Book Review: Opting Out of War: Strategies to Prevent Violent Conflict

Mari Fitzduff is a professor in Brandeis University’s masters in conflict and coexistence program following a career of more than twenty-five years in conflict resolution initiatives throughout Northern Ireland. 1

opting-war-book-cover Book by Mary B. Anderson and Marshall Wallace

Opting Out of War tells the stories of thirteen different communities around the world—in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Fiji, India, Kosovo, Mozambique, Nigeria, the Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka—that opted out of the violence surrounding them. These “non-war” communities managed to predict the cost of violence on themselves and the families within them. They then assessed the options that would prevent them from being engulfed in the wars developing around them, and were able, in their various ways, to create a non-war identity for themselves that both gave them cohesion and distinguished them from others communities engaged in violence. Five of the case studies are presented in depth: the Hazara community in the Jaghori district of Afghanistan, cross-ethnic solidarity in Tuzla in Bosnia, a peace community in Colombia, the Mungoi homestead in Mozambique, and the Muslim community in Rwanda, which by and large opted out of the genocide raging around them.

Opting Out of War, an exciting book on a little-researched subject, shakes up many of our ideas about conflict prevention work and how it can happen when local communities are determined to ensure it. It is the result of conversations undertaken with people within communities who are often ignored during a conflict: those who decide that the wars in which they find themselves are not their wars, and who, despite significant pressure, refuse to take one side or the other. The book challenges prevailing myths about conflict prevention, such as the need for new and external leadership other than the local in order to undertake the work. It also brings into question the need to deliberately establish peacebuilding efforts or zones of peace, rather than working with the courageous commitment by communities to maintain or re-create peace in the face of significant pressure to do otherwise. At the same time, Opting Out recognizes the limitations of such approaches, notably the inability of some of these communities to effectively challenge the wars that surrounded them or address the politics that the wars engendered. Even so, the cases suggest how communities can resist joining a conflict and demonstrate the strategic and principled pragmatism that could be applied to other communities caught in the maelstrom of war. The book is an excellent addition to the bookshelves of academics, practitioners, and policymakers alike, and a worthwhile contribution to the field of peacebuilding. Its methodology of local listening, which is such a hallmark of CDA Collaborative Learning Projects—the organization where the authors work—gives it a particular authenticity and elicits unique insights about the positive choices communities can make when all around them is falling into chaos, hate, and violence.

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