Peter van Uhm, Chief of Defence The Netherlands, has an outstanding track record in his field since joining the army in the early ’70s. However, most people will know him from his personal tragedy. On 18 April 2008, one day after Van Uhm was appointed Chief Defence Staff, his son First Lieutenant Dennis van Uhm was killed in a roadside bombing in Uruzgan. Van Uhm’s incredibly dignified and human response has astounded many.
Instruments creating a better world
Today Van Uhm starts off with stating we all have our instruments for creating a better world: for a writer it is his/her pen, for a doctor it is his/her microscope etc. The public was slightly shocked when Van Uhm showed his instrument on stage: his gun! The uneasiness of the public is a good thing according to Van Uhm, we are not used to guns being around us, unlike in many other countries.
The personal story about why Van Uhm has chosen the gun follows. His father fought the Nazis in Nijmegen during World War II. In a critical battle, his father wasn’t able to reach the other side of the river bank and therefore couldn’t stop the Germans. His instrument, the gun, the only thing standing in between good and evil, failed him and his mission, leading to frustration for the rest of his life. Van Uhm chose the gun to stop those who do evil, to protect the vulnerable, to defend democratic values.
“The gun may be one of the most important instruments of peace and stability that we have in this world.”
A bold statement that might be contradictory. However, despite what you might think, violence has declined dramatically over the last decades and even centuries. Why? According to Harvard professor Steven Pinker one of the main drivers behind less violent societies is the spread of the constitutional state. And the introduction of the state monopoly on the legitimized use of violence. Legitimized by a democratically elected government. Legitimized by checks and balances and an independent judicial system. In other words, a state monopoly that has the use of violence well under control.
The armed forces implement the state monopoly on violence. It is this participation in peacekeeping missions that has led to the resolution of many civil wars. “My soldiers use the gun as an instrument of peace.” Failed states have no legitimized, democratically controlled use of force. That’s why they are so dangerous as they can drag down whole regions into chaos and conflict.
“I hope that one day, armies can be disbanded and humans will find a way of living together without violence and oppression. But until that day comes, we will have to make ideals and human failure meet somewhere in the middle.”
Until that day, Van Uhm stands by his father, his men and women, the soldier next to him on stage who suffered partial hearing-loss and sustained permanent injuries to her leg when she was hit by a rocket on her mission in Afghanistan. He hopes you will too.