The Case for Social Defence

By Chris Reid | 1987-06-01 12:00:00

The Canadian peace movement has been, to date, essentially an anti-nuclear weapons movement. Even the discussion of such topics as non-alignment and the links between nuclear power and weapons production has been avoided or suppressed -- until recently. Now a healthy respect for diversity and debate seems to be sweeping the Canadian peace movement. Indeed, it is no longer possible to avoid or suppress many of these "new" ideas since they are now endorsed by a growing majority of groups and activists. Civilian (or "social") defence, is a concept that deserves widespread discussion.

The old distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons (the former being unacceptable, while the latter are -- by implication -- acceptable) has become, in the 1980s, increasingly irrelevant. Nuclear weapons for use in a "limited nuclear war" have been introduced. "Theatre" nuclear weapons which can carry nuclear or conventional explosives, nuclear mini-warheads, and the neutron bomb all have relatively low explosive forces and are part of a shift away from the deterrence principle and toward a "limited" nuclear war fighting strategy.

At the same time, new conventional weapons using the latest in informatics and electronics are almost as destructive as nuclear weapons. NATO has already replaced hundreds of tactical nuclear warheads in Western Europe with these new "precision guided munitions." It is now possible for the superpowers to destroy an entire continent, and perhaps the world, with "conventional" weapons.

For the peace movement, this means that it is no longer logical to be merely an anti-nuclear weapons movement. We must move toward a strategy of opposition to the development, testing and deployment of all potentially aggressive weapons systems, whether conventional or nuclear. It is simply unacceptable to propose conventional military defence as an alternative to nuclear strategies. It is this realization that has led to renewed interest in the idea of civilian or "social" defence.

Civilian defence must be distinguished from nonprovocative defence, which may include elements of civilian, non-military resistance but which also includes the use of those weapons which are non-threatening to other countries -- e.g. short range fighter aircraft capable of defending national airspace but deployed so as to be incapable of attacking another country. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss both civilian and nonprovocative defence. What is presented, therefore, is simply an outline of the concept of civilian defence.

Civilian defence is the use of nonviolent, nonmilitary means to defend against aggression. Its proponents begin with the assumption that sustained occupation by an aggressor is impossible without some significant amount of collaboration or at least passive cooperation on the part of the occupied nation's citizens.

A planned, coordinated strategy of civilian defence involves several types of actions which may be grouped under two broad headings: "denial actions," and "overt confrontation." Denial actions have been described as "intensification of the normal course of affairs under abnormal conditions." Denial actions involve the refusal to carry out tasks or obey the aggressor at every possible social and economic level, while continuing to fulfill those tasks which benefit one's own citizenry. In general, the more complex and economically developed a society, the more difficult it is for the aggressor to find qualified collaborators. Massive, coordinated refusal to cooperate will deny the aggressor control of the government and its administrative branches, the mass media, industry, schools, and other social institutions. Specific tactics which may be included in the category of denial actions are: selective strikes, the preparation of alternative computer programs, disruption of strategic computer operations, boycotts and the design of factories in strategic industries around a few vital hard-to-replace components which can be removed and destroyed.

"Overt confrontation" consists of such actions as strikes, sit-ins, factory occupations, demonstrations, and the formation of parallel governments. These are often symbolic actions which aim for dramatic effect in order to keep the momentum of the resistance and demonstrate to the opponent and the world its strength and unity. The object of all civilian defence is to increase both the material and intangible costs of occupation to such a degree that the aggressor simply cannot maintain it.

Countering Coups

A unique advantage of civilian defence is that it may be used not only against foreign aggression but also against military coups. It is a defence strategy which is based primarily on the defence of a nation's social values (freedom, democracy, etc.) rather than merely the defence of geographical territory. It is also better than a military-based defence strategy in resisting an occupation already in place. Finally, by announcing to the world that any attempt to invade or seize control will be met by organized, nonviolent resistance, a nation may deter potential aggression.

Fine, but can it work?

Sabotaging Nazi Strategy

During the Nazi occupation of Norway and Denmark, school teachers refused to teach Nazi propaganda. Attempts to indoctrinate the youth of these countries were eventually scrapped. The Danes and the Norwegians also sabotaged several strategic factories and shut down several key government departments thus denying their use to the Germans.

More recently, the Duvalier regime in Haiti and the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines have been overthrown primarily through the tactics of nonviolent resistance.

In the above examples civilian resistance was a spontaneous reaction to invasion, repression or coups d'etat. Obviously, a planned, coordinated strategy for civilian defence offers better hope for success than spontaneous action.

At this point the consensus among advocates of civilian defence policies begins to break down. Many argue that the decentralization of economic, political and social decision-making is an essential prerequisite to the deployment of an effective civilian defence policy since the participation and motivation of all citizens is necessary. Without such democratization, civilian defence is, at best, liable to be used by existing power elites as merely a defensive complement to existing aggressive military strategies. Indeed, the defence departments of Sweden, Austria and Switzerland have done just that. At worst, a civilian defence strategy unaccompanied by decentralized decision-making is doomed to fail.

The other camp in the social defence debate argues that nonviolent defence strategies should be promoted as being a more efficient alternative to military defence. According to this argument, civilian defence can be deployed within existing political and social structures. This group advocates a four stage approach to deployment of a civilian defence policy: 1) research into civilian defence in order to adopt it to a country's specific defence needs (it may, for example, be unworkable in the Canadian Arctic and require a combination of civilian and non-provocative military defence); 2) public education, training and organizational preparation; 3) deployment of civilian defence with military defence; 4) replacement of military defence by civilian resistance strategy.

All advocates do agree, however, that a civilian defence strategy is capable of acting as an effective deterrent against foreign aggression. At the same time, such a policy does not threaten aggression against any opponent and is therefore unambiguously defensive. The inevitable result of unilateral adoption of a civilian defence policy would be a reduction in tensions and the risk of war.

It would be premature for Canadian peace movements to endorse or promote civilian defence as a policy for Canada but research, education and debate should begin immediately -- while we continue with our primary task of mobilizing Canadians against our government's complicity in the arms race.

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1987

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1987, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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