Norway's detachment from Sweden in 1905 to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. We were told that surprisingly little research has been done on this topic before, and that conducting counterfactual history research (analyzing what could having happened if certain decisions or events had happened otherwise) is a rather complicated exercise. Johansen and Schweitzer nevertheless believe that it is part of today's peace movement can learn from what has succeeded and failed in previous peace struggles.

The meaning of experience. Johansen emphasized the importance of learning from history so as not to repeat past mistakes. “All generals know the history of war and study past battles in detail. But almost no one in the peace movement knows our historical struggles, and as long as we don't know the history, we are doomed to repeat our own mistakes and fail to stop future wars, ”he said. While Schweitzer argued with pessimists who have stated that the peace movement has never succeeded in stopping a single war, Johansen also warned against idealizing history. If one exaggerates one's own importance, emphasizes victory and ignores defeat, one ends up not having the necessary experience. In Norway, we generally have an idealized picture of our own history, says Johansen. "How many people know, for example, that modern landmines and hand grenades were invented in Norway?"

In team with the military. At the launch meeting, two things in particular were highlighted as important to learn from past victories. One is that the peace movement must relate to the armed forces. The danger of a general strike in the military was a more important reason why the Swedes decided not to go to war in 1905 than demonstrations in the streets, Johansen said. "We have to get the people in the intelligence and the military on our side," he said. "They usually have access to more information about the situation than us, and they have more influence." Schweitzer said that research on social movements shows that there is a greater chance of overthrowing an authoritarian regime if the protesters manage to convince the military forces not to use violence, and believed that this is transferable to the peace movement as well. Another thing that was emphasized during the discussion was that the peace movement must try to change discourse in the public debate. Not only do you come up with new solutions to the problems being discussed, but ask the questions in a new way and thus set the agenda for what is being talked about and how. If one manages to make the discussion about how to make war less bearable for the civilian population in conflict zones, one is already well on its way to winning through a ban on cluster bombs and landmines.

The peace movement could have a negative impact on the course of the war. The proportion of Americans who supported the president's war policy increased after the major peace demonstrations.

Historical lessons. The crisis in connection with Norway's detachment from Sweden in 1905 is the clearest example in the book that the peace movement has succeeded in preventing a war from breaking out. Johansen writes convincingly that concrete preparations were made for war on both sides, but it ended as known that Sweden accepted Norway's independence without bloodshed. Especially important for getting the Swedish elite to give up war as an alternative was that they could not trust their own soldiers because of agitation from the socialist labor movement. Social Democrats party leader Hjalmar Branting referred to the murder of Karl 12 in a May 1 speech in 1895 in which he said that "If the worst should happen, and Swedish weapons are ordered westward, those responsible must also be prepared for anyone from the people to will, without order, unleash a bullet to prevent thousands of brothers and relatives from becoming victims of military violence. " The Young Socialists printed a text entitled "Down with the Weapons" which they distributed in 100 copies urging them to prevent a war outbreak with a general strike. In addition to the labor movement, the women's movement and the peace organization Svenska freds- och arbjedomsföreningen also played an important role.

Ambiguous. Schweitzer, for his part, addresses the resistance to the Vietnam War, the opposition to US support for Contras in Nicaragua, the anti-nuclear weapons movement in the 1980s, the "women in white" in Liberia, and the resistance to the wars against Iraq in 1990-91 and 2003. Resistance to the Vietnam War particularly thorough. The author argues that the peace movement contributed to the war not escalating even further from the US, and that the large number of soldiers who refused to serve, or carried out attacks against their own officers (86 officers died and 700 were wounded in such attacks during the period 1969–1972) was instrumental in the military defeat. (Schweitzer emphasizes that the soldiers who attacked should not be counted on the peace movement even if they were

The millions demonstrating against nuclear weapons in West Germany in the 80s created a political situation that enabled disarmament.

Opponents of war.) However, there are also discussions that point to the fact that the peace movement could have a negative impact on the course of the war. Research from the 70s suggests that the percentage of Americans who expressed support for the president's war policy had some increase following the major peace demonstrations, which is explained by the fact that the peace movement was dominated by radical movements that many conservative Americans were skeptical of. At the same time, it is conceivable that the continuous work of the movement helped to turn public opinion against the war over time. On the whole, it appears that although the various movements often failed with their immediate, concrete goals, their work had a great effect in other ways. The many millions who demonstrated against nuclear missile deployment in West Germany in the early 80s failed to prevent the deployment of new rockets, but their work created a new political situation that allowed for the mutual disarmament at the end of the same decade. Soviet politician Georgy Arbatov stated that the great West German peace movement was instrumental in the relaxation supporter Mikhail Gorbachev being elected secretary general of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985.

Broad alliances. The book concludes by discussing what factors may have contributed to the success of certain peace movements while others failed. Many of them are things over which the movements themselves have no influence, such as the duration of the conflict or the loss of their own soldiers. Of the factors that may be affected, the authors conclude that the chances of success increase if the movement is built up by broad alliances that include "moderate" forces as representatives of the center and conservative parties, churches and trade unions, and that the peace movement has direct contact with non- state movements in the "enemy country" – which are important for breaking down enemy images and reducing the desire to kill each other.

To Prevent Or Stop Wars – What Can Peace Movements Do? Unfortunately, this is a bit frivolous editing. A few places at the beginning, the entire paragraph is repeated twice in succession, and in some places variations in font size occur. In many places it says "US" (US) instead of "us" (us), which I guess is due to an aggressive correction program, and all notes from 66 to 85 are offset so note 67 refers to reference 66. The errors don't really inhibit reading experience, but they can leave the reader with the impression that the book is less elaborate than it is, because I feel that there is a lot of work behind the content. The book is very educational, and with its 133 pages (including a ten-page bibliography), it is affordable to read to anyone who knows basic English. Hopefully, the work of Schweitzer and Johansen can help inspire and teach the peace activists who will stop planned or begun wars in the future.


Aslak Storaker
Aslak Storaker
Storaker is a regular writer in Ny Tid, and a member of Rødt's international committee.

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