Perhaps no issue seems as “impossible” as the prospect of ending war. But Paul K. Chappell is a West Point graduate and Iraq vet who believes that, just as the U.S. abolished slavery, as women gained the right to vote, as an unarmed Indian overthrew the British Empire, we can, must, and will end war.
Chappell was born in 1980 and raised in Alabama, the son of a Korean mother and a half white, half African American father who’d served in Korea and in Vietnam. Though he’d seen how his father was troubled by his war experiences, Chappell chose to pursue a military career himself, graduating from West Point in 2002 and serving in Iraq as an army captain in 2006. But even as he signed up for a tour of duty, Chappell was starting to doubt that war was ever going to bring peace, in the Middle East, or anywhere else.
A year later, while still an active-duty officer, he published his first book, Will War Ever End? A Soldier’s Vision for Peace in the 21st Century. “I am twenty-eight years old,” he writes, “and I have been obsessed with the problem of war for most of my life.” He went on to write three more books on ending war: The End of War: How Waging Peace Can Save Humanity, Our Planet, and Our Future; Peaceful Revolution; and The Art of Waging Peace. All of his books are written in a direct, accessible style that avoids blaming the Left or the Right, and his arguments for peace have appealed to people of all political persuasions.
Chappell now works at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and travels the country talking about the necessity of ending war and “waging peace.” He is a principal in the American Unity Project (www.americanunityproject.com), which features a free online series of documentaries about waging peace. He trains peace activists — a pursuit he believes should be undertaken with at least as much forethought and strategy as training soldiers for war. Being an effective peace activist, he says, requires the same qualities as being an effective soldier. He emphasizes that activists must also learn to be persuasive, to control their emotions, and to empathize with their opponents. Finally, they must take their calling seriously — as seriously as soldiers going into battle. In The End of War, Chappell quotes civil-rights activist Bernard Lafayette: “Nonviolence means fighting back, but you are fighting with another purpose and other weapons. Number one, your fight is to win that person over.”
Chappell teaches through example. I met him at a weekly peace vigil on a downtown Santa Barbara street corner, where he demonstrated how to engage even strident opponents with empathy and respect. I had lost patience with one such person after ten minutes of unproductive dialogue. Then Chappell showed up. He listened respectfully to my critic and engaged him for a full forty-five minutes. Their conversation ended with the man thanking Chappell for listening to him and accepting a copy of The End of War. A few weeks later Chappell ran into the man and learned that he had read the book and had changed his mind about war as a means of ending terrorism.
The MOON: Your father was traumatized by his experiences in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Given that knowledge, why did you pursue a career in the military?
Chappell: Growing up I was taught that you must wage war to end war. Comic books, action movies, video games, politicians — all said that if you wanted to make the world safe, you needed to use violence to defeat the bad guys. War was presented to me as the price you had to pay for peace, and I thought that peace was a goal worth fighting for. My father didn’t talk much about his wartime experiences, but I do remember him telling me about the suffering children he saw during the Korean War. The message I got was that if soldiers had to be traumatized to save children in Korea, or to save the Jews in Europe, or to protect innocents elsewhere, that’s a sacrifice they were prepared to make. I saw soldiers as people who are willing to give their lives in order to protect others. I think a lot of people join the military believing they’re going to make the world safer. In the abstract the idea makes a bit of sense, because if you had a murderer in your home, of course you’d want an armed police officer there to protect you. But war is a completely different matter. It creates massive casualties — mostly civilian. It wasn’t until I got to West Point that I learned war isn’t the best way to make the world safe.
The MOON: This is something they taught you at West Point?
Chappell: Yes, West Point teaches that war is so dangerous, it should be used only as a last resort. I learned that the United States needs to rely more on diplomacy; that politicians don’t understand war and are too quick to use it as a means of conflict resolution. West Point also teaches that if you want to understand war, you have to understand its limitations and unpredictability. World War I and World War II both started out as limited conflicts and grew into global blood baths. War is like a natural disaster. You really can’t control it. Propaganda has made the word war synonymous with security, but in fact peace is synonymous with security. In the 21st century, war actually makes us less secure. The United States has military bases in about 150 countries; we spend more on war than the rest of the world combined; we have the most powerful military in human history; and we’re some of the most terrified people on the planet. War and military occupation haven’t made us more secure. They’ve made us more hated in many parts of the world.
The MOON: Some say we’re hated because we’re free.