June Issue: A Warrior Turned Activist


A conversation with war veteran and peace activist Paul Chappell.

by Leslee Goodman

PAUL CHAPPELL WAS BORN IN 1980 and raised in Alabama, the son of a Korean mother and a white-and-African American father who served in Korea and in Vietnam. The elder Chappell returned from war deeply troubled, with bouts of rage and paranoia he often directed at his young son. Nonetheless, the younger Chappell chose to pursue a military career himself, graduating from West Point in 2002 and serving in Iraq as an Army captain in 2006.

Even as he began a tour of duty, Chappell had doubts that war would ever effect peace—in the Middle East, or anywhere else. A year later, while still an active-duty officer, he published Will War Ever End? A Soldier’s Vision for Peace in the 21st Century. “I am twenty-eight years old,” he writes, “and I have been obsessed with the problem of war for most of my life.” He went on to publish The End of War: How Waging Peace Can Save Humanity, Our Planet, and Our Future. Both books are written in a direct, accessible style that avoids blaming the left or the right, and his rationale for peace has appealed to people of all political persuasions.

Chappell now works at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and travels the country speaking about the concept of “waging peace” and the need to bring an end to war. He is a principal in the American Unity Project, a free online series of documentaries about peace advocacy.  He also trains peace activists—a pursuit he believes should be undertaken with at least as much forethought and strategy as training soldiers for war. Being an effective peace activist, he says, requires the same qualities as being an effective soldier.  He emphasizes that activists must also learn to be persuasive, control their emotions and empathize with their opponents. Finally, they must take their calling seriously—as seriously as soldiers going into battle.

In The End of War, Chappell cites civil rights activist Bernard Lafayette: “Nonviolence means fighting back, but you are fighting with another purpose and other weapons.  Number one, your fight is to win that person over.” During a recent visit to the University of California at Santa Barbara, Chappell asked students if they knew how much it costs American taxpayers to put a single cadet through West Point. The answer: approximately $400,000. He told the students that he now dedicates his life to peace work to make sure American taxpayers get their money’s worth.

Goodman: You have an interesting take on the American public’s investment in the military. Didn’t you pay back your tuition at West Point by serving in the military?

Chappell: Although I had an obligation to serve in the military for five years, West Point taught me that I have a responsibility to serve my country for the rest of my life—whether I’m in the military or not. My parents also taught me to have a lot of gratitude for my country. Neither of them went to college. My father grew up during the Great Depression and my mother lived in difficult conditions in Korea.

Goodman: What about your mother’s experiences in Korea influenced you?

Chappell: My mother was a child in Korea during the Korean War. Things were difficult when she grew up, and something as simple as food—which many Americans take for granted—she continues to have a lot of appreciation for.

To this day, my mother is amazed by American grocery stores. Since I was a child, she taught me that I am very fortunate to live in America, to have food and to have opportunity.

An infant Paul with parents Mi Suk and Paul B. Chappell

Goodman: What was it like growing up of mixed racial ancestry in the South in the 1980s?

Chappell: I grew up in Alabama, half-Korean, a quarter-white and a quarter-black. It was difficult being racially isolated.

My parents were older and, as a result, I was raised in a mentality that preceded the Civil Rights Movement. The racism my father experienced in the 1930s he passed on to me. Kids used to make fun of me by making slant eyes with their fingers. That used to infuriate me. When I went to Korea with my mother at the age of 11, I was surrounded by people who looked like me. I thought, “These are my kinfolk, they’re going to accept me.” But they made fun of me because I couldn’t speak Korean. I remember I got so angry at one kid who was mocking me that I grabbed him by the hair and pulled back my arm to punch him in the face. My cousin grabbed my arm and kept me from hitting him.

But there was a benefit to feeling racially isolated. Since I couldn’t identify with white people, black people or Asian people, I chose to identify with the global human family, with all of humanity. And ultimately, I think that’s a strength. Race is a rather superficial way to identify people. I think, in the future, race will become like hair color. You notice it, but it’s not how you define people.

Goodman: What do you think it’s like for kids growing up Korean American now?

Chappell: It really depends on where you are. If you’re in San Francisco or Hawaii, where you see a lot of people who look like you, it makes a big difference. It affects your self-esteem.

I always had really low self-esteem because no matter how good I was at what I did, I was never going to be white. I think one of the most intriguing things about this conversation is the way perceptions have changed—from me feeling alienated by the whole racial thing when I was a kid to it being kind of cool—just in the space of 20 years.

When I talk to high school students about being part-white, part-Korean and part-African American, they say, “Wow, that’s really cool.” Isn’t that wild?

Goodman: Going back to what you said about a soldier’s sense of duty, how is being a peace activist serving your country?

Chappell: If it weren’t for activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr., I and many other African Americans would not have our civil rights. Two hundred years ago in America, everyone except white male landowners was oppressed. Women couldn’t vote or own property. You would not be interviewing me right now if it weren’t for women’s rights activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul. The civil rights, women’s rights and workers’ rights movements created positive change that we are all benefiting from today. As citizens we have a responsibility to continue this positive trend toward greater freedom and justice.

A July 2008 photo of Chappell in his military uniform.

Goodman: But why is peace activism important?

Chappell: In the 21st century, weapons have become so destructive that peace is a matter of human survival. If we don’t defeat the myths of war and show that peace is possible, humanity will not survive. Furthermore, war spending is bankrupting our economy. Eisenhower said that war spending crucifies our country on a cross of iron by wasting money that could be used to help the American people.

Also, America has some of the most amazing ideals in the world: democracy, freedom, justice, human rights. For the most part the world isn’t angry at our ideals; it is angry when we don’t live up to our ideals. We preach freedom and democracy, but we support dictatorships all over the world. We supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980s; Egypt’s Mubarek before he was overthrown; and to this day we support dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bahrain and many other countries. If you love your child and find out that your child is stealing, lying or abusing people, you will correct your child. If you don’t love your child, you will let them get away with murder. In a similar way, if you love your country, you will do your best to make it better. To protect American security in the 21st century, we must stop the hypocrisy of our foreign policy and export peace instead of war.

Goodman: How do you propose doing this?

Chappell: Terrorism is an ideology, a way of thinking. To fight it, we need to change U.S. foreign policy. Eisenhower, the first president to identify Middle Eastern unrest as a threat to the United States, said that the reason people in the Middle East hate us is that we suppress freedom there. We support dictatorships. We prevent democratic progress, which is the opposite of what we say we’re doing. We have to practice what we preach, which means we can’t talk about human rights and also support dictators.

The seed of terrorism grows in the soil of hopelessness, depression and fear; of poverty, hunger and injustice. Killing civilians and occupying countries only exacerbate terrorism. Even middle-class or affluent terrorists feel oppressed and estranged from their native culture. In addition to ending the hypocrisy of American foreign policy, we need to fight terrorism the way we go after the Mafia: break up their networks, attack their funding, arrest the leaders, put them on trial and send them to prison.

Imagine if America’s reputation around the world was strictly for providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief; if, whenever there was a disaster, the Americans came, helped and left. Then if terrorists attacked the U.S., world opinion would be on our side. We wouldn’t have to defend ourselves against terrorists; the rest of the world would do it for us.

Also, we have to challenge the myths that support the institution of war. Look at slavery. It was a global institution that had been around since the beginning of recorded history.  What made people believe it was possible to abolish state-sanctioned slavery? Did all these slave owners suddenly look in the mirror and realize they were bad people? No, slavery was rationalized through a myth that said it was in the nature of some races, or certain subgroups of races, to be slaves.  Today if I said, “White people yearn for freedom, but black people don’t,” you’d think I was crazy, but that’s what people used to believe: A cat’s happy being a cat; a dog’s happy being a dog; a slave is happy being a slave.

Then, during the 18th century, some thinkers put forth the idea that all humans yearn for freedom. Further, it was recognized that you have to use harsh methods to suppress people’s yearning for freedom. After that we had the American Revolution, the French Revolution and slave revolts around the world. People started to think it wasn’t a part of some people’s nature to want to be slaves.

Today, many of us believe that human beings are naturally violent, so war is inevitable. Look at who benefits from that myth. If human beings are naturally violent, politicians can’t be held responsible for making war; they’re just trying to protect us from the violent people all over the planet.  Weapons makers can’t be held responsible; they’re just trying to help us defend ourselves. But in truth humans aren’t naturally violent, so we’re all responsible. War is a choice. General Omar Bradley, a veteran of World War II, said, “Wars can be prevented just as surely as they are provoked, and we who fail to prevent them share in guilt for the dead.”

War comes from the human mind, from how people think. That’s what we have to change.

West Point teaches that war is so dangerous it should be used only as a last resort. I learned that the United States needs to rely more on diplomacy; that politicians don’t understand war and are too quick to use it as a means of conflict resolution.

Paul Chappell addresses a crowd of students and others about the peace movement at a talk at Stanford University in 2010.

Goodman: Why do you think politicians miss this point?

Chappell: When you have the strongest military in history, you tend to use it. That’s our country’s strength, and people tend to rely on their strengths. Diplomacy puts other countries on more of an equal footing, and we don’t want to give up our advantage. Another reason is that there’s so much money to be made from war. In wartime, the few make huge profits at the expense of the many. Major General Smedley Butler, a veteran of World War I, said, “War is a racket. It always has been. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many.”

Goodman: Don’t we all benefit from the military securing the world’s resources on our behalf?

Chappell: I’m not sure that the Iraq war is justabout oil, but I think that most people will agree that if there was not a single drop of oil in the Middle East, we would not be over there. It’s a strategic economic interest, but only a very small group of people benefit from it.

It’s not even about Americans having access to oil. The primary reason we want to control the oil tap in Iraq is because we know that China, Russia, India and other emerging industrialized nations need oil, and we want to be the ones who sell it to them. The problem is how much these wars cost.  Consider what Eisenhower said about all the other things we could purchase—schools, hospitals, highways, houses, food—if we weren’t spending so much money on the war machine, and you realize that the majority of the population is hurt by war. General MacArthur said that if humanity abolished war, the money could be used to wipe poverty from the face of the earth.

Many Americans have a difficult time imagining ways of solving problems that don’t involve bombing. That is why many countries question whether our intentions are truly to promote liberty and human rights, or whether our motivations are imperialistic. If we are occupying Afghanistan to liberate women, for example, how do we explain our close alliance with the Saudi Arabian government, which oppresses women?  Other countries notice that when governments cooperate with us and give us access to their oil, we couldn’t care less about their human rights records, and that makes us look like hypocrites.  Saddam Hussein was executed for crimes he committed while he was our ally. We actually increased our support for him after he committed those crimes. The only way our actions appear consistent is if you assume our foreign policy is about protecting our own economic interests.

Goodman: How does the North Korean situation figure into that scenario?

Chappell: I think there are prospects for peace there.

Look at what happened with East and West Germany. When I was in Iraq, I met some South Korean officers, including one general. I asked them about North Korea, and they said they were upset about the Bush Administration’s aggressive rhetoric towards North Korea because that was making the situation worse.

North Korea is dangerous, but they’re not as dangerous as we make them out to be. They don’t have the ability to conquer and occupy South Korea.

Goodman: What if they use nuclear weapons?

Chappell: Iraq didn’t have nuclear weapons so we invaded them. North Korea has nuclear weapons, so we negotiate. Even though North Korea is incapable of hitting the continental U.S. with its weapons, if we invaded them, they could attack an American military base or a South Korean city. Our behavior teaches the world that they need nuclear weapons to prevent an invasion.

One of the basic things I learned about military strategy at West Point is that, in order to think strategically, you have to be able to see the world from your opponent’s point of view. Looking at the world from Kim Jong-il’s point of view, we know he feels insecure. The most powerful military in human history has troops massed on his border, and his closest neighbor, South Korea, is an industrialized nation with a large and vibrant population, whereas North Korea can barely feed its own people. The South Korean officers told me that North Korea is unstable, but when it is provoked it is more dangerous.

Goodman: How does your West Point training help you wage peace?

Chappell: James Lawson, a civil rights leader in the 1960s, said, “The difficulty with nonviolent people and efforts is that they don’t recognize the necessity of fierce discipline and training, strategizing, planning and recruiting.” West Point taught me strategic thinking, leadership, discipline, patience, determination, resilience and many other skills that are needed for waging peace. Interestingly, a lot of the cultural traits I learned from my mother also helped me develop the skills I use as a peace activist.

Goodman: What do you mean?

Chappell: My mother is old-fashioned Korean, so she’s always on time; she’s very respectful of elders; she doesn’t call anyone by their first name if they’re more than a few years older than she is. She taught me to respect other people, and I’m glad of that. You see a lot of her training in my behavior: Don’t talk too much; be stoic; be calm; be respectful; be on time; don’t gossip; keep your word; fulfill your promises; dress conservatively. Martial arts training also reinforced a lot of these skills, which I use as a peace activist.

Goodman: What do you say to people who consider peace a noble but naive ideal?

Chappell: I am living proof that change is possible. Anyone who thinks ending war is naive hasn’t put enough thought into it. What’s naive is to think that wars can continue and humanity will survive. It’s naive to think the planet is a limitless resource. It’s naive to think that we can create ever more powerful means of killing each other and not destroy the planet.

Portions of this interview originally appeared in The Sun magazine, April 2011.

This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of KoreAm.