Peace or chaos

Violence begets violence. It’s a simple truth, and viewed in the light of the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, it has never been more relevant.

For more than three years, the United States has locked into its war of occupation in Iraq, with little more to show for it than the deaths of 2,500 American soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis. Each new military initiative by U.S. forces has been followed by an intensification of the insurgency, and both sides seem trapped in a cycle of violence that makes civil war almost inevitable. Recently, Israel has responded to attacks by Hezbollah with bombings and an invasion of Lebanon that seems certain to incite anti-Israeli sentiment across the Middle East and increase the chances of further terrorist attacks.

We are thankful, of course, for the cease-fire that was just agreed upon. But it’s time to recognize overall that military action will never solve the conflicts raging in the Middle East and that the only logical and humane course of action is to break the cycle of violence.

Historians frequently have noted that battles are often lost by those who make the mistake of “fighting the last war”—in other words, applying outmoded strategies of the past to the changing situation of the present. It’s the kind of thinking that convinced generals to order cavalry charges against machine guns during World War I, and it’s now causing the United States and Israel to be mired in conflicts that easily could escalate into World War III. Both countries seem convinced that terrorism can be defeated using the age-old tactic of occupying and holding enemy territory, when in fact this new kind of enemy thrives under occupation.

In both cases, the enemy is a highly mobile, clandestine force motivated by religious fanaticism and the perception of injustice. Occupy his territory, and he moves to another. Attack his positions, and the inevitable “collateral damage” and civilian casualties only help him to convince more of his countrymen to join the fight. Every military action spurs a response, and the cycle of violence continues. That’s why, despite many “victories” by U.S. forces in Iraq, the insurgency keeps getting stronger, and it’s why Israel’s actions in Lebanon will serve only to escalate the violence in the long run.

The only real path forward is to stop the fighting, bring in nonpartisan international forces capable of providing security and initiate a process of negotiation that recognizes the rights of all parties involved. Such a process will be incredibly difficult, requiring painful sacrifices on all sides. It will need to address the root causes of terrorism, including the poverty and disenfranchisement that plague the Middle East. It will not be easy, but it is the only alternative to perpetual war.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “As you press on for justice … always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence … your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos.”

Somehow, the cycle of violence must be broken, and the United States should lead the way. The alternative, as King said, is chaos.