Robert Helvey

On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals (2004)

On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict (2004) by Robert Helvey


The twentieth century was the most violent century in recorded history. Two World Wars resulted in the deaths of more than 200 mil- lion soldiers and civilians. In addition, there were many limited, but just as terrifying, wars of liberation, wars of conquest, and internal wars between people over political and religious beliefs. It is doubtful that there was ever a day in the 20th century that significant armed conflict was not in progress.

As advances in science and technology provide the means to make the consequences of armed conflict increasingly destructive of military targets, there is also the likelihood of even greater collateral damage, that is, the unintended destruction of civilian life and property. This collateral damage occurs not only because of the lethality of the specific weapons, but also because of the large numbers of weapons that are employed. Relatively inexpensive chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction and their ease of transport and delivery have frightful consequences for collateral damage to civilian populations. News coverage of the “smart bombs” used in Desert Storm in the early 1990s led the American public into a false belief that war strikes can be swift, clean, and sure. However, the extensive use of precision guided munitions in the war against Iraq in early 2003 by a United States-led coalition should not be considered the new standard for bombardment since few countries can afford the extensive use of these expensive weapons and their supporting technologies. Thus, even in limited wars, including civil wars, it is the civilians who will continue to bear the brunt of modern warfare.

As the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West began to thaw in the last two decades of the 20th century, surpluses of small arms, artillery, aircraft, military vehicles, and a wide assortment of munitions became available in the international arms mar- ket. Economies of scale in production of new weapons (that is, the more items that are produced reduces the cost per item) also contributed to making weapons available to buyers at a more afford- able cost. Nations and commercial companies sent their arms sales- men to market their merchandise. This affordability and availability of weapons ultimately facilitated the worldwide escalation of violent conflicts.

One question raised by these developments in military technologies and by the proliferation of increasingly destructive weapons is whether or not any principle is worth fighting for if the out- come of the conflict may be devastation for both sides. Who can really claim victory in a war that may destroy so much of the human and economic resources of a nation that the objective of the struggle cannot be obtained even by the winner? In the face of such destruction, adversaries have increasingly sought to avoid war through policies of deterrence and negotiations. Deterrence policies have been effective, especially in preventing nuclear war. Where parity in the capacity to wage war has not been clearly established, how- ever, armed conflicts continue to occur. Moreover, where ethnic and religious factors are predominant, the calculus for initiating conflict may lose its objectivity.

There will always be ideals worth fighting for and oppression to be overcome. Some issues may not be resolvable through negotiations alone, but armed struggle may not be a viable option for an oppressed society, as the state often has the monopoly on military and other instruments of political coercion. This does not mean that oppressed people must then choose between submission and wag- ing an armed struggle where defeat is nearly certain. There is a third alternative to armed conflict for the pursuit of political change— strategic nonviolent struggle. In this book, strategic nonviolent struggle means:

nonviolent struggle that has been applied according to a strategic plan that has been prepared on the basis of an analysis of the conflict situation, the strengths and weak- nesses of the contending groups, the nature, capacities and requirements of the technique of nonviolent action, and especially the strategic principles of that type of struggle.1

The struggles for democracy in Burma, Belarus, Iran, Tibet and Zimbabwe are examples of nonviolent struggles waged against oppressive regimes for worthy goals—those of ending tyranny and bringing peace with justice to the people.

This book is written with hope that it may be of assistance to those who are searching for or examining nonviolent options as an alternative to armed struggle against an oppressive government or foreign occupation. It is not a “how to” book on waging nonviolent struggle. Rather, it offers a framework that encourages orderly think- ing about the fundamentals of strategic nonviolent opposition to state tyranny. It includes information on the theory, strategic planning, and operations for waging strategic nonviolent struggle that has proved to be effective. Hopefully, the reader will find the book organized in a way that it can be readily adapted for communicating its subject matter to others in a variety of training environments.

Strategic nonviolent struggle is advanced as an alternative to armed conflict, in part, because of the reasonable likelihood that it will result in fewer lives lost and less destruction of property. But even if that were not so, experience has shown that nonviolent struggle is an effective means of waging conflict against repressive regimes. A military victory is achieved by destroying the opponent’s capacity and/or willingness to continue the fight. In this regard, nonviolent strategy is no different from armed conflict, except that very different weapons systems are employed.

After gaining some familiarity with this book, some readers may erroneously conclude that the preparation of a strategy and supporting plans for waging a strategic nonviolent struggle entails such complexity that only the most developed and financially se- cure opposition groups could undertake the challenge. Not true. The starting gate for the application of strategic nonviolent struggle fundamentals is thinking about those fundamentals, and this book not only addresses them but also challenges the reader to think about applying these fundamentals for a particular cause. Unlike an air- craft flight manual, there is no detailed check list here that must be followed. Instead, there is a “check list” of ideas and suggestions to guide one’s thinking in making a transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Any writings or discussions on the subject of strategic nonviolent struggle owe much to Dr. Gene Sharp, resident Senior Scholar at the Albert Einstein Institution. He has spent almost five decades examining conflict. Dr. Sharp, while studying at Oxford University (1960-64), developed a theory and understanding of the nature of social power that is as fundamental to understanding nonviolent struggle as is the study of Clausewitz to understanding the nature and theory of military conflict. Chapters 1-4 of this book are based upon or derived from his considerable contributions to the study of the theory and applications of nonviolent conflict. Among Dr. Sharp’s many publications his three volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973) and From Dictatorship to Democracy (1993) are particularly important sources for the study of strategic nonviolent struggle.

While I was attending Harvard University as an US Army Senior Fellow at the Center for International Affairs in 1987-88, toward the end of my thirty year career as a US Army Infantry Officer, I met Dr. Sharp during a meeting of the Program for Nonviolent Sanctions. He introduced his subject with the words: “Strategic nonviolent struggle is about seizing political power or denying it to others. It is not about pacifism, moral or religious beliefs.” These words got my attention since my perception of “nonviolence” had been one influenced by Vietnam era “flower-children, peaceniks and draft dodgers.” Since then, Gene has served as my mentor in understand- ing the principles, dynamics and applications of this potentially powerful form of struggle, as a colleague in the work of responding to requests for information by those engaged in resisting oppression, and as a good friend.

1 Gene Sharp, There Are Realistic Alternatives, (Boston: The Albert Einstein Institution, 2003), 38.

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