My recent holiday to the Baltics, via discovering an incredible historical event that I don’t know why I’d never heard of, gave me hope that things don’t always have to work out for the worst when it comes to military conflict. Given that when I cleared customs at Gatwick the newspapers in WHSmiths were screaming out headlines about Iraq and Gaza, along with stories about fresh suffering in Syria and the Ukraine, the idea that maybe conflict could be resolved without bloodshed was a hopeful and reassuring one.
I am not a political commentator, nor am I a historian. I don’t claim to know or understand the short-term or long standing divisions that have precipitated conflict in the countries around the world that are currently being ravaged by insurgency, civil war and violent politicking. Two things unify all of the aforementioned countries though: firstly they are currently the theatres of horrific bloodshed and deplorable civilian casualties, and secondly, I wish and hope that the fighting will cease in all of them and the people living there will find peace amongst themselves and with their enemies.
Perhaps the weight of history is too heavy a burden or the line between justice and vengeance has become too blurred to represent any meaningful distinction anymore; maybe peace itself has become an anachronism that has no place in games of yo-yoing retribution and one-upmanship. So how will peace ever by achieved by any of the places where it has become so distant? Well, two of my recent holidays gave me an insight into the dramatically different stones that can be laid in order to pave the way for resolution. One inspiring, one shocking.
I recently arrived back from a holiday to Latvia and Lithuania, two countries that were under non-selective soviet control for the best part of half a century, only being given a brief break from communist oppression when the equally brutal Nazis arrived during the Second World War. The people of the Baltic states endured all of the worst elements that came to be associated with the USSR in the 20th century – the KGB (The Cheka), oppressed freedom of speech, ethnic dilution (via the destruction of national art, literature music and language), fear, paranoia, the dissolution of mainstream schools and faiths, and worst of all, grotesque torture, Siberian exile and murder carried out in the name of an illegally administered justice system (predominantly conducted without trial). As with the implementation of most dictatorships, there was violent reaction and resistance to the illegal occupation, but the revolutionaries were nowhere near well enough equipped to pose the Russian army any long-term problems. But where violence failed, peace succeeded.
On August 23rd 1989, between 1,700,000 – 2,500,000 Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians literally joined hands in one enormous human chain that spread through each of the 3 countries through all three capitals in a show of solidarity against their occupiers. The chain spanned over 370 miles and, most incredibly, all of this was achieved in a time period when mobile phones and the internet and social media were still distant dreams to everyone barring the super-rich. I can only imagine the ingenuity of the people that instigated and promoted the demonstration, especially against a continuing background of threatening political rhetoric coming out of Moscow.
This act of non-violent rebellion and solidarity brought renewed international attention to the Baltics and ultimately precipitated the withdrawal of Russian troops, and eventually the legal recognition of independence for each of the nations. There had been bloodshed in the past, but the nail in the oppressor’s coffins was an act that was grounded in collective love and peacefulness. Of course there are other historical examples of this – Gandhi’s work to remove the British colonisers through a combination of civil, legal and administrative measures and the eventual international boycott of apartheid-era South Africa. Actually, the Mandela-led A.N.C’s role in the abolition of the apartheid government is an interesting one; in essence they initially operated as, at best, a military unit, or, at worst, as a terrorist group using high profile acts of violence to draw attention to their cause. Whilst this undoubtedly garnered international attention, it was through economic sanctions, trade embargos and the rejection of South Africa from the international community that penned the first words on the death warrant of apartheid.
Is there an answer here for a place like Gaza, where the fissures of hatred and division penetrate so deeply that the perpetuity of military conflict seems like the only logical future or conclusion? Would economic sanctions against Israel be the only way of making meaningful progress in drawing a halt to one of the most unevenly balanced conflicts of recent times? Maybe I am being hopelessly idealistic, but the example of the Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians, and their unbroken chain of collective resolve genuinely inspired me. I hope the answer is yes, because the other form of conflict resolution that I learnt about in Sri Lanka is both entirely different and shockingly pitiless.
Rather than the Atticus Finch, Gandhi model of answering your enemies’ hostility with compassion, tolerance and dignity – the philosophy characterised by Gandhi’s recognition of the danger of attritional war and escalating revenge in his quote ‘an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind’, the Sri Lankan resolution more closely echoed those of the ancient Roman and Chinese empires. They are neatly summarised in Robert Greene’s ’48 Laws of Power’: ‘Is that also not how we are supposed to act in the face of opposition? To prevent future aggression against us, we have to destroy the source of the aggression before it gets too strong, not just physically, but psychologically. All hope must be taken away from them and destroyed. Is that not the smarter action? To crush your enemies totally?’
Sri Lanka was embroiled in a long and bloody civil war for 25 years, spawned by the desire for Tamil independence and separatism. The conclusion to the war, following countless ceasefires, peace negotiations and political compromises, was the cornering of the remaining Tamils on a stretch of coastline where the ‘problems were permanently eradicated’ to repeat a euphemism used by the Sri Lankan government. Like the Romans and the Chinese before them, the government slaughtered every last one of their perceived enemies that they could find and with this, instigated the exodus of any remaining dissidents; their enemy was crushed. Completely. Political commentators and news outlets described the circumstances as ‘utter devastation’ and a ‘bloodbath’.
Conversely, this devastation and massive loss of lives has led to the longest period of stability and peace in the last quarter of a century for Sri Lanka. It has led to the economic regeneration of the country and a boom in tourism that has led to the renaissance and development of previously off limit coastal towns. There is nobody left to oppose or to fight. This is peace achieved through the bloodiest and most uncompromising circumstances imaginable. I had to ask myself if this is what it will take for the contemporary conflicts to end. To the total annihilation of Palestine, of the Free Syrian Army, of the Kurds, of the Crimeans and Ukrainians. Have we reached the stage where this is the only viable possibility for peace and stability?
The answer, and the circumstances, are obviously far more complex than I have the intellect or depth of knowledge to convey from the vantage point of my blog. But when I looked at the images of three nations united in purpose, joining their hands in a line 370 miles long, united by their love for one another and their resolve to challenge those that oppressed them, I couldn’t help but hope that violence isn’t always the answer.