Iraq War veteran Paul K. Chappell

The retired U.S. Army captain, peace activist and author of Peaceful Revolution describes being “pro-military, anti-war” and speculates on whether world peace is possible.

Iraq War veteran Paul Chappell is a soldier-turned-peace leader. The 2002 West Point graduate served in the U.S. Army for seven years, including in Iraq as a captain, and has since been obsessed with the need to end war. Currently peace leadership director for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, he speaks all over the U.S. at colleges, high schools and churches and to veterans groups and activist organizations. Chappell is also the author of Will War Ever End?, The End of War and Peaceful Revolution and is working on his fourth book, The Art of Waging Peace.


Tavis: Paul Chappell graduated from West Point back in 2002, going on to serve seven years in the Army, including a tour in Iraq, before retiring at the rank of captain back in 2009. During his time in the Army he began to think critically about the whole notion of war, and then went on to publish an acclaimed book called “Will War Ever End?”

He is now the peace leadership director for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and author of the new text, “Peaceful Revolution: How We Can Create the Future Needed for Humanity’s Survival.” Paul, good to have you on this program.

Paul Chappell: Thank you for having me, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me start by going right to something that is a bit oxymoronic for me, but I’m sure you can explain it. You regard yourself as pro-military yet antiwar. How does that work?

Chappell: Well, I think that I grew up believing that war makes us safe. If you watch television, if you read comic books, Spiderman, Superman, Batman, they all make the world safer by beating people up.

A lot of people join the military thinking that they’re going to promote democracy, promote freedom. If you listen to President Obama or President Bush, they both say that we’re promoting freedom, promoting democracy in the Middle East.

A lot of people join the military with those intentions, and it’s like General MacArthur says – General MacArthur says that all conscientious people want peace, but where they disagree is the means.

I think I had this realization that there’s actually a more effective way to make the world safe, which is through waging peace, and war is a very outmoded form of conflict resolution that can’t protect humanity in the 21st century.

Tavis: To your point about President Obama and President Bush before him and other presidents before them, obviously, I wonder whether or not, Paul, you think we are selling young men and women an inauthentic, a fake or false bill of goods when we suggest to them that joining the military is about promoting peace and democracy around the world, and yet we find ourselves now in what is essentially a permanent state of war, or so it seems at the moment.

I wonder whether or not we’re selling a false bill of goods, or to be more provocative about it, lying to young men and women?

Chappell: Well, that’s a really good question and something I think about a lot lately. The first president to ever identify Middle Eastern hatred for the U.S. was President Eisenhower, and he called it a campaign of hatred and he said, “Let’s figure out why people in the Middle East hate us.” Got his security council together, and the conclusion he came to is people in the Middle East, they don’t hate us because we’re free, they hate us because we block freedom in the Middle East. We block democracy in the Middle East.

If you look at every government we support in the Middle East – Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, Saudi Arabian government, which is as oppressive, if not more oppressive, to women than the Taliban, we’ve supported the people who became the Taliban, we supported the dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain.

All this oppression; and the greatest threat to American security is the hypocrisy of American politicians. You can’t even call it the hypocrisy of America, because most Americans have no clue this is going on. Most Americans believe that they hate us because we’re free.

But if you look at the evidence and you look at all the governments we support there – another example, Pakistan. We support dictatorships, and if you look at the Arab Spring, where you have these people in the Middle East protesting for democracy, protesting for freedom against governments that we support.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not you think that’s a case that can be made to the American people? Again, I’m trying to juxtapose this notion of American patriotism, American exceptionalism, with what you’ve just said now, which is that our policy, if not the American people, the American policy around the globe is often hypocritical, and I couldn’t agree more with you.

But I wonder whether or not you think the American people would even buy that argument? How much hate mail are you and I going to receive for you even saying that on national television?

Chappell: I think that they could buy it, because I believe firmly that America has the most amazing ideals in the world. If you look at American ideals – freedom, democracy, justice, equality, opportunity – and the world, for the most part, isn’t angry at our ideals. The world, for the most part, is angry that we don’t live up to our ideals.

So if you look in Martin Luther King Jr. or Frederick Douglass, they said look at how amazing our ideals are. Look at the Declaration of Independence. Our concern is that we are not living up to our own ideals.

If you ask the average American should the United States be supporting dictatorships around the world, most Americans would say no. Most Americans don’t even realize we support dictatorships. If you ask Americans, “Should we not be hypocritical, should we live up to our own ideals,” I think most Americans would agree.

It comes down to what it means to love your country. If you love your child and you find out that your child is beating people up or stealing or lying, if you love your child, you try to correct your child. If you love your country and you find out your country’s doing things it shouldn’t be doing, you try to correct your government.

I can’t hardly think of an American who is more critical of American domestic and foreign policy than Martin Luther King Jr., and no one’s going to call him unpatriotic. No one’s going to call Susan B. Anthony unpatriotic. No one’s going to call Frederick Douglass unpatriotic, or Mark Twain.

Those people are as American as apple pie, but they realized if you love your country, you have to hold your politicians accountable, you have to make your country better and you have to help your country live up to its own ideals.

Tavis: Two things. I know exactly what you meant by that when you suggested that nobody would call Martin King unpatriotic; indeed, they did.

Chappell: Right.

Tavis: He was called everything but a child of God in the last two years of his life, as you well know.

Chappell: Right.

Tavis: When he came out publicly against the war in Vietnam, got disinvited to the Johnson White House. The opinion polls of him found that the overwhelming number of Americans, including the majority of African Americans, had turned against Martin King when he came out so vehemently against the war in Vietnam.

So indeed, in his own lifetime – and King dies on this balcony in Memphis, he thinks he’s persona non grata in this country because everybody, again, has turned on Martin because of his opposition to the war. So he was called unpatriotic, a communist, as you well know, and other things, although I take your point.

But here’s why I raise that. I raise that because the part of Martin King that we don’t want to deal with is his critique of American foreign policy. We want to keep him in the state of being a dreamer. We now have monuments to him. When President Obama goes to celebrate the monument with every other speaker, nobody really wanted to draw attention to where he stood on the question of war and peace.

So even when you have a great American, an iconic American, I think the greatest American ever produced, Martin King, we don’t want to deal with his critique of U.S. foreign policy.

So the point I’m getting to here is this – that the American people don’t, for whatever reason, want to wrestle with those issues. It’s not just a historic figure like Dr. King whose truth they didn’t want to wrestle with about U.S. foreign policy. Let’s bring it to today.

I can’t count the number of times I’m on airplanes, and again, I know these flight attendants are well-meaning, but it always strikes me as interesting when the flight attendant wants us to give a round of applause to the military personnel who are sitting on the plane.

I notice all the time that many airlines will let military veterans or those who are active duty board the plane first. So that’s just a simple example, but there are all kinds of examples I could point to where we want to celebrate our military, but we celebrate these officers – and again, I get the point – but we celebrate them uncritically.

There’s never a connection made by the flight attendant to the nonsense that we have them engaged in. We just want to celebrate them because they’re military personnel. So it’s a long way of getting to how it is that we get the American people to really wrestle with the real issues of war and peace when we seem to be stuck on King as a dreamer and celebrating military personnel because they’re fighting for our freedoms.

Chappell: That’s really –

Tavis: That’s a long statement. Does that make sense, though?

Chappell: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: So how do you get a real conversation about that?

Chappell: You’re right – prophets are not treated kindly in their own era, and Martin Luther King Jr. was a prophet. When he spoke out against the Vietnam War, he was disowned by the NAACP and many Black churches.

But if you look at King and what he spoke about, and you look at what’s going on now, people often ask me, they say, “How are you going to wake up the American people?” I say, “Look, I don’t have to wake up the American people. Reality is going to wake up the American people.”

We have to show the American people that look, the reason we’re having a collapsing economy is not because if teachers, it’s not because of immigrants, it’s because of the war economy and the war spending and the war machine.

General Douglas MacArthur says that preparation for war is as materially destructive as war itself, and General Eisenhower compares war spending to crucifixion. So we have to show the American people we’re spending trillions of dollars on war. Not only is it destroying our economy but it’s also not making us safe.

If you look at the American economy in 2000 as compared to 2012, you can’t even compare the two in terms of how much we’ve declined economically and in terms of international prestige.

Tavis: See, that argument, though, with all due respect, Paul, that argument has been made time and time and time again.

Chappell: Right.

Tavis: Yet there has been no real hue and cry.

Chappell: Right.

Tavis: You know this. You do this work every day. Where is the peace movement in this country? I’m not suggesting there aren’t some who raise that issue, but by and large we’ve seen nowhere near the kind of peace movement that we saw during the Vietnam era.

There was no hue and cry when the Bush administration said we’re not going to let bodies be seen returning to Dover Air Force Base, so we can’t really wrestle with what war really is. We don’t really see the pictures every night of the innocent women and children that we’re killing.

Barack Obama has dropped more drones in Pakistan than George Bush has dropped, killing more innocent women and children. The facts are there. I’m not trying to demonize the president or anybody else, for that matter. I’m just trying to put these facts on the table.

The facts are there, and yet when you say that reality is going to wake up the American people, pardon my English, it ain’t happening, brother.

Chappell: Well, I think that the peace movement has not addressed the most fundamental myth of the war machine, and that myth is that war makes us safe. If you truly believe that war makes you safe, if you truly believe that war makes your family safe, that war protects your freedom and your democracy, what are you willing to pay? You’re willing to pay almost anything.

If I were to say we need the majority of the federal budget to go to war spending and you believe it protects you and your family and your children, you’re going to accept that.

So you have to first show the American people war does not make you safe. War doesn’t make your family safe. Not only does war not make you and your family safe, war actually puts you and your family in greater danger, and we can offer a more effective security paradigm. We can’t just be antiwar and say we’re against war. We also have to offer a more effective security paradigm.

To address something you said earlier about people respecting the military, I think there is something very interesting about that, how we have so much greed and selfishness in American society. I grew up in the ’80s and I heard “Greed is good. Selfishness is a virtue.” The idea that there are people in this country who will risk their lives to help people they don’t even know, it really inspires people.

If you look at how soldiers are admired, firemen and police officers and first responders were put in that same category after September 11th. But Americans, they want to believe in goodness. They want to believe that there’s somebody out there, with all this corporate corruption and political greed, somebody out there will risk their lives for people they don’t even know, just to uplift the human spirit.

We have to show people that there’s a better way to solve these problems, there’s a more effective security paradigm, and what we’re doing now is not sustainable in the long term.

Tavis: Yet despite what you’ve just said, or maybe I misread this; I don’t think I did, you argue, though, that you believe that war is the price that we pay for peace. You believe that?

Chappell: I grew up believing that.

Tavis: Right.

Chappell: I grew up believing that you need war to create peace. You need violence to stop violence. But I had a change of attitude just looking at evidence. How 200 years ago in America anyone who was not a white male landowner was oppressed. If you’re African American, Hispanic, female, Native American, even if you were white but you did not own land, you were oppressed.

How did women get the right to vote? Two hundred years ago, women couldn’t vote or own property. They didn’t get the right to vote through war. If you look at non-landowners getting the right to vote, if you look at workers rights, and even though the Civil War kept the Union together, it took a peaceful movement before African Americans truly got their human rights. Not a single European country had a war to free the slaves.

So if you grow up in our culture and you’re taught checks and balances are executive, legislative, judicial branch, the one thing you’re not taught is the true check and balance to the American government is citizens and social movements. That’s why you and I are able to have this discussion today, is because of Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Fredrick Douglass, all these different activists.

Tavis: But how far, though, would an elected official go, how high up the ladder could one go in electoral politics if one were speaking the kind of truth that you’re speaking now?

I’m asking that because earlier you suggest that it’s not so much the American people, it’s our politicians who are engaged in hypocritical public policy.

Chappell: Right.

Tavis: So we just look the other way while they do this, and we wrap ourselves in the flag while these hypocritical politicians advance a notion that they really ought not be advancing.

But how far? Could Barack Obama have been elected president if he had taken this line, never mind the bust of Dr. King he has in the Oval Office? Could George Bush have been reelected if after 9/11 his response had been one that sounds similar to yours?

My point is I don’t know that the American people want to even hear elected officials tell them these kinds of hard truths about the fact that war ultimately doesn’t make us safer. So you don’t get elected if you’re Barack Obama saying that. You don’t get reelected if you don’t beat your chest about the fact that you took out Osama bin Laden when George Bush – we’re going to hear a whole lot about that.

He’s going to remind us repeatedly, “I took out Osama bin Laden,” when foreign policy comes up. So you’ve got the first African American president who comes out of that King tradition. Were it not for King, he wouldn’t be president. King is vehemently opposed to war, and this guy’s going to have to, for the sake of getting reelected, have to brag about the fact that with his Nobel Prize, he took out Bin Laden

Chappell: Right.

Tavis: So if he were to tell the American people the truth, what would happen?

Chappell: Well, that’s a really good question. I can offer some evidence. If you look at President Johnson, President Johnson did not care about civil rights until he was pressured by the civil rights movement. Woodrow Wilson was opposed to the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote but he was pressured by the women’s rights movement.

Franklin Roosevelt did not care about workers rights until he was pressured by the workers’ rights movement. Lincoln didn’t begin his political career as an advocate for the abolition of slavery, but he was pressured by the movement.

Things have changed so dramatically in our country. If any politician today were running for president and said that we should bring back slavery, bring back segregation, women shouldn’t be able to vote or own property, people would look at him like he’s insane. But 200 years ago, that’s how nearly every American thought, and that’s how virtually all politicians spoke.

So if we could dramatically change attitudes in America toward the oppression of women, towards slavery, towards segregation, why can’t we dramatically change attitudes in America toward war, nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, especially when those issues threaten human survival?

Tavis: Maybe that’s the answer, though – because those other issues didn’t threaten everybody, but war, terrorism – the buzz word of the era – does threaten everybody, so nobody wants to bring those other things back, but they have a vested interest in this issue, this war machine issue, because they think that it makes all of us safer. Everybody felt threatened after 9/11.

Chappell: Right, and I also think that if you show the American people this is what’s best for the country, what is best for American security, what’s best for the American economy, what’s best for America’s reputation and American ideals are living up to these ideals. This is a more effective way to move our country forward in the 21st century.

Tavis: There’s great debate right now, as you well know, having been in the Army, about what’s going to happen to the Defense Department and whether or not these cuts to their budget which have been proposed will ultimately stick in the long run, which raises a bigger question of whether or not we will ever see where this conversation started, our military be more about spreading freedom around the world and advancing democracy and peacekeeping and humanitarian work.

Can you ever envision a military that has that as its first end and aim as opposed to war and dropping bombs and et cetera, et cetera?

Chappell: Absolutely. Right now the military is half killing machine, half Peace Corps. The military is killing people, but it’s also building schools and building hospitals. There was a recent Pew research study that found that of the post-9/11 veterans, 51 percent of them think that using too much violence makes terrorism worse.

The best way to win hearts and minds around the world is to live up to your own ideals as a nation and to help people around the world. When it comes to terrorism, terrorism is a transnational criminal network, and the organization best trained to deal with terrorism is FBI, police work.

Another thing I assert is the overwhelming evidence that human beings are not naturally violent. That’s another myth that war is built upon. If you look at military history, the overwhelming evidence is that human beings are not naturally violent.

One quick piece of evidence I can offer is that war traumatizes the human brain. War is one of the most traumatizing things a human being can go through. So if we were actually violent, why wouldn’t we go to war and become more mentally healthy? Why do people go to war and after repeated deployments have psychological trauma if we were, in fact, naturally violent? That’s just one small piece of evidence.

Tavis: I’m glad you raised that, because I was going to ask that question, about whether or not we are just predetermined, predisposed to having these kinds of animalistic, violent impulses, but I’m glad you addressed that.

Chappell: Right.

Tavis: How does one do his or her job while they’re enlisted when one is having these kinds of thoughts about the war machine, the killing machine that they are a part of?

You acknowledge in the text, in your previous work as well, that you grew up feeling one way, as I said earlier, that war is what you have to engage in to protect the peace, to have the peace. You have a different point of view now, but you’ve been wrestling with these things for years, and you were wrestling with these things while you were in the Army, while you were in Iraq.

You’re having these thoughts, you’re marinating on these issues every day. How do you do both at the same time? How do you do your job as a part of this killing machine and have these thoughts about what the value of war really is?

Chappell: I think it’s very difficult. I read a lot of speeches by General Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur, and General Douglas MacArthur; he says that we have to abolish war. We have to abolish war as an institution of conflict resolution.

He says virtually all conscientious people want peace. He says every tribe, every nation, virtually all conscientious people want peace. General Douglas MacArthur says that people’s yearning for peace is so powerful that whenever a dictator goes to war, he always says he’s fighting for the peace.

Even if you look at extreme examples like Hitler or the Rwandan genocide, the people who are committing atrocities say that they’re trying to preserve peace and they’re fighting for self-defense.

I think we just have to show people the truth, that that is what most people want, most conscientious people, and there is a more effective way to arrive at that.

Tavis: Human beings may not be, to your point, Paul, they may not be prone to violence, but I wonder whether or not the notion of world peace is as laughable as it is when we hear contestants from Miss America say what they want is world peace, the old joke. Is that even possible, this notion of world peace?

Chappell: I think the evidence shows it is possible, and that’s one thing that I – it takes a while to go through all the evidence, but if I could just offer a little bit of evidence.

If you look at Europe, one reason Europe was able to conquer every continent was for several centuries Europe was the bloodiest place on Earth. Europe had several centuries of nonstop warfare, and a lot of that was religious conflict.

Could you imagine a war in Western Europe now? Could you imagine Germany and France going to war, or any Western European country going to war with another Western European country?

That was, for a long time in human history, the bloodiest place on Earth. If Europe could become peaceful – if you look at America as another example, 200 years ago in America you were a Virginian first, you were an American second. Now you’re an American first, you’re a Virginian second.

If you tell people that you’re a Virginian above being an American, people call you unpatriotic. So if we could make that shift from state identity to national identity, why can’t we make the shift from national identity to global identity, especially when that is the reality of the 21st century?

The reality of this century is the world is so interconnected we are truly a global family. If we don’t achieve that attitude as a species, we won’t survive.

Tavis: The thing that I found fascinating about your journey is that it starts, the military part of it, at least, starts at West Point, and it’s hard to find a greater military institution in the world, of course, than West Point.

I’m wondering whether or not you are an anomaly, whether or not the people at West Point would be ashamed of your evolution now, or whether or not the people at West Point, military institution thought it might be, are open to producing officers whose minds are fertile enough and open enough to wrestle with these ideas and to come to a conclusion that war is not what it’s all cracked up to be.

Chappell: From what I’ve read, General Douglas MacArthur, Eisenhower, General Omar Bradley, I think that the purpose of the military is to make the world safer, and General Douglas MacArthur, he said, “The soldier, above all the other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

I can’t speak on behalf of what people might think of me, but if I think that this is what has to be done to make our country better, I think West Point taught me critical thinking and it taught me to speak the truth as I see it. We live in a democracy and we have the right to speak our mind, and I think that if we’re not going to take a different direction – what we’re doing now obviously isn’t working. It’s obviously not working.

So I think that we just have to begin this discussion, have this dialogue and that’s how we move forward.

Tavis: So tell me more, before my time runs out, tell me more about your work today.

Chappell: Right now I work for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, and we’re located in Santa Barbara, California. Our mission is to abolish nuclear weapons and empower a new generation of peace leaders. So one thing I learned in the military is how excellent the training is.

The military has excellent training in waging war, but most activists have no training in waging peace. How do you change how people think? How do you promote change in a positive way?

Our website is, and I hope that people will get more involved and have this discussion.

Tavis: Before you run out, since your work obviously is about, as you said, getting rid of nuclear weapons, how do you view the Obama administration’s engagement with Iran at the moment? You like the tack they’re taking? Are they going about it the wrong way? What’s your sense of it?

Chappell: Well, there’s a famous story of Gandhi where a woman came to Gandhi and said, “Gandhi, please help me. My son won’t stop eating sugar. Gandhi, please help me, my son won’t stop eating sugar.”

Gandhi told the woman, “Take your son home. Bring him back to me in three days.” The woman took her son home, brought him back to Gandhi in three days, and Gandhi said, “Stop eating sugar.” That was it.

The woman said, “Gandhi, why did you make me go through all that trouble to bring my son home and bring him back? Why didn’t you just tell him three days ago to stop eating sugar?” Gandhi said, “Because three days ago, I was still eating sugar.”

So it comes down to practicing what you preach. We’re telling Iran they can’t have one nuclear weapon. We have thousands of nuclear weapons. We’re also telling other countries that nuclear weapons make you safe.

If we truly believed in deterrence theory, if we truly believed that nuclear weapons work as a deterrent, why wouldn’t we want every country to have nuclear weapons, if we really believed that, that deterrence works? Why wouldn’t we want every –

Tavis: Because Ahmadinejad is crazy and we’re not, that’s the answer, as you know.

Chappell: Right, and if that’s true, then it shows deterrence theory doesn’t work.

Tavis: Yeah.

Chappell: Because that theory assumes that you have rational actors, that if you have nuclear weapons, they work as a deterrent. So it shows that we don’t actually believe deterrence theory.

Tavis: His name is Paul K. Chappell. His new book is called “Peaceful Revolution: How We Can Create the Future Needed for Humanity’s Survival.” I don’t think that is an overstatement at all. That’s what’s at stake here, and that’s why I’ve been honored to have Paul on this program. Paul, good to see you.

Chappell: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you. That’s our show for tonight. We’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from Los Angeles, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: April 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm