We're all in favor of peace. And despite our flurries of greeting cards wishing each other Peace on Earth, peacefulness seems more distant this year. Terrorists war on us and we on them; the White House continues its countdown toward war in Iraq; citizens in a dozen other places start the new year entangled in deadly hostilities.
Statistics about the number of wars, the numbers killed, the numbers made homeless tell a fraction of the story. With traumatized communities in every corner of the world, we seem to be adopting an international psychology of violence. As fear hardens into hate and loss into hopelessness in millions of hearts, we stare through the new year into a future of protracted violence.
It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. Ten years ago we thought we were stepping out of the wars of the bloody 20th century into an era of deep peace. The end of the cold war had released the world from the grip of superpower animosity. The explosion of new technologies, the information revolution, and economic globalization were combining, it appeared, to replace a culture of war with a culture of peace. Around the world we were about to become democrats all, we thought, too prosperous to fight, too cross-connected to do anything but cooperate.
But the peace dividend never materialized - weapons sales continue to be very profitable. Civilization's grand strategy of peace collapsed, made obsolete by the very changes we were celebrating.
Going back to our earliest days, we humans have needed to protect ourselves, not least from each other. Whether defending the mouth of the cave or patrolling the crest of the valley, the warriors of our hunter-gatherer ancestors shielded those assembled around the peaceful family fire. In modern times those warriors became people like me, professional soldiers guarding the borders of family now grown to nation-state.
Whether ancient or modern, the core idea of security has been perimeter defense - warrior specialists defending hearth and home. Peace was the result of war, of readiness for war. The work of peace-building was the work of the warrior.
"If you want peace, prepare for war" went one piece of wisdom proven over thousands of years of protecting "us" from the dangerous "them" on the other side of the barrier.
Perimeter defense doesn't work any more. No matter how high tech the army, how superior its troops, how massive its firepower, its warriors cannot shelter us from electronic viruses attacking through our home computers, from living viruses spread through the air, from bombs smuggled into our cities. (Indeed, we want to guard against militaries that try to assume those internal security roles.) These days we are all on the front lines; the safety of being a noncombatant, a protected "civilian," seems gone forever.
Of the new threats to peace, terrorists are the nuclear weapons: tiny groups injecting fear into the heart of our communities. But fearful as they are, terrorists pale in lethality when compared to demagogues. By setting one stripe of people against another, malevolent, power-hungry "leaders" like Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic or Rwanda's 1993 Hutu government can unleash killing and destruction on a scale far beyond what modern military professionals design in their war plans.
If you want to map the coming year's most deadly conflicts, map the demagogues. If you want to judge your own community's vulnerability, ask whether the politics of us-versus-them is replacing the politics of commonweal.
How do we get back on the peace track? We start by recognizing that peace-building is now the work of communities everywhere, not the army - and especially not the work of the American military alone.
Peace is not what happens after the war; peace is the war. Peace is what happens when a community - whose citizens sense a permanent vulnerability to dangers among them - successfully absorbs and transcends attacks of fear and division. Peace-building is the work of fostering durable comity in the same place our ancient ancestors found it - around our local community hearths.
What does this leave for the armed forces? As one of my senior military friends said, "the purpose of the military is to make the world safe for police."
To make the mistake of thinking that our military professionals, no matter how skilled and dedicated, will deliver peace through firepower is only to accelerate our civilization's downward slide into an era of profound human violence.
A peaceful community is literally a peace-able community. As we step into the new year, let's each attach our peaceful hopes to a specific peace-building campaign, whether it is working close to home or reaching out to assist some other community in peril. Peace is now principally the work of peace-builders, not warriors.
Our new guideline should be, "If you want peace, work for peace."
• Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, works on peace-building campaigns.