On May 1st, 2003 President Bush announced that the mission in Iraq was accomplished. Now five years later we know that less than 4% of the Iraqi and American casualties in Iraq came before the President’s dramatic announcement on the USS Abraham Lincoln, 30 miles from the shore of Southern California. Our memory of the announcement reminds us that the mission was confused from the start. It also reminds all of us that missions cannot be accomplished by a media event alone.
Some people believed the Iraq mission was to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction. Others believed it to be the overthrow of Saddam. Still others connected it to the fight against Al Queda. Some with access to the President saw the mission as a way to start reworking the political culture of Middle Eastern nations. Some conservative Christians saw the mission as essential to their faith, a necessary step to be in harmony with God’s work through the modern nation of Israel. Most of the world thought the venture into Iraq was wrong or stupid. It has been fun for critics to dangle the Mission Accomplished media event in front of the White House as one May 1st unfolds into another for five years now.
Peacemakers can use the event on the USS Abraham Lincoln to remind ourselves not to cheapen our own mission of violence reduction with premature claims of success. We have some things in common with the White House. I know the temptation to proclaim early success because achievement raises money, recruits people and helps build organization. President Bush’s proclamation on the USS Abraham Lincoln arises from a space inside me too. By being impatient for success I know that truthfulness is compromised. Living in hope is essential but it can easily erode into rosy optimism that seduces us to ignore objective reality on the ground.
Sometimes a mission statement verges on a vision and points to the future. Where I live, native people occasionally spend several days in a vision quest that may include fasting, prayer, and isolation in the forest or hill. The quest refines the person’s purpose. Some form of a visioning experience might be useful for any of us to discover or refine our purpose in life. Reformers, religious leaders and politicians try to articulate a vision that makes sense to a wide body of people. For a vision to release the power from within there needs to be a shared sense of ownership. In my work of peacemaking from time to time it has been necessary to clarify the mission.
Management gurus in government, corporations and non government organizations love to have mission statements. The military is very careful to define its mission and gets irritated with political meddling. The secular hue of the word mission today clouds its one time religious, and for most of us Christian, origin although it is used by other religions as well. It denotes a specific commitment that points people to the truth, perhaps in belief as well as action. In good missions the two are not disconnected. The collective memory of its religious origins in our culture gives the word a boost in authority and authenticity while other words like objective, goal or task may invite our eyes to glaze over.
The mission of peacemaking is on my mind. My thoughts have been influenced in no small way by hundreds of conversations I have had in villages across the planet. In these places there is a problem of systemic violence, fear of official and private armed groups, and the threat of personal assault. People’s lives are interrupted by career bureaucrats and security unites who should have been called insurance agents because they can resort to manipulation of truth and violence to “insure” that nothing ever changes. Telling the truth arising out of a mission of peacemaking in these situations requires dexterity and nimble timing. You don’t want to get local people hurt. But change won’t happen without making the invisible, visible.
A real mission is deeply felt and therefore does not easily roll over to public relations platitudes declaring premature success. Sometimes, we are tempted to define our mission in broad sweeping, inclusive terms so that we are not so restricted, but missions that are too diffuse, unclear or wrong lead to confusion, distrust, breakdown and real though perhaps unintended damage.
Most of us want peace but overuse of the word does not awaken a lot of fire in the belly. Nor is a resolution or statement of consensus useful unless that statement arises from a deeply felt quest for what that unity of purpose unlocks within people. In truth there are many Mission Accomplished type missions that are not achieved and may even be laughable in the perspective of history.
How would I prevent a debacle of mission in the peacemaking world where I have worked? As a prelude I would have a concise statement that gave clear boundaries on the mission within a one sentence vision. And these are the notions I would use for help. (1) Know what the local people’s problem(s) and visions are. (2) Integrate this into planning. (3) Expect some setbacks along the way. (4) Expect success to actually come in tiny increments and give thanks publicly for these incremental building blocks. (5) Tell the story of what is really happening so that the success and failures along the way help everyone learn. (6) On those very rare occasions when there is near complete success have a big party for everyone when you also can laugh at the dumb things that were done.
Peacemakers are still in a position of relative powerlessness when viewed from the dominant, big picture world. Whenever our announcements exaggerate the dark side or the light side of reality, we cut ourselves off at the knees. The mission is also compromised when existing cultural threads of peacemaking already present in any culture are ignored. However, if we begin in the spirit of hope we may be given the eyes to see the tiny positive lights when they show up. A confident mission of peacemaking stands on its own foundation and will survive and even flourish.
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