Capt. Paul K. Chappell’s parents thought he was a freak.
But that notion wasn’t based on anything Chappell did; it was actually based on his parents’ ethnicities. Chappell’s mother was Korean and his father was half-white and half-black. Chappell’s father fought in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and his parents thought someone with his ethnically diverse heritage wouldn’t be accepted by society anywhere but the military.
“Growing up in the military was really, in [my dad’s] mind, the best place that a black man would have a fair chance,” Chappell said. “And because I’m half-Korean and a quarter-white and a quarter-black, my parents thought well, I’m like a freak, and so unless I go into the military, American society will basically never accept me.”
Taking his parents’ advice, Chappell decided that he would pursue a life in the United States military, graduating from West Point in 2002 and serving until he left active duty as a captain in 2009.
At 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy, Chappell will give a lecture titled “Why World Peace is Possible,” presenting an analysis of the causes of war and violence, and his ideas on how to approach world peace.
Before he left active duty, Chappell began writing his Road to Peace book series, which now contains seven books. The first few explain his ideas about waging peace instead of war and what it means to be human.
“The [first] books ask much broader questions about the human condition and the nature of war itself,” Chappell said. “I don’t write the kind of stuff that polarizes people politically because I think it’s actually a distraction — the real underlying problems of war and violence actually transcend the political divide.”
His later books go into greater depth and are more personal. They detail Chappell’s personal experiences in the military with an emphasis on the trauma and rage soldiers go through.
But when Chappell left active duty, his mother was still worried how he would fit into society with his ethnic background.
“When I told my mother I was getting out in 2009, she was just screaming at me on the phone,” Chappell said. “And she said, ‘Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind? No one’s going to give you a job. It’s bad enough you look Asian. You’re also part black. Who is going to give a job to a black man who looks Asian?’ ”
But Chappell’s books gave him a new career to pursue after he got out. A copy of one of his books ended up in the hands of David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF), an organization that educates and advocates for peace and ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
When Chappell left active duty in 2009, the organization had a job waiting for him leading the NAPF Peace Leadership Program. Chappell said although people understand how soldiers need extensive training to learn how to wage war, people also need training to learn how to wage peace.
Chappell said peace activism is the only art form where people don’t think they need training.
“Most activists have no training in how to wage peace; they think they can just show up with a sign and they’re going to be effective,” Chappell said. “Our culture views peace in this very naïve way, and if people were as well-trained in how to wage peace as soldiers are in how to wage war, our society would be completely different.”
The NAPF Peace Leadership Program aims to create that different cultural norm by changing the way people view peace activism.
One of the ways Chappell does that is by explaining the strategies of other effective peacemaking leaders. He incorporates religious figures and teachings into a lot of his writing.
“[With] the stuff that Jesus talked about, people don’t realize the strategic brilliance of what he was saying,” Chappell said. “And I think that a lot of the things that Jesus or Buddha or the people in the ancient world talked about had a really high level of strategic value, and that we really have to harness that strategic power to solve our current problems.”
Chappell thinks those religious figures approached peace in important, practical ways, but when using them as leadership examples, he sometimes receives a negative response. Chappell said people often get polarized when he discusses religion because they feel like someone is trying to convert them.
Instead, Chappell often uses examples from Greek religion in his teaching, which today most refer to as Greek mythology. Although people today don’t typically think of figures such as Hercules as religious, a long time ago, people used to pray to Hercules.
Chappell said religion offers a lot of timeless insight, and Greek mythology is a secular way of presenting those religious ideas.
“I think that religion offers story and allegory and metaphor that is so crucial to human understanding,” Chappell said. “That framework … is great for making very complex things sound very simple.”
As far as his own religious beliefs, Chappell personally identifies as religious but doesn’t always like to make that statement publicly. That is because his definition of what it means to “be religious” is different than most.
For Chappell, living a religious life isn’t about his beliefs or worship practices — it’s about the way he chooses to treat people and live out each day.
“I think being ‘very religious’ is trying to live the lifestyle of love that Jesus and Buddha and the other religious teachers taught us to embrace,” Chappell said. “Your actions, your way of living, your ability to show empathy and compassion and stand up against injustice, is what religious life really means.”