It’s Time to Abandon War

It’s Time to Abandon War

By Kathy Beckwith, author and educator, Oregon

[These ideas were first shared by the author as a TED Talks program, at TEDxMcMinnville, Oregon, and we are now pleased to publish it for the benefit of Skipping Stones readers.  —Editors]

I grew up on a hog farm in western Oregon. I had my own pig. She was my 4-H project. But it was more fun to play in the woods with my brothers and sisters than train a pig, so she never got really tame. In spite of my lack of pig training skills, I still reaped the benefits of growing up on that hog farm—learning to swim in an irrigation pond, eating garbage that was collected for the pigs. Just kidding, well, sort of. What we ate were the “trimmings” from grocery stores, discarded produce that had begun to fade, that my dad had picked up on his route around town, gathering scraps to feed the hogs. So we ate artichokes, oranges, bananas, pomegranates—things too good to feed hogs that we wouldn’t get otherwise.

I never wondered if this was normal, but I don’t remember ever telling other kids at school about sharing the pigs’ trimmings. So maybe, it wasn’t totally normal, after all. I have not lost two minutes of sleep over the question of trimmings being normal

But there is something big, now, that we take as normal, that at times makes me cry from the cruelty of it, and other times makes me cry out against the injustice and the horrid destruction because of it. I’ve been learning more about how it comes to be considered normal.

Have you heard of the Green Frog in the lima bean pot? Green Frog hops into the pot where the lima beans are soaking overnight—in cold water—but in the morning, when the fire is lit in the cook stove under the pot, and the water starts to get hot, so does Green Frog—unaware. Because it’s his nature to adapt his body temperature to his surroundings. Sometime before boiling, Green Frog has to be startled into leaping from danger, or risk getting cooked.

It seems to me, that when considering war, many of us are quite like Green Frog. We’ve been adapting to our surroundings, to a culture that treats war as normal, and it’s getting hot.

I propose three things for your consideration:

  • War is not normal…
  • It is time to abandon war… and
  • It can be done.

Yet we do things ourselves that normalize war. We let assumptions take hold in our minds. Have you heard these?

  • War is inevitable. Things will never change.

Inevitable? Conflict is inevitable; but war is a choice, a decision that is made about how to respond to a conflict.

Things will never change? Dueling, to the death, was seen as an honorable way for gentlemen, including a man who became a U.S. President, to settle a rumor. Women, vote?! Ha! Things change!

There are other reasons we adapt to the “war is normal” lima bean pot.

  • Fear sells war, and we’re sold fear.
  • Carefully chosen words and PR (Public Relations) campaigns market wars such as
    “Rolling Thunder”, “Shock and Awe”, and “Operation Enduring Freedom.”
  • Kids watch the parades and ceremonies from toddler days on. They play with war toys bought for them, and—when older—with video games simulating war, normalizing war.
  • And then we put war in its own category and don’t challenge it like we would other things. If neighborhood problems were handled with the violence of war, we’d name it tragic, criminal—not heroic. If hometown parades included execution equipment from prisons past and present—electric chairs, firing squads, lethal injection kits—we’d say, “What in the world were they thinking, putting that stuff in a parade our kids watch?” But execution equipment of war—tanks…? “Wow!” If we heard teenagers down the street calling out the chants used in military training: “What makes the grass grow? Blood makes the grass grow. Who makes the blood flow? We do, we do. Blood, Blood, Blood!” … and “Kill, Kill!”—we’d call 9-1-1 for help. Never would we condone the “normals” of war in our communities!

But perhaps most normalizing of all, is the assumption that even though no one wants war, sometimes it’s necessary to protect human rights and our freedoms; that without war, we’d lose our freedom. The problem is, rarely do we finish that sentence. Our freedom to do what, exactly? What freedoms have our wars actually protected? Freedom to take land we wanted? To protect business investments in other countries?… To opt for war instead of using alternatives, over and over again. Our history is bleak, and sad. How many of us grow up believing that the horrendous killing and maiming of the American Civil War was necessary to get rid of slavery? We don’t learn to ask, “Why didn’t we join the rest of the world in eliminating slavery through moral and legal persuasion, instead of turning to war?” The more we learn about alternatives that were possible but not taken, the harder it is to accept war.

But wait. What about Hitler? I have been asked that question so many times, and heard Hitler used as justification for U.S. military acts so many times, that I’ve begun to wonder if maybe Hitler won the war, after all. Wasn’t he the one who believed that power and violence should be combined to reach one’s goals? That philosophy seems to have caught on.

When we discuss Hitler, let’s make sure we ask, and answer, because the answers are here, “What could have been done before and during Hitler’s rise to power that would have changed the course of that history? What could have been done to prevent Hitler’s brutality from being condoned?”

Never should we grant Hitler—or anyone—power over us to keep us from choosing alternatives that are wise, effective, humane, and that honor life and our precious Earth.

But are there alternatives that really work? That’s the good news! Alternatives abound. Education. Diplomacy. Negotiation, mediation, arbitration. Economic justice, crisis response teams, peace commissions—all are effective alternatives to war.

A more democratic United Nations could be used to advise wisely, instead of us bartering with its members to do our will.

Universities around the world have programs in international conflict resolution, and specialists ready to facilitate peace-making, as do religious and secular organizations, and the United States Institute of Peace.

People find ways! Women from Liberia barricaded men inside a hotel, preventing them from leaving until they got serious about negotiating the end to war.

Bulgaria was ordered by Hitler to ship the country’s Jews by rail to the death camps. The first group of 9,000 Jews were assembled at the railway station, in barbed wire fences, awaiting final orders for loading onto the trains. Members of parliament, students, and others from all walks of life, joined the clergy there, who said they would lie down on the tracks; these people must not be taken away. Those ready to give the orders, instead told the Jews to take their bags and go back home.

President Truman and the United States Air Force responded to the Soviet Union’s full blockade of West Berlin in 1948, not with a return to war or the threat of war, but with an airlift of supplies dropped into the city for months, until the Soviets recognized the futility of their actions.

The research of Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth (TEDxBoulder) presents us with dramatic truths: nonviolent civil resistance works, it works better than violence, and it more often results in democratic systems in place after the resistance. There is no excuse for saying war is necessary.

So what can WE do, personally, to help bring about the end of war?

We can question. We can ask, “What alternatives are possible in this situation?” Question what role U.S. military bases around the world, our weapons sales, military spending, our rhetoric—what role do these things play in perpetuating war. Question why the U.S. government insists on spending a trillion dollars to modernize nuclear weapons of unimaginable destruction, designed for the mass murder of populations, when so many nations are calling for them to be dismantled.

Question. And assign ourselves a history lesson: Learn about wars, and what they do to real people, including survivors, and soldiers who actually fight on the ground. So much of war, for so many of us, happens someplace else.

We can learn about alternatives, including nonviolent civil resistance, and teach that history to children and teens. We can teach kids how to mediate conflicts for each other at school, and bring that training home and into their future lives. We can hold family meetings, so kids grow up knowing how to facilitate a meeting and brainstorm solutions. We can encourage youth to explore service in the Peace Corps, or take six months (or more) to volunteer somewhere around the world, because their work and experiences in different cultures will make a difference. Prevention costs a fraction of military action. And as they help others, they will surely grow in compassion and understanding.

We can stop feeling powerless and join others to share ideas and take action. We can stop honoring war and honor its opposite: “creative problem-solving.”

And if we wish, we can point out how mules cooperate—to swat flies.

I was walking on our road and glanced into the field where our mules…(video) were standing rump to head, swishing their tails, brushing the flies off each other’s faces. I ran home, grabbed my camera, and when my husband got home, I told him, “Your mules are amazing.” “Yep, they are,” he said, “but they do that all the time. It’s normal!”

Well, if mules can normalize cooperation, people can too.

In January 1929, the US Senate advised ratification and President Coolidge signed into law the Kellogg Briand Pact outlawing the use of war as a means of resolving conflict. Millions and millions of Americans said we are ready for the end of war. They raised such a voice that those in government had to listen, and join the effort, and make it the law of the land—it’s still the law of the land—a law that we can reclaim, if we will seek out and use alternatives to war.

We’re lucky to have three awesome and exceedingly fun grandkids. I love them dearly. I want the best for these precious kids. Down deep I think we know what’s normal, what we come home to—the longing we all have, to give the children the very best we can. They don’t need to inherit our messes. War is a monstrous mess. It has been normalized, but it’s not the way, and we don’t have to accept it.

We can abandon war. There are alternatives. I extend to each one of you a personal invitation, and permission, to help make that happen.

About the Author:
Kathy Beckwith is a school mediation trainer from Dayton, Oregon. She also volunteers as a mediation coach. She is author of PLAYING WAR: A Story About Changing the Game (winner, 2006 Skipping Stones Honor Award); A MIGHTY CASE AGAINST WAR: What America Missed in U.S. History Class and What We (All) Can Do Now; and other books on problem-solving. Her latest work is a young adult novel, ENCOUNTER: When Religions Become Classmates—From Oregon to India and Back (winner, 2022 Skipping Stones Honor Award). She lives on a small farm with her husband (and his mules) and loves picking wild blackberries for summertime pies. She can be reached via her website at
www.kathybeckwith.com. Kathy’s TEDx Talk can be accessed online here.

Leave a Reply