Nonviolent Alternatives to War

by Randy Schutt

If not war, then what? What are nonviolent alternatives to war?

The technology and methodology of war has developed over several thousand years, particularly accelerating in the last century. The United States has numerous military academies and war colleges (for a list see here) and spends about $600 billion each year for weapons development, military training, and maintenance of a massive war machine. The world currently spends over one trillion dollars each year on military might.

In contrast, nonviolent alternatives to war are still in their infancy. Though practiced since time immemorial, the technology and techniques of nonviolent action have only been systematically developed in the last century. Expenditures on nonviolent alternatives to war are only a few million dollars per year. Even so, much has been accomplished. There are now a number of groups developing the theory and practice of nonviolent action and several others that now nonviolently intervene in world conflicts. If these groups had resources comparable to those provided to the world’s militaries, they would undoubtedly have a tremendous impact on the world.

Nonviolent action is based on three understandings:

  1. People find it difficult to kill or hurt other people, especially if they have a personal connection and understand their opponents’ perspectives.
  2. People are especially unlikely to engage in unsavory behavior if they are watched by someone who challenges that behavior.
  3. Leaders rely on the consent, support, and effort of others to actually carry out their orders.

Military training is designed to desensitize soldiers to others’ needs, to desensitize soldiers to killing people, to train soldiers to act at the command of their superiors without thinking, and to dehumanize their opponents. Nonviolent action seeks to counter this training by sensitizing soldiers to the humanity and concerns of their opponents, by helping soldiers develop compassion for others, and by encouraging soldiers to think for themselves. War propaganda is designed to secure unquestioned support from the population for war and conquest. Nonviolent action is designed to counter this by dramatizing the reality of war and by encouraging people to think for themselves about issues of war and domination.

Groups that practice nonviolent alternatives engage in several types of activity. Nonviolent defense organizations try to train civilians to resist military attack by non-compliance with occupying armies. Nonviolent accompaniment groups arrange for someone from outside the conflict to accompany a targeted individual — constantly and obviously — so that the targeted person is less likely to be kidnapped or assassinated. Or they may engage in a similar presence to protect a whole village or community. Nonviolent interventionary groups try to physically prevent combatants from attacking one another by positioning themselves between warring groups. They also try to facilitate dialog between conflicting groups. All of these groups work to resolve conflict peacefully through discussion, negotiation, and compassion and to focus critical outside attention on military threats, warfare, and oppression.

Below is a list of five organizations that develop or practice nonviolent action as an alternative to war:

Nonviolent Peaceforce

They are trying…

…to create a trained, international civilian nonviolent, peace force. The Peaceforce will be sent to conflict areas to prevent death and destruction and protect human rights, thus creating the space for local groups to struggle nonviolently, enter into dialogue, and seek peaceful resolution.

Our Goal is to build the organization needed to create and maintain a standing Nonviolent Peace Force beginning with a pilot project of 150 and building up to 2,000 active members, 4,000 reserves and 5,000 supporters by 2010.

Peace Brigades International


…protect human rights and promote nonviolent transformation of conflicts.

When invited, we send teams of volunteers into areas of repression and conflict. The volunteers accompany human rights defenders, their organizations and others threatened by political violence. Perpetrators of human rights abuses usually do not want the world to witness their actions. The presence of volunteers backed by a support network helps to deter violence. In this way, we create space for local activists to work for social justice and human rights.

PBI works to open a space for peace in which conflicts can be dealt with non-violently. PBI teams don’t try to impose solutions from the outside. Instead, they provide moral support and a safer space for local activists.

PBI teams can pursue avenues not open to governments or partisan organizations. Free of the strings attached to the U.N. and other governmental bodies, our independent presence earns more trust from local grassroots activists, helping them to endure despite severe repression. PBI does not charge for its services and we do not fund individuals or groups we accompany. While we may provide workshops and nonviolent training, we do not take part in the work of those we accompany.

Our work takes three main forms:

Christian Peacemaking Teams

Based in four religious groups (Mennonite Church, Church of the Brethren, General Conference Mennonite, and Friends United Meeting), they often…

…place themselves in harms way [to] offer an organized, nonviolent alternative to war and other forms of lethal inter-group conflict. CPT provides organizational support to persons committed to faith-based nonviolent alternatives in situations where lethal conflict is an immediate reality or is supported by public policy.

CPT seeks to enlist the response of the whole church in conscientious objection to war, and the development of nonviolent institutions, skills and training for intervention in conflict situations. CPT projects connect intimately with the spiritual lives of its constituent congregations. Gifts of prayer, money and time from these churches undergird CPT peacemaking ministries.

Witness for Peace

We are people committed to nonviolence and led by faith and conscience. Our mission is to support peace, justice, and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing US policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean. We stand with people who seek justice. Through international programs and US grassroots activism, Witness for Peace works to transform US public opinion, government policy, and corporate practices.

Witness for Peace was founded in 1983 by people of faith and conscience, who, in response to US funding of the Contra War, traveled to Nicaragua to see firsthand the devastating human effects of the US-sponsored war. Over the course of the 1980s, thousands of concerned citizens traveled to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace. In the US, activists across the country organized events to resist Reagan’s war on Central America, which may have averted an all-out US invasion of Nicaragua, and certainly contributed greatly to the effort to cut off US military aid to the contras.

Albert Einstein Institute

Based at Harvard University and directed by Gene Sharp, …

…the Albert Einstein Institution is a nonprofit organization advancing the study and use of strategic nonviolent action in conflicts throughout the world. Nonviolent action provides a way of acting effectively in a conflict without the use of physical violence. While nonviolent forms of struggle do not kill, injure, or destroy, they undermine an opponent’s social, economic, political, and military power by withholding and withdrawing the pillars of support required by an adversary to maintain its position and to achieve its goals. …

Since 1983, the Albert Einstein Institution has been engaged in research, policy studies, education, and consulting on the nature and potential of nonviolent forms of struggle. Just as the study of military strategy has yielded a more refined understanding of warfare, the strategic study of nonviolent action can potentially yield deeper insights into its dynamics and requirements for success.

The Einstein Institution is committed to the defense of democratic freedoms and institutions and the reduction of political violence through the use of nonviolent action. We are dedicated to examining how freedom, justice, and peace can be achieved without sacrificing one to the other.

Their work is the basis for the film “A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict.”

Additional Resources

Here is an excellent article from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict about how to use nonviolent action to topple a dictatorship:

With Weapons of the Will: How to topple Saddam Hussein — nonviolently,” by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, Sojourners Magazine, September-October 2002.

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