How I found hope studying war crimes at Stanford

My career as a journalist has been defined by depressing stories of the brutality of war. I covered the mass graves of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the heinous torture meted out by American soldiers after his ouster. I wrote about the enduring toxic legacy of the U.S. military’s intervention in Vietnam, covered the aftermath of government-backed communal riots in India and Indonesia, and documented human rights abuses committed by both sides in the long-running conflict between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish government.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of military veterans, torture survivors and relatives of civilians killed in armed conflict. Through it all, I’ve wondered: Are these war crimes inevitable? If not, how could they been prevented? Why do we, as Americans, seem to have so many bad options and no good ones?  What other options might exist besides invading and occupying a country or standing aside while hundreds of thousands of civilians (or millions as in the case in Syria) are slaughtered.

I haven’t answered these questions during my JSK Fellowship, but I no longer feel so depressed. That’s because at Stanford I’ve found an engaged group of faculty and students wrestling with these same questions.

In the Fall, I enrolled in a course taught by law professor Beth Van Schaack, a former ambassador who helped set up an Atrocities Prevention Board in the Obama administration.  My fellow students included an Air Force officer who mentored the Afghan National Police and a physicist who had worked as a cybersecurity researcher for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. Another student spent her summer as an intern with the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Together, we talked with officials from the State Department, the Justice Department, and a former member of the United States Senate while examining domestic and international jurisprudence, looking for ways to increase accountability and prevent needless suffering.

What impressed me most about these exchanges was a sense of hope among the students. Unlike journalists, who tend to be cynical, or government officials, who tend to be jaded, these young people were optimistic enough to believe that by joining the system they could create change.

This was a theme that continued throughout the year as I attended forums featuring Michael McFaul, President Obama’s former ambassador to Russia, and Caroline Krass, the current General Counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency. The students who came weren’t only ambitious — I feel certain one will someday be a Secretary of State or National Security Advisor — they were also idealistic, and hopeful.

This Spring, I participated in another international law course, Advanced International Negotiation, taught by a team of professors experienced in multilateral talks. One had been involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland, another the war crimes tribunal in Cambodia. Like the course on atrocities prevention, students in this class were also amazingly intelligent and idealistic. They came to their studies after stints in the White House and posts at embassies in Asia and Africa. Others were international students, looking to bring tools for effective negotiations back to their home countries. Week after week, we threw ourselves into simulated negotiations of peace processes that (in real life) had succeeded and failed, taking lessons from our role playing that can be used in real life.

The curriculum of these classes has been challenging. I now better understand the motivations and calculations of military leaders, bureaucrats, lawmakers, advocates, and rebel groups during times of armed conflict. I also have the raw materials needed for many investigations in this arena, which I hope to bring to the public in the years to come.

But the most rewarding thing I gained was a real sense of hope — that the world can be more peaceful, and less barbaric, than it is now.

I can go forward knowing that in the years to come, my young classmates at Stanford will rise to positions of power. I believe they will do so with their values intact.