Peacekeepers with Swords, not Plowshares

I’m very puzzled. Are progressive Christian groups like Sojourners and mainline social-action agencies in favor of the use of military force? One minute, they sound like pacifists. The next, they call for military intervention in Darfur.

I received this message concerning Darfur in a Sojourners email dated September 6, 2006:

The humanitarian crisis in Darfur is unbelievably going from bad to worse. Last week, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution authorizing up to 20,000 peacekeepers to replace the African Union troops whose mandate expires at the end of September. The resolution, however, was contingent on the approval of the Sudanese government, which promptly refused.

Instead, the government launched a new offensive against rebels in Darfur – using helicopter gunships, bombers, and armored trucks moving troops into the region. And, predictably, it is once again civilians who are suffering. After three years of fighting, an estimated 450,000 people have died from war and disease and nearly 2.5 million driven from their homes into overcrowded refugee camps. The Washington Post reported this week that “Aid workers say that in recent weeks, civilian casualties, rapes and looting have grown more widespread. Tens of thousands of Darfuris have surged into camps.” In addition, attacks on aid workers are also increasing – according to news reports, 12 have been killed since May.

This week, the government issued a new demand to the African Union: either extend its mandate without the U.N. or leave by the end of the month. The A.U.’s response is that they will leave if Sudan does not allow the U.N. to take over. Without even this small force, the crisis would likely escalate. … This gathering will emphasize the urgent need for concerted efforts by the U.S. to remove the obstacles to the deployment of a United Nations (U.N.) peacekeeping force to protect the people of Darfur.”

Peacekeepers are, of course, an armed military force. Peace operations can take place in environments that range from permissive to hostile. True “peacekeeping” occurs in a permissive environment where both parties acquiesce to the presence of peacekeepers whose job is to monitor the agreed upon peace settlement. At the other end of the spectrum is peace enforcement. Peace enforcement imposes a settlement, by use or threat of force, on parties which may be unwilling to accept it. Depending on the circumstances, missions that begin with peacekeeping may have to transition rapidly to peace enforcement or even more intense combat operations.

One (so-far) successful example of peacekeeping is the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) that monitors the Israel-Egyptian border in the Sinai. There, a solid peace agreement between competent governments, a clear, enforceable border and deep zone of separation between the former belligerents enable the peacekeepers simply to observe an empty desert.

At the other extreme is the example of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. UNAMIR began as a peacekeeping mission to monitor the Arusha Accords between the Hutu dominated Rwandan government and Tutsi dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front. The Rwandan government agreed to the accords only under strong international pressure. Hutu militias and elements of the government proceeded to mount a campaign of genocide against the Tutsi population despite the peace agreement. UNAMIR ultimately failed to enforce the peace it was sent to keep. It did not interdict the threat when Hutu militias stockpiled arms and prepared for their operations, and it did not use force against the marauding militias after the genocide began. Over 800,000 Tutsis died because the peacekeeping force was unprepared and unauthorized to escalate its use of force when circumstances required it. Canadian Major General Roméo Dallaire, the U.N. commander, tells his sad story of “peacekeeping” in Rwanda in Shake Hands with the Devil.

The proposed U.N. force for Darfur appears to lean more in the direction of peace enforcement than in the direction of peacekeeping. Even with the reluctant acquiescence of Sudanese and rebel leaders, there is clearly a lack of a strong consensus for peace among the armed groups involved. The Darfur mission also lacks the clear international boundaries of the Sinai mission. If the U.N. forces are not able or willing to keep the peace by means of force, Darfur’s death toll will continue to rise.

Everyone should realize that the deployment of an armed force means several things:

  • The use of force may be required. Individuals may die as the direct result of this decision.
  • The outcome is not preordained. Things may not work out as intended.
  • There will be costly, deadly mistakes in planning and execution. Leaders are not omniscient or even “perfected in love.”
  • The soldiers involved are human beings, not angels. Some will misbehave.
  • While the intent is to achieve the greater good, some innocent will suffer along with the guilty.

Even with these caveats, morality and human decency (and even divine love) sometimes demand the use of armed forces. Sojourners demands it for Darfur. Sojo ends its communiqué this way: “The blood of hundreds of thousands of people is crying from the ground. We must respond.”

Ethically, peacekeeping is the work of “realists,” not “pacifists.”

Similarly, the Methodist Board of Church and Society recently met and discussed the crisis in Darfur. In response to the crisis, the Board of Church and Society issued a statement calling for …

… the immediate deployment of the 17,500 United Nations peacekeepers and more than 3,000 U.N. civilian police. … “We take our call for this action from the prophet Micah, who said, ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks’ (4:3) and from Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.”

Here’s the letter I didn’t write:

Dear Board of Church and Society: Your euphemism “peacekeepers” means “soldiers.” Your peacekeepers will bear swords and spears, not plows or pruning hooks. They are more likely to need tanks than tractors. Perhaps there is a need for plows in Darfur – more economic development or agricultural assistance – but that is not what you asked for. You asked for armed men and women to step between warring factions to keep or enforce the peace and protect the innocent.

Perhaps there is more to the statement than the press reports, but you appear to be denigrating the vocation of the men and women you are calling to put their lives on the line in Darfur. You call for soldiers under arms and in the next breath appear to denounce the bearing of arms. You are sending a very mixed message. Both love and logic call for a clearer affirmation on your part.

Maybe you can’t really wrap your brains around the military nature of what you are asking for. Maybe, in your thinking, the important thing is what happens in the UN and not what happens on the ground in the Sudan. It’s not the ambassadors and office-staff of the UN, however, who will keep the peace you seek. The real work will be done by scared, lonely, tired and dusty men and women at the pointy end of the spear.

And I’m curious about the very precise number: 17,500. Where did that come from? I would love to see how you developed your troops-to-task analysis. Your Intelligence and Logistics estimates would be fascinating. Most career officers don’t become adept at operational-level planning without years of experience and training. I didn’t know that church leaders had any expertise in military planning.

The church has many things to say to the members of profession of arms. Unfortunately, detailed advice on military planning isn’t one of them. As they say at the rifle range, “Watch your lane.”

Micah’s eschatological vision of peace under the reign of God DOES say something important. It gives hope to all Soldiers and puts our actions in context. In this present age, however, the profession of arms is a necessary, honorable vocation when used in the service of peace and freedom. The members of the Board of Church and Society implicitly recognize that in their request for forces, but perhaps they cannot bring themselves to admit what they are doing.

It’s quite odd to quote Micah 4:3 in a call to arms. Joel 3:10 would be more appropriate:

Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, “I am a warrior.”

There is a time for plows, and a time for swords. The Board of Church and Society is calling for swords.