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History shows us that international political violence does not usually work

By Keith Suter - posted Thursday, 6 May 2004

Does international political violence work? It certainly causes a great deal of suffering but does it actually work? The end of Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror challenges the conventional thinking that the “good guys” lose out to the “bad guys” because the “bad guys” are more ruthless and so are more willing to use extreme force.

But does the use of force actually work? The answer may seem rather surprising - but the historical record shows that the use of force is often counter-productive.

GF Liardet, a Royal Navy captain, did a survey two decades ago of major wars in the period 1854 to 1973. He covered the Crimean war, various late-19th century European wars, the two world wars, Vietnam and Korea. He assessed whether the attack achieved the desired results. In almost every case, the country that initiated the attack did not gain from it. Germany in the two World Wars is a good example of how a country that initiates a war does not benefit from doing so. The 20th century was shaping up to be the “European Century” until the Germans started World War I. It has taken decades for western Europe to recover from the damage of the two wars.


If one were to do a similar examination today, then the answer would still be the same: violence does not pay. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan failed, as did the 1982 Argentine invasion of the Falklands, and the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The jury is still out on the US’s attack on Iraq in 2003 – but the indications are not good.

Second, the worst terrorists of the 20th century were all government leaders: Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong. Their use of terror did them little good. Stalin’s Soviet empire collapsed in 1991; Hitler’s 1,000 year rule lasted only 12 years; and Mao’s China is “communist” in name but hardly “communist” in reality. Meanwhile, all the brutal communist regimes in eastern Europe have collapsed.

Third, the Japanese in World War II did not accept the Geneva Conventions on the laws of war. They conducted a very brutal form of warfare. But their “no holds barred” campaign did not work for them. They still lost. Indeed, the terrorism continues to haunt them in many part of Asia, where people who remember Japanese barbarism from half a century ago do not want Japanese merchants around today.

Fourth, it is noticeable that some Asian countries that have had reputations for brutality since World War II have shed their brutal rulers. South Korea is now a democracy, with the previous president a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. Similarly, Taiwan is also now a democracy and the vice president (herself another former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience) is the most senior woman ever elected in 5,000 years of Chinese history.

What are the lessons of all this? First, violence does not necessarily pay. Indeed, in most cases it fails – and those that use violence (such as Saddam Hussein) often end up having a violent end themselves.

Meanwhile, the Americans have learnt the lessons of Vietnam. In Vietnam, the Americans used excessive firepower but did not win the hearts of minds of people. (I was in Vietnam in 1974 and saw at first hand the way that Americans had alienated potential supporters by their use of violence). You cannot win hearts and minds by putting people in coffins.


Second, in World War II, when Stalin was advised that the Pope was against one of his policies, he asked: “How many troops does the Pope have? God is on the side of the big battalions”. He was wrong. Stalin’s Soviet Union has gone but the church goes on. Indeed, even within Russia itself the church is flourishing.

Perhaps God is on the side of the people who do not want to repay evil with evil; those who want to avoid an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The challenge is to follow the example of people who want to solve disputes in a conflict-resolving way, such as the work of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

This does not mean giving up our vigilance. It does not mean we can live carelessly or unilaterally scrap defence forces. But it does mean we need to think more creatively about how we deal with political violence - and do not simply repay evil with evil. Perhaps, the “good guys” are destined to win out after all – providing we use the right methods.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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