Why This Wisdom Teacher Believes Conscious Leadership Demands We Intervene In Syria
A hundred years ago this week, the United States entered the First World War, much to the dismay of many isolationists at home. One hundred thousand Americans died. Roughly 18 million people died overall, 7 million of them civilians. This was supposed to be the Great War, the war to end all wars. With the clarity of 20-20 hindsight, we can see how ridiculous that statement was.
Automatic rifle team ready for action. Manned by Pvt. J.H. Maxwell and Pvt. E.A. Sullivan, Co. B, 137th Infantry Regiment, Germany. Aug. 1918. # National World War I Museum and Memorial
Now in 2017, Donald Trump, without the approval of Congress and after running as a quasi-isolationist, launched a series of strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Since that moment, my Facebook stream has been full of people bemoaning this intervention, complete with multiple conspiracy theories that imply that the Syrian State was not responsible for the gas attack on the kids who died earlier in the week.
As a devoted wisdom teacher, discerning ‘conscious’ leadership advisor and seasoned systemic transformation agent, there are few who are more aware of the potential dangers of, and damage that can come from, violent actions. All violence tends to create more. A central feature of all my work is to shift people out of defensive protection – Control & Protect Mode – and into connected creativity – Create & Connect Mode – so we can respond with elegance and grace to difficult situations and so forge a future that works for all.So why do I, who finds almost every other Trump policy somewhere between idiotic and megalomaniacal, believe that military intervention in Syria is the appropriate thing to do? And why do I risk the scorn of my peers for saying so in this essay?
These are world-historical times and the Networked Age means that we are all now leaders in some way, shape or form. So our choices matter. Before I go one, let me say that I am not agreeing with Trump’s intentions. I do not think he and I share the same reasoning, although I may be very wrong. I also am sure that behind the scenes there is lots of strategizing about how to use intervention to displace suspicions about the Trump team’s cozy relationship with Russia and to increase approval ratings with a convenient war. However, whatever Trump’s particular intentions or game-plan, I believe we in the West are duty bound to intervene and have been for some time. We have tried to do that through diplomacy, sanctions and other relatively non-violent means. I can only see military options remain.
I am not alone. The Guardian posted this article yesterday after interviewing a number of anti-Assad Syrians. They were angry with the United States… but not for the missile strike. They were angry that the world’s last super-power has taken 6 years to do anything to stop the murder, bullying and violence enacted by the Syrian State against its own people. In the interviews, both a Syrian aid worker and a ‘freedom fighter’ praised the strike Trump ordered. His actions have, rather fascinatingly, led to a surge in admiration across the Middle East. The Arabic below says: ‘We love you’:
This is ironic given how many progressive people, comfortable as we are sipping our Flat Whites as we comment (as I do now!), have so harshly criticized it. Yet the love that emerges from genuine ‘socialist’ brotherhood is what inspired so many ‘progressives’ to join the International Brigades in Spain in the 1930s. This was the first war between Fascism and open-hearted humanity. Many left-wing people from across the UK and US (including lots of socialist Jews and both George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway) volunteered to fight.
Fighting is not my go to place. I am no hawk. As a deeply-held principle, I believe in the approach to long-term change that Gandhi promoted: ahimsa (non-violence) wrapped up in satyagraha (commitment to truth). People who know my work will know that I am an avid fan of Tolstoy’s anti-war book about personal enlightenment in the place of nationalist war, The Kingdom Of God Is Within, which was a major inspiration to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. All of this thinking is rooted in an expressly mystical worldview that sees us as all connected, and that we feel that connection as love.
Yet practicing ahimsa, practicing compassion and love each day, does not preclude us from having to engage in the gnarly real-world where violence exists and where we are often forced to act not just talk. If it is just ourselves, our own bodies, that we are responsible for, then lying down in front of a tank in non-violent resistance is a valid choice and can really lead to change. But when we are responsible for the physical safety of others, as all parents and many leaders are in some way, the dynamics change considerably.
My oldest son is at elementary school and is often embroiled in playground fights with the other boys. He is at a spiritually- and psychologically-wise school, where the teachers do not believe in labelling any child or their actions ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. In fact, one of the motto’s of the school is that ‘everything is a contribution’. There is no shaming, no reactivity with suspensions and punishments.
That said, if one of the boys is hurting another, it is the teachers sacred, moral and legal duty to prevent that from happening. They do not do it with anger or spite in their heart. They do not do it with blame or shame. They do not do with knee-jerk reactions. They do it consciously with love and respect in their hearts (ie. with ahimsa)… but they do do whatever it takes to stop the suffering. That can include holding a child away from others, using strength (some of these kids are powerful!) or taking them into another room even if they don’t want to.
When we become parents or leaders (and that includes teachers), for the two have much similarity, we have to move from caring just for ourselves to caring for the wellbeing and safety of others. This brings with it tough choices. It is easy to march for peace and to decry violence when we do not have the responsibility to protect others. As soon as we step into this role, we have to step out of the comfort zone of words and protest and into the moral maze of genuine leadership.
I teach others what is called ‘conscious’ leadership and ‘conscious’ parenting. Whilst the full extent of these ideas would need many more words to explain, one of the core elements of this work is to ensure that every act we make as leaders and as parents is aimed at reducing suffering (and after that, increasing thriving).
With each decision we must make we first choose to clear as much of our own ‘patterning’ away: the conditioned moods, beliefs and habits we have used to deal with life but that get in the way of clarity, truth and love in the moment. This means switching on, often shifting our entire physiology out of Control & Protect and into Create & Connect. As we take responsibility for our own patterns and heal any pain or wounding within them, we are then liberated to consciously choose how to act in any given situation in a way that reduces suffering and increases thriving rather than have no choice because we just react.
For me, conscious leadership demands action in Syria (and in every other regime that uses its power to murder its own citizens with impunity). We do not do this because we think people like Assad are ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. They are products of their own conditioning, their own wounding and so their own ‘Control & Protect’ strategies. Hurt people hurt people, which is why we always want to avoid hurting people more by leading from ahimsa.
But as the teachers at my son’s school know, bullies – who are usually hurting as much as the people they abuse in their own hearts – must be prevented from physically abusing others. In the case of Syria, this means the war that the State has waged on the civilian population for 6 years plus which has led to thousands of deaths, millions of refugees and countless political crises across Europe because of it.
As Hitler took over Germany, a democratically-elected leader, he and his hordes begun to systemically bully and then murder my ethnic group, the Jews. Across the UK and the US, well-meaning people, many of them pacifists and progressives, wanted nothing to do with it. I understand that fully. But for every day that the UK and the US waited, and did not go to war with Germany, more children were walked out of villages and shot in the back of the head (often watching their parents and siblings be shot first) and shoved into cattle-carts and trucked across Europe to die as they scratched the walls in terror in the gas chambers. Two of my great-grandparents and their children – apart from my grandfather and one of his brothers – all perished in this onslaught. They were Berliners. My maternal grand-mother and her family were lucky to escape, at night, from the Nazi invasion of Romania.
In 1940, after thousands of Jews had already been murdered, Gandhi wrote a letter to Hitler. Fittingly, he did not attack or shame him but addressed him as ‘dear friend’. In it he says: “ I, therefore, appeal to you in the name of humanity to stop the war.” The letter is a beautiful non-violent appeal to the love and connection within Hitler’s heart. But it did nothing to stop the murder of not just millions upon millions more Jews but also many other ‘undesirables’, such as anyone who was gay, disabled or sick. If the Allies had intervened earlier, many of them would still be alive, including my great-grandma and great-aunt who managed to stay in hiding until 1944.
Just this year it has come to light that my grandfather, smuggled out of Nazi Germany by the Kindertransport to England, re-entered Germany as a British Army truck driver after the Allies – crucially including the United States – launched their final offensive. He ended up at Bergen-Belsen, one of the concentration camps where so many Jews died (including Anne Frank), watching as a soldier bulldozed thousands of emaciated bodies into mass graves. It was presumably so traumatizing that he has only just revealed it to. This is what he saw, again presumably knowing full well that it could be his father, mother, brother and sister on the ground before him:On two occasions a bulldozer, operated by 14322433 Sapper Frank Chapman, 619 Field Park Company, Royal Enginners, was used to push badly decomposed bodies into mass graves. 17 April 1945. Source: Imperial War Museum (BU4058)
With this in mind, Gandhi’s letter looks utterly well-meaning but also naive, just as I feel many of the posts I have read on Facebook are. Because nobody intervened in time, the equivalent of the entire population of London or New York was murdered. I wonder if we really knew how many children and other innocents Assad has been responsible for killing in the last few years – and we could see the scale of it in imagery – whether so many Facebook streams would be quite so opposed to intervention.
As a parent, albeit one that teaches love and connection as the start-points of all human thriving and transformation, I know that if someone wanted to gas my children I would stop them, with force if necessary. I would do it not with anger but with love in my heart. I would do it with great sadness. And I would not do it as a reaction but with full conscious choice. But do it I would.
The world has tried to reason with Assad. It has tried sanctions. It has supported the people-powered resistance. All this has done nothing to stop civilians being bombed. Even if the use of chemical weapons this week was a Chomskian-style plot to get Assad blamed or to start WWIII, which is plausible, it does not mean that Assad should be allowed to continue bombing civilian areas as he has done for years as the world looks on. As this Guardian article suggests, the gas strike could have been the act of a fearful dictator desperate to cling on to power, with an exhausted army, and who has learnt he can do whatever he wants because the rest of the world will just verbally condemn it.
This is not an apologia for Trump or anything he has said or done. I do not know if the missile strikes were a great intervention or not. I am pretty sure he doesn’t have a great strategy to win the peace. He has almost certainly not thought about the ‘unexpected returns’ within the region and with Russia. And I am sure he is capricious and inconsistent, reactive with patterns from within Control & Protect. But I know something must be done – from Create & Connect – although it may not be pretty, easy or instantly like-able.
As leaders, we must own the problems we face and except that some may think what we do about them is bad and wrong. Lots of people don’t like us when we act. It is easy to complain about the choices that our bosses or politicians make. It is much tougher to make them, with as much clarity and consciousness as we can, and stand resolute even as others criticize and reject us.
We are lucky that State-sponsored violence does not get exacted on most of us, although there are entire communities in our countries still being subject to abuse on a daily basis because of class or ethnicity or immigration status. But when you live in a country in which those who hold the power use extreme military violence on a daily basis to destroy your way of live and kill your friends and your loved ones – which is why so many immigrants have arrived on our shores – even if you rebel as so many Syrians have done, the build up of power in the State makes it very hard to stop the suffering.
My peoples were all but powerless to stop the Nazi death machine from killing them too, even though some eventually did stand up and resist. All that is left at this point is an appeal to your neighbors to do something to stop the suffering. Just as I do not believe you reading this would watch your next-door neighbor abuse or kill their children and just write them a letter (or a blog post) or hold a protest, I do not believe that we in the West can watch as unconscious leaders do the same to their citizens.
I am clear that ‘love’, the universe, does not want us to react with anger and violence ever. It does not want more people to die. But I do believe it wants us to do whatever it takes – as conscious parents and conscious leaders – to stop the people we are responsible for from suffering… even if that means committing acts that need physical strength. We must do it consciously, without joy or bravado and without nationalist nonsense or myopic to the impact all acts have, for good and ill. We must remain loving and connected in our hearts as we act.
I believe that the only way to stop Hitler murdering every Jew, homosexual, socialist and other ‘undesirables’ in Europe (and then perhaps the rest of the world given half a chance) was the invasion of 1944 and beyond.
What will stop Assad?