Diana Francis

Rethinking War and Peace

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as our culture has defined it.

(David Orr, Earth in Mind)

I was born in 1944 to conscientious objector parents who had held onto their beliefs in spite of the terrible events of World War II and in the face of much social opprobrium. At the age of about fifteen, beginning with what I had learned from my parents, I began to develop my own understanding of pacifism, to some extent through reading but more through endless conversations and by listening to speeches and sermons. I became active in the anti-nuclear movement and in the local branch of The International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR, of which I later became President) – an organisation which supports groups in different parts of the world that are resisting tyranny and militarism and working for justice through nonviolent action. The people I met in IFOR filled out my understanding of what it means to renounce violence without giving up on the struggle for humanity – indeed, as part of that struggle.

For the past dozen years I have worked as a trainer and facilitator in the field of ‘conflict resolution’, in many different parts of the world afflicted by the violence of war (work that is described in my first book, People, Peace and Power1). Although this work is important to me, and seems both urgent and necessary, the events of 11 September and all that has followed have taken me back to the point where I began: to the conviction that unless we address the system of war and the injustice it perpetuates, I and people like me are doomed to spend the rest of our days in frantic and ineffectual fire-fighting, in which one blaze is replaced by another, or is quelled only to break out again with renewed ferocity. At the same time the hidden violence of economic exploitation and oppression – maintained by military might – whose effects are as dire as those of war – will not only continue but increase.

We are, as a species, at a crossroads: a point where we must choose. We have probably never felt less secure, more uncertain. We seem to be caught on a ‘moving walkway’ that has run out of control and is propelling us along so fast that we can hardly think, let alone find a way of stopping the conveyor while we collect our wits and see what is to be done. It is my belief that we need to get off it somehow, and fast, before it hurls us all ‘together into the abyss’. 2

The word ‘pacifist’ has an old-fashioned ring and is associated by most people with irrelevant idealism. Often, indeed, it is used as a derogatory term. While some regard pacifists as worthy souls, to be respected if not taken seriously, others see them as self-indulgent and dishonest, refusing to face the harsh realities of the world we inhabit. Because they resist war as a system, it is inferred that they are unconcerned with the real circumstances of particular wars.

Yet if we refuse to reconsider the fundamental assumptions that underlie the justification and acceptance of war, we shall remain caught in a dynamic of cruelty and destruction that will know no end; which undermines all that makes for human happiness, decency and meaning and that could lead to our destruction as a species.

Saying no to war, on the other hand, could be the first step in saying yes to a very different future. Why does it seem so impossible? Precisely because war is an integral part of a historic and pervasive system within which we are enmeshed; because we have always seen it as inevitable, and because recent events make it seem even more so.

Since 11 September 2001, while rejecting the cruel violence of such terrible assaults, I have joined with others in the struggle to resist the relentless rhetoric and momentum of the ‘War on Terror’. 3 In so doing I have come to see more clearly than ever that to protest in an ad hoc way against individual wars is not enough. The military machine is far too powerful and integral to global economic domination to be stopped by anti-war movements that fade once a particular war is over and struggle to get underway again as the next calamity looms and peak too late to prevent it. And, as things stand, it seems there are too many vested interests and too much inertia within the current system for particular wars to be stopped – even when a majority opposes them. Our ‘democracies’ have proved themselves unresponsive to their people.

What is needed is a massive and sustained movement away from war as such, and towards constructive approaches to collective human relationships. This will entail a fundamental change in the way the world is organised and in prevailing approaches to power. This is indeed an ambitious project, but vital nonetheless. War must be seen for what it is: a human catastrophe, a violation of humanity. It ‘must cease to be an admissible human institution’. 4

It must cease to be an admissible human institution because people matter. They matter more than wealth or power or convenience, and they matter unconditionally. As human beings we owe each other, without question, respect for the dignity and needs that are inherent in our humanity.

Without this assumption no morality is possible, and morality is necessary to our wellbeing, as individuals and as a species. Since we exist in interdependence with all species and indeed all beings, we must learn to embrace them in our morality. It is our moral capacity, and our ability to care and suffer, to celebrate and create that makes us matter so much. Our ability to hurt and to harm is the other side of that capacity for good. The institution of war is an expression of our negative capacity and inflicts terrible harm on people and on the earth itself.

Writing this book has been a struggle. My mind has felt atomised by the sheer senselessness of what has been said and done. Much of my time and energy have been consumed by the need to take action to resist the madness of it all. And the difficulty I have experienced in finding the mental space to stop, think and write, while at the same time coping with and responding to the immediate crisis, is my own small version of a much wider dilemma. How can we manage the realities of now, while working towards a different set of realities for the future? How can we take out the military props when we don’t seem to have a system that can stand up without them? How can we disentangle militarism from the terrible inequities it protects and promotes? These questions are at the heart of the challenge that I wish to address.

I believe we have the capacity to choose against war and so to give peace a chance: that to want to do so is a sign of sanity rather than madness; that the first step is to understand that there is a choice, and that we can and should make it. My purpose, then, is to undertake a radical re-examination of the assumption that war is either acceptable or inevitable, and to try to suggest some ways out of the apparently endless cycle of violence. This will involve reflections on human nature, society and ethics, on alternatives to war and on the values and nature of peace.

I am aware that my assumptions and perceptions will inevitably (despite all my travels and cross-cultural friendships) be those of someone who has grown up in the West. The content of my arguments and the examples I give will be influenced by my own context and experience, and by my preoccupation with what I see as the damaging and fundamentally immoral behaviour of the world’s most powerful nations. Indeed, I believe that we should all, wherever we live, focus first and foremost on what is done in our own society and in our name. But I also know that I am part of a growing counter-culture – one that has global dimensions – and that in much of what I say I will be voicing the opinions of a great many people in very different parts of the world. This book is for them too.

As the book’s title suggests, I am attempting a fundamental review of the relationship between war and peace. Nonetheless, it is a response to the moment in which we live and the events of the past two or three years will receive a great deal of attention. It is those events that have brought me to the point of undertaking a task that I would not otherwise have imposed on myself. And it is those events that are likely to have prompted you to pick up this book. I see them as the apotheosis of militarism as a system and not an aberration.

Events are moving fast and by the time this is published it will already be out of date – by the time you read it even more so. It will remain a book of and for our time, but with (I hope) something fundamental to say about human relationships and the future of our planet.

Having spent my life being asked hard questions and trying to find answers to them, I am in no danger of assuming that to mount and sustain a fundamental challenge to war is an easy undertaking. In spite of the depth of my convictions, I have often doubted my ability to write cogently enough to be in any way convincing. I have feared that, however persuasive they are with me, my arguments would not hold up under the scrutiny of others. Worst of all, I have been afraid that I might myself come to find them unconvincing!

Recently, however, I read Jonathan Glover’s brilliant book, Humanity: 5 a compassionate and cogent exploration of human cruelty and destructiveness, on the one hand, and moral resources on the other. While in more than four hundred pages there is no discussion of the ethical justification for war as such, the whole book points to that question. Having been afraid that my reasoning would prove too weak to stand up in the light of such a work, I found that in the event it was reinforced by it.

In taking a position so far removed from accepted thinking on this subject, I shall be expected to provide answers to riddles never posed to those who justify war. Nonetheless, I choose to make the attempt. The way the last millennium ended and this one began has made such an endeavour feel like a human obligation. The title I have chosen is sweeping, reflecting the scale of the task. My hope is more modest: to contribute something, at least, to the wide and profound debate that needs to begin, urgently.

I shall not be arguing that anything can remove the fact of human frailty, with all its associated dilemmas. I shall be maintaining that to uphold certain fundamental values, through personal and collective policy and structures, is of paramount importance for our wellbeing and our survival, and that war cannot be part of that. And I shall be echoing Glover’s hope that, given the belief and commitment of ‘ordinary people’, ‘the ending of the festival of cruelty may be possible’. 6
War threatens our planet and all its inhabitants; peace will need to embrace them all and it is our responsibility.


  1. Diana Francis, People, Peace and Power: Conflict Transformation in Action, (London: Pluto Press, 2002).
  2. Friedrich Glasl, Confronting Conflict: A First-aid Kit for Handling Conflict, (Stroud: Hawthorn Press, 1999).
  3. I have used inverted commas around ‘War on Terror’ here to show that I consider the phrase to be spurious. I will not annoy the reader by their use hereafter but will retain the capital letters to indicate a phrase and course of action chosen by others. Please note that I shall use inverted commas variously throughout the book to distance myself from the assumptions implicit in certain words. In places that is very often.
  4. Professor Sir Joseph Rotblat FRS, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.
  5. Jonathan Glover, Humanity: a Moral History of the Twentieth Century (London: Pimlico, 2001).
  6. Glover, Humanity, p. 29.