War: It's Human Nature only if Collective Suicide is Natural

Remarks at Michigan Pax Christi annual state conference, April 11, 2015.

Video.

 

Thank you for having me here. I know a lot of people have been involved in planning this event. Thank you!

I’m going to try this morning to address the question of how we can best talk our fellow human beings out of one of the primary myths that allows war to continue. And in a second speech later today I’m going to turn more to the question of activism and building a peaceful world.

I mailed a box of my books here, and I had to mail another one because the first box arrived undamaged except that all of the books were missing. Although I don’t know who stole the books, Mary Hanna recommended I inform you that the message I bring you was so threatening that the books were taken, and the empty box delivered, by a bunch of — and I quote — Weannie-heads!

Now, you see what I’ve done. I’ve called somebody a weannie head in a speech about peace but arranged it so you’ll blame Mary (and maybe the U.S. Postal Service) instead of me. But of course when Michigan State’s basketball team beat Virginia’s I said something worse than Mary has probably said in her life, just as I’d done the year before, not that I’m holding any grudges.

Now, we all know that resentment and blame are tools of war propaganda. So, in Mary’s defense and mine: neither of us called anybody a name in the presence of that person or proposed to harm any person or armed ourselves with massive machinery of death in preparation for books going missing or a basketball team losing. I didn’t put any Michigan State fans on a kill list and blow them and everyone near them to bits with hellfire missiles. Neither of us launched any invasions.

It’s rather a key distinction, isn’t it, getting angry with or without war weapons. But try to find a discussion of wars in the Middle East that even mentions that 80 to 90 percent of the weapons there are from the United States, with weapons sales and gifts up significantly under the Nobel Peace President.

So, when you come down to it, we would all probably be better people if we didn’t get angry at any other people — only at injustice. But since I didn’t organize millions of people to plan and prepare for carefully executed crusades of mass murder, my anger did considerably less damage than, say, George W. Bush’s feelings about Saddam Hussein having tried to kill his daddy.

I bring all of this up in order to comment on the idea of what’s called “human nature.” If “human nature” is something distinct from culture, then — whatever it may be — one might speculate (why you would I have no idea, but one could speculate if one wanted to) that my emotions watching basketball are “human nature.” War, on the other hand, is a collective effort. It requires plans, preparations, manufacturing, training, conditioning. How can such a group effort be distinct from culture? War is absolutely central to our culture. One would have to speculate baselessly and pointlessly that parts of our culture are “human nature” while other parts are not. But then which would be which?

When you take war participation on the individual level, you find that most individuals want nothing to do with it, nobody gets post traumatic stress from war deprivation, and in fact intense conditioning developed over decades of cultural experience is required to get most individuals to participate, many of whom never recover from having done so.

And when you take war participation at the group level, you find that many groups of humans, large and small, rich and poor, now and in the past, have had nothing to do with war. For most of human existence there was nothing that could be called war. Since war’s creation it has been sporadic. Societies have abandoned it for centuries and brought it back again. Most groups, most of the time, have left it well alone. And war today bears very little resemblance to war as it was 1,000 or even 100 years ago. In addition, the 95% of humanity that lives outside the United States mostly thinks about war very differently from how it is discussed in the United States. Discussion of “the next wars” as if war is inevitable is not normal. Debates over whether to bomb people in trouble or leave them alone are far less common than debates over how to help them. Concern over a nation resisting the presence of one’s own nation’s troops and missiles is unheard of outside of the imperial Homeland.

An American raised on Hollywood will tell you war is “natural,” “human nature,” inevitable, and genetic. But there are numerous well-documented accounts of human cultures not only free of war but unable to even understand what it is. An anthropologist asked a man why he didn’t use a dart gun, meant for hunting animals, against slave raiders coming to enslave his family, and he replied “Because it would kill them.” Probably I shouldn’t think of that as ignorance of the possibility of killing. We always want to treat difference as ignorance. The fact is that killing is the worst thing possible. It’s worse than enslaving. Logically a perfectly good case can be made for the man’s action and justification. In the United States, however, the idea that you would hold a gun and not use it against someone enslaving your family is almost incomprehensible. Probably we should think of that as ignorance. In our culture we praise people by saying “You really killed!” Probably we should think of that as prejudice. What we shouldn’t think of it as is “human nature.”

No, I’m not advocating that you let someone enslave your family. I’m simply pointing out that cultures exist that view murder very differently from how ours does. So, if acceptance of killing and total avoidance of killing both exist, as they do, how do we choose which one is “human nature.” Or if neither is “human nature,” is there something else that is “human nature”?

Well, if you try to define “human nature” as what every single human does, its content is vanishingly small. If you try to define it as things that most humans that you know of at a particular time and place do, how do you pick which things to include? And why bother? What is the point? The fact is that “human nature” is a meaningless and, to state it another way, a purposeless concept.

So why does it exist as a concept? Because there are purposes it has tried to serve. I can think of two, which might be called the normative and the excusatory. By normative I mean the habit some people have had of declaring that anything most people do should be done by everyone. If it’s normal for people to care for their children then everyone should care for their children. That sounds harmless enough. But what if it’s normal in Indiana to be heterosexual? What if it’s normal to hit kids or burn gasoline or eat dogs or sacrifice virgins? Why in the world should something’s being common make it good? On the contrary, whatever is good we should work to make common.

By excusatory I mean to refer to what has probably been the most frequent use of the concept “human nature” over the years, namely as a means to excuse horrible actions. Am I supporting something cruel and unfair, brutal and destructive? Do I hit or humiliate people? Do I exploit the weak? Do I steal and cheat? Do I participate in the large-scale murder of foreigners or the destruction of the natural world? Well, that’s OK. It’s “human nature,” so I’m powerless to stop. Stopping would require that I transform into some other species. Of course thousands of other people I know of don’t do the evil thing I’m doing, and they’re humans, but in my position they would do it too because it’s “human nature” — meaning no more and no less than it’s what I happen to be doing at the moment. If we don’t do it, supporters of continuing the slave trade argued in Parliament, other nations will do it. But other nations didn’t. If others will. Of course, they might or might not, but this won’t be determined by their sharing “human nature,” only by their sharing Pentagon nature.

“Human nature” has got to be the grandest term for the most mundane concept ever created. Have you ever heard of anyone doing something good and announcing that it Last October, that read: CRUSADES, INQUISITION, SLAVERY, TORTURE, CAPITAL PUNISHMENT, WAR: Over many centuries, Church leaders and theologians justified each of these evils as consistent with the will of God. Only one of them retains that position in official Church teaching today. We believe it’s time for the Catholic Church to reject ‘just war’ as inconsistent with the teaching and example of Jesus and to become a Just Peace Church.”

·      ·      ·      The United States spends over a trillion dollars a year on war preparations, about $1.3 trillion in fact, which is exactly what U.S. students and former students owe in total accumulated student debt which is understood to be an outrageous and massive crisis, yet it’s what Congress spends on war preparations each year – year after year — without comment, discussion, or debate. U.S. military spending has doubled since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, yet the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget this year proposed to cut it by a grand total of 1 percent and didn’t even mention that in any of its statements about its budget. The rest of the world spends about another trillion dollars all together. So the average among about 200 other countries is about a half a percent of what the U.S. spends. If the United States, for whatever cockamamie reason, felt obliged to comply with a “human nature” that included the rest of the, you know, humans, it would be compelled to reduce its military by 99.5 percent. And if it did that, I’d be glad to let it defend its behavior with whatever language it wanted.

By the way, if you did the calculation based on per-capita military spending the reduction for the U.S. to meet the rest of the world’s average would be similarly extreme. The U.S. spends about $3,135 per person per year, and the rest of the world’s average is about $143, meaning about a 95 percent cut for the U.S. to start acting human.

If you did the calculation as a percentage of a nation’s economy, even by the most conservative measure, you’d still have to cut U.S. military spending by over a third — but the idea (quite common in Congressional testimony) that a country should have more weapons if it can afford them, rather than if they serve some good purpose, is — in my view — completely unacceptable, is in fact the root of the problem itself; excusing rich countries’ greater levels of killing because they’re rich seems to add insult to injury.

And if the United States reduced its militarism significantly, the path would be made smooth to reduce it entirely. That is, without losing faith in militarism, the United States could limit its Defense Department to things that serve a defensive purpose. It could guard its borders with all kinds of weaponry. But doing just that, and closing the foreign bases and occupations, scrapping the aircraft carriers and submarines, dismantling the nuclear weapons, abandoning all work on weapons in space, would have some major results. Without the U.S. threat and arms supply, arms races could reverse. Korea could reunite. Palestine could potentially reach a one-state solution. Without U.S. troops kicking in doors — excuse me, I mean policing — the globe, the U.S. government, the primary holdout, would be able to support international law.

Most importantly perhaps, any significant fraction of $2 trillion has the power to transform the world for the better if put to proper use. Gone would be starvation. Gone would be unclean water. (And lack of water in Detroit.) Gone homelessness. These are problems that end with the proper use of a tiny fraction of $2 trillion a year. Imagine if in 2003 the United States had simply given each citizen of Iraq a quarter of a million dollars. That expense wouldn’t approach what’s actually been spent, but I’m willing to bet at least some Iraqis would have appreciated the act. Of course giving away money is not simple and there are more effective ways to invest in health and education and green energy then just handing out cash. The point is we spent more money than that and what did we get? Over a million killed. Millions injured. Millions traumatized. A nation destroyed. The natural environment severely damaged. Our economy drained. Our civil liberties eroded. Our culture corroded. Our morality poisoned. And most of the world viewing the United States as a threat. For a smaller expense, the U.S. government could be loved. It chooses to spend more to be hated. When Gallup polled 65 nations at the end of 2013, and asked what nation was the greatest threat to peace in the world, the overwhelming winner was the United States.

I recommend pointing that poll out to people. It seems to me you either have to declare the world severely and irrationally deluded, perhaps requiring yet more militarism. Or you have to begin opening your eyes to the failure of militarism on its own terms, at which point you can notice that the United States loses all of its land wars, exacerbates whatever it claims to be fixing with its air wars, and plants seeds of evil with its drone wars — and countless recently retired U.S. officials admit all this.

Our neighbors up in Canada are trying to follow our warlike path, and I’ve been trying to tell them that they will regret it, but that it will take them years of work to build up anti-Canadian terrorist groups to rival those the United States has generated. So-called “defense” spending is counter-productive, but it’s not for amateurs. To have each new militant group in the Middle East using your weapons and imitating your rhetoric while releasing full-length films begging you to attack it, then growing by leaps and bounds when you do attack it, so that even your own citizens (with some FBI prodding) want to join it and your media can start pretending that the foreign group has infiltrated your cities — that takes skills that the United States has been mastering since before it stopped invading Canada. Did you see the headline “ISIS IN BROOKLYN”? Of course, no one from Iraq or Syria had come to Brooklyn to work for ISIS or even contacted anyone in Brooklyn; rather someone in Brooklyn had been poked and prodded into something by an FBI agent pretending to be ISIS.

The U.S. began in Yemen with murders by missiles, and drone defenders would tell you that missiles are better than other kinds of war, because with drones nobody dies. Meaning no Americans. A year ago, President Obama was claiming some sort of success. Several years ago, even I who couldn’t predict the basketball final four worth a darn, predicted that the drone war on Yemen would create a wider war. And now you have the U.S. assisting Saudi Arabia in slaughtering children to blow up U.S.-supplied weapons using U.S.-supplied weapons. And we get to sit back and think of those Yemenis as backward violent beasts because of their human nature which justifies our Pentagon which created this disaster.

Did you know there was a big protest in the Czech Republic recently of the U.S. militarism directed at Russia? And one in Kiev? On Hitler’s upcoming birthday, April 20th, the United States will start training Ukraine’s neo-Nazi volunteer military force. The United States has troops and weapons in Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe now, right up to the border of Russia. People take this sort of thing a bit seriously, while we watch our basketball. The U.S. lied to Russia when the two Germanies reunited, claiming NATO wouldn’t expand an inch eastward. The U.S. facilitated a coup in Ukraine and is building up hostilities there, and Europeans and Russians are outraged. Last July Fourth I spoke outside a U.S. military base in England where the locals celebrate an Independence from America holiday. I’ve been talking with protesters in Sicily who are resisting construction of a U.S. Navy communications base. On Jeju Island, South Korea, resistance to a new U.S. Navy base is intense. In Okinawa the local government has heeded the protesters and halted U.S. base construction, against the will of the Japanese government. The Philippines is in an uproar over U.S. military action there. Around the world, people know the United States through its military occupation of their land. And as I watch basketball the announcer thanks U.S. troops for watching from 175 countries as if that’s good and normal.

Some know it isn’t. I applaud Pax Christi for speaking against the idea of a “just war.” Once we rid ourselves of the idea that some wars are good wars, we ought to be able to rid ourselves of the idea that we should be funding the permanent presence of either troops or robot death planes in darn near every country on earth. One doesn’t generally hear about cases of just child abuse or just rape or just racial discrimination. The Washington Post recently ran a column headlined “War on Iran May Be Our Best Option.” Imagine if it had said “Racism may be our best option” or “Killing kittens may be our best option.” Some things are, quite rightly, unacceptable. What if war were made one of those?

This is the case we’re making at World Beyond War: there is no upside to war, no excuse for war. It is all negative and it is the most negative thing we do, the most evil institution on earth. And there is no way to fix it. Human Rights Watch recently wrote a report on the horrors inflicted on Iraqi towns, not by ISIS, but by the Iraqi militias said to be “liberating” people from ISIS. But rather than acknowledge that such horrors have been part of every single war ever waged, Human Rights Watch urges reform plans and benchmarks and compliance with the so called laws of war. Amnesty International just came out with a report on the 2014 assault on Gaza that condemns the rockets shot out of Gaza for being insufficiently precise, as if better U.S.-made rockets would be more legal and acceptable. The UN is planning another meeting on inhumane weapons, but which are the humane weapons? You cannot use laws to reform the greatest violation of law. You cannot reform an institution of mass killing. Imaging trying to reform cancer.

Studies have actually found that talking about a so-called “war” on cancer hurts the cause of reducing cancer because people don’t adjust their behavior to avoid risks, focusing instead on medical hopes to eliminate cancer from the world. But at least the understanding is there that cancer is entirely undesirable, that we don’t need Geneva Conventions for the proper creation and use of good cancer.

June 2014 issue of the "Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>. I quote:

“Since the end of World War II, there have been 248 armed conflicts in 153 locations around the world. The United States launched 201 overseas military operations between the end of World War II and 2001, and since then, others, including Afghanistan and Iraq. During the 20th century, 190 million deaths could be directly and indirectly related to war — more than in the previous 4 centuries.”

Beyond the death, war injures and traumatizes on a far vaster scale. It is the leading cause of homelessness. It is, by various measures, the leading destroyer of the natural environment. It is by far the leading justification for the erosion of civil liberties and self-governance. It is the leading drain on wealth and prosperity in the world. Imagine if such an institution were newly proposed. Wouldn’t we immediately reject it out of hand?

It was wonderful to see push back when Indiana proposed to allow discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation. Imagine if Indiana proposed the creation of the institution of war. I mean, imagine if we didn’t have war, and Indiana came up with the idea. We’ll dump over half of government spending into this new operation, Indiana would propose, and it won’t do us any good, but it will put our lives at risk while murdering thousands upon thousands of innocent people, and we’ll lose a lot of rights in the process. Who would stand for such an outrage?

But then why should something be acceptable just because it already existed yesterday? Shouldn’t we bloody well be outraged? Isn’t there an appropriate anger here? Might there not even be a place, at least generically, for the term Weannie-heads?

What if, instead of Indiana, it was a foreign country that did some of the things the United States does? When Ecuador said the United States could keep its bases there if Ecuador could have a base in Florida, the idea was seen as ludicrous. Why? When Iran tries to keep U.S. ships a bit further from its coast, the U.S. sees this as aggressive, but how close would the U.S. like Iranian ships to be to its coast? If Mexico was murdering people with drones in the United States, would the U.S. approve? If Cuba bombed Miami for harboring terrorists, would U.S. State Department lawyers defend that action? This is always a good test of morality, sometimes known as the golden rule, but also in this case a good test for nationalism. One way to test whether you’re identifying with a nation is to ask yourself if you would approve of the same actions if performed by a different nation. You can identify with a nation but want it to behave fairly toward other nations, but only if you’re identifying more so with humanity.

Another way for people to question their beliefs is to ask how you would feel if the so-called collateral damage, that is to say the bulk of the people killed in a war, the innocent civilians, were in the United States. Could you justify it as a price worth paying for  … whatever it is supposedly a price worth paying for? Most people clearly could not, but do not ask the question and do not let themselves even know that wars are one-sided slaughters of people from the dispensable nations rather than the indispensible one.

Another good test is to ask yourself what you would approve if another political party did it. If a Republican president were going through a list of men, women, and children on Tuesdays and picking which ones to murder, would you react in exactly the same way in which you have reacted to President Obama’s kill list? This question begins with the question of whether you would allow yourself to know about a story that has been public knowledge for three years since a frontpage New York Times article covered it, or would you avoid knowing about this outrage? Secondary is the question of what you would do if you allowed yourself to know.

A similar question is what you would think if a different branch of government did something. If the House Armed Services Committee were going through a kill list, picking victims, and murdering them and anyone nearby, would you approve, dissent, or ask for details?

In the case of the one war that President Obama does not want, Iran, people have suddenly discovered that they can advocate for alternatives to war. Another good question to put into people’s minds is this: Why not prefer alternatives to war in the case of each of the other wars being waged or contemplated? Why only in Iran? Why object to the rush to war only when one U.S. political party does so? Why object to gruesome executions by ISIS but not by Saudi Arabia? Why get outraged on command rather than everywhere events are outrageous?

I think we need to ask these questions and get organized to work for a stronger push to eliminate war and replace it with nonviolent means of resolving conflicts, because contrary to certain Western academic pretenses war is not going away, much less going away on its own. On the contrary, war is worsening its destruction, and the use of drones is normalizing war in a way that makes greater and greater destruction likely.

I’ve drafted some remarks for later today in which I look at how we might get to a world beyond war and what a world beyond war might look like. I think properly understanding a world devoted to war is the only place to start. And I think we should understand it not as an entire world hopelessly condemned to war but as a world making the completely optional decision to proliferate war primarily at the insistence of the United States government. Understanding that war is a choice, means that peace too is an available option.

I had planned to leave time here for questions but learned that there’s a whole separate section on the schedule for questions, so let me instead begin the topic of What Do We Do About It?

How do you get enough people sufficiently active to push back against war and militarism? Well, we had enough people active from 2001 to 2007 to spread a great deal of at least short-lived awareness of at least some of the evils of war and to force an end, temporary as it turned out, to the U.S. war on Iraq — albeit on a three-year delay.

And we had enough people informed and active in 2013 to prevent a massive assault on Syria that Wall Street, the corporate media, and all the top politicians in Washington favored and expected to begin imminently.

But by 2014, President Obama, who’d been forced out of Iraq by Bush’s treaty, was right back in, and the U.S. was engaged in the same war it had failed to fully join in 2013, albeit on the opposite side.

Yet in 2015 publicly supported diplomacy with Iran was holding off the neocon vision of a war there.

What makes the difference between moments when peace succeeds and moments when war does? Well, it helps when other interests align. Obama wants peace with Iran but Iranian war along with U.S. war against ISIS. The reason peace only succeeds for a moment, though, is that peace doesn’t advance beyond a pause for reloading. The U.S. didn’t bomb Syria two years ago, but it didn’t invest in aid, diplomacy, or arms embargoes either. Instead it armed and trained killers, bided its time, and waited for better propaganda. The propaganda that seems to do best is not that of the humanitarian war but that of the war against evil demons coming to get us: ISIS throat slitters bringing Ebola from Mexico to our children’s schools.

What makes the difference in terms of public engagement in the United States at the moment — and we’d better change this or it will kill us all — is partisanship. A couple of scholars, Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas have a new book out called Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11. Some of you may have run into them as they did surveys of participants in peace events for years. They found that identification of the Democratic Party with peace was the primary factor in enlarging the peace movement toward the beginning of the Bush presidency and in shrinking it toward the end of that presidency.

New York Times reporter named James Risen, and the New York Times would do nothing, but Risen published it in a book. So they’ve now convicted Sterling of giving secret information to Risen based on what the NSA calls meta-data. That is, they know Sterling spoke to Risen on the phone but not what he said. Many other people could have told Risen. And it was secret not to protect you and me but to protect the conniving weannie heads at the CIA.

Thanks for being here today.

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