On the limits of nonviolent struggle

The great American historian Howard Zinn, has often described movingly his participation in WWII as an Army Air Force bombardier and how he subsequently came to develop his anti-war convictions, criticizing strongly the idea of “just wars”. He mentions reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima as one of the reasons. Indeed Hiroshima remains till this day, a painfully difficult book to read, so vivid are the descriptions of that terrible moment in human history. A short sample of what the book accounts will suffice to make one realize the effect it must have had on Zinn’s generation: “As he looked for his way through the woods, he heard a voice ask from the underbrush, ‘Have you anything to drink?’ He saw a uniform. Thinking there was just one soldier, he approached with the water. When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eye sockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks.”(J. Hersey, Hiroshima, Penguin Classics, 2001, p.68)

Unlike any of the war reports of the past, today’s technological advancements have allowed for the brutality and stupidity of mankind’s atrocities to be documented and broadcasted in real time, and the images emerging from Syria today, can do much to strengthen anti-war sentiments. However, they also raise an old and extremely difficult question. Mainly how to go about bringing revolutionary social and political change, under regimes which have zero tolerance towards dissenters?  I don’t think the challenge which the Arab Spring presents, is how to bring about change nonviolently. In fact it presents an inspiring model for how this can be done, as was demonstrated in Tunisia, Egypt and to a large extent, Yemen. The real challenge of the Arab Spring, is bringing change in much more brutal regimes then the previously mentioned, examples of which are Gadhafi’s Libya, Assad’s Syria and previously Iraq under Saddam Hussein.  Can nonviolent, anti-war strategies be expected from populations aspiring for change under such regimes?

In war between nations, anti-war positions are strengthened by the argument that war was not a choice made by the civilian populations, rather a decision made primarily by the elite, the consequences of which befall the civilians indiscriminately. But this argument loses its premise when the decision to take up arms is made by large sectors of an oppressed, civilian population against their oppressors. Granted this isn’t the only, perhaps not even the main argument for the anti-war position, but the rest generally lead to committed pacifism leaving the question unanswered.

I argue that the violent revolutions of the Arab Spring did not begin as such, rather they were forced to become violent. I further argue that this transition from nonviolent to violent was inevitable under the former Libyan and current Syria regimes, and that to expect the Tahrir square model to survive beyond a certain degree of violence inflicted on the demonstrators is naive  Denouncing any use of violence in popular uprisings of the Libyan and Syrian kind, is to expect the demonstrators to bite the bullet and head home when things get too ugly, or to continue chanting “Silmiya! Silmiya!” at the mercy of a merciless iron fist. The subtext of this denouncement, which every oppressor understands very clearly, is that sooner or later, if enough pressure is applied, the will of the people will yield.

It would be interesting to know what a historian of Zinn’s caliber, and also morally committed to opposing war has to say on the issue. In September, 1999, Zinn delivered a lecture in Boston Massachusetts on “A People’s History of the United States”, and he was asked for his opinion on the matter:

“Question: You said that you’re anti-war, and I was wondering what you thought of the oppressed rising up against the oppressors, and more specifically what you think of the FSLN and the guerrillas in Guatemala?”

“HZ: Well that’s one of the toughest questions. I hate tough questions (laugh). No, it’s an important question. I am anti-war, because I believe that war by definition is the indiscriminate killing of large numbers of people. Even if a social purpose is proclaimed, the social purpose is distant, and the killing is immediate. So even in a revolutionary situation, as sympathetic as you are to the revolutionists, you have to face the fact that revolutions when they become murderous, lose focus and they begin to get indiscriminate. So ugly things are done, for an end which is then not achieved, or if it is achieved begins to turn sour, and one of the reasons it begins to turn sour I think is because the revolutions have been corrupted in the process by what becomes an addiction to violence. So I think the great intellectual challenge of our time, the great political challenge, the great human challenge is how to achieve social justice, how to bring about, yes, revolutionary change without massive violence.”

What is interesting to note in Zinn’s position, is that it doesn’t exclude the use of violence completely. He goes on to say that an engagement in a different kind of warfare as opposed to mass warfare is perhaps required: “Some kind of guerrilla warfare perhaps, a wearing down of the enemy, a use of many different tactics of strikes, of boycotts, some  acts of violence, yes.” This position has to its merit both practical considerations which recognize the limits of nonviolent struggle, and an essential degree of trepidation, of hesitation in endorsing the use of violence in fear of the consequences.

Unfortunately, much of the intellectual discourse surrounding the involvement of the outside world in the Arab Spring is not dealing at all with “the great challenge of our time” as it manifests on the ground, and doesn’t consider the opinion of the oppressed as being relevant. The debates are trapped in the thick boundaries of western political ideology. In the case of the left: falling back on denouncing any outside military intervention or backing of the armed rebels on anti-imperialistic rhetoric or the double standard, without presenting the people on the ground with anything but empty political solutions which they know do nothing to bring them justice.

The argument for example, that “The West” rejected the proposal of the African Union to end the Libyan conflict peacefully reduces the will of the Libyan revolutionists to that of a commanded follower, hence the nickname “NATO Revolutionists”. The fact is that the NTC, recognized by the overwhelming majority of Libyans as their sole legitimate representatives during the uprising, openly rejected the proposal of the African Union, and all other political proposals which didn’t make Gadhafi’s immediate departure from power, clear and explicit. This was the position of the Libyan revolution from the moment it was forced to turn violent, and it didn’t change until its demands were met the hard way.   

The mainstream position of left dissident intellectuals regarding  “humanitarian intervention” is understandable and excusable, since the term has proven itself many times as being synonymous with “American intervention”. In any case, the answers being given to “the great challenge of our time” are coming from the Arab world at a very high price. The tragedy, is that their sacrifices are serving as amusing points of discussion over cups of tea, in the salons and Ivy towers, and for the ruling elite: just another score to settle in the game if high politics.   

Ahmad Elabbar