Why does the U.S. military believe that it can win in Afghanistan? Why does the U.S. military believe that it can succeed in a region that has a long history of throwing out foreign occupiers? The U.S. military believes it can win, because it is fighting in a way unlike any army before it. During the past decade, the U.S. military has become more like Gandhi than Napoleon.

Recently, something almost unnoticed, yet unprecedented, has happened in the history of warfare. For all of recorded history, technology has been channeled toward creating more destructive weapons: more deadly swords, more powerful cannons, and bigger bombs. But in the past 30 years, the majority of military research in the U.S. has been devoted to creating weapons that are less catastrophic and more precise. Why has this happened?

The U.S. military has realized, like Sun Tzu nearly 2,500 years ago, that conflict is best resolved through nonviolent means. Although West Point taught me that diplomacy should always be chosen over war, in the West a war of self-defense is still considered by many to be the best kind of war. For example, in America, World War II is often called “the good war.”

But Sun Tzu and other Chinese military theorists, who were influenced by Lao Tzu, ranked five different kinds of war from best to worst. What is the best kind of war? The best kind of war is the war that is never fought. The second best kind of war is the war that is avoided. The third best kind of war is the war that is won without bloodshed. The fourth best kind of war is the war with casualties (e.g., World War II). And the worst kind of war is the war that perpetuates hostility – the war that never ends (e.g., Israel/Palestine).

Adopting nonviolent methods has given General McChrystal and the U.S. military renewed confidence that they can win in Afghanistan and do what no other military has. Ironically, the U.S. military’s faith in nonviolence has renewed its faith in war.

For example, General McChrystal has made Three Cups of Tea required reading for army officers deploying to Afghanistan. In a recent “60 Minutes” television interview, he said that when he talks to the Afghan people he does not wear a helmet, body armor, or carry a weapon. He also said that he wants to move away from tactics in Afghanistan that kill civilians. The U.S. military even has soldiers that are trained in nonviolent methods such as conflict mediation, along with building schools, hospitals, and other forms of infrastructure. Some of these soldiers do not even carry weapons.

However, there are obstacles to the U.S. military’s new nonviolent approach.

  1. In a recent “60 Minutes” television interview, a Marine Colonel in Afghanistan said that if we kill 1,000 Taliban soldiers and two civilians, it’s a loss. So if less than 1% of the casualties we inflict are civilians, we cannot win. But from World War II until today, 90% of people killed in war are civilians. This is why technology is being channeled toward making weapons less deadly and more precise. The problem with “smart bombs,” however, is that there is no such thing. Technology is not always reliable, computers can crash, and bombs can be dropped based on faulty intelligence. A house that intelligence reports claim is full of insurgents might be filled with children. When you kill two civilians, it doesn’t matter how many Taliban soldiers you kill, and it doesn’t matter how many schools and hospitals you build. Inflicting civilian casualties makes it very difficult to win the hearts and minds of the people.
  2. Any government that cooperates with an occupying power is always corrupt. This is true throughout history. The government in Afghanistan is extremely corrupt, and the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is seen by many Afghans not as serving their best interests, but as keeping an illegitimate government in power. This corrupt government allows the Taliban to appear as a legitimate alternative.
  3. The U.S. is currently at war with people in Pakistan. We are not using soldiers, but unmanned aerial vehicles that kill from far away. The greater threat to the U.S. is not in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, and the U.S. military presence there is based on violent tactics and long-distance killing.
  4. The intentions that the U.S. government has in Afghanistan are not the same intentions that Gandhi had when he used nonviolent methods. Although the tactics and strategies are similar in some ways, the intentions behind these tactics and strategies are not.

The Five Kinds of War from Best to Worst

  1. The war that is never fought – I once saw an interview with the martial artist Jet Li, who said, “I have the number one martial arts self-defense technique.” The audience was on the edge of their seats, wanting to hear this ancient secret, when Jet Li said, “The number one martial arts self-defense technique is you smile at people, because if you smile and are nice to people, they usually don’t want to fight you. Anyone who gets in a lot of fights has poor martial arts self-defense. Martial arts are a lifestyle for people who don’t want to fight.” (paraphrasing) This means having a relationship between people and countries where they are not likely to wage war against each other. This involves both sides seeing each other as friends rather than enemies and understanding that peace serves their best interests. Europe was the bloodiest place on Earth for 500 years, but it is almost inconceivable to imagine a war in Western Europe today due to new relationships between these countries. This is because Western Europe is currently experiencing the best kind of war – the war that is never fought.
  2. The war that is avoided – When you are engaged in a hostile confrontation, this involves talking your way out of the dangerous situation and resolving conflict peacefully. If someone wants to fight you on the street, this involves dialogue. When the situation is hostile between countries, this involves diplomacy.
  3. The war without bloodshed – If someone attacks you on the street, this involves subduing your opponent without killing him or shedding his blood. For example, in Jiu-Jitsu you are not taught to kill when someone attacks you, but to grab your opponent’s limb, apply pressure to a joint, and force him to give up.   Although you are not taught to kill in Jiu-Jitsu, you are taught to break bones as a last resort. And don’t underestimate Gandhi. He certainly broke bones… metaphorically speaking. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Gandhi broke the backbone of the British Empire.” What does this mean? When waging peace is concerned, the bone you are trying to break as a last resort is your opponent’s economy. During the Civil Rights Movement, the intention of a boycott was to apply so much economic pressure that your opponent would rather give up than continue to suffer economically. In Jiu-Jitsu you are taught to make your opponent give up by applying a choke hold, and in a similar way Gandhi tried to strangle the British economy. However, this is never done with bad intentions. Gandhi brought the British Empire to their knees, but when he forced them to leave India, he said, “We never wanted to bring you to your knees. We just wanted to bring you to your senses.”
  4. The war with casualties – I don’t think the U.S. military is becoming more like Gandhi because it is actively studying him. Instead, it is adopting timeless principles echoed by Sun Tzu that Gandhi emulated. Sun Tzu said, “Attaining one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the pinnacle of excellence. Subjugating the enemy’s army without fighting is the true pinnacle of excellence.” Gandhi defeated the most powerful empire on Earth, the British Empire, without firing a single bullet, and he was the pinnacle of excellence. I used to think that waging peace was the absence of or the opposite of warfare. But waging peace is warfare. It is the next evolution in warfare. It is warfare not against people, but against the ignorance and misunderstandings that hold people hostage. It is warfare against greed, hatred, prejudice, violence, oppression, injustice, and the divisions that separate people from each other. Waging peace is a more reliable way of resolving conflict and providing security than waging war. It is the kind of struggle that can best protect America and the world in the 21st century.
  5. The war that never ends – The philosophy of martial arts teaches you to defend yourself with violence only as a last resort, and to help an opponent up after you knock him down. Martial arts, like Gandhi, teach you not only to respect people so that they are less likely to fight you, but to treat your opponent with respect after you defeat him so that he is less likely to harbor resentment and seek revenge. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were aggressor nations that we helped to rebuild after World War II. Unlike the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, which kicked a downed opponent and sowed the seeds for World War II, the United States helped Germany and Japan get back on their feet after World War II. As a result, it is unlikely that Germany and Japan will try to attack the United States today. But helping someone up only serves to prevent future conflict if you are not the aggressor. If I walk down the street, punch someone in the face, and try to help that person up, my actions will be seen as hostile. Although we are trying to help rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq, they were not aggressor nations like Germany and Japan. This has made Afghanistan and Iraq much more hostile toward our “helping hand.”

The Medicine of Waging Peace

Waging peace is not just a martial art that strikes at ignorance and misunderstandings instead of people. It is also a medicine that can heal the infection of war and serve as preventative medicine by ending wars before they begin.   

Martin Luther King Jr. helped prevent a race war that nearly exploded as tensions mounted during the civil rights era.  While imprisoned in a Birmingham, Alabama jail for conducting a peaceful protest in 1963, he wrote: “If this [peaceful] philosophy had not emerged, by now many streets of the South would, I am convinced, be flowing with blood . . . If [African Americans’] repressed emotions are not released in nonviolent ways, they will seek expression through violence; this is not a threat but a fact of history.  So I have not said to my people: ‘Get rid of your discontent.’  Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.”

Waging peace can heal the festering social wounds that allow warmongers, violence, and terrorism to flourish.  When these infections resist the medicine of waging peace, we can perform surgery by using a scalpel.  Diligent police work relying on international cooperation is a scalpel that can arrest and bring terrorist networks to justice.  Terrorist networks are not monolithic governments like the Soviet Union.  They are transnational criminal organizations that cannot be stopped by waging war against a particular country.

Using effective police work to bring transnational criminal organizations to justice is like performing surgery with a scalpel.  Waging war to stop terrorism is like performing surgery with a chainsaw.  From World War II until today, the majority of people killed in wars are civilians.  When we use a method of conflict resolution that kills more civilians than combatants, we perpetuate the agony, despair, and rage that allow terrorism to thrive.  Rather than playing Russian roulette with countless lives by waging war, we must use the medicine of waging peace and the scalpel of justice to proactively heal the causes of conflict.