Stopping the Killing: How Savage Conflicts End

September 18, 1994|By FRANZ SCHURMANN

How does it happen that a savage civil conflict suddenly ends and the contenders go back to work as if nothing had happened?

All such conflicts are switched on or off by political leaders. When leaders cry, "We're at war," even those deeply cynical about power and authority jump into the fray ready to kill. When leaders say, "Stop killing," everyone stops.

A classic example of on-off war is Japan's surrender in 1945. In the last months of World War II, U.S. leaders were convinced that they would have to fight a hand-to-hand war to occupy Japan. Predictions were that the operation would cost at least 1 million American lives. But the Japanese surrendered.

The turnaround came not because of the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese had already endured many U.S. fire-bomb raids that produced enormous civilian casualties without surrendering. But when Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan was defeated, the country meekly submitted. No acts of sabotage or violence were committed against the American occupiers.

A similar turnaround has recently occurred in South Africa. Before last April's elections, predictions of even worse civil conflict to come were rife. Instead quiet now reigns all across the political spectrum,. Most observers agree this remarkable outcome is due to one man, President Nelson Mandela.

The turn-of-the-century social philosopher Max Weber called leaders like Mr. Mandela "charismatic," meaning they had seemingly divine power to sway large numbers of people. The Japanese emperor was indeed considered a "living god," and Mr. Mandela has an aura about him that seems blessed.

In 1945 the Japanese were deeply divided over the disastrous war. Their emperor was the only leader who spoke to and was listened to by all. In April 1994, all South Africans knew they were in a festering Lebanon-style civil war. Only Mr. Mandela spoke to South Africans of all races. Since assuming the presidency, he has acted as president of all South Africans.

In Lebanon there was no charismatic leader to switch off a 16-year-long civil war. But the United States provided the path that led to peace. When the Bush administration took an even-handed approach between Israelis and Arabs, the factions -- all culturally Arab -- accepted the Saudi "Taif" peace plan. The real mover behind that plan was the United States, operating through its close Saudi ally.

Despite all its transgressions in foreign affairs, the United States remains the single most respected great power in the world. Although no U.S. peace making role is yet evident in Rwanda, it is in Bosnia.

Two years ago Croatian President Franjo Tudjman gave a political nod to West Bosnian Croat extremist Mate Boban. Terrible ethnic killing between Croats and Muslims ensued. But then, under pressure from World War II, South Africa, Lebanon peace was achieved eventually.

Washington, Mr. Tudjman bumped Mr. Boban and agreed to a Muslim-Croatian federation. Muslims and Croats understandably still hate each other, but the ethnocide has ended.

In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants may continue to hate each other, but there's a good chance with the IRA truce that the killings there will now end.

That truce was brokered by the Irish and British governments acting in good faith with the IRA.

If the United States were to use its power and authority in a similar way to bring about a Taif-style agreement in Rwanda and Burundi, there's a good chance the ethnocide there might end as well.

If it is so easy to stop all this mass killing, then why isn't it done more often? The 19th-century Prussian philosopher of war Karl von Clausewitz provided an answer: "War is politics fought through other means." The essence of politics is competition, all too often fueled by a bloody greed for power.

The United States still has a lot of moral capital throughout the world. Putting more of this capital to work instead of encouraging political competitiveness could pay off enormously in reducing the mass killing that has now spread to so many parts of the world.

Franz Schurmann, a columnist for the Pacific News Service, is professor emeritus of history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the forthcoming "American Soul."

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