By: Caroline Brooks
I was a school student when the British military invaded Iraq in 2003. In the midst of all the rumours, hysteria, and speculation I realised that this was the first time in my life that I was fully aware of my connection to a war; the first time that war became part of my life, albeit indirectly.
In that instant I felt a profound sense of clarity and knowing that this war was going to change my life and my generation. I knew that I was going to engage with this war with Iraq, somehow. I did not know how, why, or when, and I did not try to consciously or deliberately engineer a path based on this insight, I just got on with the daily life of being a teenage girl in rural Suffolk.
Years later I landed in Baghdad for the first time. I was there as an employee of a risk consulting firm, working with multinational companies as they invested and operated in the country. It was fascinating and challenging work. I had a front row seat on Iraq’s post-war reconstruction and I got a glimpse of all that came along with it – the good, the bad, and the ugly.
After half a decade working in this role I began searching for the next step. I yearned for something where I could feel more connected to the human side of things, to the human impact of war. My search eventually led me to a peacebuilding organisation and to working on projects in Syria and the neighbouring countries.
Today, four years into this work I feel my internal compass pivoting again. I have come to see that the practice of peacebuilding as it is done in international NGOs and in the ‘western liberal’ culture will not be enough to change things significantly. In fact, the pressure to be an industry, meet financial growth targets and constantly demonstrate our usefulness sometimes forces us to follow the agendas of the very politicians and political systems which we see as unjust, self-interested, and fickle.
Notwithstanding some of the excellent work that does go on and the positive changes that have been made, I feel that the impact is destined to be limited if we continue to stay in the zone of reaction, addressing symptoms of war and violence rather than causes and if we (inadvertently) become part of the system that we criticise so much. I realise that I have at times been culpable of all of these things.
The disillusionment and discomfort I feel about the status quo has raised new questions in my mind. Questions that are forcing me to re-examine the work I do, how I do it, the person I am, and the person I need to become. Questions that go beyond the remit of one single organisation, agenda, or particular conflict or part the world. Questions like: how can we live in a world without war? How can we transcend the cycles of violence that we find ourselves in? How can we get out from under patriarchal systems and self-interested politics? How can we produce leaders who are not dominated by their egos but by a sense of duty towards the evolution of humanity and all that that entails? How do we stop repeating our mistakes?
It seems clear to me that building defences against real and imagined enemies and clinging to our ideologies is not the path to evolution. It is not the path the freedom. It is not the step that will do the most good for the most people.
So what will?
I think part of the answer is that we need to start letting go of the stories we tell ourselves that keep us separate from each other – stories that keep us comfortable and yet scared. We need to try to transcend our fears and work to overcome our egotistical impulses to control, to dominate, and be right. We need to start to realise that we are all bound to one another and to the fate of the natural world as a whole. We need to stop fearing people who don’t look like us, or sound like us, and we need to stop relying so much on leaders who are not so evolved and not so wise. We need to decide to end old patterns of belief and behaviour that continue to lead to so much destruction and violence. We need to dare to try something new.
Exploring what all this might look like and what this might mean in practice is something I am excited to embark on. And I am excited to do it in collaboration with the Conciliators Guild and with other people who are willing to come together and grapple with the big questions of our time; people who are willing to explore what it means to put humanity into politics and push the boundaries of what we have come to accept as possible.
However, it will not be enough just to talk – and it will certainly not be enough to talk about it with people who are just like me. In the quest to imagine a new way of doing politics – and indeed a new way of being, I realise that I must be willing to get really uncomfortable and not only be conceptual and thoughtful but practical too. To PRACTICE. Perhaps most importantly, we must resist the urge to become ideological and assume righteousness lest we start to create a new regime on the back of the old.
No one person, organisation, or nation has the monopoly on what progress should look like. It won’t come from one source or system. It will come from a shift in consciousness and understanding about who we are as people and what it takes to move us all forward.
Caroline Brooks works for the peacebuilding organisation, International Alert. She is engaged in research for a book that explores processes of conflict transformation at the individual and collective level, and how they can be facilitated. Within this research, Caroline is exploring questions and issues including the role of trauma and trauma healing in conflict transformation; the emotional and psychological factors that can either contribute to the perpetuation of violence conflict or contribute to its demise; how our understanding of what it takes to break cycles of violence and build sustainable peace can be put into practice on a larger scale and amongst leaders; and the link between individual transformation, interpersonal transformation and collective transformation.