Thinking Deeper Than War

Small, incremental steps can add up to big shifts in consciousness

One of the articles in Is Militarism Fading? (IC#20)
Originally published in Winter 1989 on page 40
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

Is war obsolete? Can we envision, much less build, a world that is truly "Beyond War"? Richard Rathbun and his colleagues in the grassroots movement Beyond War think so, and they have been successfully promoting the idea since 1982 through educational videotapes and printed materials, usually studied and discussed by groups meeting in a supporter’s living room.

Beyond War also sponsors speakers, seminars, and the annual Beyond War Award, which recognizes those working to eradicate the threat of war from our world. (This year the award went to President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev, in honor of their concluding the INF treaty and improving superpower relations.) 20-25,000 people currently participate in Beyond War’s various activities, and what’s remarkable is that the organization supports that level of involvement with only two paid staff (and a host of full- and part-time volunteers). Contact them at 222 High Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301-1097, Tel. 415-328-7756.

Richard Rathbun is President of the Beyond War Foundation, an architect, and a former assistant to the Director of the Peace Corps. He speaks here about how far the Beyond War movement has come, and where it’s headed.

Robert: How did Beyond War get started?

Richard: You know, it’s hard to trace the exact beginning because it goes back quite a ways and it’s gone through a few metamorphoses. But I guess you could say it started, as a discreet endeavor, with an educational campaign we did through Creative Initiative based on the Global 2000 Report at the time of the 1980 presidential election campaign.

We established a press corps, went around and talked to all the candidates, and interfaced with the campaigns and the media. We were actually quite successful at getting the candidates to address the questions raised in the report. But we discovered what George Bush said in the last debate: that the media only does "sound bites." It doesn’t get into the substantive issues, especially if the American people aren’t very interested.

At the end of that four-month campaign we decided that, really, education was the only ultimate solution to complex and pervasive problems.

We decided at that point to do a film about the issues that were in Global 2000 Report. We found a producer – Adrian Malone, who’d done "Ascent of Man" and Carl Sagan’s "Cosmos" – and decided to make a 13-part series called "Planet," actually a systems look at the human species: what we’re doing, what we’re about and what our future possibly holds.

As we started to work on this, the issue that seemed to be coming up all the time was the ultimate threat to the environment, the most pervasive, catastrophic thing we were facing: the threat of nuclear weapons and war. We decided that this was a central issue that had to be addressed. Somebody likened it to a person in the water who’s drowning and doesn’t know how to swim. You don’t teach them how to swim while they’re drowning. You’ve got to get them out of the water, get air in their lungs, get them calmed down and then you can talk about learning to swim.

So we backed off of the large project and decided we would do a smaller film project called "Beyond War". We chose "beyond" because there’s a lot of "anti" going around, and we’ve always based our activity on the belief that decision is a binary phenomenon. If you don’t have a "yes" you can’t really even say a "no," or at least it won’t have much strength and vigor.

We set out to look at what a world beyond war might be like. Our team did a tremendous amount of research, including interviewing world leaders and others, because a documentary is a research project more than a film project. As we gathered this material and looked at the numbers and the problems involved, it became apparent that the nuclear superpowers are beyond war. I mean, we can’t really fight a war anymore; these things are unusable. They’re just there to be threatening and, as Afghanistan showed, they aren’t even very useful as a tool of foreign policy. When we first realized this, it was kind of startling to everybody.

So that’s how we began in 1982-83. We decided to take on the whole question of nuclear war, not just in a film but as a whole educational project. We formalized the Beyond War Foundation in 1985, and that’s what we’ve been doing since.

Robert: Since that start in the early ’80s, what changes in attitude have you seen?

Richard: One of the things that we started out saying was that "war is obsolete." It was a fairly controversial statement at the time, and it cost us tremendous credibility. But now it’s not a controversial statement at all; people actually accept it quite quickly and say "Yes, but what are we going to do?" So I think there’s been quite a profound change.

Robert: What sort of people are you talking about? What groups of people are showing this response?

Richard: Actually a very broad range of people. Sometimes I have to go into a little background and talk about the linkage of any kind of war to nuclear war – everybody doesn’t quite understand that on the face of it. But people have certainly decided that nuclear war is not a possibility. I think there are a lot of things in the environment that have added up to this decision. Even President Reagan has said now that nuclear war can’t be won, it can’t be fought, whereas that’s not what was being said in the early ’80s.

Robert: On the other hand, we do have these small, simmering, but unfortunately very pervasive military activities in the third world.

Richard: Yes we do. Actually, the strange, paradoxical nature of this moment is that there are probably more wars being fought now than ever before – but in the last few months even those have taken a whole new turn. The two nuclear super-powers are really facing the fact that war is not an adequate tool for diplomacy, and that force is no longer the way that we can relate to each other, and this sets a new tenor in the whole world.

Ruth Leger Sivard, in the introduction to her World Military and Social Expenditures 1987-88, said that although the numbers don’t support this – military weapons are still on the increase – she thinks that 1988 will be a watershed year when the arms race really reverses itself. There’s always a lag time because of plans that are already in effect, but I think there is a feeling that this thing is right in the middle of turning itself around.

Robert: In response to these changes, I gather that Beyond War has itself been looking at what its next steps need to be.

Richard: Yes, I’ve just been in the Northeast and others have been out all across the country asking the people in Beyond War, "What needs to be done?"

Robert: What have you been finding?

Richard: I think what we’re discovering is that we need to shift our emphasis and our strategy to describing, building, and actualizing a world beyond war – biting off the pieces and beginning to build the alternatives to war, and understanding what leads to war and the dynamics of war. Not only on a personal level, but on a collective level – on all levels.

There’s a lot of concern about the environment, that’s certainly one element. But also, how do you resolve conflict, and is conflict on a collective scale the same as conflict on an individual scale? How can we learn to live within the idea that we are part of one system, that we all have to coexist in that system, that there is no individual survival without collective survival? What is common security? We have to redefine national security. We have to redefine security itself. We have to redefine "standard of living" and "quality of life." We have to at least take the debate, or the conversation, or the thought process to that level.

But what I’ve discovered is that we have not learned to think very deeply in this country. It’s a tremendous discipline to think. It seems very abstract, it seems not to directly produce a product. I think the whole presidential campaign process happening right now is a good example of the shallow level of conversation – and shallow level of demand by the people. The candidates are fairly sophisticated, but they’re doing exactly what they think will get them elected, and in fact, it’s working. That’s a tragedy for the thought process, in this country certainly. The challenge, really, is that we begin thinking about things at a much deeper level and talking a lot more about fundamental human values, about what we really want.

If you start to talk about big abstract things, peoples’ eyes glaze over. Most of us want to know what we should do differently tomorrow. There’s always a dynamic tension between embracing the larger view and struggling with the implications of it. You know the saying, "Think globally, act locally"? Thinking globally is not an easy thing to do. I don’t even know if it’s possible. It’s certainly a frame of reference that you can maintain, but to really think globally – that’s a very, very complex basis for thinking. You’d have to have a tremendous amount of experience, probably more experience than any of us can amass in a lifetime, to think globally. It’s a metaphor, but it’s a very challenging one.

When you really look at the complexity of the dynamic system that we’re a part of, you wonder if any of our old systems are up to coping with it. Yet, if a more organic, diffuse approach is demanded, that means a lot of people are going to have to do a lot of thinking, and take a lot of responsibility. I really don’t know what the outcome is going to be. I think you have to just jump into it and go with the nobler hypothesis that yes, people are willing, people are able, people are interested.

Robert: Yes, and we really don’t have a choice of whether to play or not play. The game is on. With Beyond War you’ve certainly had some very good successes. Out of that experience, what have been the approaches that have effectively touched people and kept them involved?

Richard: Well, first of all, education. I remember when we gave the annual Beyond War Award to the Contadora group for their efforts in Central America, most of us didn’t even know which nations they comprised, or even which nations were in Central America, but we all learned. We all got interested and we learned about it, and we won’t ever read the newspapers the same way again. Education is absolutely crucial and creates our ability to respond, which is the basis of responsibility.

And then there’s a book by Bob Chaldini called Influence. He’s a professor at the University of Arizona, and he came to one of our strategy meetings and talked about how the best way to change is to do something, not just think something. Not to have a new cosmology, but to take a small step, take an action, step over a hurdle. That changes your identification and changes the way you think a little bit, and then you begin to see things differently. That one small change starts a snowball rolling. I think it’s a delicate process, to help people see something they can do, and to give them a vehicle whereby they see it has an effect on the system. Because the system is so big that an individual doesn’t make too much of a difference. You have to be part of something bigger, so your action synergizes with other actions and collectively has an effect.

So those two things, to me, are the biggest challenges: first, education, and second, involvement beginning at a realistic level and then, hopefully, increasing with deeper commitment. I think those are the two absolute things that we’ve learned from the Beyond War movement.

Robert: One of the things that has struck me about the citizen diplomacy movement is that it’s only because people have been willing to be a "drop in the bucket" that the bucket has gradually filled. The impact that the citizen diplomats have had is, I think, much more than any of us would have hoped three or four years ago when the movement was much smaller. A lot of that has to do with its coming at the same time as the Gorbachev changes, but nevertheless, while each individual’s impact was, in a sense, too small to be seen, it really didn’t take that many individuals to add up to an impact that is quite visible.

Richard: That’s for sure. I recently read a book called Gorbachev’s Russia and American Policy that suggests that the Soviets very much wanted American hardware but weren’t too interested in our software, meaning our culture. Yet what they ended up getting was a little of both. The software mainly came through citizen diplomacy, people visiting the Soviet Union, people talking, and it’s really the software that’s changing the Soviet Union.

Robert: I think we could both say that where we are right now has a lot of surprises compared to where we thought we’d be, say, five years ago. This is, of course, an impossible question, but how do you think we might be surprised five years from now?

Richard: Boy, that’s a good question. I think we’d like to see our country really reconcile its whole Viet Nam experience and learn the more profound lessons from that. I think we need to make real peace with many of our enemies. It’s not just resolving conflict. It starts with reconciliation. It starts with sitting down and working out some basic principles that we have in common that supersede our differences and then always having them foremost in our mind. We’d like to see reconciliation in the Arab-Israeli situation in the Middle East, and the Iran-Iraq Gulf situation, with the United States and Cuba, and with the Soviet Union and Afghanistan as well as with the United States and the Soviet Union.

I think a big surprise would be people really being interested in the deeper processes that we have to face to build a world beyond war – really embracing that. I was talking with a man a couple of weeks ago who has an interesting job: he works for a large international public accounting and consulting firm, and his specialty is going into businesses to help them change, primarily in response to technology. And he said an interesting thing: "There’s no change without pain." And I said "What do you mean?" and he said "Well, in our business we give three-day seminars to organizations that think perhaps they need to change, and who hire us to come in and assess not only what the possibilities are but how to undergo them. The first thing we do is quantify the level of discomfort. If there isn’t any discomfort, there’s not going to be any change, and we advise them not to attempt it."

Then he says, "But we found that we can create discomfort, and we do it by getting people to sit around and talk about where they would like to see their organization – under ideal conditions – in five years. We work through a process of coming up with kind of a corporate vision. Once that gets fairly specific, and people have participated in generating it, then we go back to the way things are and people become very uncomfortable because of the juxtaposition of possibility and current reality."

I think that’s a profound idea. First of all we have to engage in supposing what the world could be like, then we’ll become uncomfortable with the way it is. And I think that people are becoming uncomfortable with the way it is: the economic situation, the environment, the loss of values, drug use, the disintegration of the family, all of those things are creating discomfort.

I was just talking to a psychiatrist at a seminar this summer, and he said, "you know, the problems I face in my practice are far, far too great and too frequent to be attributable to individuals. They’ve got to derive from society." And I was talking to a dentist who had come from a dental conference, and he said "bruxing, the clenching and grinding of teeth, has become epidemic in the United States, and that is generated from stress." So those are two little blips on the radar screen that say people are registering, at some level, the stress and discomfort.

Now the problem with that is that it can produce psychic numbing. You can just go into classic shock if there is not a vehicle or a mechanism someplace that you can plug into to bring about change.

Robert: Change can be pushed along with help from both the carrot and the stick, and in the real world there’s usually some of both. But my sense from what you say is that by developing the carrot, we don’t have to just sit and wait until the stick gets bad enough. It gives all of us a positive option to work on, and a way for Beyond War to look more concretely at what the "yes" is. It seems to fit into that philosophy very nicely.

Richard: A lot of us come out of business backgrounds, where you learn that once you have a clear set of goals and objectives, the process of achieving those is fairly straightforward. You sit down and prioritize and get to work and learn and do research and figure out and try things and experiment. The thought process alone is not enough.

I’m interested in helping people plug into a process whereby they begin to see that they can realize these goals and objectives. People call it empowerment. There are a lot of words out there, but that’s really what’s needed.

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