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Peace Studies Conference held at GRCC

September 29, 2010

The Second Annual Peace Studies Conference is being held at Grand Rapids Community College this week and even though GRIID is not able to attend the whole conference, it will be writing about some of the presentations.

The first session we were able to attend was an afternoon session on Tuesday entitled, Dealing with the Causes and Ramifications of Violence: Peacebuilding Techniques. There were two presenters, Julie Keil from Saginaw Valley State University and Carole McKenna from Ferris State University.

Julie Keil spoke first on the topic of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC), a process where countries that have experienced of form of civil war or serious political violence has come to terms with that dark period of their country.

Julie said she has spent time and worked on post civil war work in Sierra Leon. The question she posed to the audience and was the framework for her research is whether or not countries that went through a TRC process has lead to democracy and the growth of civil society?

She used Freedom House as a source for definition for democracy, political rights, civil liberties, civil society, although the definitions were very limited for each of these categories. It should also be noted that Freedom House while having more progressive origins, has in the past 30 years become more an arm of US policy, often reflecting State Department positions on international conflict.

Ms. Keil then gave reasons why it is important to have Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. First, a TRC can provide a record of the truth and to provide a forum to discuss the abuses that is not in a punitive nature, meaning people cannot be punished for the information disclosed. In addition, TRCs can provide some sort of justice/reparations for victims of political violence, to provide for closure, to expose the wrongdoing of previous regimes and to provide legitimacy for the new regime.

She then stated that often perpetrators are not brought to justice, There are numerous reasons why justice often does not occur, such as it is very costly to proceed through legal means. Secondly, trials to get to the truth of events, only to focus on the guilt or innocence of individuals. Another reason is that courts can provide an opportunity for acquittals. The speaker cited Nuremburg as an example where some war crimes got off.

The rest of the time she spent looking at whether or not countries that had Truth and reconciliation Commissions have an improvement in democracy. Her data showed that in 27% of the cases there was an increase of democracy, as defined by Freedom House. Countries with the biggest increases were Ghana and Panama. The same percentage of countries had increases in civil rights, with South Africa and Chile being countries with major improvements.

Her conclusions were that there is a positive outcome of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in countries that go through that process. The greatest improvements in broad democratic terms were mostly seen in Latin America, while the worst area was sub Saharan Africa.

The Culture of US Militarism

The second speaker was Dr. Carole McKenna, who presented on what she called Canadian and American Culture of Militarism. She is also author of the book Militarism: The Power Arrangements between Soldiers, Wives, and the Military Industrial Service Complex.

Dr. McKenna wanted to look at how military families and wives coped not just with the risks that their spouses & children were taking in war, but how they negotiated the realities of war while living in America.

Dr. McKenna admitted that she had 3 sons in the US Army, but she also protested the US war in Iraq. She looked at the US military policy known as Stop Loss, which is where the military kept soldiers in active duty for longer periods of time than in previous wars.

During one interview with a woman married to a soldier she mentioned graffiti that was spray painted on cliffs near the military housing that said “Iraq made our husbands mean.”

Using the graffiti as a jumping off point, she then discussed the Thomas Theorem, which reflects the idea that people will believe whatever they want to believe in order to cope. “Military families,” she said, “had to believe in the military missions that their families were involved in. This was particularly so during military funerals where the message that was required was to stay positive.”

She then discussed the relationship between our culture of consumerism and pampering, which Dr McKenna said are both necessary in order for military wives to cope. Some of the wives would work on self-beautification through teeth whitening or physical exercise. One other technique was for people to attend church or get into therapy. Overwhelmingly, those who admitted they were depressed, while in therapy, were often prescribed drugs. So the emphasis is that instead of looking at the reality of war, military families are encouraged to remain positive and not question what is being done in our name.

She concluded her comments by discussing the need for a peace process that has an economy that serves people and protects eco-systems. Her analysis of our economic system was certainly anti-capitalist, although she never named it as such. There is a clear need to change our economic system, according to Dr. McKenna, in order to avoid perpetual war. “Not until we change our economic system can we address this country’s involvement in war.”

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