A Peacenik Soldier: David Last

A peacekeeping expert trains military officers in methods of dispute resolution

By Metta Spencer | 2003-04-01 12:00:00

In 1992 Peace Magazine received a query from a Canadian peacekeeping officer in Cyprus: What did we know about peace gardens? Not much, we had to admit. But I was fascinated by the intentions behind the question. It seems that Major David Last was planning a peace garden in Nicosia as a way of involving Greek Cypriot and Turkish army troops in a joint project - a "superordinate goal" to rechannel their hostile interactions in a constructive, cooperative direction.

The garden never happened, for reasons that I learned only recently, but Major Last kept popping up on our radar screen - now in Cyprus, now in Kansas, now in Bosnia, now in Ottawa, now at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, and eventually at the Royal Military College in Kingston where he has stayed put for a few years. Sometimes he writes articles for Peace Magazine. The more I learn about him, the more I am amazed at his innovativeness. This guy is a military peacenik, and at last I decided to call him and find out more about his unusual career.

He is Australian by birth, but grew up in Edinburgh, whence his family immigrated to Canada in 1970. First a cadet, then a reservist, he transferred to the regular forces in 1977 for basic officers' training, then studied at the Royal Military College and at Carleton, where he took a master's degree in conflict management - a topic that speaks volumes about the career line he would follow.

Half a Million Events

When he went to London to study for a Ph.D. in politics, David Last knew what he wanted to investigate: Willy Brandt's "North-South" thesis linking development and security. Last regarded the link as plausible: that poverty and inequity in the Third World would inevitably create tensions that would undermine Western security interests. This relationship, if he could establish it, suggests enormous implications for foreign policy. It would make sense to reallocate money from hi-tech weaponry and military expenditures to encouraging equitable development, which would reduce the threats.

To test the theory with quantifiable empirical data, Last used Edward Azar's data bank on conflict as measures of threat. He used data from the World Bank and Sivard's World Military and Social Expenditures as measures of economic and social development. He acquired data for 63 developing countries and 23 developed countries. Azar had coded about half a million events on a hostility scale, based on reports in newspapers. "For example," Last explained, "if Libya sends gunboats to attack American ships in the Mediterranean, that counts as a 14 on his 15-point hostility scale."

For seven years, while serving in the UK, Germany, and Ottawa, Last busily calculated correlations between development and security. By the end, he had demonstrated a modest negative correlation between growth rate and hostility, supporting Brandt's thesis. If a country's growth rate increased, it tended to become less hostile. This was a gratifying result.

But not everything showed up as expected. He had predicted that different patterns of economic and social development would be associated with different levels and types of hostility - that, for example, heavily militarized development would be associated with greater hostility. This prediction was not borne out.

Last received his Ph.D. in 1989 and was promoted to Major in the same year. However, he never published his dissertation. "After seven years, I was sick of it," he admits. (I think he ought to put it on his web site because it is still important, though it is now too late to publish it.)

A Cascade of Tanks

While finishing his dissertation, his day job was to purchase weapons for a Canadian division to use in NATO. However, he could see that the Cold War was over; the weapons would be inappropriate. He was pleased, therefore, when the 1989 budget cut the money for these weapons.

Reassigned to the task of planning for future needs, he encountered a new challenge: to decide whether to accept obsolete tanks that the United States wanted to give away to its allies. Canada had no use for them either, and the upkeep would be expensive. Last is proud of Canada's success in avoiding this "cascading" of Cold War equipment. Eventually, some of the tanks were given to Turkey; others were cut up for scrap. "There's a good chance that I'm shaving with some of them now," he speculates.

Gardening, Tanks, and Sewage in Cyprus

Canadian troops have been in Cyprus since the first UN forces arrived in 1964. In 1974, Greek army officers serving in the Greek Cypriot National Guard had staged a coup with the goal of uniting Cyprus with Greece. Turkey reacted by invading Cyprus to protect the Turkish Cypriot minority. Some Canadian peacekeepers blocked the advance of the Turkish troops. Thereafter, tensions remained high between the troops on opposite sides of the green line, and a Canadian infantry battalion remained there at all times to keep the peace until the mid-1990s. In 1991 Last began a six-month preparation for his tour in Cyprus as a Battery Commander.

He persuaded his commanding officer to put him in charge of educating officers for mediation and negotiation. After reading extensively on the topic, he prepared a training program based on the actual incidents that previous peacekeeping units had experienced in Cyprus. After visiting the units in Cyprus and sifting through their operational reports, he built the incidents into scenarios. Then he dressed up five or six of his smarter soldiers as Greeks, Turks, and civilians, and had them role-play the scenarios. After these preparations the regiment's leaders knew what problems to expect in the field and possibly even how to resolve them.

In December 1992, he brought over some officer cadets from College militaire royale (CMR) and senior officers from RMC, and formed them into two-person teams, each with a graduate and an undergraduate student. Contingent files included about 200 binders, including files on cases where there had been long-term tensions across the boundary between the Greeks and the Turks - say, all the incidents at a particular bridge, or at the Roccas Bastion in Nicosia. Each team's assignment was to take several files and identify how each one had been handled over time. After a week, Last had a binder full of the distilled case studies of those particular incidents. If he had remained in Cyprus, the next logical step would have been to use these documents for planning peacebuilding campaigns. But, returning to Canada, he drew on the data for his research publications.

At about the same time, the peace garden idea came up. The Roccas Bastion is an area in the capital city, Nicosia. The crusaders had built a star-shaped walled structure, the points being about a dozen bastions sticking out of a circle. One of them is the Roccas Bastion. The buffer zone runs right through its centre and is surrounded by open grass. It is often a flash-point site for hostilities between civilians and the Turkish police. One option for reducing confrontations would be to pull the troops farther back from both sides, so they could not see or provoke each other. "We're talking about bored, lonely 18-year-old conscripts who do stupid things like lower their trousers at each other or yell insults at each other," said Last. "That escalates to shooting. In the past it has sometimes derailed negotiations at a higher level."

Last preferred to attack the sources of mistrust and violence, to create an opportunity for cooperation. He wanted to use the Roccas Bastion, which is a beautiful part of the old city, to create a peace garden to which both sides could contribute.

Unfortunately, the project was never accomplished because, he says, he was counting on the wrong people to make it succeed: the religious leaders on both sides - Orthodox and Muslim. He asked the Canadian chaplain to help bring them together. "The religious leaders clearly weren't the right ones to take the lead. Perhaps merchants who would benefit from the influx of tourists would be the way to go. I still think there might be scope for that if you have the right sort of people as allies."

If the peace garden was an idea whose time had not come, there were other interventions by the peacekeepers that succeeded. Last maintains that some of them show how military people can use their professional expertise. In one case, for example, the Turkish forces were demolishing old buildings that were a safety hazard, but the Greek Cypriots alleged that their true intention was to make space for their tanks to drive into Nicosia. After about two years of controversy, a Canadian officer had a meeting with the Greek Cypriots and convinced them that the buildings were not on an armored approach to Nicosia. The slope and the soil composition would make the terrain unusuable for the sort of tanks the Turks owned, whether or not they knocked down the buildings.

Another example: The Greek Cypriots were laying large concrete sewage pipes, about four feet in diameter, near the buffer zone in Nicosia. The Turks complained that this was actually an underground trench system where troops could be hidden. But the Canadians showed them that this would not work; if you put troops into the pipes and dropped bombs on them, they would all suffer concussions.

Moreover, an incident occurred that proved the necessity of installing new pipes. A sewage rupture right in the middle of Nicosia affected both sides of the buffer zone. The stuff backed up and spilled into the streets, but the Turkish Cypriots refused to let Greek Cypriot plumbers come in to fix the problem. But Sergeant Macpherson, a section commander in the buffer zone, brought the Turkish platoon commander down to the zone and edged him over to the raw sewage, persuading him that it would be a really good idea to clean this mess up. Then, without letting the Turk go, he sent a runner back to get the plumber. They got the place fixed, then sat down and had coffee together in the buffer zone. Last sees this incident as another case of turning a potential conflict into a superordinate goal.

The "Be American" Course

David Last's next assignment was a treat: a year as a visiting scholar in Leavenworth, Kansas, at the US Army Command and General Staff College. There he wrote a book on conflict de-escalation, helped train the multinational force for Haiti in 1994-95, and got a second master's degree.

The Staff College is a university with, in any given year, about 1,200 students. Of those, 1,000 are US Army majors and lieutenant colonels. The remainder are US navy, air force and marines, and foreign officers from 72 countries, mostly there on an exchange basis. Historically, half of the foreign graduates go on to be either heads of state or chiefs of defense staff - in the past, many of them as dictators in such countries as Nigeria, Brazil, Uruguay, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Last thinks that probably that situation has improved since the end of the Cold War.

Most of the foreign officers had gone through an intensive language training before arriving. They all were assigned to American families who hosted them frequently: generous, open people who were the salt of the earth, but who did not know much about life outside the United States.

Last arrived during the summer for what he called their two-week-long "Be American" course. "They explained things like: In the US Army, we shave every day, wear deodorant, and wash ourselves every day." The students looked at each other, smiled, and wondered: "Who is this intended for? Are they talking to us dirty Canadians?"

Soon they were in the regular course, where they were all mixed in with Americans. Last recalls,

"Along the way, issues of human rights, liberal democracy, rule of law were woven in at every opportunity. You feel privileged to be there and they are privileged to have you because you're going to be an important person in your country when you go back - though we in the commonwealth felt: We're not going to become head of government because we don't have officers who take those positions while in uniform. But along with this 'You're important to us and we're a great country' went 'this is how we think people should behave. If you want to run with the big dogs, then behave like a civilized country, and civilized countries don't shoot their opposition leaders. They live by a rule of law. The army doesn't have special privileges.'"

Often Last joked with the officers from developing countries, asking whether they will be chief of defence staff or head of government. They would say, "Yes, chief of defence staff, I hope, but not head of government. We don't do that anymore." They do not expect to run their government, but to serve it.

War in Bosnia

Before the Leavenworth term was quite over, Last had to go to Bosnia as assistant to the Deputy Force Commander of the UN Peace Forces (UNPF), which was being split into different UN commands in Macedonia (UNPREDEP), Bosnia (UNPROFOR), and Croatia (UNCRO). He spent a week traveling around Bosnia, sometimes being shelled and having his helicopter dodge bullets.

Last's job was to write code cables from the field headquarters to the UN, and attend meetings. He was present at Akashi's meeting with Milosevic, and at General Janvier's meeting with General Mladic. Everyone could see the mounting pressure for a resolution to the problem. The Croatians had pushed the Serbs and the UN force out of Western Slavonia. In July, Srebrenica and Zepa fell. He said, "As you recall, that's when we called from the force commander's office to find out about nonviolent civil defence because we didn't have the capacity to provide military security for the safe areas."

I certainly did recall. I still shudder at the memory. Anticipating a bloodbath, he had phoned me to ask whether peaceniks had any possible suggestions for protecting the inhabitants of those areas. I spent the weekend calling and faxing activists, seeking advice and forwarding suggestions to David. Nobody had anything useful to offer. It was too late, they said. You can't use nonviolent civil defence to preserve lives in the middle of a war. I had known then, without being told, that he was going through hell, recognizing how little he could do. Only a day or two later, some 7,000 Bosniak men were slaughtered at Srebrenica. I did not ask him to recount the details of that day for the sake of our readers. There are certain questions that are best left unasked.

In August there was a refugee crisis, and soon there were air strikes. Last recalled,

"The air strikes were used asymmetrically. They were used consciously against the Serbs but for the same transgressions they were not applied to the Croatian or Bosnian Muslim forces. In fact, there was some suspicion amongst the UN staff that during the last ten days of the air strikes, there was a remarkable coincidence between air strikes and ground strikes by the Federation forces. There was probably some knowledge in the Federation forces of when and where the air strikes were going to affect the Serbs' ability to respond militarily. As a result of that synergy, territory changed hands rapidly. When the balance reached 51% to 49%, the ceasefire went into effect and the Dayton negotiations kicked in."

In December 1995 NATO took over from UNPROFOR, so Last took off his blue beret and put on a green one. In Prijedor near Banja Luka he lived with Czech soldiers and was a civil affairs officer responsible for five areas in northwest Bosnia, on the Serb side. His job was to facilitate the introduction of international organizations and get local support behind the mission of IFOR, which implemented the Dayton Accords, including the (mostly unsuccessful) repatriation of displaced people.

Because he had been seen on television taking notes at a meeting between General Janvier and the apparent Serbian mastermind of the S ebrenica massacre, General Mladic, the local people recognized Last immediately. (Republika Srpska television had called him a war criminal!) Nevertheless, he was successful in building contacts with the locals. In fact, it was probably a benefit to have been seen with Mladic: "I must be someone if I had been in that company!"

RMC and Partnership for Peace

Today Last teaches at the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston. It is, he says, "a tremendously dynamic environment." He seized the opportunity to develop an international peacekeeping course and is working now on conflict resolution courses, to be offered by distant learning methods. Officers deployed around the world can take courses by e-mail. RMC has already launched two courses and will have two more ready soon. The fourth one is on the "shoulders of violence" - early warning, prevention, and post-conflict resolution.

The most remarkable prospect comes from Canada's participation in Partnership for Peace, an organization linked to NATO that now includes the former socialist countries. Formerly, all the countries that belonged to NATO would pool money for its infrastructure. Now some of that infrastructure money is allocated through the Partnership for Peace to a variety of purposes, including environmental cleanup, professional education, democratization, and civil-military relations. Most of the defence academies in member countries participate in the Consortium of Defence Academies. In the United States there are more than a dozen such institutions. All the cash-strapped countries such as Hungary, Poland, Czechia, and Slovakia want access to distance learning materials, and they receive it electronically, free of charge. Last said,

"RMC is increasingly an international institution. In the future we can bring foreign officers here and run summer seminars. You can make a powerful case for learning conflict resolution skills as part of the suite of tools to be a professional officer. Then you can imagine, in time, soldiers on opposite sides of a border facing each other in a violent conflict, having the tools that enable them to resolve it. This is a useful direction to move officer training."

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2003, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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