From understanding to action: The Art of Waging Peace

Paul K. Chappell, The Art of Waging Peace (2013)

After reading seven books to understand Trump’s win, I knew there still remained much to understand, but I was also hankering for some ways to enact positive change. I turned to a book that was recommended by a friend soon after the 2016 elections: The Art of Waging Peace by Paul Chappell, a West Point graduate and veteran of military service who now serves as a peace activist. Chappell’s main argument is that while war endangers our survival on the planet and needs to come to an end, there are strategic principles and disciplines developed by means of warfare through the ages that we can learn from while working for peace.

While I found Chappell’s style somewhat wordy and repetitive, and had a hard time quelling my editorial wish to reorganize and cut down his text to make it more streamlined and effective, his ideas are fascinating and extremely valuable. They do not only apply to large-scale international relations, but to our everyday lives; waging peace with my husband and coworkers is something I struggle with on a daily basis. And when the world situation seems hopeless, it’s the small actions we can take in our own families and workplaces that make us feel change is possible. Chappell’s suggestions have already provided me much food for thought, and I’m excited to see how I might apply them toward healing and transformation, one day at a time.

For example, he points out that from ancient times military strategists have known that self-defense is the first priority. Escalating conflicts unnecessarily, being arrogant, and feeling invincible are recipes for disaster. Therefore, respect for one’s opponent is the “infinite shield” that can stop many conflicts before they start, and help to reduce the berserker rage that is the most dangerous element of combat. It’s essential to calm people down and remain calm oneself, increasing empathy and respect as the situation becomes more volatile. This gives the best chance of engaging in a nonviolent way, or if violence ensues, of minimizing the casualties.

See what I mean about these ideas being applicable in daily life? I know this cycle: I disrespect someone, their hackles go up, they stop listening to me, and I get into berserker mode and my brain shuts down. Instant conflict. The strategy recommended by Chappell, and supported by military thinkers from Sun Tzu to General Douglas MacArthur, actually calls on us to develop an inner spiritual discipline that can rally us against the forces of disintegration and chaos. This discipline was once used for outer warfare, but we now need to use it for peace — and it alone can give us the strength we need for our peacemaking to be powerful and lasting.

War has a strong, deceptive hold upon our minds; we’ve been told over and over again that we need to employ violence to make ourselves safe, while the opposite is actually true. Waging peace is not only morally preferable, but more effective than violent responses to the challenges of our world. Comprehending this requires us to discard some of our preconceived notions, and gather the strengths of war while turning them to a new cause. The great nonviolent activists are not weak, passive types, and great military leaders are not bullies. An effective fighting unit is one in which the members love and will die for one another. Our current challenge is to turn this force from pitting groups of people against each other toward the service of all humanity.

Developments since the book was published may make some of Chappell’s premises seem questionable. For example, he points toward the gains made by the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement as proof that a cultural mindset can be changed through peaceful action. The current resurgence in white nationalism and anti-feminist rage could make it appear these achievements were illusory.

However, I think that Chappell would see these as signs that nonviolence is actually working, causing the deceptive war-forces to try to provoke us into violent action (a serious mistake, as he points out in relation to the aftermath of 9/11). It’s just that we’ve gotten too complacent in recent years, depending on dead, fixed laws to protect us, rather than doing the constant, living work to keep transforming our society on a deep level. Let’s use this as a wake-up call to take up the fight for peace, in whatever way we can, and small actions toward a common goal will make a difference.

Chappell’s military background allows him to write as one who knows of what he is speaking, and inspires confidence in his message. He has also been through discrimination due to his multiracial heritage, and domestic violence from his own combat-traumatized father. His experiences have given him insight into the psychology of abuse, while convincing him that the cycle of pain and revenge originating in these and other wrongs must be broken.

I’ve heard that he’s a dynamic and powerful speaker, and that might be an even better way to experience his ideas (his very full speaking schedule is here). But failing that, I can recommend The Art of Waging Peace as a thought-provoking, inspiring catalyst for change.

What other books might you advise reading on this topic? I’m very interested in more suggestions.


6 thoughts on “From understanding to action: The Art of Waging Peace

  1. Wow, you went ahead and read all those books to understand Trump’s win? I’m afraid I totally bailed on that project last year. I had a bad mental health episode and it took most of the year to get myself back in order. 😦 But I’m trying to get through some of them this year instead. I should keep an eye out for this book as well!


    1. No one could be more amazed than I that I actually made it through all six of them! I appreciated what each and every one of them added to my understanding, though now (as mentioned above) I’d love to focus more on positive action.

      I’m so sorry about your mental health episode. Hope things are looking up for you.


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