War is slaughter.
War is a highly contagious disease, spreading germs the way a common cold causes its human host to sneeze. Among the many war germs are hatred, fear, dehumanization, tribalism, glorification of violence, and legitimization of murder. Without sufficient therapy, each war leads to the next.
Ukraine was slaughter-free from 1953-2014. The killing resumed in response to disagreement over whether the national government should be more aligned with Russia or NATO/European Union. In early 2022, Russian president Vladmir Putin intensified the conflict by sending more troops into Ukraine.
Conflict is inevitable, violence is not. The Russian-NATO-Ukrainian-Belarusian conflict is complex. The root problem, though, is that so many participants are infected with the essential war germ: the belief that killing is 1) a legitimate way to resolve conflict and 2) the only viable method of national defense. The little voice in your head saying, “Someone needs to bomb Putin’s tanks” or “If I were there, I’d be shooting Russians”—that’s the war germ.
I contend that if the goal was to minimize human suffering, the violent response to Putin’s violent invasion has proved counterproductive. Thousands of Ukrainian and Russian fighters have died. The frustrated Russian invaders have turned to indiscriminate urban bombing. Civilian deaths are mounting. Millions have fled their homes.
Meanwhile, individual Europeans and North Americans hurry to join the mutual slaughter. Prominent voices plead for NATO aircraft to enter the fray. They sympathize with Ukrainians, yet call for increased suffering. They don’t know what else to do.
In 1940, Adolf Hitler sent German forces into Denmark. Understanding that military resistance was futile, the Danes—without nonviolence training—opted for protest, noncooperation, and sabotage. Their cities weren’t destroyed. Casualties were relatively minimal. The Danes endured five years of humiliating German occupation. They survived.
Since we’re just imagining, we can do better. In 1994, the Ukrainian government renounced its nuclear weapons. What if the government had eliminated its military altogether and replaced it with nonviolent training for all? We’ve seen small groups of unarmed Ukrainians turn back Russian tanks; imagine millions—men, women, children—with the courage and knowledge for nonviolent resistance. Sympathetic foreigners could join them without worsening the situation.
Of course, since an anti-military Ukrainian government would have shunned NATO’s advances, Putin might have left Ukraine unmolested. Putin, you see, is just a vector; the real enemy is war itself.
While we’re at it, imagine nonviolent international peacekeepers—no guns, no blue helmets—who can intervene between parties in conflict, reducing fear and dehumanization, bearing witness. Nonviolent Peaceforce already does this on a small scale; more such non-governmental groups are needed. Then, when a warlord orders a foreign invasion, tens of thousands of unarmed civilians, from around the world, could converge to stand in the way.
“Nonviolent defenders could never stop an invading army.” That’s the war germ. But many bewildered and remorseful Russian soldiers quickly surrendered in Ukraine. Imagine how many more would have abandoned their posts if, rather than dodging Ukrainian bullets, they had found themselves face-to-face with a festive parade of civilians expressing concern and friendship, refusing to become infected with the dehumanizing desire to kill, but also refusing to give way.
Just to be clear: Nonviolence isn’t passivity and doesn’t involve flight. Nonviolence is confronting your opponent with courageous compassion. Nonviolence requires the willingness to suffer, even die—just like soldiering—but without the willingness to cause harm.
Nonviolence promises a cure for the war disease. Imagine if masses of trained nonviolent defenders had minimized casualties in Ukraine and demoralized—no, re-moralized—the Russian invaders. One such highly visible success would prove to many skeptics that killing is not the only viable method of national defense—an important step toward total delegitimization of murderous conflict resolution. The first country that institutionalizes unarmed civilian defense will change the world.
Alternatively, we can keep hoping the disease will cure itself, that more slaughter will end all wars.
Timothy Braatz teaches history and nonviolence at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California.