How to Defeat Invaders Without Guns or Bombs

By Tom Hastings

We are witnessing the Vietnamization of Ukraine–a brave but overmatched people committed to retaining and regaining its territory and its freedom from foreign domination.

For Vietnam, it meant a series of wars, a smashed infrastructure, millions dead, millions poisoned from chemical warfare committed by the US, a landscape of toxified waters and soil, and many other less-considered damages.

“I stood at the shore of the South China Sea and just cried for my poor, poor Vietnam.”

Minh was a fellow student in a Peace and Conflict Studies program in Wisconsin, where we were both earning degrees decades ago and trying to learn less harmful ways to manage conflict.

She was a young woman of barely 19 in Vietnam when she met a young American GI in Da Nang, her town. They fell in love, got married, and she came home with him.

A few years later, she was finally able to get her sister and her surviving parent–her mother–admitted to the US. She went back to Vietnam to get them and told me about what she saw.

“A whole generation lost their education,” she said.

“So many sick and deformed children from Agent Orange.”

We talked about ways that Vietnam might have resisted the foreign troops from China, France, Japan, France again, and finally the US in the many invasions they suffered. We were students and had ideas, but the full scholarship on such tough questions was yet to come.

From the case studies of scholar Gene Sharp to the books and films by Peter Ackerman and his colleagues, and then to the rigorous empiricism of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan–and many other researchers–we actually now have some of those elements that, added together, might be able to do with nonviolence what Vietnam–and now Ukraine–attempted to do with violence.

First, the empiricism: in a landmark study of hundreds of “maximal goal” cases over the past century, Chenoweth and Stephan found results that stood common wisdom in Political Science and Security Studies on its head.

Nonviolent insurgencies are approximately twice as likely to succeed as violent struggles. Their methodology was so rigorous that each has won prestigious awards and promotions in both Ivy League schools and the government. While their original International Security journal article was published in 2008, their results have proven robust and political scientists are still trying to catch up, proving the power of counterintuitivity is a match for rational, scientific rigor and results. As Monty Python’s Flying Circus would say, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” and no one expected that nonviolent struggle would significantly outperform violence. Belief perseverance has generated mudslides of intellectual sluggishness as old line experts continue to ignore validity-threat-proof research published in top journals in favor of what old mental muscle memory tells them. Sadly, they continue to pass along old incorrect assumptions to young students.

Indeed, even the reaction of many of those who prevailed in a nonviolent victory all too often is basically, “Wow, that was lucky! Now let’s focus on arming up so we are really ready next time.”

But we persist. Our small but significant field of Peace and Conflict Transformation turns out graduates with our degrees at all levels. They are the true change agents of times to come. What are they picking up from us?

What components of which cases can give us an idea of how a smaller country with a relatively small military might be able to eventually evict a foreign occupying force?

First, it’s important to see the enormous difficulty of success using any method, violent or nonviolent. Palestinians have used every method they could to regain their land and sovereignty, as have Catalans, Kurds, and many other peoples. It is not only very hard, it usually takes years, if not decades.

I think of the parallels and the divergencies of the cases of Denmark invaded by Nazis in 1940 and Ukraine invaded by Russia in 2022.

The Danish leaders had taken the Kellogg Briand Pact of the late 1920s seriously and had essentially mostly disarmed in a well meaning effort to avoid future war.

Ukraine built up their military as fast as they could following the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014. So that is different.

When the Germans took over Denmark they regarded the Danes as their little Aryan brothers. Russians regard Ukrainians as their little Slav brothers. Both powers fantasized easy domination over, even admiration from, their lesser imagined siblings. Both Germany and Russia erred.

Danes preserved their lives by quick military surrender but they never surrendered their national sense of being Danes, not Germans, Danes, not Aryans. Much as Chileans did what Pinochet demanded as long as he had a gun to their heads, Danes cooperated, to the extent required to keep their people alive.

Danes lost the lowest percent of their population in WW II of any European country, almost the lowest in raw numbers, and did not even get on the list compiled of the 14 countries with the highest percent killed in that war.

In World War II the Allies fought the Axis powers militarily. Danes did little to help their occupiers and instead waited out the 5 1/2 year occupation with work slowdowns, sabotage, walkouts, and other relatively low risk nonviolent actions. Only when the Nazi order to round up all the Danish Jews came as part of the final solution did Danes as a whole take enormous risks to hide Jews, get them to the coast, and into Danish fishing boats to take them to neutral, safer Sweden. Hundreds were caught and killed by Nazis.

Ukraine is suffering terribly as they bravely resist, just as the Vietnamese did. When people are devoted to their identity as a sovereign people they will resist by whatever method they believe will work.

Danes knew violent resistance was irrational. Ukraine, armed by the US and NATO countries, is encouraged to kill and die, and they have been. Like so many others resisting Europe’s old colonial powers in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Vietnam was supplied with AK-47s and many other weapons by the Soviets, and violent resistance was valorized.

Interestingly, when violence was employed against the Nazis and it took more than five years to succeed, there were no voices complaining that it took too long, but when sanctions did not bring Putin to his knees in one month there were many voices denouncing sanctions as too slow.

In nonviolence studies sanctions are a tool, not invariably either an evil or benign act. Scholars George Lopez and David Cortright produced excellent analysis and scholarship on “the sanctions decade,” the 10 years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when as many UN Security Council-ordered sanctions were declared as during the previous 45 years combined. They helped us understand that, like any tool, sanctions can be misused and hurt innocents (e.g., sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s) or can be excellent nonviolent incentives to modulate and even halt destructive behavior (e.g., sanctions against apartheid in South Africa).

Any rational cost/benefit analysis attempted when trying to alter aggressive violative conduct should consider how long the remedies may take by best estimates, how many likely casualties would occur to both combatants and noncombatants, and all the other costs (financial, carbon footprint, infrastructure damage, environmental damages to water and soil, human health impacts, long term trade and transportation impacts, etc.).

Instead, the public discourse and decider discourse seems only focused on “blood and treasure.” Comparing the potential paths toward freedom and security requires a great deal more thought. As this is written, there seems to be zero consideration, for instance, of the immense carbon footprint of moving military forces around the map, bombing fuel depots, jets and warships moving in many directions, etc. It is as if analysts never went beyond the days of horse-drawn cannons and rowing galley ships.

Applying a serious cost-benefit analysis would point toward the advisability of civilian-based defense, including advanced sanctions and breakthrough cyber-help, utilizing an inside game and outside game in a transnational version of consensus community organizing toward targeted, effective civil resistance and a coalition of nations exerting massive financial pressure.

We see the lessons from nonviolent campaigns great and small, from the above-mentioned Danish and South African cases, as well as what we learned from the Filipinx in 1986 and beyond, and including methods practiced by Chileans as they brought down Pinochet and the Serb nonviolent overthrow of Milosevic. These campaigns and many more, when examined in the light of Putin’s flagrant state terrorism, would offer a distinctly less costly response approach to his inhumane conduct, or to that of any great power acting to subjugate others.


Dr. Tom H. Hastings is Coördinator of Conflict Resolution BA/BS degree programs and certificates at Portland State University, PeaceVoice Senior Editor, and on occasion an expert witness for the defense of civil resisters in court.