A new study guide by Quakers makes a valuable contribution to peace, finds Brian Walker.

In 1945, following WWII, the remit of the new United Nations Organisation was ‘to protect future generations from the scourge of war’. Nevertheless, since then the world has endured at least 245 wars. Today, military strategists recognise two types of war:

  • ‘Symmetrical’, as between North Vietnam and the USA when, from 1962 to 1973, casualties numbered 4 million (estimated) and 58,000 respectively
  • ‘Non-symmetrical’, as within Rwanda in 1994 when, in the space of three months, some 500,000 to 800,000 people were killed in what today would be classified as ‘genocide’.

Behind these historical events other possibilities loom with more destructive potential. Wars do not only cost lives (see below). They destroy the life support systems on which all human (and other) life depends – consider the consequences of using existing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of war.

Preparing for peace

Historically, opponents of armed conflict have been found in all societies. In the UK for 350 years the Quakers pioneered non-violent approaches to disputes. More popular movements from the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and CND to the Movement for the Abolition of War have favoured the peaceful settlement of conflict. 

  In 2000 Quakers in the north-west of England listened intently to a lecture by the late Sir Joseph Rotblat, winner of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize. As a consequence they launched an initiative funded mainly by the Rowntree Trust called Preparing for Peace. Over the next five years they invited 25 of the world’s leading experts to publicly address  four key questions (see below).

The international experts, with two exceptions, were not pacifists. They included a retired general who fought in WWII, a UK ambassador to the UN Security Council, an international war crimes prosecutor, a former CEO of the International Committee of the Red Cross and a Muslim imam. The consensus that emerged was that modern war is a futile exercise. Also, that all wars have unintended consequences.

 All papers from the Preparing for Peace initiative were placed on the website www.preparingforpeace.org. Next, a book, Preparing for Peace – By Asking the Experts to Analyse War was published (ISBN 0 9550527 0 X). This was followed up with a programme based on presentations to selected audiences by opinion formers and decision makers, which is offered globally. In the immediate future, the group will discuss its findings with parliamentarians at Westminster, with MEPs in Brussels, and engage in a programme with schools and colleges: Stonyhurst College in Lancashire has been the first school to take part.

The anatomy of war

Finally, with funding from the RH Southern Trust and guidance from educationalists, the group has published a teachers’ study guide,  The Anatomy of War. It takes two texts as case studies. First is Robert McNamara’s meticulous analysis of the symmetrical war in Vietnam, In Retrospect – The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. This was published after 30 years of silence (McNamara was secretary for defense for presidents Kennedy and Johnson from 1960 to 1968). Second, is the UN report on the non-symmetrical genocidal war in Rwanda. Units in the study guide invite students to consider the texts quoted, how they might apply to modern threats of war or genocide, and what lessons might be learned.

The Anatomy of War is a rigorous and professionally-designed tool for teachers of citizenship to use with students in the 16-21 age group. Teachers have been involved throughout its creation.

The study guide (ISBN 0 9550527 1 8) costs £5 or £2.50 each when more than five are ordered. It can be ordered from www.preparingforpeace.org or 1 Barnacre View, High Street, Garstang, PR3 1EB. Cheques should be made payable to Westmorland General Meeting.

Casualties of war

  • Civilians are ten times more at risk in modern war than soldiers.
  • Since 1945 84% of people killed in war have been civilian.
  • Since 1945 24 million people have been displaced in their own countries, whilst 18 million have been forced to flee their own country.
  • Women and children are the first casualties of modern war.
  • Women and children are now frontline soldiers: 40 Rwandan children have been charged with genocide and in the 1990s 200,000 children were involved in 24 different conflicts.
  • Agricultural production is one of the first casualties in modern war – in the Sri Lankan civil war wheat production decreased by 27%, onion and potato production by 64%, and fish catches by 63%. Starvation inevitably followed.

Key questions for experts on war

Each expert was asked to address one of the following questions in the light of their own experience or research:

  • Can 21st century war be controlled and managed effectively?
  • Can 21st century war be expected to achieve its declared aim or objective with confidence?
  • What are the human, economic and environmental costs of modern war?
  • In the light of the foregoing, what are the consequences for leaders and people alike?

Suggested reading

McNamara, R (1996) In Retrospect – The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Knopf.
Sanders, D, Straughton,E, Walker, B and Rogers, R (eds) (2005) Preparing for Peace – By Asking the Experts to Analyse War. Westmorland General Meeting.
UNESCO (1986) The Seville Statement on Violence. http://portal.unesco.org
United Nations (1999) Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Actions of the United Nations during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. www.un.org

Brian W Walker is former director general of Oxfam and founder CEO of Earthwatch Institute, Europe.He was chair of governors, Dallam School, Cumbria, 1996-2004