On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals

Robert L. Helvey Boston: The Albert Einstein Institution, 2004. 178 pages

By John Bacher (reviewer)

As US President George Bush seeks re-election based almost solely on a defence of his invasion of Iraq, Robert L. Helvey's new book, On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: Thinking About the Fundamentals assumes monumental significance during a sharply divided election campaign, heavily dominated by issues of foreign policy. Helvey's brilliant insights show that there was an alternative to war as a way to liberate the Iraqi people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

Tragically, the reality of the power of nonviolent struggle is ignored by the voices that the mass media pays attention to on both sides of the sharply polarized debate. The great mass of antiwar demonstrators outside of the hall of the Republican National Convention were as unaware of this alternative as the delegates cheering Bush within. Paradoxically, some inside the New York City convention, notably those associated with the Republican Party's international wing, the Republican National Institute, actually know who Robert Helvey is and support his ideas. He heroically worked for the organization on difficult missions such as training opponents of the Burma military dictatorship in the techniques of nonviolent struggle.

Out of an understandable desire to make more people, such as those not normally associated with the peace movement such as the business community, aware of the power of strategic nonviolence to destroy dictatorships, Helvey does not lecture Bush and his advisors for their costly military adventures in Iraq. Instead he shows how such costly follies can be averted in the future to obtain every possible legitimate objective that an American President could openly acknowledge concerning foreign policy.

Readers of On Strategic Nonviolent Conflict will gain some precious details about the courses which Helvey taught that brought down the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic. Tragically, Helvey was not able to obtain funding to complete offering this course to the brave European Iraqi exiles who were in training to use its techniques against Saddam Hussein. They did not get to the most critical part of the course -- where the key pillars of the Iraqi dictatorship were to be identified and strategies developed to eliminate them.

While readers will learn some details of Helvey's role in bringing down Milosevic, the most fascinating stories are provided regarding the work he undertook in confronting the dictatorship of Burma, but was unable to complete. One of the secret participants in the jungle training sessions was named "snake killer." He was of great help since the session was threatened by deadly vipers, which he removed -- on one occasion six times in a day.

A fascinating way in which Helvey illustrates the strategic approach to nonviolent conflict is, in effect, by de-classifying two previously secret memoranda that he prepared on this topic for the National Council of the Union of Burma. One revealing update to a 1992 memorandum is that the armed forces of opposition groups have declined from the 10,000 troops of that period to only 4,000 today.

The decline in the strength of military opposition to dictatorships in Burma, Helvey stresses, is similar to all countries in the world after the terrorist outrages of September 11th. Now even the most democratic armed struggles against the worst dictatorships are branded and marginalized into insignificance through the war on terrorism.

Strategic Nonviolent Conflict provides helpful practical suggestions in challenging dictatorships, such as cultivating friendships with a few reporters. We also get quite moving details. One is that banners should be placed at the front of protesters and at height sufficient to block the demonstrators' view of police in order to reduce fear. Another is the use of white arm-bands. Helvey points out that:


"Each protestor should carry a clean white cloth to be used as his or her own bandage, relieving the medics from the need to carry extra supplies. Why white bandages? They show up better in photographs! Even something as simple as bandages can be used to great advantage. Photographers will be taking pictures of the demonstration, and, should there be injuries, they will be looking for photographs that will attract the attention of international media."

It is important that the ideas of Strategic Nonviolent Conflict be debated in Canada. Its strategies are quite relevant to the big issues that do get the headlines -- such as missile defence. Rather than attempting to build costly and likely leaky shields for missiles from Iran and North Korea, why not seek nonviolently to change these regimes into democracies?

Unfortunately, there are signs that the government of Paul Martin is not interested in Helvey's ideas of strategic nonviolent conflict. One ominous sign is the recent demotion of one of the few MPs who actually know anything about strategic nonviolence, Edmonton MP David Kilgour. He recently lost his cabinet position, though he is one of the few Liberal MPs from the prairie provinces.

Reviewed by John Bacher, a Toronto-based writer.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004, page 29. Some rights reserved.

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