A Plan to End the Wars

By David Swanson

There are a million and one things that people can do to try to end the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and to prevent new ones in Iran and elsewhere, as well as to close U.S. military bases in dozens of other nations around the world. Certain people are skilled at or interested in particular approaches, and nobody should be discouraged from contributing to the effort in their preferred ways. Far too often proposals to work for peace are needlessly framed as attacks on all strategies except one. But where new energy can be created or existing resources redirected, it is important that they go where most likely to succeed.

In my analysis, we should be focusing on three things, which for purposes of brevity and alliteration I will call: Communications, Congress, and Counter recruitment / resistance. Communications encompasses all public discussion of the wars and impacts all other approaches, including targets I consider far less likely to be influenced by us than Congress, such as the president, generals, the heads of weapons companies, the heads of media companies, the people of Afghanistan, your racist neighbor, etc. If our communications strategy can change the behavior of any of these targets, terrific! We should be prepared to take advantage of such opportunities should they arise. But the first place we are likely to be able to leverage successful communications will be the House of Representatives. Counter-recruitment / resistance is another area that overlaps with communications but involves much else as well, and it is a strategy that we continue to underestimate.


Our task is to communicate that:
–the wars are ongoing and will not end without our efforts,
–the wars must be ended,
–the peace movement has had many successes already and should by no means give in to frustration,
–the wars can be ended if a small fraction of the majority that wants them ended makes an effort,
–we have to choose between warfare and healthcare / other social goods,
–minimizing U.S. casualties will not satisfy the demands of the U.S. public,
–neither maximizing nor minimizing foreign casualties will satisfy the demands of the U.S. public,
–there is a personal cost to those who support wars and war crimes,
–Congress members will face opposition through negative communications, disruption of their lives, and electoral challenges if they fund wars.

We don’t have to communicate all of that in one interview on cable television, or violate any other laws of physics, but we DO have to communicate ALL of that. And getting our spokespeople on TV has to be part of how it is done. But primarily we need to create our own media and work with decent independent media outlets. Online media has developed to the point where it can influence broadcast and print media. And yet we are still quite capable of creating powerful online media. We cannot overlook the need to work with communities that lack internet access, or the need to use the internet to generate offline activities. But it is very hard to overestimate the importance to our efforts of the internet, and working to get more people access to it might be one of the most helpful efforts we can make.

We stopped Bush-Cheney from invading Iran. They intended to do so, and we prevented it — largely by exposing the grounds for invading Iraq to be lies. There was no press conference at the White House to announce this failure of theirs and success of ours, but that should have no impact on our claiming a victory and making it known to those who require encouragement and optimism. On the other hand, we have allowed the wars to be spread to Pakistan with barely a peep of recognition, and by proxy to Gaza with only a weak and muddled response. And the push to attack Iran directly or by proxy remains.

We dominated the news and the elections in the United States and shifted power in the House, Senate, and White House to a different political party. And we ended up with a House, Senate, and White House that all favor continuing or expanding wars. But we compelled President Bush to agree to withdrawal from Iraqi localities by the end of last month, complete withdrawal from the nation by the end of 2011, and a treaty that the Iraqi people have the right to reject by the end of this month in a vote that would move the complete withdrawal date to one year from now. I still question the wisdom of our having silently accepted a treaty making three years of war without the consent of the U.S. Senate, but a better way to reject the treaty is now upon us. Our focus for the next month should be on insisting that the Iraqi people are permitted to vote the treaty up or down in a verifiable election (which, of course, means that they will vote it down if those voting bear any similarity to those who have been polled). Everyone who has expressed concern for the voting rights of Iranians should be required to do the same for Iraqis.

The other advantage of our having shifted the partisan balance in our government, even without fundamentally altering our government’s approach to war, is that we no longer have to do so. We can now move on to replacing pro-war Democrats with pro-peace Democrats (or Independents, Greens, Republicans, Libertarians, etc.) The claim that we should keep quiet about peace in order to elect Democrats who will then (contradictorily) give us peace can no longer be made and can no longer get in the way. And the advantage of having elected a president of a different party, without having fundamentally changed anything, is that the claim that a new president will give us peace can now be replaced by consideration of whether we should look to presidents at all, or Congress instead, to do such things.

We kept the occupation of Iraq smaller than it would have been and prevented other invasions through the success of counter-recruitment efforts and resistance within the U.S. military. Bush-Cheney having pushed the military to the breaking point is not a story of their incompetence or love for war and empire. It is a story of our efforts pushing back against theirs. The United States will always push the military to the breaking point until we succeed in countering the current militaristic agenda, but our job (one of them) is to make what is available to be pushed smaller.

We need to discuss our successes because nobody else will, and because 70 percent of Americans basically agree with us and do nothing about it, largely because many people do not believe they have the power to change anything. We have been building organizations and websites and Email lists for these past several years, and we have been achieving some successes and coming very close to more. Yet, a common response to “Will you gather signatures on this petition for peace?” is “We’ve tried that before and it didn’t end the war.” But it did expose the war lies. It did force Alberto Gonzales out. It did come within 7 votes just last month of — at least temporarily — stopping the war funding. And while doing all of these things, the same old tired tools can also build larger organizations, and have been doing so. I’m sure people told abolitionists not to print another newspaper because they’d printed one before and slavery was still around. Yet abolitionism was advancing despite not a single slave yet being freed. And we are advancing, but it is crucial to know where. We must absolutely put our signatures and our time and our money into those organizations that oppose war regardless of political party, and NOT into those organizations that claim to oppose war only when it allows criticism of a particular political party. (Here’s a list of which is which: http://afterdowningstreet.org/32heroes The list cannot possibly be complete, of course, and I apologize for whomever I have left off the list of heroes, but the major organizations are all here, listed as either heroes or frauds.)

Just as we should continue to push the corporate media while focusing on building our own, we should continue to push the pseudo-peace organizations to do better, but we should focus on building those organizations that have consistently taken a principled stand and pushed with skill and intelligence (even if not with success) for peace.

“Healthcare Not Warfare” should be our cry (following the example of Progressive Democrats of America), along with “Housing Not Warfare,” “Jobs Not Warfare,” “Schools Not Warfare,” etc. We have to force recognition of the financial choice before us. In that choice we find a solution to the healthcare debate that is almost too easy to be believed, but deadly real. And we find a solution to the misconception that war does not impact the “Homeland.” This is a discussion that should discuss the current wars as part of an expansion of military bases around the world, bases that make us less safe but cost us over $100 billion every year. The discussion should include the non-war military budget and the trade-offs involved. We should work harder to build alliances with people and groups focused on advocating for all the things we cannot pay for because we pay for weapons and wars.

But our communications strategy should be dominated by our true central reason for opposing wars, not any secondary reason that we imagine will move someone else. If wars are made cheaper and more efficient we will still oppose them, and that is a real possibility. If American casualties are reduced, we will still oppose wars, and that is the case at the moment. If smart decisions in military terms replace comical blunders, we will oppose wars all the more, and that may be happening. Fundamentally, we oppose wars because they kill people and they are part of hostile occupations that make people around the world hate and resent our nation. When a group like Brave New Films documents the impact of our war on the people of Afghanistan, we should promote those films as far as we are able. When an election leads to the corporate media humanizing the people of Iran, we should highlight that and ask why, if we do not want them killed by riot police, we should want them killed by bombs.

There is enormous potential, but uncertain, value in seeking to end and discourage wars by holding war criminals accountable for their crimes. Those working to end torture are right to emphasize that we tortured in order to generate false justifications for war, even after the war had begun. Those working to end war should emphasize that we tortured people in order to support the lies that at least one of the wars, and arguably all of them, is based on. Every war crime for which we are able to hold anyone accountable by exposing their crimes, unelecting them, impeaching them, finding them liable in civil suits, and prosecuting them at home or abroad, should be discussed as part of the ongoing wars. Congress members should understand that we consider their funding of wars to constitute a war crime. And they should understand that we require them to place peace before party.

One useful tool for mass communications is mass rallies. As argued below, our targets should be Congress members. National mass actions should be focused on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Local actions should target local Congress members. There was an action earlier this year on Capitol Hill aimed at cleaning up the local power plant and raising the demand for action on the climate. While that struggle is far from over, the march and protest suggested a useful approach. A large number of people, including young people, were organized to march and to risk arrest. But people were invited to march without risking arrest, thus boosting the crowd size and reducing the chances of anyone being arrested. This action was held on a weekday with Congress in session, and marched adjacent to the House office buildings. An action like this one on the eighth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, on Wednesday, October 7th, strikes me as the most obvious way to send a powerful message of opposition to wars. Combined, of course, with lobby meetings and in-district actions. And backed by lots of money and staff time.

Where do we get lots of money and staff time? That’s where we’ll need to be very good communicators. But there are wealthy people tired of funding politicians and ready to fund citizens, not to mention people with money who have watched Republicans prosecute and imprison top Democratic donors like Paul Minor and then watched the Democrats not lift a finger in their defense. There are no limits on contributions to peace and justice groups, and almost no limits on what we could accomplish if funded. More importantly, there are ways to influence Congress that do not require putting anyone on a bus and can be done largely by volunteers — yes, in their pajamas in the basement eating Cheetos. Read on.


While we have relatively little in the way of carrots or sticks with which to influence a president or a weapons maker (and influencing the military is discussed below), we have the ability to influence Congress members, at least those who represent districts rather than large states. And we have the ability to end the wars by succeeding only in the House of Representatives. We do not need to persuade a single senator or the president or any cabinet secretaries or any news producers. If we can do so, great. But we can end the wars by winning in the House of Representatives alone. This is because it takes two houses and the president to make a bill a law, but it only takes one house to prevent a bill from becoming law.

The House of Representatives is supposed to represent us and yet, on matters of war as on most other things, does not. Why not? Well, many flaws weaken our elections system, but on any given vote three major corrupting factors can usually be pointed to: party, media, and dollars. On an issue like healthcare, as on many issues, these factors should be listed in the opposite order. It is the dollars of corporate interests that do the greatest share of the corrupting. But on matters of war, party is the greatest corruptor. Of course, political parties are the largest funders of campaigns, so money is still right at the top. Members of Congress in both political parties have voted to fund these wars, over the wishes of their constituents, because their party leadership has told them to do so. Parties can promise money, committee memberships, chairmanships, votes on bills and amendments and earmarks, and press events in a member’s district with cabinet members and presidents. Parties can threaten to withhold money, back a challenger, block measures from reaching the floor, and withhold chairmanships. It is very difficult and very rare for Congress members to oppose their parties’ strong demands. But it is also rare for citizens to press them to do so, in part because many citizens and the groups through which they approach activism also take their orders from political parties.

The experience of opposing the most recent war supplemental bill, which was combined with funding for the International Monetary Fund, is instructive, especially as Congressman John Murtha has already indicated that there will be another war supplemental bill this year. Because all the Republicans in the House opposed the bill due to the IMF measure (five of them switching their votes to yes only after it had passed), 39 Democrats could have stopped the bill. This would have forced separate votes on the war and the IMF, and both might have passed. Certainly the war would have. But it would have created a serious block of peace votes in the House willing to vote for peace even when it mattered and the Democratic Party commanded otherwise. In the end, we persuaded 32 Democrats to vote No (two of them only in opposition to the IMF, 30 of them in opposition to at least the war). So we actually did establish a block of peace voters. It just contained 30 people instead of 39. And of those 30 people, three, Dennis Kucinich, Jim McGovern, and Lynn Woolsey actually urged their colleagues to vote No. This gives us 30 votes we can count on if we work like hell to hold them, and three leaders we can work with to whip together a larger caucus. And while we lost this vote, we exacted a price. We compelled the White House and the Democratic Party leadership to spend a week working on little other than bribing and blackmailing Congress members. And it will take many weeks to fulfill all the promises made. My own Congressman, who opposed the IMF but voted for it, has thus far held press events promoting himself in his district with the House Majority Leader, with the two top environmental officials in the White House, and has an event scheduled here this month with two members of the cabinet.

Over the past years, we have — more often than not — lacked the coordination and ability to push back hard against such intense lobbying from the other side. This time we surprised Congress and ourselves. Key to this effort was public whipping. We didn’t have eight different peace groups keeping their own whip lists of who had promised them what. We had 8,000 citizen lobbyists feeding their reports to one website where the whip count was kept public, and where we promised to thank or spank people as appropriate once they had voted for peace or war. Critical to this effort were all the usual off-line activities of people in each Congress member’s district. But the public whipping was central. It organized and encouraged the activism. It inspired the blogging. It infiltrated the corporate media.

Here’s a history of this campaign:
Here’s the whip list:

Sadly, we’ve barely followed through on our promises to thank and spank, activities for which the Backbone Campaign offers tools and assistance. We should be celebrating and denouncing those who came through and those who let us down with at least as much energy as we threatened to do so. Otherwise we lose our credibility, and next time will be harder rather than easier. Disturbingly, even some who seemed willing to threaten repercussions to Democrats for voting yes appeared to decide afterwards that it would be inappropriate to follow through, especially since some other Democrats, not to mention most of the Republicans, were worse and never even pretended to be with us. But we’re not handing out prizes in the afterlife here. We’re trying to move those who might be moved.

Now, there is another reason why the next time is almost guaranteed to be harder. Unless the Democrats choose to include something else as strongly opposed by Republicans as the IMF, most of the Republicans can be expected to vote Yes. There may be nine who oppose the war funding. Combining them with the 30 Democrats gives us our block of 39 after all. (These would be the nine who voted No on the war supplemental before the IMF was added to it. But that was an easy vote. By that measure we had 51 Democrats, so these nine are not solid.) This means that, in a worst case scenario, we need to find — in addition to these nine — not 39 No votes, but 209 No votes, and most of them from Democrats. We’re starting at 39 if we can hold them and need 179 more. This should not be considered impossible, not if we are succeeding at the communications strategy above and the counter-recruitment / resistance below. If most of the Congress members we have on our side found five more who would vote with them, we’d have a comfortable majority. We need to develop a system to whip Congress members to whip other Congress members. We also have the advantage of being able to tell them this time that when they told us last time that they were voting for the last war supplemental it was a lie.

This strategy of cutting off the funding for war, which can and should be used against standard military/war budget bills as well as supplementals, has always struck some people as a harder hill to climb than passing bills and amendments and resolutions that we approve of, steps that move us somehow in the direction of peace even while funding war. But this thinking ignores the existence of the United States Senate. While we can block a bill in the House, we have to pass a bill in both the House and Senate, and the chances of a good bill passing the Senate are smaller than Dick Cheney passing through the eye of a needle. There may be measures we want to advance in the House for communications purposes. And there may be measures we can persuade the House to slip into other bills the Senate wants to pass. But none of this should be our focus.

Bills that we might want to move in the House for communications purposes might include Rep. McGovern’s bill requiring an exit strategy for Afghanistan, or legislation that turned the slogan of “Healthcare Not Welfare” into policy. A bill requiring that for every dollar spent on wars and military at least 25 cents must go into a fund for single-payer healthcare would be rhetorically useful. You can imagine the multitude of possibilities, as well as the impact if such a discussion were to penetrate the healthcare debate.

Bills that we might slip something very useful into and conceivably still get passed include House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s “paygo” bill, which has 159 cosponsors and the support of the Democratic leadership and the White House. This bill requires that any expense be paid for by a tax increase or a cutback elsewhere. But the bill makes an exception for “emergency” legislation, which is of course what war supplementals are claimed to be. An amendment to the paygo bill stipulating that no war already in progress for over five years is an “emergency” would, I think, effectively impose a paygo requirement on war supplementals. And suddenly you’d be unable to pass a war supplemental without explaining where the money was going to come from. In such a situation, it’s conceivable that Blue Dogs and Republicans would join us faster than Progressives.

Congress can do other useful things as well, things that it is easier to get them to do. The House can pass a resolution supporting the right of the Iraqi people to a verifiable election this month on whether to agree to the treaty mislabeled a Status of Forces Agreement. The House can hold hearings on the subject. Advancing that issue, through Congress and elsewhere, should be our immediate priority. And in the back of our heads should be plans to demand a public vote for the people of Afghanistan.

We should also be working to sign incumbent and challenger candidates in the 2010 congressional elections onto a platform committing them to voting no funds to continue wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan. It’s not that we can trust them to keep their word. Only intense immediate pressure can control them. The point is to begin shaping the election in terms of how they will vote on war money between now and the election.


I’ve gone on at too much length to burden you with a detailed discussion of counter-recruitment and resistance when others can provide more expertise than I. The National Network Opposing Militarization of Youth at http://nnomy.org provides excellent resources on the crucial work of keeping recruiters out of schools. NNOMY is holding a national conference July 17-19 in Chicago, and you are invited.

Courage to Resist at http://www.couragetoresist.org provides up-to-date information on efforts within the US military to refuse illegal orders.

Marjorie Cohn and Kathleen Gilberd’s new book “Rules of Disengagement: The Politics and Honor of Military Dissent” is good background, as is “Army of None: Strategies to Counter Military Recruitment, End War and Build a Better World,” by Aimee Allison and David Solnit.

As Rumsfeld said, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want. We must deny them the army they want. If we succeed beyond our wildest dreams for the next decade, at some point it might make sense to take into consideration the actual defense needs of the United States. At this point, the best thing our military could do to defend us would be to stop endangering us by doing everything it is doing.


There’s a national conference at which strategies to end the wars will be deliberated happening in Pittsburgh on July 10-12, and you should try to be there. The event is organized by the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations at https://www.natassembly.org

I’ve submitted the following action proposal to the assembly and I hope to see you there.


Organize a mass protest march and civil resistance against war funding at House side of Capitol Hill on the 8th anniversary of invading Afghanistan, on Wednesday, October 7th. The House of Representatives is where we have the greatest chance of ending these wars. If we cut off the funding there, nothing else is needed. We can influence House members with activities in districts, online, in the media, and on Capitol Hill. But not on a weekend when they aren’t there. We need to be present on a weekday and lobby them before and after we march. There was an action earlier this year on Capitol Hill aimed at cleaning up the local power plant and raising the demand for action on the climate. While that struggle is far from over, the march and protest suggested a useful approach. A large number of people, including young people, were organized to march and to risk arrest. But people were invited to march without risking arrest, thus boosting the crowd size and reducing the chances of anyone being arrested. This action was held on a weekday with Congress in session, and marched adjacent to the House office buildings. An action like this one on the eighth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, on Wednesday, October 7th, could send a powerful message of opposition to wars. Combined, of course, with lobby meetings and in-district actions. While such an action would be open to those willing to risk arrest and those not willing to do so, it would indeed fail to include those unable to participate on a Wednesday (except by making phone calls and holding in-district events). However, it WOULD include the people we intend to influence but which the corporate media cannot be counted on to inform of our doings over a weekend. Some members of Congress would even JOIN us.

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