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Unarmed Soldiers 

Building a peace army, one person at a time

Wednesday, Mar 26 2003
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For more than three years -- starting long before the War on Terror, before America and its few allies began dropping bombs on Baghdad -- David Hartsough has worked from his cramped home office in the Haight District to build a peace army based on Gandhi's vision of a shanti sena, or peace-doers movement.

Seated at a computer he named Mahatma, with framed photos of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. standing sentry on the fireplace mantel behind him, Hartsough methodically recruits members and partners for the Nonviolent Peaceforce, a group he co-founded to make the peace army a reality. The members' work will be risky and difficult: They'll monitor human rights and serve as unarmed bodyguards -- or, to use the current buzzword, "human shields" -- for people in areas of conflict such as Korea, Israel, and Sri Lanka.

It takes someone like Hartsough -- an idealist who knows when to trade in his rose-colored glasses for a realist's lens -- to attempt to build a cadre of trained, nonpartisan, international civilians. As even he admits, it's an ambitious plan. And while some find his efforts quixotic, Hartsough believes such a plan could provide an alternative to the current choices for international conflict resolution: going to war or doing nothing.

"I am under no illusions that we're going to put an end to war," Hartsough says. "Having been part of smaller-scale peacemaking efforts, and hearing, over and over again, people saying that war is the only solution, I really want to help build an alternative, a viable example of what that alternative can be."

His idea may sound a bit impractical, but conflict-resolution experts are not dismissing it.

"It isn't that I think [that because of] the emergence of a Peaceforce that peace is around the corner," says Byron Bland of Stanford University's Institute for International Studies. "I think that peace is very hard to bring about in many conflict situations; it's a daily construction. The peace process is complex and messy, and bringing it about requires lots of things. This [kind of civilian intervention] is an element of that."

Hartsough and his colleagues aren't inventing anything new. Several organizations -- such as Peace Brigade International -- have been doing this kind of work with varying degrees of success for several decades. Some smaller groups, such as Britain's Truth Justice Peace Human Shields, are even trying to use these strategies in Iraq, where it's highly unlikely they'll end the war or even help curtail violence. Still, Hartsough believes that with careful analysis, his team -- which, unlike similar groups, will have international members sent abroad by the hundreds, rather than by the handful -- can be deployed strategically to help local peace and human rights groups.

With pragmatism in mind, the Peaceforce's unarmed troops will not see action in the Middle East, though the idealist in Hartsough wishes he could travel to Iraq and take a political stand. Instead, Hartsough is sticking to domestic anti-war protests, while the Peaceforce quietly readies to deploy its first set of workers to Sri Lanka for a three-year pilot project in a few weeks.

"Iraq would have been the ideal scenario [to start with], but part of it is timing," Hartsough says, a tenor of disappointment in his voice. "But we want to be sure that whatever we do, we do well."

Ultimately, the Peaceforce and organizations like it bank on the notion that an international presence will quell violence in certain hotbeds of conflict. But as the Peaceforce's recent feasibility plan notes, that tactic won't always work, especially if participants are partisan and not well trained (the recent death of a pro-Palestinian protester from Evergreen State College, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer, is a prime example).

But as experts across the country attest, the strategy can have some impact. "There is more critique of this work in the more traditional vein of power politics, where the thinking may be that this is not very useful," says professor Ronald Fisher, who teaches conflict resolution at American University in Washington, D.C. "In the peace and conflict-resolution field, nonviolent methods are generally highly regarded. The idea here is that they are one part of the puzzle. In the situations they go into, they meet a real need."


David Hartsough's office could be a lending library for students of nonviolence. Stacked in a corner and crammed onto bookshelves are numerous tomes that Hartsough has categorized by such topics as "Gandhi" and "Martin Luther King/Civil Rights."

In the midst of almost any conversation, Hartsough will rise from his creaky office chair to rummage through his texts. "In our library, we've got all sorts of things," he says, skimming the spines of the books with his fingers. He pulls one from the shelves. "There's War Prevention Works: 50 Stories of People Resolving Conflict." He shows off another, Courage in Both Hands, a classic, out-of-print book that he describes as featuring "people responding to violent situations with nonviolence." "And it worked," he says.

For Hartsough, a Quaker, these books are his gospel, and he's always trying to send visitors away with literature. (On my way out of a recent meeting, he thrust into my arms a book called A Force More Powerful by Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall and tapes of its accompanying two-part PBS documentary.)

In many ways, Hartsough is representative of those who have joined the Peaceforce or organizations like it: He's idealistic, left-leaning, and motivated by both a spiritual and a moral mandate. Tall and graying, Hartsough has a simple, angular face and dresses like a perennial backpacker in flannel shirts and tennis shoes. He uses anachronistic hippie slang, referring to members of the "world family" as his "brothers and sisters." He's not a particularly skilled orator, but prefers to speak with his actions, becoming a silent, determined force during rallies and protests by reacting with calm to an arrest or an angry opponent.

About The Author

Bernice Yeung

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