As the highest military commander of the Netherlands, with troops stationed around the world, I'm really honored to be here today.
When I look around this TEDxAmsterdam venue, I see a very special audience. You are the reason why I said yes to the invitation to come here today. When I look around, I see people who want to make a contribution. I see people who want to make a better world, by doing groundbreaking scientific work, by creating impressive works of art, by writing critical articles or inspiring books, by starting up sustainable businesses. And you all have chosen your own instruments to fulfill this mission of creating a better world. Some chose the microscope as their instrument. Others chose dancing or painting, or making music like we just heard. Some chose the pen. Others work through the instrument of money.
Ladies and gentlemen, I made a different choice.
Ladies and gentlemen ...
I share your goals. I share the goals of the speakers you heard before. I did not choose to take up the pen, the brush, the camera. I chose this instrument. I chose the gun.
For you, and you heard already, being so close to this gun may make you feel uneasy. It may even feel scary. A real gun at a few feet's distance. Let us stop for a moment and feel this uneasiness. You could even hear it. Let us cherish the fact that probably most of you have never been close to a gun. It means the Netherlands is a peaceful country. The Netherlands is not at war. It means soldiers are not needed to patrol our streets. Guns are not a part of our lives. In many countries, it is a different story. In many countries, people are confronted with guns. They are oppressed. They are intimidated — by warlords, by terrorists, by criminals. Weapons can do a lot of harm. They are the cause of much distress.
Why then am I standing before you with this weapon? Why did I choose the gun as my instrument? Today I want to tell you why. Today I want to tell you why I chose the gun to create a better world. And I want to tell you how this gun can help.
My story starts in the city of Nijmegen in the east of the Netherlands, the city where I was born. My father was a hardworking baker, but when he had finished work in the bakery, he often told me and my brother stories. And most of the time, he told me this story I'm going to share with you now. The story of what happened when he was a conscripted soldier in the Dutch armed forces at the beginning of the Second World War. The Nazis invaded the Netherlands. Their grim plans were evident. They meant to rule by means of repression. Diplomacy had failed to stop the Germans. Only brute force remained. It was our last resort. My father was there to provide it.
As the son of a farmer who knew how to hunt, my father was an excellent marksman. When he aimed, he never missed. At this decisive moment in Dutch history my father was positioned on the bank of the river Waal near the city of Nijmegen. He had a clear shot at the German soldiers who came to occupy a free country, his country, our country. He fired. Nothing happened. He fired again. No German soldier fell to the ground. My father had been given an old gun that could not even reach the opposite riverbank. Hitler's troops marched on, and there was nothing my father could do about it.
Until the day my father died, he was frustrated about missing these shots. He could have done something. But with an old gun, not even the best marksman in the armed forces could have hit the mark. So this story stayed with me.
Then in high school, I was gripped by the stories of the Allied soldiers — soldiers who left the safety of their own homes and risked their lives to liberate a country and a people that they didn't know. They liberated my birth town. It was then that I decided I would take up the gun — out of respect and gratitude for those men and women who came to liberate us. From the awareness that sometimes only the gun can stand between good and evil.
And that is why I took up the gun — not to shoot, not to kill, not to destroy, but to stop those who would do evil, to protect the vulnerable, to defend democratic values, to stand up for the freedom we have to talk here today in Amsterdam about how we can make the world a better place.
Ladies and gentlemen, I do not stand here today to tell you about the glory of weapons. I do not like guns. And once you have been under fire yourself, it brings home even more clearly that a gun is not some macho instrument to brag about. I stand here today to tell you about the use of the gun as an instrument of peace and stability. The gun may be one of the most important instruments of peace and stability that we have in this world.
Now this may sound contradictory to you. But not only have I seen with my own eyes during my deployments in Lebanon, Sarajevo and as the Netherlands' Chief of Defence, this is also supported by cold, hard statistics. Violence has declined dramatically over the last 500 years. Despite the pictures we are shown daily in the news, wars between developed countries are no longer commonplace. The murder rate in Europe has dropped by a factor of 30 since the Middle Ages. And occurrences of civil war and repression have declined since the end of the Cold War. Statistics show that we are living in a relatively peaceful era.
Why? Why has violence decreased? Has the human mind changed? Well, we were talking about the human mind this morning. Did we simply lose our beastly impulses for revenge, for violent rituals, for pure rage? Or is there something else? In his latest book, Harvard professor Steven Pinker — and many other thinkers before him — concludes that one of the main drivers behind less violent societies is the spread of the constitutional state and the introduction, on a large scale, 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.
Such a state monopoly on violence, first of all, serves as a reassurance. It removes the incentive for an arms race between potentially hostile groups in our societies. Secondly, the presence of penalties that outweigh the benefits of using violence tips the balance even further. Abstaining from violence becomes more profitable than starting a war. Now nonviolence starts to work like a flywheel. It enhances peace even further. Where there is no conflict, trade flourishes. And trade is another important incentive against violence. With trade, there's mutual interdependency and mutual gain between parties. And when there is mutual gain, both sides stand to lose more than they would gain if they started a war. War is simply no longer the best option, and that is why violence has decreased.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the rationale behind the existence of my armed forces. The armed forces implement the state monopoly on violence. We do this in a legitimized way only after our democracy has asked us to do so. It is this legitimate, controlled use of the gun that has contributed greatly to reducing the statistics of war, conflict and violence around the globe. 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.
And this is exactly why failed states are so dangerous. Failed states have no legitimized, democratically controlled use of force. Failed states do not know of the gun as an instrument of peace and stability. That is why failed states can drag down a whole region into chaos and conflict. That is why spreading the concept of the constitutional state is such an important aspect of our foreign missions. That is why we are trying to build a judicial system right now in Afghanistan. That is why we train police officers, we train judges, we train public prosecutors around the world. And that is why — and in the Netherlands, we are very unique in that — that is why the Dutch constitution states that one of the main tasks of the armed forces is to uphold and promote the international rule of law.
Ladies and gentlemen, looking at this gun, we are confronted with the ugly side of the human mind. Every day I hope that politicians, diplomats, development workers can turn conflict into peace and threat into hope. And 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 comes, I stand for my father who tried to shoot the Nazis with an old gun. I stand for my men and women who are prepared to risk their lives for a less violent world for all of us. I stand for this soldier who suffered partial hearing loss and sustained permanent injuries to her leg, when she was hit by a rocket on a mission in Afghanistan.
Ladies and gentlemen, until the day comes when we can do away with the gun, I hope we all agree that peace and stability do not come free of charge. It takes hard work, often behind the scenes. It takes good equipment and well-trained, dedicated soldiers. I hope you will support the efforts of our armed forces to train soldiers like this young captain and provide her with a good gun, instead of the bad gun my father was given. I hope you will support our soldiers when they are out there, when they come home and when they are injured and need our care. They put their lives on the line, for us, for you, and we cannot let them down.
I hope you will respect my soldiers, this soldier with this gun. Because she wants a better world. Because she makes an active contribution to a better world, just like all of us here today.
Thank you very much.
Peter van Uhm is the Netherlands' chief of defense, but that does not mean he is pro-war. In this talk, he explains how his career is one shaped by a love of peace, not a desire for bloodshed — and why we need armies if we want peace.
General Peter van Uhm is the Chief of the Netherlands Defence staff.