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If We Want Peace, We're Going to Have to Learn to Say No
We live in a world where young men and women are trained as soldiers to kill, whether they're Canadian, American, Israeli, Palestinian or Taliban.
Killing goes against everything we're taught from childhood about love and compassion. It goes against every religious doctrine and moral code.
It's small wonder, says Irish Nobel peace laureate Mairead Maguire, that so many come back from war "sick at heart."
Some of those soldiers never reconcile the fundamental contradiction between the job of killing and the belief that it's wrong. There are telling, but rarely noted statistics. Depending on which country's numbers you look at, suicide rates among soldiers and veterans run anywhere from twice to four times that of civilians.
Maguire believes this has to end.
"We have to move beyond that [military mindset] because the world is too dangerous with nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, suicide bombers. The world is so dangerous now that we have to make this quantum leap in the way in which we provide security and deal with our conflicts in a non-killing, non-violent way," she told me during a recent interview.
"We have to start to disarm our own minds and look at the fact that there are always alternatives to violence."
That hope for a global mindshift away from war and toward peace and nuclear disarmament appears to be the reasoning behind the Nobel committee's controversial choice of American President Barack Obama as this year's peace prize winner since Obama has contributed only hope to the peace process so far.
The committee must have believed that alone may be enough to mobilize the vast majority of people in the world who long for peace, who aren't violent, who prefer peace to war and who have sent sons and daughters into battle with heavy hearts.
Maguire is among those who disagreed with the choice, telling BBC that Obama "has yet to prove that he will move seriously on the Middle East, that he will end the war in Afghanistan and many other issues."
Ending war means a massive societal shift.
"We must create the idea that to even think of war is horrific," says Maguire, whose own peace prize was awarded for her work in ending the fighting in Northern Ireland.
It means transforming millennia of solving problems by fighting with solving conflicts through talking. It will be hard, but perhaps not impossible, says Maguire, who cites the mind-shift about smoking. In a very short time, smokers went from being cool to being pariahs.
As with smoking, it starts with children and education. Kids are already taught at home and at school that violence is bad. But as a number of University of B.C. researchers are finding, using programs that emphasize empathy and compassion can reduce children's aggression.
But much of what children learn doesn't come from either parents or teachers. It comes from television, movies and video games. All of which are becoming increasingly violent.
A decade ago, UNESCO research found that 93 per cent of children in 93 countries with access to television watched for three hours a day and saw five to 10 violent acts every hour.
Since then, Laval University professors Guy Paquette and Jacques de Guise studied six major Canadian television networks examining films, situation comedies, dramatic series and children's programming (though not cartoons). Between 1993 and 2001, they found incidents of physical violence increased by 378 per cent with an average of 40 violent acts per hour in 2001.
As for video games, studies have consistently shown that playing them is associated with increased aggressive behaviour and thoughts, physiological arousal and decreased empathetic and helping behaviour.
But those are only first steps. Citizens have to reclaim the power to say no to war. Maguire is among the Nobel peace laureates and others advocating that no country be allowed to go to war without citizens having a chance to vote on it.
She and others also advocate governments having peace departments and peace ministers to act as counterweights to defence ministers, their departments and security advisors.
It's impossible to know whether a pacifist voice in cabinet might have saved Canada from going to war in Afghanistan. But it couldn't have hurt.
And it wouldn't have hurt to have had someone in government for the past two decades pointing out that Canadians were being fooled into believing that our military was a peacekeeping force, not a fighting one.
That alone might have saved lives because at the height of our hypocrisy, Canada sent soldiers ill-equipped on to battlefields.
Of course, if polling is any guide, Canadians would have supported troops going to Afghanistan in 2002 in a combat role since only 20 per cent opposed the mission.
However, the most recent poll indicates that a slim majority of Canadians oppose the Afghan mission.
It's likely because the deaths are adding up. So far, 131 Canadian soldiers and a diplomat have died. But that pales compared to the so-called collateral damage. In Afghanistan last month, 202 Afghan civilians died. In August, 169 died.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper extended the mission until 2011 after commissioning a report that urged a "comprehensive strategy" that was not "faint-hearted."
There are 12 pages at the back of the report listing who was consulted. The overwhelming majority were military and security experts.
Surely at some point, we have to recognize that negotiating peace instead of making war is what's truly heroic.