An Afternoon With Paul Chappell

by , September 27, 2010

“How can we humanize people in the Middle East and not humanize people in our own country?”

That was a wise question in the midst of a speech full of wisdom from former Army captain and West Point graduate Paul Chappell. He gave the speech at a Sept. 5 event sponsored by the Peace Coalition of Monterey County (PCMC). An organization I co-chair, Monterey County Libertarians for Peace, is a member of the PCMC. In asking the question, Chappell was asking his audience, whom he perceived, correctly, as largely left-wing, to be more open to the humanity of those they sometimes denigrate. He gave two examples of groups that the Left often dumps on: (1) people in the military and (2) members of the Tea Party. You read that right: Paul Chappell plunked himself down in the middle of a group of about 60 people, almost all of whom were likely to be dismissive of the Tea Party, and asked them not to be so dismissive. More on that later, but back to his main message.

Chappell’s first step in his speech was to persuade his audience that humans are not naturally violent. He asked for a show of hands on three choices: (1) people are naturally violent, (2) they’re naturally peaceful, or (3) they’re naturally both. I raised my hand for option (3), but in the space of only 10 minutes, he shifted me toward choice (2). He did so with evidence. He pointed out that the greatest problem armies have is stopping their own soldiers from running away from battle. The way to keep people fighting, armies have learned, is to convince them that they’re fighting to protect their friends and/or their loved ones. That’s why, he said, armies insist on camaraderie and brotherhood. West Point, he said, taught him to treat his unit as his family.

Chappell told the story of the Battle of Salamis, which he also tells in his short book, Will War Ever End? A Soldier’s Vision of Peace for the 21st Century. The Athenians, though badly outnumbered by the Persians, refused to retreat and, in fact, won a victory. What was their motivation? To protect their loved ones. Their battle cry: “Advance, ye sons of Greece. From oppression save your country, save your wives, save your children.”

Then he argued that war warps the human mind. He quoted a book by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing, which is required reading at West Point and, said Chappell, “one of the most uplifting books you’ll ever read.” Grossman claims that prolonged exposure to war makes normal people insane. Two percent of people involved in war don’t become insane, claims Grossman, because they were already insane. I don’t vouch for this statistic; I’m simply reporting it.

Chappell asked his audience to guess what percent of American soldiers during World War II who were in a position to fire at the enemy and were “supposed” to do so actually did so. I guessed 20 percent. The actual answer was 15 percent. In Vietnam, by contrast, it was 90 percent. What changed? Chappell’s answer was that people in the U.S. Army during Vietnam had been trained to kill.

The way to train people to kill, he said, is to dehumanize those being killed. He listed three ways of doing this: (1) psychological distance, (2) moral distance, and (3) mechanical (physical) distance. The way to create psychological distance is with things like racial slurs: calling the North Vietnamese “gooks,” for example. To create moral distance, governments try to get their soldiers to think, “I’m good, you’re bad, and God is on my side.”

His example to illustrate the importance of mechanical distance was the most interesting and solved a puzzle I had always wondered about. We often hear that the Nazis built gas chambers to kill Jews because that was quicker than killing them with bullets. Thinking through the technology of those two methods, I was never convinced. Lining huge numbers of people up and then firing at them would seem to be quicker and cheaper. But Chappell provided an answer that I find plausible: Even the Nazis had trouble killing large numbers of people face to face, and gas chambers allowed them to commit mass murder without seeing their victims die.

Chappell said he had learned four things at West Point that changed his life.

The first is that the nature of war has drastically changed. It’s now all about winning hearts and minds of the other side in a conflict. A Marine colonel interviewed in Afghanistan on 60 Minutes, said Chappell, had stated that if “we” kill 1,000 Taliban and two civilians, it’s a loss. (If you follow the above link, you’ll get a lot of what he told us in his speech.)

So if it’s all about winning hearts and minds, he asked the audience, how do you do that? Recalling his point about dehumanization, I stuck my hand up and answered, “By recognizing that they have heart and minds.” Chappell pointed out that once you take seriously the idea of winning hearts and minds, you then have to think seriously about the non-violent methods used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

The second thing he learned at West Point, said Chappell, was the idea of waging peace instead of waging war. He quoted the late Howard Zinn, who said, “Between war and apathy, there are a thousand possibilities.” This reminded me of a story I told in my antiwar column, “I Don’t Have to Fight You.” He also quoted Sun Tsu: “Defeating your opponent without violence is the pinnacle of excellence.” Chappell listed in order from best to worst three kinds of war: the war that is never fought, the war that is avoided (which I think is the same as the first), and the war without bloodshed.

The fourth thing [my notes on his third lesson are sparse] is that war is not inevitable. He quoted Gen. Omar Bradley’s statement, “Wars can be prevented just as surely as they are provoked.” He also quoted Leo Tolstoy’s statement, “In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments.”

Chappell also pointed out a number of interesting facts:

  • In 2006, West Point invited Noam Chomsky to talk to the sophomore class about “just war” theory.
  • Andrew Bacevich claimed that the U.S. military does not believe that victory in Afghanistan is possible.
  • Gen. Stanley McChrystal wanted everyone in the military to read Three Cups of Tea.
  • Dehumanization of the other side comes not mainly from the military but primarily from the media and politicians.

Chappell also held out hope for Americans to think clearly about these issues. He quoted Noam Chomsky: “People are not stupid. If you ever wonder if people are stupid, listen to Americans talk about baseball.”

I second that. I remember going to my first baseball game ever after moving to the United States, a game in Los Angeles between the Dodgers and, if I recall correctly, the Cincinnati Reds. I was sitting beside a 12-year-old boy who asked me what I did, and I told him I was studying economics and then went on to explain how price controls were leading his father to line up for gasoline. He got it. I confessed to him that I found baseball boring.

“It’s not boring,” he said. “It’s exciting because of all the strategy people are using.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Look at that first baseman. Why’s he standing where he is?”

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Because of who’s up to bat and because of the runner on first. And because he’s where he is, look at where the right fielder is.” Etc. From that moment on, I didn’t have enough eyes to follow everything that was happening. All because of the intelligence of this 12-year-old.

Just before going to the break, Chappell said, “I see why not many people join the peace movement.” He went on to explain that there’s a lot of negativity in the antiwar movement and that “we need to put the peace back in the peace movement.”

After the break, Chappell started a second talk titled “Teaching Peace.” He asked, “If there were someone in the Tea Party here, how would you talk to him?” I stuck up my hand and said, “You don’t have to speculate: I’m from the Tea Party.” I think this put him off his game, even though that wasn’t my intent. But he went on to point out that the way to talk to people is to address their humanity. You have to do so, he said, by addressing their concerns. Good line: “If you attack people’s worldview, they will react as if you attacked their physical bodies.” After decades of working to persuade people, I agree. In fact, his comment reminded me of a response that the late economist Friedrich Hayek once gave a friend of mine. My friend, Mike Walker, had expressed frustration that it is so hard to change people’s minds. Hayek smiled and said, “Yes, for most people, their ideas are one of their most important forms of property. When you criticize their ideas, they feel it as a capital loss.”

So what do you do? Chappell’s answer is that you need to introduce your idea to people in a way that corresponds to their worldviews. He gave a few examples. Martin Luther King Jr. compared the plight of black Americans to that of Hebrews trying to get liberation from Egyptians. Susan B. Anthony, in pushing for women’s suffrage, tied the cause in with the Declaration of Independence.

Another example he gave was about how to argue for single-payer health care. “The U.S. military,” he said, “is the most socialist organization on the planet.” Those who want single-payer, he said, should use the argument that the military already has such a health care system. Actually, I tend to point out that the U.S. military has socialized medicine when I argue against single-payer. And that argument resonates with many of my military officer students.

How do you argue for peace? Always point out, he said, that you are not just pro-peace, but also pro-security, and that the wars the U.S. government gets us in typically undermine our security. This argument, of course, will not come as news to regular readers of Antiwar.com.

Since his talk, Paul Chappell and I have been in touch by e-mail and phone. I pointed out to him that socialized medicine involves the government using force against it own citizens, and libertarians want the U.S. government to treat its citizens and residents at least as well as we want it to treat people in other countries. I had the idea that he had never heard that, but he didn’t dismiss it. He also expressed interest in talking to people in the Tea Party. Could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship?

Copyright © 2010 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.

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