Weaponizing Non-Violence: A Change of Tactics Required in Ukraine

Viewpoint by Jonathan Power

LUND, Sweden (IDN) — Non-violence can get you a long way, often further than violence. Look at Mahatma Gandhi whose movement compelled the British to withdraw from India years before they planned to. His famous long march to the sea to gather salt—the British insisted they run the salt industry and charged a lot for this necessary product—was the turning point. The British-led troops beat the protestors, which was reported all over the world and led to an outpouring of support for Gandhi in Britain.

Look at Martin Luther King. For decades blacks had tried to protest, sometimes with modest success. But what changed with King’s leadership was that non-violent protest became weaponised. His disciplined followers confronted the forces of “law and order” time and time again. King was imprisoned along with many followers. Some of his followers were murdered by white southern racists. The police beat his marchers on nearly every march. In the end King massed hundreds of thousands of supporters, black and white, in Washington and that turned the tide.

President Lyndon Johnson forced through Congress the civil rights act outlawing discrimination in public places. Two years later, King repeated his success with marches that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act which gave disenfranchised blacks in the South the right to vote.

Look at World War II. After the war, the interrogation of captured German generals was put into the hands of Britain’s most respected military strategist, Sir Basil Liddell Hart. He told me that after the war he became increasingly impressed with the limitations of warfare and the power of non-violence. During his interrogation of the generals, he became aware of the difficulties they had had in surmounting non-violent resistance, particularly in Denmark, Holland, and Norway, and to some extent in France and Belgium, whereas the violent forms of resistance had posed few problems.

He told me: “It should be recognized, more fully than it has been, that the German generals by and large were handicapped by the relatively humane tradition in which they had been brought up. They found it difficult to be as ruthless as military logic and military theory tended to demand. Such inhibitions have to be borne in mind when assessing the prospects of non-violent resistance”.

Nevertheless, Liddell Hart had some caveats about how and when to use non-violence. When I discussed with him about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia where in 1968 a liberal communist government was attempting reforms and to distance itself from the Kremlin, he made some pithy observations.

The tanks were stopped in their tracks by non-violent demonstrators. There were strikes of workers and students, demonstrations and blunt refusals to meet the demands of or obey the orders of the new occupying power. But in the end the invaders won.

He argued that in a situation like this where protestors are up against tanks and infantry, apparent acquiescence that conceals and is combined with a strategy of non-compliance is much more baffling and frustrating to an occupying power that is militarily strong (as in the Ukrainian war today) than is open resistance. As, for example, what happened in Denmark where they secretly smuggled their Jews to neutral Sweden while all the time keeping their heads down in daily meetings with German soldiers.

Experience has shown that such tactics can be maintained for a longer time than any other forms of resistance and that they depend for their effect on a cumulative sense of frustration. It’s extremely difficult, he argued, for the occupying force to pinpoint such noncompliance and deal with it effectively. “There is usually no answer to such go-slow tactics. This is why the Danes succeeded. The German generals found it more frustrating than any other form of resistance, as they frankly admitted in post-war discussions.”

Today in Ukraine, if a similar passive resistance and non-cooperation were put into effect, it would wear down the Russian occupiers. There would be less fighting and far less destruction and deaths. By and large, Russian officers are not prone to ordering their men to kill those who are not attacking them.

Can the leaders of Ukraine and their Western backers learn from this? It appears the Ukrainians are losing on the battlefield. Moreover, the price of going to war with Russia has been the wholesale destruction of neighbourhoods and towns and countless deaths, bereavement and loss of homes. If this goes on, even with the deep pockets of the EU and the US, will there be enough money to rebuild on the necessary scale?

At the moment many parts of Ukraine are being reduced to ashes. Strategists talk about the war stretching into winter, even next year. The present policy of violent confrontation is clearly not working. We don’t know if non-violent tactics would be successful in thwarting the Russian advance and occupation, but they would have more of a chance than any violent activities. It’s not too late to change tactics.

As this war progresses, worse by the day, “an eye for an eye”, as Gandhi said, “makes the whole world blind”. As Martin Luther King preached, “We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is pre-existent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.”

About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com [IDN-InDepthNews — 28 June 2022]

Photo: Dr Martin Luther King speaking against the war in Vietnam, St. Paul Campus, University of Minnesota by Minnesota Historical Society. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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