#10Weeks Chapter 28: Empathy (Look through his eyes)

28

Empathy

Look through his eyes

Every baby is born with identical, basic needs: nourishment, shelter, safety, affection. From this foundation, it’s easy to trace upward and understand more sophisticated human needs: a sense of dignity, self-worth, the respect of one’s peers, and so on. We all share them, folks. When we understand them, and how they rise and branch out, and why they may fail to be met, we begin to understand how simple many needs are to satisfy…and how stupidly self-defeating it is to deny anyone of their needs wherever it is possible to fulfill them. 

One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.
Joseph Stalin

Please indulge me while I briefly offer a voice to the voiceless.

I am an Afghan husband and father, a cobbler by trade. I desire only to keep my shop open, earn at least enough for basic family needs, and maintain some dignity among my peers. I know that the violent men who sometimes place roadside bombs near my neighborhood will kill me if I rat them out.

Not “kill” like in your movies, my Western friends. This is the kind of kill where men punch my face and pull me into a car, then drive me to a private place while I beg to go free and I promise them more than I have. The kind of kill where they beat my arms and cheekbones and knees and groin with sticks, then bruise my temple with the barrel of a pistol while I sob in terror. The kind of kill where they pull the trigger, and I can’t just leave the theater or put another quarter in. This is the kind of kill where my young wife is suddenly and forever a widow, like many of her neighbors.

What, then, shall I do? Should I watch Mel Gibson in The Patriot and suddenly realize that a man’s gotta risk everything to do the right thing, step forward, and warn the Coalition patrol not to take this road today?

Are you insane?

Hell, no! I’ll keep my mouth shut and hope to God my family isn’t harmed during this horrible plague of violence and lawlessness that’s crushing my town and my dear neighbors. I’ve made a commitment to care for my household, and they need me. Many of you reading this have the same commitment, yet you find it easy to judge me when you don’t live with the same dangers. Make no mistake: I will feel terrible that some young American’s life may be snuffed out and his parents devastated…but I have my own sons to protect….

If only this were an isolated case of individual suffering. I’ve actually pieced this story together from many accounts, over many years at war.

The concept of “One’s Own” is a key element of happiness. The availability of adequate resources and alternatives is essential to reducing conflict. If men in an environment like today’s Afghanistan have no viable means of making a living except supporting an insurgency, it should come as no surprise to find them joining an insurgency…for the sake of Their Own. We in the West have to break free from an Us-vs-Them perspective regarding foreign cultures in order to develop real security. Disregarding “Theirs” to ensure the wellbeing of “Ours” just doesn’t cut it.

And I’m not talking about high-minded altruism, here, although I pray altruism can flourish and grow further out of this mindset. Here I’m talking about cold, hard, objective pragmatism. It is in “Our” best interests to deny our enemy the opportunity to drag down Our national reputation. He celebrates every clumsy mistake we make in mistreating or neglecting local citizens—it reinforces the message that he is the lesser of evils. If instead we will increase efforts to facilitate improved opportunities at the motivating source, we can accelerate toward an irresistible tipping point of mutual benefit. Our empathy can accelerate Their opportunity. With opportunity comes the sense of ownership for an improved lifestyle, and a corresponding willingness to defend it. The Arab Spring revolutions of 2011demonstrated this. People want to live in peace and freedom. Not fear and abuse. All people.

Those who should heed this most closely include any who imagine they can brutally oppress those under their care after the example of Moammar Gadhafi, Hosni Mubarak, and many other fallen dictators. In an era of radical transparency, the street is empowered like never before.

Are you not convinced? Consider my favorite anecdote on the dynamic of public security needs: While I was in northern Iraq, a common fundraising method of Mosul’s AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq) consisted of weekly, house-to-house shakedowns for the equivalent of $50 each. It was a great plan: low-risk, high gain, and a steady flow of revenue. No homeowner could resist, because his life simply wasn’t worth risking to protect 50 bucks—and that mob, in that environment, possessed the power to kill without consequence.

Try that same tactic in my hometown in Northern Virginia! Sure, I’d probably open my wallet and hand over the $50 to avoid having my head blown off in the moment, but before you can sashay over to hassle my neighbor John, my other friend Johnny Law will put you on the ground in an undignified and mildly painful position. Americans often can’t appreciate how empowered we feel to speak out and act out confidently only because we have already passed through a defining crucible and rejected uncontrolled lawlessness within our own borders.

Anyone who casually declares that there will never be peace in the Iraqi or Afghan societies is simply not exercising his vision muscles hard enough. Yes, it will be exhausting. Yes, it will take a long time. (Read any account of the American Revolutionary War to glimpse unthinkable hardship and prolonged determination!) But the payoffs that accompanied transforming my town from Wild West (er…East) into the prosperous and productive society of today can be repeated, with respect for the unique culture involved, when we dare to assist troubled populations at least some way down the path we’ve blazed.

Don’t believe the cartoon depictions of these populations. An Iraqi man is fundamentally the same as an American man—is the same as a Somali man—is the same as a Japanese man—is the same as an Uzbek man…I know! I’ve lived and worked among them in almost three dozen nations. I’ve become friends with them. Each of these men requires dignity and respect. We can offer dignity and respect at no cost to ourselves. He also needs to make a living; he needs to be able to put his head on his pillow at night and feel pretty good about how the day went.

If he is satisfied in such modest essentials, he’ll be much more likely to contribute meaningfully at local and possibly international levels. If rule of law emboldens and supports him, he’ll be much less susceptible to the intimidation and manipulation of organized brutes.

This energy, HAL (again, the fundamental “Human Aspect of Life”), is more powerful than all the bullets in the world. Vision and heart outlast force. Force will always become exhausted. “Necessary violence,” which I passionately endorse, is an appropriate tool for only select, temporary conflict situations and cannot be sustained indefinitely. Force will always collapse eventually. The failed Soviet and Nazi regimes, even the global dominance aspirations of the humbled British Empire, proclaim loudly that force will not prevail.

Contrast the blind use of force with great concepts that can never be killed, like the gift of cooperative democracy passed down from humanity’s Athenian ancestors. Such ideals may fade from sight while baser urges guide a region for a generation or more, but when fear and abuse inevitably reach the limits of tolerability, the higher character of our species rises from its patient slumber to risk and work for something better. When we successfully communicate this message of something better, we tap the universal human desire for security. So simple. So human. So true.

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Thanks for reading! Remember, #10Weeks is going to post every weekday evening between now and mid-December. The best way to stay up on these chapters is to just click to subscribe at the top of the page!

And one more thing: I have finally begun laying down the tracks for our AUDIOBOOK version of Powerful Peace! My company has an exciting promotion for pre-orders, and you can see that if you click here to pre-order the audiobook.

Want to get your own signed hard copy, or load up on gift bundles in time for Christmas? Click here for hard copies!

#10Weeks Chapter 27: Compassion (It’s the children, stupid)

27

Compassion

It’s the children, stupid

If babies are the purest form of human being, as argued in Commonality, their big brothers and sisters aren’t far removed. Humans across the planet instinctively understand how precious our children are. In homes in every culture I’ve ever visited, they cherish their little ones…despite the rhetoric various populations spew to the contrary about “enemy” societies. If children require Comfort to thrive, and if healthy kids grow into healthy, productive adult citizens, isn’t it plainly in each community’s best interest to make this “investment” in its own future success?

 

Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.
Rabindranath Tagore

My use of the word “apolitical” to describe this preoccupation with balanced peacemaking should not be taken to mean I don’t believe in politics. It means simply that politics (and many other idols of our time) are lower, and weaker, than the unbreakable determination to make peace. In fact, while many politicians loudly proclaim their devotion to national security, certain short-sighted decisions periodically lead their nations and the world farther from a stable international peace.

Nothing burns my cookies so much as watching the United States Senate, communally 100 of the most powerful people on earth, bicker childishly and toss votes back and forth across the aisle like competitors in some deranged tennis match; “49-51.” “51-49.” “Love.”

Inasmuch as the U.S. Senate sets the course for America, and America in many ways determines the direction of the world, these national leaders affect the direction of our world. They are literally writing the course of human history. This is far too important a role to indulge in petty party squabbling. “Game. Set. Match” is utterly incompatible with global “Mind. Heart. Peace.”

Far worse than childishly clannish, of course, is whorish. Whorish describes that aspect of a leader’s “selling out” his constituents, and even his own conscience, for some personal gain. I suspect the most common motivator for personal gain here is simply job security; dancing with insincerity for the privilege of retaining privilege. “Elect me so I can think up why you should elect me next time.” Or, “Let me rationalize some of my actions for the purpose of re-electability, without which I won’t be back to serve you again the next term.” This is all the more pathetic when one considers the great potential for contribution many of these talented folks would have out in society.

Note that I am not saying, “Politicians are whorish.” I am saying some politicians are whorish. It’s certainly not up to me to identify who serves and who serves himself among our statesmen. If you’re a politician and you’re reading this, you know where you stand better than we do.

Some would say I simply don’t understand the intricacies of successful governance, that there’s more to settling national debates than simply voting one’s conscience. They would say I don’t know because I haven’t been in office. That’s true, I haven’t. Yet.

The next statement will probably burn many, many cookies, but I am convinced of its truth: Religion itself is lower, and weaker, than peacemaking. Here I’m not talking about God, Whom I consider to be above all of us and our self-inflicted wounds of dividing and diminishing. I’m talking about religion as infinite splittings of spiritual doctrine and practice among humankind. I am a believer myself, but in my belief system I’m taught that all men are brothers, and that I should love my neighbor as myself.

Our scripture does not say that loving my neighbor may be selectively applied based on my feelings for that person or my mood at the time. (If you have a version of the text that says such, please contact me so we can all look it up.) In fact, in my Bible there’s a lot of talk about some unpleasant individuals called Pharisees. Apparently these guys loved to point out the failings of others and boast (tastefully, of course) about their own exquisite goodness. I imagine a Pharisee looking a lot like Dana Carvey’s pucker-faced “Church Lady” of Saturday Night Live fame…with a beard. If you’ve never seen the Church Lady, you owe it to yourself to YouTube her. Carvey plays a sanctimonious little holier-than-thou congregant who blames everything she doesn’t like about other people—and I do mean everything—on Satan. I hope readers from across the entire faith spectrum can appreciate how ugly and ridiculous such prideful behavior is in any religion that claims to value humility!

I know a great many Christians who act much less Christlike than the Mahatma Gandhi, who revered the teachings of Jesus Christ but never called himself a Christian. He considered Jesus a prophet of nonviolence.

Take a deep breath. Now that I’ve deliberately violated every social courtesy by introducing both politics and religion into an argument, I hope I have your attention. I also hope that, having described what Powerful Peace is not (neither politics nor religion), it should be easier to comprehend what it is.

It’s the children, stupid.

We are an amazing race. Humans get our bloomers in a bunch on some very petty disagreements, so on the greater matters of war and terror it’s important that we trace back to something we can all agree on if we desire to move forward: kids deserve better. If nothing else, kids deserve better.

Maybe someday we’ll grow to a point where we can think that not only precious, vulnerable children deserve better, but that other adults (dare I say foreigners?) deserve better, too! Maybe everyone deserves better—better than the small, animalistic squabbling we imagine with primitive humans, when survival really did depend on reacting like animals.

Hell, maybe with enough reflection I can come to accept that even I deserve better…better than the miserable world I build for myself when I place my desires above others’ needs. Maybe I could finally learn to act in my true best interests by realizing that my wellbeing is intimately connected with the wellbeing of others—even perfect strangers on the street. Maybe I could exercise my heart a little more and complement the workings of my mind.

A counselor friend loves to ask partners in conflict, “Do you want to be happy, or do you want to be right?” All too often, people choose right over happy. We should focus on the little things (kids, kindness, compassion), the things that are actually much larger human issues, and put our big things (ego, defensiveness, reactivity) on the lowest shelf…where they belong.

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Thanks for reading! Remember, #10Weeks is going to post every weekday evening between now and mid-December. The best way to stay up on these chapters is to just click to subscribe at the top of the page!

And one more thing: I have finally begun laying down the tracks for our AUDIOBOOK version of Powerful Peace! My company has an exciting promotion for pre-orders, and you can see that if you click here to pre-order the audiobook.

Want to get your own signed hard copy, or load up on gift bundles in time for Christmas? Click here for hard copies!

#10Weeks Chapter 26: Comfort (Peace of mind)

26

Comfort

Peace of mind

In early 2008 I drafted the first installment of a two-year run of my monthly column, For Goodness’ Sake, from the heart of war. Specifically, I wrote in a little espresso bar on a U.S. military installation in the Middle East. Thirteen months later, I returned to Northern Virginia and once again enjoyed a cup of coffee at Starbucks (which I consider my “alternate office”). Home after fifty-four weeks of urging a balanced approach in Iraq, I relaxed comfortably back in the U.S. Capital.

Kindness in words creates confidence.
Kindness in thinking creates profoundness.
Kindness in giving creates love.
Tao Te Ching

Many would ask (or have asked), “What could possess a retired SEAL to leave his loved ones again and ship off for more than a year to the hottest conflict zone on earth?” They assume it’s for money. And in fact there are contractors “in theater” (assigned to war zones) who do it purely for the money, which is unfortunate; their mercenary reputation stains the rest, including those of us who believe in the mission and serve to make a difference.

However, there’s another reason I go that you may not expect: Comfort.

We work not for our own comfort, but to balance out a desperate deficit of comfort for others. I’m talking the simple comfort of this coffee; or the comfort of this hometown, where you and I have no fear of death squads at the door; or the comfort of knowing emergency rooms exist and can’t turn away any legitimate emergency; these are comforts we often take for granted.

I remember meeting up with an Iraqi dentist in Baghdad. He seemed too young to have been certified before the 2003 invasion and subsequent turmoil, so I assumed he had studied abroad. When I asked, he told me “Baghdad University.” It turns out the school was in fact disrupted for a while after the initial burst of hostilities, but quickly got going again with a few intrepid students like my friend. Unlike students elsewhere, he had to manage the constant threat of terrorist attacks between study sessions over pizza. Context is very important. Completing one’s medical training in a combat zone, or navigating a “sniper alley” just to put bread on the family table, is a context that puts ordinary American struggles to shame.

America is the taproot of liberty and democracy in the modern world. Let’s remember and nurture that. I was reminded of it when I stepped off the plane from Iraq and took a family vacation to New York City, where Lady Liberty still maintains her vigil with resolute dignity in the harbor. Her courageous determination to constantly welcome victims of oppression around the globe is awe-inspiring. More of us should go and contemplate this important symbol.

Many, many non-Americans still see great promise in the American dream. Such appeal-without-effort is the foundation of soft power and forceless influence. We help ourselves if we foster it at every opportunity.

When constantly confronted by foreign (and domestic) voices broadcasting U.S. wrongdoing, it can be easy to lose sight of how much we have to offer and how much we are admired in the world. In fact, howls like “Occupy Wall Street” are only possible because of protections that are hard-wired into the national system. Yes, the United States has made missteps in its distant (and recent) history, and yes, I’m calling for accountability for all governments and all individuals as part of the solution. But let’s remember how much good there is to harvest from American culture—and every culture—in building a better whole.

While the excess comfort of a so-called “couch potato” (a kinder term might be “leisure careerist”) can be detrimental, some comfort is necessary for real quality of life and growth. Children need to be able to take their security for granted, if they are to develop self-confidence for a healthy adulthood. Adults need to trust they will eat tonight if they would hope to function fully around the office today.

While shopping at the Baghdad bazaar in preparation for one return home, I had a serious conversation with a local vendor. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Why are the Americans leaving? We’re not ready.” In other words, he felt he and his fellow Iraqis were not adequately prepared to do it all on their own. I agreed. It would be a terrific challenge to ensure their own security (to maintain a healthy amount of comfort) and to live lives that feel right and allow no room for those self-serving, malevolent agents of misery to regain control.

It’s for that man, and his children, and all our children, that we need to step forward and help where we can. Their comfort will one day translate into our own. And when the day finally dawns in a Baghdad where liberty is reality, they will be ready for a statue of their own to replace the fallen one of Saddam.

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Thanks for reading! Remember, #10Weeks is going to post every weekday evening between now and mid-December. The best way to stay up on these chapters is to just click to subscribe at the top of the page!

And one more thing: I have finally begun laying down the tracks for our AUDIOBOOK version of Powerful Peace! My company has an exciting promotion for pre-orders, and you can see that if you click here to pre-order the audiobook.

Want to get your own signed hard copy, or load up on gift bundles in time for Christmas? Click here for hard copies!

#10Weeks Chapter 25: Commonality (We laugh and cry in the same language)

25

Commonality

We laugh and cry in the same language

When did we forget our common origins? I don’t mean origins as monkey or divine creation (that’s a debate for a different forum), but as men and women who understand what it means to be men and women in fear and hurt, andamong other thingswhat it means to be wrong. Attacking the details of others’ lifestyles is a wonderfully subtle way to distract ourselves, and others, from our own failings. Accepting that we might not know it all, that our way of doing life might not be the only way to do life…that’s the reachable and teachable way that invites cooperation and correspondingly builds real security.

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

             Operation Iraqi Freedom

Hearts and minds…and thumb wrestling. Two humans find common ground and war loses its sting for a brief moment.

Have you ever watched a funeral conducted by a culture different from your own, in an unfamiliar language? The trappings may seem alien, like details of color and cost, and casket-vs-cremation. The words spoken over the departed would be different from your experience, too. In one assembly, there may be loud wailing from one group, but despondent silence from another. In Iraq, for example, citizens typically behave differently when burying their loved ones than my family does in the U.S. We tend to sit quietly in our pain; some Iraqis will wail and ululate like banshees. These slight differences between cultures are really not very important in the big picture.

Far more important is what is not different. Applied smart power seeks common ground as a starting point for peacemaking—despite the innumerable cultural layers we have developed over millennia.

For example, of those moved to tears at a foreign funeral, those whose grief exceeds their capacity to form speech, would you notice that the men wept differently from your own? Would their overwhelmed, choked expressions of emotional agony have some unusual accent compared to those in your country? No. Few sights are quite as heartbreaking as an ordinarily powerful man, broken, devastated, and reduced to wordless grief.

Would the inconsolable shrieks and sobs of women lamenting their beloved partners or children somehow lack adequate clarity to tell you what they mean?

No again. I’ve watched it.

Switching gears: have you ever watched a baby from a foreign culture laugh? There’s no pretense; she has not yet learned the “correct” way to laugh, according to her people. Babies giggle and coo exactly as they’re designed to. In some ways, we could envy them their pure humanness.

How about an adult, guffawing without guile at a particularly surprising moment of hilarity? I’m talking about that deep, sincere belly laugh that comes without warning and cannot be modulated. It’s pretty much the same as yours, isn’t it? Ain’t nobody saying nothing…but the message comes through loud and clear.

In support of this common human experience, activist John Prendergast and actor Don Cheadle teamed up to get out the word in a constructive way on “…three of the great scourges of the world, of our time. Genocide, mass rape, and child conscription are the most deadly and diabolical manifestations of war, with the gravest human consequences imaginable.” The book, The Enough Moment (Three Rivers Press, 2010), opens with a transcribed dialogue between the two about how they hope to motivate and mobilize their audience to act as others have done:

Don: They all have had some kind of Enough Moment that led them to decide to be part of something bigger for something beyond themselves.

John: It is fascinating to explore what makes people care about these issues. I think some people have their Enough Moment because they genuinely are driven or touched or affected by the suffering of others, and they feel in some way, shape or form that there is some kind of responsibility…

Don: Cosmic responsibility…

John: The concept of being my brother’s or my sister’s keeper. And I think some people are driven by an imperative that is found in any faith to reach out and provide assistance to those less fortunate. Action is very clearly an essential element of any faith. I was just at a service on Sunday, and the sermon was all about the imperative to work for peace. And then, of course, there is the common security threatyou know, if we don’t deal with some of these issues, then they might bounce back on us. Whether it is terrorism, disease, or environmental degradation, the issue of enlightened self-interest also can be the catalyst for involvement.

Don: It will always be my hope that people will care beyond themselves, and they will want to do more. That’s going to be an imperative a lot more quickly than we think it is, as some of these problems that seem so far away are going to rebound back here on us. So we are going to need to link arms with people all over the world against a greater common enemy involving environmental destruction and the ensuing lack of resources, water, and food. I mean, we cannot continue to waste as we have as a world and expect that there will be no consequence. So you need to be able to flex the muscle of altruism and humanitarianism and brotherhood and fellowship in a very necessary way. Or you know, get a bunch of guns, and hunker down and hope you got enough people with you that you can stave off the masses when they come to try to take your stuff, because it’s one or the otherstand apart…united we…

John: Hang together, or all hang separately.

The point of all this? Moments of genuine natural-ness highlight a level of humanity that we can recognize as universal. Sex…hunger…fatigue…again, we are commonly humans. Our human instincts, drives, and expressions surface from the core of our species, in very similar ways. Look closely beneath all the layers and you will find common-ground reflections of our hearts.

Common ground is fundamental to Powerful Peace.

Consider this the next time you feel a dislike for a stranger that you can’t quite put your finger on. It may just be your layers grating against his. Try instead to take a moment and imagine his pain or joy in the context of your own experience. You just might recognize a brother, disguised in an unfamiliar costume.

I opened with the concept of being Reachable and Teachable. Yes, I know the phrase reduces to the acronym R.A.T. In this context (and only this one!) I always try to make sure I’m being the best RAT I can be! Come on—be a RAT with me and inspire world-changing openness.

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Thanks for reading! Remember, #10Weeks is going to post every weekday evening between now and mid-December. The best way to stay up on these chapters is to just click to subscribe at the top of the page!

And one more thing: I have finally begun laying down the tracks for our AUDIOBOOK version of Powerful Peace! My company has an exciting promotion for pre-orders, and you can see that if you click here to pre-order the audiobook.

Want to get your own signed hard copy, or load up on gift bundles in time for Christmas? Click here for hard copies!

#10Weeks Chapter 24: Change (A tremendous responsibility to humanity)

24

Change

“A tremendous responsibility to humanity” 

Improving our approach to national and international security is a non-partisanI prefer “apolitical”undertaking. In this chapter I’ll pull references from both sides of the aisle and, at the end, a completely aisle-free source: one of my own, earliest writings on balanced peacemaking. 

In the last seven years, we have spent the treasure of our nation
young American soldiers, first and foremost, and billions of dollars
to fight terrorism, and yet grave questions remain
as to whether or not we have chosen our battles correctly.
John Kerry

The opening quote was recorded during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Secretary of State Confirmation Hearing, taken from Democratic Senator John Kerry’s introductory comments. He continued, “Pakistan and Afghanistan are definitively the front line…. It is clear that no amount of additional troops will succeed absent the effective instruments of a functioning state…I believe we must fundamentally redefine our approach.”

…We must fundamentally redefine our approach.

Republican Senator Richard Lugar, an active supporter of the U.S. Institute of Peace, was quoted in the same hearing: “The United States cannot feed every person…or stop every conflict, but our power and status have conferred upon us a tremendous responsibility to humanity.”

…Our power and status have conferred upon us a tremendous responsibility to humanity.

In her own comments at the confirmation hearing, Democratic Senator Clinton praised Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—the same Bob Gates who had been appointed by Republican President George W. Bush: “Secretary Gates…has been particularly eloquent in articulating the importance of diplomacy…. As he has stated, ‘Our civilian institutions of diplomacy and development have been chronically undermanned and underfunded for far too long.’”

Let’s contrast this expressed intent for inter-departmental cooperation with the following ominous message from World at Risk: The Report of the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, (Vintage Books, 2008): “Unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013.”

The new Secretary of State also said:

“We must use what has been called smart power, the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool or combination of tools for each situation. With smart power, diplomacy will be the vanguard of our foreign policy…even when we cannot fully agree with some governments we share a bond of humanity with their people… Investing in our common humanity through social development is not marginal to our foreign policy but essential to the realization of our goals…. More than two billion people worldwide live on less than $2 a day…. Our pleas will fall on deaf ears unless democracy actually improves people’s lives….” [Italics mine.]

In summary, we are seeing a flood of fresh, bipartisan attention to smart power, and an urgent need to support unstable populations and engage diplomatically as one means of countering terrorism and violent conflict.

In light of Secretary Clinton’s 2009 comments on smart power, please review the following shameless plug from an essay I wrote for a U.S. agency in 2005:

“What is crucial is a case-by-case use of the most effective methods for each problem. Some crises of hostility can be resolved with dialogue to reduce misunderstanding; some, for now, still demand a ‘kinetic solution’ from the business end of a rifle…. Best of all, however, will be the next evolution of threat mitigation: elimination, before the hateful cause exists, by working with the source…. If we care to understand well enough, open exchange and cooperation can starve the very roots of terrorism. Statecraft and interpersonal engagement are more important, in the long run, than military might.”

That’s applied smart power, written four years before Secretary Clinton’s public pronouncement on smart power. Why don’t we citizens continue to lead from the bottom, with Powerful Peace and an active PeaceHawks.org network? Eventually, our efforts and those of the policy makers can meet in the middle for the benefit of humanity.

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Thanks for reading! Remember, #10Weeks is going to post every weekday evening between now and mid-December. The best way to stay up on these chapters is to just click to subscribe at the top of the page!

And one more thing: I have finally begun laying down the tracks for our AUDIOBOOK version of Powerful Peace! My company has an exciting promotion for pre-orders, and you can see that if you click here to pre-order the audiobook.

Want to get your own signed hard copy, or load up on gift bundles in time for Christmas? Click here for hard copies!

#10Weeks Chapter 23: Understanding (Cultural blindness)

23

Understanding

Cultural Blindness

The story of Powerful Peace in one word is “understanding.” With understanding we can recognize sources of conflict in advance and prevent hostility, once we’ve developed the right message. If necessary, understanding of the enemy helps us defeat him. There’s just no downside to understanding more. 

I don’t think we understood the cultural,
historic influences that pushed them into that position.
It might have helped us ward the whole thing off
if we had understood the deeper currents in the situation.
Stansfield Turner

Powerful Peace @12

1991. Best Turkish friend Hayri prepares to correct me for yet another shockingly offensive, inadvertent mutilation of his language.

Stansfield Turner ran the Central Intelligence Agency during the Carter administration. In the above quote from 1995, he was reflecting on the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Invisible HistoryAfghanistan’s Untold Story (City Lights Publishers, 2009) clarifies the mind-boggling complexity of Afghanistan’s internal and external influences during the century and a half up to and including the ten-year long Soviet adventure. It resulted in tremendous suffering and loss for many, and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I’ve conducted multiple assignments in Afghanistan. Anticipating several more years’ traveling into and out of this troubled nation, I’ve been studying the circumstances that led to today’s mess.

Cultural awareness is not some nice-to-have component in effective strategic and policy planning. It’s an essential piece. It’s a literal do-or-die piece. We should constantly seek to understand other ways of life, because today it is a matter of life or death.

That 1979 Afghan invasion ended in a humbling withdrawal. The Soviets met the same fate as every invader since Alexander the Great. Their experience in this case is frequently compared to the American experience in Vietnam.

I’d like to provide a more personal and recognizable anecdote from my own past to demonstrate the dangerous absurdity of misunderstanding:

Ali was a Turkish friend of mine during a year’s assignment to a remote base in his country. We enjoyed spending weekends downing Efes beer and shish kebab at our restaurant hangout down by the beach. One fateful night, however, he surprised me with an outburst of violent hostility. Looking back, I know that with a much deeper contextual understanding I could have seen it coming and, as Director Turner said, “warded it off.”

There was a Dutch tourist staying in our little coastal town, and it was no secret Ali also had his eye on her. When I finally finagled a dinner date for one Saturday night, I naturally felt like the winner of the Rob vs. Ali competition for female attention. It was probably a mistake to arrange that dinner date for the same club where he and I normally partied….

While she and I snacked on feta cheese and olives, I made clumsy small talk and turned the discussion—ridiculously—to astrology (as in, “what’s your sign?”) Unfortunately, this European had only a partial grasp of English, and I knew only two phrases in Dutch. Considering the newness of our acquaintance, neither was yet appropriate.

The word “astrology” failed to clear it up, as did “zodiac.” When I said I’m a Taurus, she only stared blankly. The word “bull” fell flat next. I realized my attempt at a clever joke was rapidly careening off a social cliff. It was time for date-saving physical gestures.

Extending both index fingers, I placed them alongside my temples to depict a boy cow’s horns. That’s when all Turkish hell broke loose.

Within seconds, Ali had charged up and struck me in the shoulder. I hadn’t even known he was at the club that night! He shouted, “Did you do this to me???” in some sort of Turkenglish and placed his fingers at his own temples. Four more ticked-off Turks (it’s best to be behind ticked-off Turks, and not in front) glared at me over his shoulder.

I was utterly flabbergasted. My date was frightened. In broken Turkish, I told him plainly that I didn’t know what the blank he was talking about. This only seemed to aggravate him further, but the whole unpleasant mess eventually resolved without becoming more physical. After a couple of tense minutes, Ali and his posse stalked away. The dinner was ruined.

I had planned to sleep on the beach that evening. Needless to say, this ended up being a one-eye-open, sleepless night. Angry Turkish knives can slice tent fabric as easily as a throat.

When I raised the matter with best friend Hayri the next day, he was aghast. As if explaining a “grown-up” topic to a dimwitted child (that’s me), he finally managed to convey that, colloquially, the Turkish word “to gore” (boynuzlemek) means “to cheat on your man.” In other words, if a fellow isn’t “man enough” (if you know what I mean) to keep a woman happy, she will go off with another, better man. She leaves the first “gored.”

Already stewing and angry at me for “getting the girl,” Ali had now thought I was joking about his being unmanly! Still worse, for his fully developed Turkish machismo and my immediate safety, he believed a woman had been laughing at a joke about his being…inadequate…in the man department. I’m lucky to be alive!

Of course, that evening’s potential for me to receive an ass whupping is negligible, when compared to the immeasurable pain endured during the 1980’s fiasco in Afghanistan, but the value of preventing/clearing up misunderstanding is fundamentally the same. We would have been more effective in Afghanistan—and I would have been on that date—through deeper cultural comprehension. Contrary to the machismo in my own American culture, “being understanding” is not a form of weakness. Knowledge is in fact, power. You will make your life better by considering the power of your impact on others.

PS: Be very careful with those hand gestures.

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Thanks for reading! Remember, #10Weeks is going to post every weekday evening between now and mid-December. The best way to stay up on these chapters is to just click to subscribe at the top of the page!

And one more thing: I have finally begun laying down the tracks for our AUDIOBOOK version of Powerful Peace! My company has an exciting promotion for pre-orders, and you can see that if you click here to pre-order the audiobook.

Want to get your own signed hard copy, or load up on gift bundles in time for Christmas? Click here for hard copies!

#10Weeks Chapter 22: Ignorance (When complexion kills)

22

Ignorance

When complexion kills

Bigots are everywhere. I’m sure we’re all prejudiced to some extent…I also suspect that most of us underestimate our own level of prejudice.

Education is not simply about academic achievement.
As spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,
it is about understanding, tolerance, and friendship,
which are the basis of peace in our world.
Aung San Suu Kyi

My white, Christian, American friend Bill was in an Arab Muslim country a few years ago when a particularly destructive U.S. attack killed a large number of innocent civilians. Until this tragedy, Bill had a great job as a manager with a local company. When following this attack he was told that his position was being eliminated for company right-sizing, he was stunned.

Later he discovered that he, the only American and the only Christian, had also been the only casualty of this so-called “right-sizing.”

After the attack, Bill was shouted at and threatened by local citizens, complete strangers, who took out their anger on him personally for a tragedy over which he had had no control. He was even spit upon, and he felt totally helpless to seek support from the local authorities.

Bill told me that even non-Americans were assaulted because of this blind rage. In a few rare cases, they were murdered. A Canadian Jew was killed in his own shop, because a rampaging hothead couldn’t distinguish between the American “Crusaders” who had conducted the original military strike and some who happened to look like them.

My friend Andy, who lives in that same Muslim country, tells me the bigotry is so pervasive he has a wry term to describe his position: the Caucasian Christian Cat, or 3C. He tells me that the 3C is by far the worst “type” to be these days. He’s guilty until proven innocent, and he’s distrusted on sight. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling. There’s nothing he can do about it.

Ironically, Andy is a citizen of that country. He was born there. He just doesn’t “look” right.

If you’re like me, this makes your blood boil. It’s outrageous that decent, law-abiding, good “Christian Americans” like Bill and Andy can be treated so unfairly. They never hurt anyone. They should get the same respect the locals give each other in that country…you probably agree, right?

Good. And now I’ll admit: I’ve been a little deceptive in this account so far.

My friend Bill is not originally an American. He’s not a Christian, either.

He’s also not named Bill. His name is Bassam.

The “attack” which killed so many innocent civilians was not an American one, but Islamic-extremist. It was conducted by Arabs. It was against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Bassam is a retired Jordanian Army officer and a naturalized citizen of the United States. Soon after 9/11 this Arab Muslim was fired by a major retailer in America; before the attacks he had received regular praise for his excellence in management. After 9/11, the “right size” for that firm appears to have meant one less Arab Muslim.

Bassam was spit upon, but not in some faraway land. He was spit upon by a fellow American because he looks like some of the people who carried out 9/11. He was deeply hurt by these humiliating abuses, but even more so because he loves his adopted country very much. He, like so many others, wanted only to grieve with his American family. Instead he was treated like an enemy.

The murdered Canadian Jew is also not as I described. He was an Indian Sikh. He was murdered in America, shot to death by an American in a deliberate act of vengeance, four days after September 11th. He was murdered because he wore a turban. According to family members, this non-Muslim South Asian had been deeply distraught over the suffering in America caused by 9/11.

Finally, Andy’s actual name is Imran. He was born an American and raised by American parents. They share the ethnic features common to Pakistan.

Andy—Imran—did not tell me he’s a 3C. It’s actually 3M. The “hardest type to be in America,” according to Imran and many of my other friends, is a Middle-Eastern, Muslim Male. Ironically, these are the same individuals who could best identify and reach into the source of hate that led to the attacks. Deliberately engaging guys like Imran, instead of rejecting and antagonizing them, would be a really good way to start discovering solutions.

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Thanks for reading! Remember, #10Weeks is going to post every weekday evening between now and mid-December. The best way to stay up on these chapters is to just click to subscribe at the top of the page!

And one more thing: I have finally begun laying down the tracks for our AUDIOBOOK version of Powerful Peace! My company has an exciting promotion for pre-orders, and you can see that if you click here to pre-order the audiobook.

Want to get your own signed hard copy, or load up on gift bundles in time for Christmas? Click here for hard copies!