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TEDxAmsterdam

Peter van Uhm: Why I chose a gun

November 25, 2011

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. (Filmed at TEDxAmsterdam.)

Peter van Uhm - General
General Peter van Uhm is the Chief of the Netherlands Defence staff. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
As the highest military commander
00:15
of The Netherlands,
00:18
with troops stationed around the world,
00:20
I'm really honored
00:23
to be here today.
00:25
When I look around
00:27
this TEDxAmsterdam venue,
00:29
I see a very special audience.
00:31
You are the reason
00:35
why I said yes to the invitation
00:37
to come here today.
00:40
When I look around,
00:44
I see people
00:46
who want to make a contribution,
00:48
I see people
00:50
who want to make a better world,
00:52
by doing groundbreaking scientific work,
00:55
by creating impressive works of art,
00:58
by writing critical articles
01:02
or inspiring books,
01:04
by starting up sustainable businesses.
01:07
And you all have chosen
01:10
your own instruments
01:13
to fulfill this mission
01:15
of creating a better world.
01:17
Some chose the microscope
01:20
as their instrument.
01:22
Others chose dancing or painting
01:24
or making music like we just heard.
01:27
Some chose the pen.
01:30
Others work through the instrument of money.
01:33
Ladies and gentlemen,
01:37
I made a different choice.
01:39
Thanks.
01:55
Ladies and gentlemen --
02:00
(Laughter)
02:03
(Applause)
02:06
I share your goals.
02:11
I share the goals
02:14
of the speakers you heard before.
02:16
I did not choose
02:20
to take up the pen,
02:23
the brush, the camera.
02:26
I chose this instrument.
02:30
I chose the gun.
02:34
For you, and you heard already,
02:37
being so close to this gun
02:40
may make you feel uneasy.
02:43
It may even feel scary.
02:47
A real gun
02:49
at a few feet's distance.
02:51
Let us stop for a moment
02:54
and feel this uneasiness.
02:56
You could even hear it.
02:59
Let us cherish the fact
03:02
that probably most of you
03:04
have never been close to a gun.
03:07
It means
03:10
The Netherlands is a peaceful country.
03:12
The Netherlands is not at war.
03:15
It means soldiers are not needed
03:18
to patrol our streets.
03:21
Guns are not a part of our lives.
03:24
In many countries
03:28
it is a different story.
03:31
In many countries
03:34
people are confronted with guns.
03:36
They are oppressed.
03:38
They are intimidated --
03:40
by warlords,
03:43
by terrorists,
03:45
by criminals.
03:47
Weapons can do a lot of harm.
03:49
They are the cause
03:52
of much distress.
03:54
Why then am I standing before you
03:56
with this weapon?
03:58
Why did I choose the gun
04:01
as my instrument?
04:03
Today I want to tell you why.
04:06
Today I want to tell you
04:08
why I chose the gun
04:10
to create a better world.
04:12
And I want to tell you
04:14
how this gun can help.
04:16
My story starts
04:20
in the city of Nijmegen
04:23
in the east of The Netherlands,
04:26
the city where I was born.
04:29
My father
04:33
was a hardworking baker,
04:35
but when he had finished work in the bakery,
04:39
he often told me and my brother stories.
04:42
And most of the time,
04:46
he told me this story I'm going to share with you now.
04:48
The story of what happened
04:52
when he was a conscripted soldier
04:54
in the Dutch armed forces
04:57
at the beginning of the Second World War.
04:59
The Nazis invaded The Netherlands.
05:02
Their grim plans were evident.
05:05
They meant to rule
05:08
by means of repression.
05:10
Diplomacy had failed to stop the Germans.
05:13
Only brute force remained.
05:17
It was our last resort.
05:21
My father was there
05:24
to provide it.
05:26
As the son of a farmer
05:28
who knew how to hunt,
05:30
my father was an excellent marksman.
05:32
When he aimed,
05:35
he never missed.
05:37
At this decisive moment in Dutch history
05:39
my father was positioned
05:42
on the bank of the river Waal
05:45
near the city of Nijmegen.
05:47
He had a clear shot at the German soldiers
05:50
who came to occupy a free country,
05:53
his country,
05:56
our country.
05:58
He fired. Nothing happened.
06:00
He fired again.
06:03
No German soldier fell to the ground.
06:05
My father had been given
06:09
an old gun
06:11
that could not even reach
06:13
the opposite riverbank.
06:15
Hitler's troops marched on,
06:18
and there was nothing my father could do about it.
06:21
Until the day my father died,
06:26
he was frustrated about missing these shots.
06:29
He could have done something.
06:33
But with an old gun,
06:36
not even the best marksman in the armed forces
06:38
could have hit the mark.
06:41
So this story stayed with me.
06:44
Then in high school,
06:47
I was gripped by the stories
06:49
of the Allied soldiers --
06:51
soldiers who left the safety of their own homes
06:54
and risked their lives
06:58
to liberate a country and a people
07:00
that they didn't know.
07:03
They liberated my birth town.
07:06
It was then that I decided
07:09
I would take up the gun --
07:12
out of respect and gratitude
07:15
for those men and women
07:18
who came to liberate us --
07:20
from the awareness
07:23
that sometimes only the gun
07:25
can stand
07:28
between good and evil.
07:30
And that is why
07:33
I took up the gun --
07:35
not to shoot,
07:37
not to kill,
07:39
not to destroy,
07:41
but to stop those who would do evil,
07:43
to protect the vulnerable,
07:47
to defend democratic values,
07:50
to stand up for the freedom we have
07:53
to talk here today
07:56
in Amsterdam
07:58
about how we can make the world a better place.
08:00
Ladies and gentlemen,
08:03
I do not stand here today
08:05
to tell you about the glory of weapons.
08:08
I do not like guns.
08:11
And once you have been under fire yourself,
08:15
it brings home even more clearly
08:19
that a gun is not some macho instrument
08:22
to brag about.
08:25
I stand here today
08:28
to tell you about the use of the gun
08:30
as an instrument of peace and stability.
08:32
The gun may be one of the most important instruments
08:38
of peace and stability
08:40
that we have in this world.
08:42
Now this may sound contradictory to you.
08:44
But not only have I seen with my own eyes
08:48
during my deployments in Lebanon,
08:53
Sarajevo and [unclear] national
08:55
as The Netherlands' chief of defense,
08:57
this is also supported
09:00
by cold, hard statistics.
09:02
Violence has declined dramatically
09:06
over the last 500 years.
09:09
Despite the pictures
09:12
we are shown daily in the news,
09:14
wars between developed countries
09:17
are no longer commonplace.
09:19
The murder rate in Europe
09:22
has dropped by a factor of 30
09:24
since the Middle Ages.
09:26
And occurrences of civil war and repression
09:28
have declined since the end of the Cold War.
09:31
Statistics show
09:34
that we are living
09:36
in a relatively peaceful era.
09:38
Why?
09:40
Why has violence decreased?
09:42
Has the human mind changed?
09:45
Well we were talking on the human mind this morning.
09:48
Did we simply lose our beastly impulses
09:51
for revenge,
09:54
for violent rituals,
09:56
for pure rage?
09:58
Or is there something else?
10:01
In his latest book,
10:04
Harvard professor Steven Pinker --
10:06
and many other thinkers before him --
10:08
concludes that one of the main drivers
10:10
behind less violent societies
10:15
is the spread of the constitutional state
10:18
and the introduction on a large scale
10:21
of the state monopoly
10:24
on the legitimized use of violence --
10:26
legitimized by a democratically elected government,
10:29
legitimized by checks and balances
10:35
and an independent judicial system.
10:38
In other words, a state monopoly
10:42
that has the use of violence
10:45
well under control.
10:48
Such a state monopoly on violence,
10:51
first of all, serves
10:54
as a reassurance.
10:56
It removes the incentive
10:58
for an arms race
11:00
between potentially hostile groups
11:02
in our societies.
11:04
Secondly, the presence of penalties
11:06
that outweigh the benefits of using violence
11:09
tips the balance even further.
11:12
Abstaining from violence
11:15
becomes more profitable
11:17
than starting a war.
11:19
Now nonviolence starts to work
11:22
like a flywheel.
11:25
It enhances peace even further.
11:28
Where there is no conflict,
11:31
trade flourishes.
11:33
And trade is another important incentive
11:36
against violence.
11:38
With trade, there's mutual interdependency
11:41
and mutual gain between parties.
11:44
And when there is mutual gain,
11:48
both sides stand to lose more
11:50
than they would gain
11:52
if they started a war.
11:54
War is simply
11:57
no longer the best option,
11:59
and that is why violence has decreased.
12:02
This, ladies and gentlemen,
12:07
is the rationale behind the existence
12:09
of my armed forces.
12:12
The armed forces
12:15
implement the state monopoly on violence.
12:17
We do this in a legitimized way
12:20
only after our democracy has asked us
12:23
to do so.
12:27
It is this legitimate,
12:29
controlled use of the gun
12:32
that has contributed greatly
12:35
to the statistics of war,
12:37
conflict and violence
12:39
around the globe.
12:41
It is this participation in peacekeeping missions
12:43
that has led to the resolution
12:46
of many civil wars.
12:48
My soldiers use the gun
12:51
as an instrument of peace.
12:54
And this is exactly why failed states
12:58
are so dangerous.
13:01
Failed states
13:03
have no legitimized, democratically controlled use of force.
13:05
Failed states do not know of the gun
13:09
as an instrument of peace and stability.
13:12
That is why failed states
13:16
can drag down a whole region
13:18
into chaos and conflict.
13:20
That is why spreading the concept
13:23
of the constitutional state
13:25
is such an important aspect
13:27
of our foreign missions.
13:29
That is why
13:32
we are trying to build a judicial system
13:34
right now in Afghanistan.
13:36
That is why we train police officers,
13:39
we train judges,
13:42
we train public prosecutors around the world.
13:44
And that is why --
13:47
and in The Netherlands, we are very unique in that --
13:49
that is why the Dutch constitution states
13:52
that one of the main tasks
13:55
of the armed forces
13:57
is to uphold and promote
13:59
the international rule of law.
14:01
Ladies and gentlemen,
14:05
looking at this gun,
14:07
we are confronted
14:09
with the ugly side of the human mind.
14:11
Every day I hope
14:15
that politicians, diplomats,
14:17
development workers
14:19
can turn conflict
14:21
into peace
14:23
and threat
14:25
into hope.
14:27
And I hope that one day
14:29
armies can be disbanded
14:31
and humans will find a way of living together
14:33
without violence and oppression.
14:36
But until that day comes,
14:40
we will have to make ideals
14:43
and human failure
14:46
meet somewhere in the middle.
14:49
Until that day comes,
14:51
I stand for my father
14:54
who tried to shoot the Nazis
14:56
with an old gun.
14:59
I stand for my men and women
15:01
who are prepared to risk their lives
15:04
for a less violent world for all of us.
15:07
I stand for this soldier
15:11
who suffered partial hearing loss
15:14
and sustained permanent injuries to her leg,
15:17
which was hit by a rocket
15:20
on a mission in Afghanistan.
15:23
Ladies and gentlemen,
15:27
until the day comes
15:29
when we can do away with the gun,
15:31
I hope we all agree
15:34
that peace and stability
15:37
do not come free of charge.
15:39
It takes hard work,
15:42
often behind the scenes.
15:45
It takes good equipment
15:48
and well-trained, dedicated soldiers.
15:50
I hope you will support the efforts
15:54
of our armed forces
15:56
to train soldiers
15:58
like this young captain
16:00
and provide her with a good gun,
16:02
instead of the bad gun my father was given.
16:05
I hope you will support our soldiers
16:08
when they are out there,
16:11
when they come home
16:14
and when they are injured
16:16
and need our care.
16:18
They put their lives on the line,
16:20
for us, for you,
16:22
and we cannot let them down.
16:25
I hope you will respect my soldiers,
16:29
this soldier with this gun.
16:33
Because she wants a better world.
16:36
Because she makes an active contribution
16:40
to the better world,
16:42
just like all of us here today.
16:45
Thank you very much.
16:48
(Applause)
16:50

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Peter van Uhm - General
General Peter van Uhm is the Chief of the Netherlands Defence staff.

Why you should listen

General Petrus J.M. "Peter" van Uhm is a four-star general in the Royal Netherlands Army and the current Chief of the Netherlands Defence Staff. He has had an outstanding carrer over four decades in the Dutch military.

In the Netherlands, he is know 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. 

The original video is available on TED.com
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