An Interview with David Swanson, author of “War is A Lie.”


David Swanson is co-founder of, and was instrumental in exposing the Downing Street Minutes. He is also the author of “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union.”

David will be discussing and signing the book, and will be joined by Andy Worthington, author of “The Guantanamo Files,” Debra Sweet, and Cindy Sheehan, at the JHU Barnes and Noble Bookstore, 3300 St. Paul Street in Baltimore, at 7:00 p.m. on Monday, January 10th.

Aimee Pohl from the Indypendent Reader asked Swanson about the next war, “the good war,” and where the anti-war movement is headed.

Pohl: Your book is an exploration of reasons used to gather support for war, and argues that none of them are valid justifications for war-making. What kinds of justifications are being used now to garner support for our next war or wars?

Lies told about past wars are critical to keeping the war machine funded with over half our public treasury — and growing. Lies about progress in current wars (the “surge” in Iraq, the current “getting worse is part of getting better” catastrophe in Afghanistan) are important. But so are lies about what past wars were about (the revolution was the only way to end tyranny; the Civil War was launched to end slavery; World War II was entered to save the Jews) and silences about uncomfortable bits of history (US invasions of Canada, Mexico, the lands of Native Americans, Hawaii, the Philippines, etc.).

The lie that there might be a “good” or “just” war someday, the lie that the Department of War is “defensive,” the lie that we can survive the current course politically, environmentally, economically, or in terms of blowback and proliferation — these lies all help to keep the weapons sales flowing and the bases being built and maintained around the globe.

Then there are the lies about the threat. The communist threat has been replaced by a far superior model. The threat of “terrorism,” defined as opposition to the U.S. empire (whether through acts of violence, diplomacy, or journalism) is always present, and a shadowy network of terrorists can never be proven not to exist — the way the Soviet Union ceased to. Attacks on imperial outposts are equated with attacks on our own country. Lies are told about the ability of a nation like Iran to strike Europe, if not the United States. Our media focuses on domestic abuses by rulers in nations like Iran and North Korea. And lies are told about the humanitarian potential of our own military that lead Americans to believe that others would prefer being attacked by us to being ruled by their current governments.

Lies are told, including through omission, about the nature of war, the types and degree of suffering, the body counts, the elderly victims, the children, the women. Lies are told about “pinpoint” “surgical” air strikes.

Pohl: Where do you think the next wars are likely to take place?

I don’t think we’ll be out of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen anytime soon. I don’t think we’ll even learn all the nations we have special forces fighting in anytime soon. I think Obama will continue to shift toward wars fought by special forces, drones, and mercenaries. But I think he will want a brand new public war of some sort mid-2012, if he doesn’t already have one, because he believes wars are politically advantageous and that the public won’t choose to change horses in the middle of an apocalypse. However, I think there’s a good chance that our current policies will lead us into a war by then in Korea, Iran, South America, Africa, or in more than one location. I include in those policies the Washington consensus that the proper response to a criminal act of terrorism in the United States is war on another nation — whereas a superior response would actually be criminal prosecution. The idea that a war can be justified has been well established during the past 75 years. The idea that a war can be justified as revenge for a crime is now firmly in place. And U.S. foreign policies that tend to provoke criminal responses are on the rise.

Pohl: In your discussion of World War II, considered by many to be a “good” war, you take apart the arguments of self-defense, fighting imperialism and protecting Jewish people that have been used for its justification. I believe that we can agree that Germany’s actions were indeed imperialist and racist. Could a war waged in good faith by those countries invaded and by Jewish people in self defense be a “good” war? I am trying to get at the issue of self-defense. Could there be examples where self-defense is a real justification? That is, in the examples you give, it is dishonest actors who are claiming self-defense; what about the potential for an honest actor to use defense as a justification? Can it ever be used?

Nazi Germany was an imperialist aggressor. So was Japan. So were the United States and its allies. Protecting Jews was neither a real motive in Washington, nor part of the propaganda. It’s post-war propaganda. The U.S. government refused to help Jewish refugees and turned ships away. The propaganda talked about helping allies, not Jews, and about Nazi plans to take over the Americas (FDR had a forged map to prove it) and Nazi attacks on innocent US ships (FDR lied in Woodrow Wilson’s footsteps). Napoleon took over Europe but was defeated by the Russians. And guess what happened to Hitler. Despite most of the movies glorifying the U.S. role, 80% of the Nazi’s military went east against Russia and lost. Nonviolent resistance by German women freed their Jewish husbands. What could more have done? Gandhi believed a concerted effort, losing thousands of lives, could have overturned the government. Examples from around the world suggest he was probably right. Or what if the United States had not ended the first World War by punishing the nation of Germany rather than its rulers? What if Wall Street hadn’t funded the Nazis? What if our nation had supported the League of Nations? World War II was not necessary at all. But even imagining that it was constitutes no argument for how we can survive the current war machine headquartered in Washington DC and dominating the entire globe. There is no nation that can be plausibly imagined as a threat or even a “rival,” which is why “terrorism” is filling that gap.

In most wars, blame goes to all sides. In some, one side is fighting off an attack. We couldn’t tell Poles not to fight a German invasion. We can’t tell Iraqis and Afghans not to fight US invasions. But we can point to the successes of nonviolence in other countries, including against the Nazis. And we can work to establish the legal ban on all war that was attempted with the Kellogg Briand Pact, because exceptions for “defensive” wars and UN-authorized wars are stretched to the point that the ban on wars disappears altogether.

Pohl: A related question I have is about the issue of revolution. Are revolutions wars? Was the French Revolution an honest struggle? Are you arguing for pacifism in all cases?

Canada did without a violent revolution and didn’t seem to suffer for it. France went through orgies of violence without arriving at a stable government or achieving the goals of the revolution. There is nothing honest about claims that violent revolution is the most likely path to peace and justice. It isn’t. Nonviolent resistance is. And any effort to inspire people to war involves exaggeration of evils and of promised benefits. It is very difficult to kill human beings or to face human beings who want to kill you. Motivating people to place themselves in those situations requires lying to them about their opponents (demonizing and sub-humanizing them) and about the value of the likely outcome and how easily it will be achieved. But nonviolent resistance is not exactly pacifism and certainly not passive-ism.

Pohl: Hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables were released to the public after this book was written. From what you have been able to read, are there significant examples of evidence to support your argument that justifications for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are false or unwarranted? Are there examples that clarify the motivations behind U.S. foreign policy?

There is evidence that we have a ground war in Pakistan, that Pakistan and Yemen are lying to the world along with our government about our wars there, that our government supported a coup in Honduras, that Saudi Arabia is both the biggest funder of global terrorism and our government’s best friend, that Saudi Arabia’s dictator wants the United States to attack Iran, that our government has lied about the range of Iranian missiles, that the DEA is used as an arm of the CIA and the Pentagon around the world in operations that have nothing to do with drugs, that our diplomats take direction from the CIA to spy on other nations, that our embassies spend much of their time selling US-built weapons to foreign governments, that our government has cracked down on Italy and Spain and Germany and England for trying to investigate its war crimes, that the EU is supporting the war on Afghanistan out of deference to the United States despite believing it’s hopeless, that much of what Rumsfeld said during years of war on Iraq was a lie, that the Pentagon lies about civilian body counts, that the Pentagon lies about incidents of collateral murder, and along with countless other examples a clear picture is painted of diplomats who treat the other 95% of humanity with contempt. We also learn from the response of many Americans who believe that learning a little about what their government is doing is so undesirable that the journalists responsible should be arrested or killed. That mindset cannot coexist with peace.

Although many voted for and elected someone they believed to be an anti-war president, in recent years the war in Afghanistan has expanded, and some argue that a war in Pakistan has already begun. One of the largest marches ever held in D.C. was against the Iraq war, before it even started.. And yet the anti-war movement seems to have sputtered. What do you think happened? And what are the possibilities for its resurgence and increased effectiveness?

The strength of the peace movement in 2006 is illustrated by George W. Bush’s account of the Republican minority leader in the Senate asking him to get troops out of Iraq before the 2006 congressional elections. The Democrats won big in those elections, and people told exit pollsters their top motivation was ending wars. Instead Congress escalated the War on Iraq and, to make matters worse, the peace movement was demobilized, losing the support of groups that were only pretending to oppose war as long as that helped Democrats. The same thing was repeated on a larger scale in 2008, so that by January of 2009 the peace movement had been reduced to organizations that actually put peace completely above party and other interests. In other words, the peace movement had no money left. It’s been inching its way back since. One opportunity for growth comes from the right having made the deficit into something as hated as any new Adolf Hitler. If the government is going to cut spending, we can force it to do so in the area of the war machine.

Andy Worthington, the author of “The Guantanamo Files,” will be joining you at the book event on Monday. Can you bring us up to date on the situation at Guantanamo?

Andy can! And Cindy Sheehan and Debra Sweet will be there too. I’ll be curious to see what Andy thinks of the proposals from the left for Obama to use a signing statement to preserve the right to put some prisoners on trial in real courts. I think establishing the signing statement as a legitimate means of law-making is even more dangerous than Guantanamo and guarantees us more wars.

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