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John Wayne Syndrome

by BARRY CLEMSON

John Wayne is the classic American hero. He always came through and the bad guys always got what they deserved. For those readers too young to remember John Wayne’s movies, think Chuck Norris or Jet Li in their good guy roles. The story-line is always that evil men threaten and John Wayne swings into action, guns blazing and fists flying, and saves the day.

John Wayne’s world has three main characters: the bad guys, the good guys, and the victims who need to be saved from the bad guys. In this world there are two possible responses when the bad guys show up: you meekly submit to the bad guys or you fight.

This storyline covers everything from the crazed psycho killer threatening a lone victim all the way up to a Hitler threatening the entire world. In all these cases the plot is essentially the same: evil threatens and your choices are the way of the coward or the way of the warrior. There are no other possibilities.

This mindset is the John Wayne Syndrome.

The John Wayne Syndrome has a number of attractive advantages. It is simple and it provides explicit guidance for behavior. Much of our entertainment (books, TV, and movies) reinforces this syndrome. Even the church, with its just war doctrine and its cheerleading for particular wars, reinforces this mindset. Furthermore, we have many iconic examples of heroes who have exemplified this behavior so it is fairly easy to emulate.

If our responses to evil are truly limited to the way of the coward and the way of the warrior, it is clear that the way of the warrior is better. Even Gandhi said the way of the warrior is much better than the way of the coward. Any person or nation operating within the John Wayne Syndrome is always going to choose violence over submission.

Despite all the advantages of the John Wayne Syndrome, many people from at least the time of Jesus have been rejecting it. Jesus said that we should meet violence with nonviolence. To those of us within the John Wayne Syndrome, this seems nuts – or at best a response that makes sense only for saints and Gods.

Jesus and his radical followers argue that nonviolence is always the best response. There is not time in this little essay to explore that argument, but I will look at nonviolence from a practical perspective.

I spent ten months as part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964 – 1965 and experienced a third way, the way of the peaceful warrior. I discovered through personal experience that the warrior vs. coward dichotomy is a false one.

In 1964 Mississippi was ruled by fear. A black person who tried to register to vote faced arrest, beatings, being fired, being evicted, and if they still dared to persist, death. I, along with almost a thousand other volunteers, went into that cauldron of violence in June of 1964. When I arrived in Mississippi on June 24 three of our members were already dead in the little town of Philadelphia, murdered by the Klan and members of the sheriff’s office.

During the next ten months I was arrested, attacked by both civilians and the police, and threatened by mobs twice. I was pretty sure I would die on three different occasions, one of them while I was in jail. And yet, miraculously, I was never even hurt. And more miraculously still, by the time Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Alabama ended in April 1965 the power of the Klan had been broken forever. Nonviolently.

A violent racist system encompassing both the government and large private organizations (i.e. the Klan and the White Citizen’s Councils) was defeated by an entirely nonviolent movement. This experience led me to wonder what the potential might be for nonviolence in other large-scale conflict situations.

There have been quite a few examples of what we might call strategic nonviolence, i.e. nonviolence used to wage large-scale conflicts. Most of these examples to date have been ad hoc campaigns. None of them have had the benefit of extensive prior planning, training or preparation. All of them have depended upon spontaneous outpourings of what we might term “people power”. These examples include:

Czechoslosvakia and Solidarity. The Czech labor federation rather successfully resisted the USSR.

German Ruhrkampf in 1923.  The Germans nonviolently resisted a French invasion until the international community stepped in and brokered a peace agreement that resulted in substantial victories for the nonviolent movement.

Denmark, Netherland, and Belgium all resisted the Nazis to some extent and all had some victories. Denmark saved essentially all of its Jews from the Nazis.

El Salvador in 1944 removed a dictator nonviolently.

Chile removed General Pinochet, a brutal dictator who killed thousands.

The 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer that I participated in provided precisely one week of training, considerably more than was provided in the examples above.

We are all familiar with nonviolent campaigns that have failed, e.g., Tianemen Square and the recent events in Myanmar (Burma). Strategic nonviolence has no guarantee of success and, in that respect, is similar to war. Obviously war has, on average, a 50% chance of “success” because one side always loses. Given the very high price that the victors often pay, even “success” often sounds like a loss (e.g., Russia had 25 million dead in winning the Second World War).

The question remains: what might be accomplished with nonviolence if a campaign was planned and prepared for in the way that we prepare for a military campaign? Suppose we developed a variety of scenarios, trained people in how to implement them, and stockpiled the necessary equipment and supplies? How might that work? And might a nonviolent campaign cost us fewer deaths than a conventional war?

We do not know the answer to these questions because it has never been tried.

Thanks to Dr. Gene Sharp and a few other scholars we now have a large number of excellent case studies on nonviolent campaigns. We also have a fairly robust theory about how to carry out a campaign of strategic nonviolence.

In the absence of the real thing, I decided it would be useful to have a fictional example of such a campaign. Denmark Rising tells the story of Denmark, beginning in 1940 with the Nazi invasion. The story pretends Denmark thoroughly prepared for a campaign of strategic nonviolent total resistance. The Nazis, of course, had no compunctions against killing and torture so the Danes were pretty quickly in deep trouble. Nevertheless, the Danes prepared well and the Nazis had a number of unpleasant surprises.

The Nazi occupying force consisted of two groups: a large group of Wehrmacht troops (basically draftees) and a relatively small number of SS and Gestapo who were much more fanatical and brutal than the Wehrmacht. Because the Danes offered no violence toward them, the Wehrmacht fairly quickly became reluctant to brutalize the Danes (this part is historically accurate). The SS and Gestapo, of course, went right on killing and torturing, so Denmark’s situation remained dire.

The average soldier marches off to kill because the enemy is trying to kill him. What happens to that soldier when the enemy is clearly NOT trying to kill him? Will that average soldier still kill when ordered to do so?

One common dynamic in nonviolent campaigns is that the occupying forces often become very reluctant to use force against a population that is offering no threat to them. For instance, when the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia, their troop morale deteriorated so quickly and so badly that they had to be replaced every two weeks. Replacing your entire occupying force every two weeks is of course enormously expensive for the invaders. However, if the invader doesn’t replace troops who have become sympathetic to the nonviolent resisters, then the invader is severely limited in the actions that can be taken against that population.

I won’t reveal the ending of Denmark Rising (you’re supposed to rush out and buy it!). However, my fictional exploration of the question convinced me that strategic nonviolence in a conflict with a brutal enemy is sometimes more practical than a violent resistance. This is especially true if the brutal enemy has most of the guns, as it did in the case of Germany vs Denmark.

John Wayne probably thought that there were only two alternatives: the way of the warrior and the way of the coward. If John Wayne could have been part of one of the nonviolent campaigns mentioned above, he would have changed his mind. He would have seen that the third way is in some respects the hardest but also in many situations it is the most effective and the most likely to win (and almost always has far fewer costs). John Wayne would approve of the third way, the way of the peaceful warrior. And then it wouldn’t be so easy for the leaders to convince the people to make war. The people might insist on the third way, the way of the peaceful warrior.

BARRY CLEMSON is a writer who uses fiction to explore themes of nonviolence. His baptism to nonviolence was a period of ten months in 1964-65 when he worked for SNCC in Mississippi.

 

 

 

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