Skip to content
View Featured Image

Col. Robert Helvey On Strategic Nonviolence

Retired U.S. Army Colonel Robert Helvey was sent by the International Republican Institute to teach seminars in nonviolent strategy for a group of Otpor students in the spring of 2000.

On the origins of his interest in nonviolent action:

My career has been that of a professional soldier. And one of my last assignments was to be the defense attache in Rangoon [Burma]. And I really had an opportunity — two years living in Rangoon and getting around the country — to really see first hand what happens when a people are oppressed to the point that they’re absolutely terrorized. When people would talk to me– and it required a bit of courage to talk to a foreigner– sometimes they would place their hands over their mouth because they were afraid someone was watching and they could read their lips. That’s how paranoid they became.

And, you know, there was no future for [those] people, and there was a struggle for democracy going on, but it was an armed struggle on the periphery of the country and in the border regions. And it was very clear that that armed struggle was never going to succeed. There was no [international] interest in Burma. Burma had been isolated for decades.

So, when I got back, I kept Burma in the back of my mind. Here were a people that really wanted democracy, really wanted political reform, but the only option they had was armed struggle. And that was really a non-starter, so there was really a sense of helplessness.

So, I got selected to be a senior fellow at the Harvard Center for International Affairs. So when I was up at Cambridge one day, I saw a little poster saying “Program for Nonviolent Sanctions,” you know, room such and such. I didn’t have anything to do that afternoon so I went up to the seminar on nonviolent sanctions. Primarily, I guess, being an army officer I was going to find out who these people are, you know, these pacifists and things like that — troublemakers. Just trying to get an understanding of it.

And Dr. Gene Sharp happened to be there. And he started out the seminar by saying, “Strategic nonviolent struggle is all about political power. How to seize political power and how to deny it to others.” And I thought, “Boy, this guy’s talking my language.” And, you know, that’s what armed struggle is about. So I got interested in this approach because I saw immediately that there may be an opportunity here for the Burmese. You know, if you only have a hammer in your tool box every problem looks like a nail. So maybe if they had another tool in their toolbox, they could at least examine the potential of strategic nonviolent struggle. So that’s how I got interested in it.

I had done some work along the Thai-Burmese border with the International Republican Institute. So when they were looking for someone to present information on strategic nonviolent struggle to a Serb group, they called me.

On the Otpor training seminar:

What I did initially was, I had sort of a side session with five or six of the Otpor leaders of this leaderless organization and asked them some questions to get a feel for what they were looking for. And then I started into my seminar.

I think they were looking for something to keep the momentum going. You know, they had done very, very effective work in mobilizing individual groups. But there was something missing to take them beyond protest into actually mobilizing to overthrow the regime. I just felt that something was lacking. They were doing something very, very well, but there seemed to be an invisible wall here that they needed to get over.

So we started with the basics of strategic nonviolent struggle theory. And I did it sort of as a review because apparently they were doing many things right so there must have been some basic understanding. But sometimes you miss some of the dynamics of it if you don’t understand the theory. And I focused on the pluralistic basis of power. That the sources of power are the skills and knowledge and the numbers of people, the legitimacy, the fear of sanctions, things like that. Why people obey the regime, even though they dislike it. There are many reasons why people obey that regime. And the primary one is one of habit. So you focus on breaking the habits of obedience. But before you can break the habits you have to understand what it is, why it’s in their interests to disobey.

So, once we got beyond that then we looked at — I don’t know how to say this, but — you’re fighting a war and wars can only be fought successfully if you have a very clear objective and just defeating your opponent, getting him out of power, is just an intermediate objective if you want to go to democracy. So you have to have a vision of tomorrow that includes transforming a society so that it can be democratic. So we talked about that for a while, some of the things that needed to be looked at.

And then we talked a little bit about propaganda. Propaganda today is not a very good word. We like to use the word media or information. But I still use the same old term because it clearly identifies what propaganda is, and that is providing information to change attitudes that influence behavior. And so you look at your society, where the sources of power are, and sources of power are expressed in institutions. Individuals can’t exert much power. But organizations is how these sources of power are expressed. And these are expressed in organizations and institutions that you refer to as pillars of support.

So you analyze each of those pillars of support. You identify their strengths and weaknesses. And once you identify those vulnerabilities, then you can design your messages to appeal to those very specific target audiences — to influence their attitudes about their government and about the opposition. And you will eventually be able to change their behaviors.

On the prior experience of the Otpor kids:

They had analyzed a lot of it, but one thing they had not analyzed was this idea of pillars of support. I think I was able to show them a different way of looking at society. So that they could use their resources much more effectively, and be able to measure the effects of their efforts by looking at each of these institutions.

The regime depends heavily upon the military, heavily upon the police, often on the civil servants, sometimes the religious organizations, the church sometimes moves towards supporting the incumbent regime. Students are very often on the side of the opposition, so how can you reinforce that and get them to be even more aggressive than they normally are?

Students historically have always been in the vanguard of social change. So if you’re looking for that pillar of support, it doesn’t take nearly the amount of resources to get them up to where you want them and in some cases, like in the Burma movement in 1988, the students were mobilized and active well before any of the other institutions of society were. So when it came to the crisis point, the other pillars of support were not ready to support them. There was confusion. So, in a way, the students were left out there hanging by themselves. So if they had had a strategic vision and had examined these pillars of support, they could have been working on those that weren’t ready to accept the risk of reform – and brought them up to speed so at the decisive moment, all of these would have come together.

Is nonviolent action a form of warfare?

It’s a form of warfare. And you’ve got to think of it in terms of a war. So the principles of war that apply to a military struggle have a tremendous overlap into strategic nonviolent struggle. I mentioned objective. The objective has to be clear. You can’t plan a strategy, or you can’t even have a strategy, until you have a clear objective. What is it that I want to accomplish? And then how do I want to accomplish it?

So you identify a strategy, broadly. One option, of course, is an armed struggle. Another option is, you know, a nonviolent struggle. And in some cases the ballot box is the way to bring about change. So first, if you decide that you’re going to take action against oppression – and that’s the first decision, you know. Do I want change bad enough that I’m willing to take some risk? Or are the risks too high and I’ll just go ahead and submit and tolerate it?

But once you say yes I want to change, then you’ve got to make that decision which is a strategic decision. And if you decide to accept nonviolent struggle, then the same principles of war — we mention objective, you mention mass, you know, to be able to get your forces together at the decisive point. And the initiative, you know, you’re never going to win by being on the defensive. You’ve got to take the offense, whether it’s in a military struggle or in unarmed struggle.

So the overlap — the principles of war are the same. They aren’t necessarily things that you have to do, but these principles are, sort of, reference points. Have I thought about this? How do I provide security for this nonviolent struggle, particularly at its earlier stages? And very often, in a very repressive society initially it’s underground, you know, the organization. But eventually it goes above ground. So there’s a lot of similarities between the two.

Can violence be used alongside a nonviolent movement?

I call it contaminants to a nonviolent struggle. And, of course, you know, violence is the greatest contaminant. And, I use the example of gasoline. You know, if you get a little bit of moisture in your gas tank, the engine will still run– not real smooth– but it’ll still run. But when the moisture level reaches a certain point, the engine doesn’t run at all. So violence is a contaminant.

Now, any time you have a mass movement, there’s going to be some isolated acts of violence. And there’s not a whole lot you can do about that. But once violence becomes a policy or accepted, then it becomes a major contaminant — so major that you’re going to lose the moral high ground. And a lot of people that have joined in your movement because it was nonviolent are going to start backing away.

The international community from which you’ve received not only moral and political support, but sometimes financial support, will start to get very nervous about providing that support to an organization that condones violent action. And the other thing is, you are meeting your opponent where he is the strongest. And that’s dumb. Why would you invite the enemy to fight you on his terms? So, that is a self-destructive approach to strategic nonviolent struggle.

What about the specific methods?

You start out by trying to put a framework, a way to look at a strategic nonviolent struggle. And then you narrow it down a little bit to the nature of the struggle itself. You know, you have the mechanisms that bring change, that kick in, you know. You can convert people — conversion. You can get the regime to accommodate the demands of the opposition group. And then, you use more coercion and interventionist type things, and then the methods of nonviolent struggle.

Protests are primarily symbols. Symbolic gestures to send a message to somebody about your dissatisfaction with the situation or what you want to see happen. But these are primarily symbolic. And the most powerful tool, of course, is withdrawal of consent — non-cooperation. Because without the people’s consent, you can’t govern. And it’s just that simple. If you don’t consent to be governed, then you’re not going to be governed. So, as Gene [Sharp] has pointed out, you know, he listed 198 different methods of nonviolent resistance, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I would suggest you take those 198 and then look at your own situation and you’ll easily come up with another 198 for your particular struggle.

On overcoming fear:

The question did come up about the fear. And, of course, these people in Otpor, just like most young people, they are very, very courageous. But how do you get others to overcome the effects of fear? Well, the first thing is that you must not ever call people cowards who are afraid. Because once you identify them as cowards, then it has an effect up here. “Yeah, I am a coward.” So, you tell the people: “fear is normal and fear is something that everybody experiences. And if you tell me you have never experienced fear, first you are a liar or you’ve got a mental problem, you’re mentally unbalanced.”

So fear is something that happens to you instinctively. You can’t control it, instinctively, it happens. Your feet get cold and why is that? Because blood is coming away from your extremities into the middle of your body. Your body is telling you to prepare for combat. Whether you want it or not, it’s preparing your body for combat.

Your brain starts sending all of this adrenaline around to become more powerful. You start panting and breathing heavily to get more oxygen into your system so that your muscles will be able to exert more. No one is more powerful than a mother protecting her child. Where does she get this energy, this strength? The body is taking care of her. She doesn’t cause it to happen.

So these basic things are very, very positive. But sometimes, instinct tells us to do things that may be counterproductive for the overall good. Our body, our instinct, tells us to do things when confronted with a threat. Run or freeze. Well, we can’t say “Everybody come out to the demonstration” and then the first time they hear the bayonets click on everybody runs. You can’t do that. So we have to come up with things to help us overcome the damaging effects of fear.

And one of them is don’t be alone. So if you’re going to have demonstrations, if you’re going to take actions, get people closer together, so they touch each other, in fact. Sometimes the sounds of the enemy — the clicking of bayonets, the beating of the batons — can instill this fright. So you have your own people to chant and make a lot of noise so it drowns out some of the sounds which are coming. The other thing is where to place the banners. Now, if you’ve ever been on the looking end of a rifle, it’s very disconcerting. So why not put your banners up to the front of the crowd so the people in the back rows can’t see. It diverts their attention.

So you’ve got to find out things to do to keep the attention diverted away from the instinct of fear. If you have a lot to do, if this demonstration’s success depends upon what you’re doing, then you’re going to be awfully busy to make sure this demonstration is successful. So you give tasks to everybody, you know. “Hey you, you’re in charge of keeping this row straight. And that’s your job all the time, constantly check, get people lined up.” So he’s busy doing something. You’ve got other people out, you know on the flanks, to watch to see if the police are coming and to provide warning.

You’ve got other people carrying water cause we may be there all day. “And you’ve got to make sure, you’ve got to pass this water out every now and then. Don’t wait for people to ask for a drink because they’ll get dehydrated out of excitement. So if that happens then the demonstration is going to be a failure. So your job is to do that.”

You’re going to have people on first aid. You’ve got to have this training, you’ve got to carry these things, and you’ve got to check every now and then. Particularly if it’s going to be hot, you’re going to have people fainting, how are you going to do that, you know. You’ve got to have people in charge of signs — making sure they’re up at a certain level. Not this high, not this high, but just exact. So you come up with dozens of duties that are extremely important.

And then the next thing is, you try to rehearse people so that they are not surprised when the police come. They are not surprised at the first sight of blood. They are not surprised about anything. So just like Martin Luther King used to do, you know, he used to take the people to the church and go through a rehearsal. How do you fall down and protect your head when a cop starts beating you? So that if you’re not surprised, there’s less chance for panic. And that’s what happens when you’re training soldiers. Realistic training means they’re not going to break and run on you, and they’re going to know exactly what to do in combat. Demonstrations can turn into that. So this is how we approached that.

On the purpose of demonstrations:

What a demonstration does — it’s a symbolic gesture primarily. But it can be perceived as something very coercive. If you get 500,000 people out on the street, they’re sending you a message. First, we can get 500,000 people out on the street, and that can be frightening. The second thing it does, it generates a perception nationwide of the growing strength of the organization and it could improve recruitment and support. It could cause these other pillars of support to start a reevaluation of their position with respect to the regime. So it has a cumulative effect, you know, what the demonstration can do.

Now, if you decided to move that demonstration to the parliament and occupy the parliament, well now you’ve come into something more in the way of intervention. You’re not just making a gesture, you are actually disrupting and interfering with the ability of the government to rule. So you have to look at your demonstrations for intent and knowing when you’re going to be moving to something else because you have to also start changing your thinking about that demonstration. If you block off the roads for an entire day, for example — that depends on what your intention is. You know, to disrupt the government or to just make this gesture, this symbolic gesture of dissatisfaction. A lot of these things are what you intended to do and how it’s received at the other end.

Excerpted from an interview with Steve York: Belgrade, January 29, 2001.

Sign Up To Our Daily Digest

Independent media outlets are being suppressed and dropped by corporations like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Sign up for our daily email digest before it’s too late so you don’t miss the latest movement news.