Randall Forsberg

Ending War: Thinking the Unthinkable

Randall Forsberg (1943 - 2007) offered these remarks as honoree at the Center's Third Annual Global Citizen Award ceremony, held in 1997. Her co-recipient that year was Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, of Costa Rica. Dr. Forsberg founded the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies in Cambridge, MA in 1980 and was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1983. She was introduced by Joshua Cohen, Head, Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (Photographs by Jonathan Wilson)

Joshua Cohen: A Moral Vocation

I have the greatest admiration for Randy and her extraordinary devotion, for thirty years now, to building a world safer, more just, more democratic, and more simply decent than the one we now inhabit. Randy is a good friend, and no pleasure is more exquisite than seeing a friend win such richly deserved recognition.

What does it takewhat special combination of personal qualitiesto make the kind of remarkable contribution that Randy has made, and that the Center honors her for with this award? My answer has four parts.

In discussing her work, Randy saidand here I paraphrasethat she imagined a world eventually emerginga world very different from our ownin which people would regard war in much the way we now regard cannibalism and human sacrifice: Not as a way to achieve national glory and economic treasure, not as the continuation of politics by other means, not even as a policy optionbut, simply, as palpably disgusting, too awful to be contemplated, the kind of thing people once did that we now find so hard even to understand.

What I was struck by then, and am impressed by now, is that an unyielding devotion to the common human good requires a simple and compelling moral vision of this kind.

But not just that. A few nights ago, Randy called me lateshe had just returned from the labs in New Mexico, where she had been talking to people who are trying to figure out better ways to keep nuclear weapons safe.

She described the intelligence and seriousness of the people she had talked to, and the brilliant and well-crafted presentations they had givenand then explained, in the most plaintive tone, how sad it was. Sad, because so much money and such great talent were being devoted to symptoms, so pathetically little to curing the underlying diseases. There was a sense of moral shock and outrage because of Randy's unwillingness ever simply to take for granted or be reconciled to the fact that people do the wrong thing.

Here, then, we have a second element of a moral vocation: a sense of outrage that must accompany a moral vision. For without the emotion of outrage, a vision can easily become disconnected from practical life and become a source of smugness rather than a guide to public conduct.

We all know people who combine vision and outrage but never become effective agents because they are unable to connect to other people. Randy achieves that connection because she respects the common reason of humankind and shows that respect through her conviction that her visionif only she is able to find the right way to convey it, argue for it, show that it can be made realcan be made compelling to others. So she articulates the moral vision and sense of moral outrage through her work as public educator.

I have seen her close up in this role, in her writing for Boston Review. I can't think of anyone else who has written for the magazine who is so uncompromisingly devoted to making sure that the argument is perspicuous, the details are all absolutely accurate, and every word free of ambiguity. And it is all driven by a sense of respect for readers (which means, for fellow citizens): Randy approaches every word with the keen awareness that she is asking people, other rational adult people, to change their ideas and their conduct.

So moral vision, a persistent sense of outrage, and respect: all necessary, but still not sufficient for this vocation. Think of what you have to put up with when you stand outside the political mainstream and you try to shift that mainstream rather than simply condemning it (particularly when you are a woman writing about war and military force): you have to put up with all the raised eyebrows, all the rolling eyes, all the advice of the smart insiders who know what it takes to be a player, and, what is worse, all the people who know that growing up means giving up.

You need to persist through periods in which everything you have built seems about to fall apart. This great moral vocation, then, also requires great personal courage.

So a life guided by a compelling moral vision of what ought to be, animated by a sense of outrage at what is, articulated with respect for the common reason of humankind, and sustained by personal courage: that's what is needed. I applaud the Boston Research Center for seeing these qualities in Randy Forsberg and honoring her for them. And on behalf of everyone here, I thank Randy for all her good work.

Randall Forsberg receiving award

Randall Forsberg:
Ending War
Thinking the Unthinkable     

It's a pleasure for me to share this award with all of my colleagues and to share the work of working for peace. Peace is a community endeavor: it is the coming together of groups of people who see the common humanity not only in themselves and each other, but in all the people we don't know.

Let me take up the question of what we can do for peace now that the Cold War is over. The end of the Cold War offered an opportunity to create the kind of world that was envisioned with the founding of the United Nations in 1945: the end of the Cold War opened a door to a world without war. Instead, what the United States has done is to opt for unilateral determination of what's best for us and what's best for the rest of the world.

With the end of the Cold War, US military spending did not come down. With the end of the Cold War, US military spending did not come down. This country still has military spending on the order of $250 billion a year (which is exactly the average for the entire period from the end of the Korean War until the Reagan years, with the exception of Vietnam) even though the Warsaw Pact collapsed, the Soviet Union itself collapsed, the Eastern European countries have been completely liberated and democratized, and the collapse of the economy in Russia has meant that the Russian military have no resources.

That $250 billion is something that we can see in the decimation of the arts, the elimination of most federal aid to higher education, and the collapse of the inner cities resulting in the deaths and drug addiction of millions of young people because they have no jobs, they have no education, and they have no future.

What is the impact of the $250 billion from the viewpoint of world politics? It is over-ensuring that the United States can call the shots militarily in any conflict anywhere in the world at any time from here on out. This country has refused to subordinate itself to UN command, to multilateral authority, and refused to share power with other nations in deciding when armed force ought to be used and for what and with what restrictions. US officials have continued to announce in national policy statements that the United States reserves the right to use force to protect US interests around the world.

But force in the international arena should never be used with the one exception of defending oneself or a neighbor if attacked, and even then, the absolutely minimum force required to stop the attack should be used. Under that guideline, the United States would not have a $250 billion military budget.

For the first time in a century, there is no prospect of any of the world's most powerful nations going to war with each other in a conventional world war, or a war in which territory is at stake and nations are competing for empire-like control over large regions of the world.

  • There is no prospect of a major regional war, like the Korean War or the Vietnam War or Afghanistan or the Gulf War, with very few and limited exceptions:
  • There could be a war between the two Koreas; but as North Korea has grown weaker economically and politically and opened up a little bit, this seems less and less likely.
  • There is some possibility of a war between India and Pakistan, but there the scope of the war, the duration, and the impact would be very limited.
  • There is a remote possibility of some kind of military conflict over Taiwan with China and perhaps the United States involved. But China does not yet have the military capabilities to seize Taiwan, nor is there any indication that China's policy is moving toward attempting to do so.
  • In the Middle East, Iraq's forces were decimated by the Gulf War. When that war began, Iraq had the most powerful armed forces of any country of the Third World. Yet the Gulf War wasn't really a war, it was a rout: Iraq was beaten by the United States in a couple of weeks. Today, Iraq has less than half the military power it had then, and Iran's military capability is even less.
  • Now the most powerful country in the Middle East outside Israel, militarily, is Syria. Conceivably there could be a confrontation between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights; but this, too, would be a war highly limited in scale, duration, and objectives.

That's it for major wars fought with tanks and airplanes and ships and missiles: an unlikely war in Korea, an unlikely war over Taiwan, maybe a war between India and Pakistan which wouldn't involve western nations, and maybe a skirmish over the Golan Heights. These unlikely wars in distant lands over modest goals are the wars the United States is maintaining forces to fight at a cost of $250 billion a year.

What could the United States be doing instead, to seize the opportunity offered by the end of the Cold War and by the decline in major war? What could we do to take the initial steps toward that vision of a world without war which was embodied in the UN Charter and which remains as valid and as good today as it was 50 years ago?

First of all, we should remind people in the United States that burden-sharing is a good thing. We need to increase reliance on the United Nations, to build support for the idea that multilateral, not unilateral, military intervention to end aggression or genocide is the way to go. We need to reduce US military forces and spending while announcing that the United States will no longer arrogate to itself the right or responsibility of unilateral military intervention.

Second, we need to strengthen the means of preventing conflicts before they start.Second, we need to strengthen the means of preventing conflicts before they start, recognizing impending conflicts and putting diplomatic and military resources at the disposal of the Secretary General and the United Nations Security Council for preventive action before war breaks out. We need to have unarmed peace-keepers to go into regions of conflict, observers who can report back what's happening, as well as earmarked teams of mediators and diplomats who are experts in the long-standing conflicts in the regions concerned, who are available at all times to act on behalf of the international community.

Third, we could promote regional reductions of armaments, particularly reductions in the forces of the large industrial countries and of key countries in the major regions of conflict: the two Koreas, China and Japan, Taiwan, India, Pakistan and the countries in the Middle East. In all of these areas there are lots of opportunities for building trust that the only purpose of armed forces is defense.

Finally, the United States, which is now the world's leading arms exporter and which, for the first time in history, is producing more major weapons for export than for use in our own armed forces, could take the lead in designing armed forces to be more defensively-oriented, so as to build confidence during a transitional period while arms reduction and conflict resolution efforts are going on.

In sum, if the United States took the lead in renouncing the use of force to advance national interests and committed itself to restrict the use of force to defense of oneself and others against international aggression or internal genocide, under the auspices of nonpartisan UN or regional security organizations, this would create an entirely different moral and political environmentan international environment in which there would be a steadily declining incidence of war, expectation of war, and acceptance of war.

These means offer a process of political development and change in which war would become unthinkablea process that we can create together.

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