Monday, December 02, 2013

Peace on Earth: Why Do We Fight? by Niki Walker

Three brothers were left with seventeen camels when their father died. The older son was to have half of them, the middle son one-third, and the youngest son one-ninth.

"How can we divide seventeen by half?" the brothers wondered. "It doesn't work."

Finally they decided to let the village wise woman divide the camels for them. "I'll give you one of my camels. That will make eighteen," she said.

The oldest son took his half--nine camels--and the middle son took his third--six camels--and the youngest took his ninth--two camels. But then they realized that they had one camel left over.

"Can I have my camel back now?" the wise woman asked.

Blessed are the peacemakers. Conflict is inevitable among humans, admits Niki Walker's latest, Why Do We Fight?: Conflict, War, and Peace, (OwlKids, 2013).   But just as we people can find a way to disagree over anything, we can also find many ways to avoid taking our conflict all the way to war, many ways of getting to that yes.

Walker bravely goes into the trenches of human conflict, frankly discussing its causes, from clashes between cliques to all-out wars between countries, from religion ethnicity, and centuries-old grudges, to grabs for land, resources, and power between individuals and groups. The author explains key concepts such as global conflict, conflict resources, zero-sum game, WIN-WIN resolution, Haves and Have-Nots, culture clashes, stereotypes and prejudices, and the ultimate killer-diller cause of conflict, US vs. THEM thinking.

So why do some disputes lead to violence while others get settled without it? Maybe understanding why wars don't happen is as important as understanding why they do.

Using common examples, from giving the guy who doesn't like you the right to decide what size slice of pie you get to a hypothetical Planet Earth High School, from the Pig War between Canadian and U.S. farmers to the roots of war in Afghanistan and the rise and collapse of the Cold War, Walker makes the roots of conflict clear to middle readers and points to some of the hard-earned means of settling conflicts which humans have worked out over time--fair laws and courts, equality before the law, democratic elections, the art of diplomacy, mediation and arbitration, and international bodies such as the United Nations and international agreements. Walker realistically points out that these are all pro tem works in progress, not the solution to all human conflict.

More than the sum of its parts, this book is an invaluable primer for students just coming into awareness of the world outside their own, one that puts conflict into the context of  human life, and offers some instructions for cutting through media hype, propaganda, opinion, and our own tendencies to agree with our own side's arguments. Walker hopefully cites the successes of conflict resolution in recent history, pointing out that "since 1990 more than 600 peace agreements have been signed around the world."  If we can't all agree, at least we can use our disagreements to find a new way out, a way to make those camels come out even.  As Gandhi reminds us, "Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress."

"Walker's exemplary study... gives readers the tools to understand and analyze the kinds of clashes, wars, and disagreements that they regularly hear about in the news," writes Publishers Weekly.

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