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‘Powerful Peace’: A Navy SEAL’s Personal Lessons About Humanity, Conflict Resolution, and the Cost of War

SINCE THE RODNEY King riots of 1992, “Can’t we all just get along?” has been a common (and commonly misquoted) refrain in America, both among serious persons and those seeking to inject levity into tense situations.  In a forthcoming book, though, retired Navy SEAL J. Robert DuBois responds to that question with a plan of action that he hopes people at home and around the world will follow.

Powerful Peace: A Navy SEAL’s Lessons on Peace from a Lifetime of War isn’t just the latest hipster-friendly treatise on pacifism or the Vietnam-era cliché about a war being thrown and nobody attending.  Rather, DuBois’s contribution to the peacemaking discourse is a deeply personal exposition on the development and proper application of the “smart power” concept that was first described by Harvard professor Joseph Nye two decades ago as a “combination of hard and soft power in effective ways.”   Referred to in the book as ‘applied smart power,’ or ASP, DuBois describes the proper application of Nye’s concept as “a grassroots approach for local as well as global peacemaking,” and asks, “Without balancing closer relationships, what hope is there for improved global engagement? Like parents who overcome differences to raise a healthy family, macro-level, external conflict reduction rests on the building blocks of effective internal relationships. Ultimately, as the old hymn goes, ‘Let there be peace on earth…and let it begin with me.’”

THE BULK OF Powerful Peace consists of such introspective musings, interspersed with real life experiences and lessons that the author has gained, often at great cost, from his career as a Navy special operator.  However, though the message is often simple (and in some cases, such as Ch. 37 ‘Tolerance,’ simplistic), it would be wrong to assume that DuBois’s approach consists entirely of promoting naïve dovishness in the face of threat and danger.  The fifth of the book’s 48 short chapters opens with a quote from another retired SEAL, who responded to the author’s call for dialogue with enemies by saying, “I tried to talk to them, but they couldn’t hear me over their RPGs” – a counterpoint DuBois uses to illustrate the role of violence as a necessary component of ASP.  “Peacemaking is not the fluffy stuff of rainbows and unicorns,” he writes. “Genuine conflict reduction requires the capacity and willingness to strike.”

However, the author complements this with the oft-repeated warning that using the “hammer” of force or violence when the problem being dealt with is something other than a nail can cause more problems and create more enemies than it prevents.  As such, DuBois posits, a key part of conflict resolution and reduction is possession of “determined restraint and the guts to stare straight into the face of hate and then choose a reasoned response.”  In this vein, understanding and engaging the human terrain in areas of operation is a necessity, as is putting a human face on the cost of conflict.  “Red [enemy] actors,” he writes, “are simply former Green citizens [neutral actors or part of the general population] who have crossed into our enemy’s camp. (In some cases, an individual is literally Green by day and Red by night.) …This crossing over is always caused by some perceived need or grievance, whether due to economic constraints or a desire for revenge.  If we are able to effectively address these, therefore, we stand to gain. Every increase to the ranks of Green forces reduces the Red by one.”

IT IS TO his credit that, unlike some modern proponents of engagement over power projection, DuBois does not condemn the United States as a prime source of problems and conflicts found around the globe. Instead, he states that “America is the taproot of liberty and democracy in the modern world,” though he does not shy away from what he feels are necessary critiques of policy, action, and attitude on the part of people in every culture, Americans included.  With only a few exceptions, though, the author avoids engaging in outright condemnation, preferring instead to highlight those attitudes and actions he sees as contributing to conflicts, rather than helping solve them, as examples that he, his readers, and humanity at large can learn from.

Though Powerful Peace is presented to some degree as a guidebook, DuBois is clearly a man who is himself very much still on a journey.  As such, the book is less a road map than it is a case of deep introspection, putting on display the thoughts and feelings of a person who understands the cost of war from the 30,000 foot view down to the granular human level.  DuBois’s thoughts and anecdotes serve more as conversation starters than as homilies, but it is difficult to come away from this engaging text with the conclusion that the author would consider simply starting such a conversation to be anything other than a great success.

Powerful Peace: A Navy SEAL’s Lessons on Peace from a Lifetime of War by J. Robert DuBois is published by Morgan James.

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