What to Make of the Peace Movement?

What to make of the peace movement? I intend that question in two senses, including this one: what can we now build out of this movement? The first thing we must do is not let it die out as the warriors pause to reload. The surest way to prevent war is to prevent the construction of a crisis that can be sold as a reason for war. The times of pause between wars are the ideal times to push that work forward, to demand with great urgency the construction of systems of understanding, of dispute resolution, and of international law.

A lot has been made of the fact that the recent peace movement has brought people out to marches who were not previously activists or radicals. What can now be made of these people? Can they be turned into radicals, into passionate pacifists, into internationalists? Can they be given the drive and the courage that will be needed to remain activists in the society that is coming?

Before that can happen, we must figure out what it means to be a radical pacifist, what point of view it is desirable to propagate. This is what I want to write about right now.

“Peace is Patriotic” is a slogan that popped up as mainstream opposition in recent months. I want to argue that this slogan and other mainstream pacifist slogans are not just half steps but are, in the long run, possibly as bad as conformity to the Pentagon’s slogan of “Kill Iraqis.”

“Peace is Patriotic,” would be an insult to peace if it were a coherent idea. Giving priority to the concerns of one patria conflicts with the idea of working for international peace.

“Bush says he supports the troops, but he is cutting veterans’ benefits” is another phrase that has popped up in progressive circles. It is a surrender to the idea of supporting imperial mass murder. We’re telling people “Go kill some foreigners and when you get back (if you get back) we’ll call you a veteran and give you special support.”

Imagine if we did that for domestic murderers: “Go kill your neighbor and we’ll call you a domestic veteran and set up a Domestic Veterans Administration to take care of you. We’ll invite you to the White House Correspondents Dinner and fawn all over you and use you as an excuse to prevent anyone from telling jokes about the President.”

Even if you support some wars but not others, you cannot “support the troops” in the wars you oppose without facing this issue.

Why don’t we have a Peace Makers Administration to support the work of those striving to build peace (and a Peace Department with a Secretary of Peace working on behalf of the public)? I mean, I know why we don’t have this, but why aren’t we demanding it rather than trying to catch Bush in a contradiction and call him a liar for failing to “Support Our Troops”? Do we really need one more reason to believe Bush is a liar? Is surrendering to the mindset of militarism (as you, dear reader, probably have done) a price worth paying for that? Calling peace “patriotic” is nothing if not complete surrender.

Some will strongly disagree. Few, if any, will mildly disagree. Some will shout that only war is patriotic, or that only obedience to the government is patriotic. Others will insist that peace is the most patriotic of all – It protects “our country.”

But this is the nub. Why must I place the interests of the residents (or even just the citizens) of the United States above the interests of other people? Why must the death of a Kansan mean more to me than the death of a South African or a Canadian?

Yes, I grew up in the United States and miss it when I’m not in it. Yes I have dear attachments to family and friends and places here, and more so than anywhere else. Yes, it annoys me to be told I hate my country. I don’t love it or hate it. I diminish it as a concept. I love people and things here and elsewhere. I praise and condemn the U.S. government as required by my assessment of its performance. The criterion I use is for this judgment is the test of how the government’s actions benefit or harm people and other creatures wherever and whoever they may be.

When an American soldier is killed, I feel hurt. At the same time I condemn that soldier’s actions. And simultaneously I am deeply hurt by the media’s reporting of the soldier’s death while dismissing the deaths of his “enemies” as uninteresting – because I care about them. Believe it or not, I can also walk, chew gum, and clap my hands all at once.

During the recent attack on Iraq, I emailed my cousin who was with the U.S. Army in Kuwait. “My concern for you,” I assured him, “is not diminished by my concern for the families you are attacking.” He seemed to understand that and believe me. And yet I was not “supporting our troops” if that is taken to imply praising their crimes.

What I mean by being radical is being willing to endure scorn, being willing to explain a slightly subtle idea to those who believe that you are with them or you are a terrorist, and being able to do so without actually becoming a terrorist.

No frustration. No superiority. No contempt. But no surrendering of your mind and no let up in the movement. That’s what we need.