Making Peace and Unmaking Prejudice

Remarks at Muslim Community of the Quad Cities in Bettendorf, Iowa, November 10, 2023

In the popular Western imagination war resembles a sport with what President Joe Biden calls “teams” with differently colored uniforms on an identifiable and uninhabited “battlefield” where mostly soldiers die. That almost no war has resembled this since World War One does not stop the endless outcries, during each and every war:

“This is not a war! It’s an occupation!”

“This is no war! Stop calling it a war! It’s a genocide!”

“This is not a war at all! It’s an invasion!”

“The important thing is to stop the media calling this ethnic cleansing a so-called war!”

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news. It doesn’t matter which mass-murder spree you’re looking at. It’s a war. It doesn’t resemble World War I or the U.S. Civil War because war has not resembled that sort of thing for over a century. War happens in people’s cities and villages. War kills mostly civilians. War is genocide is war is massacre is war is ethnic cleansing is war.

This is true in Gaza but it’s also true in Ukraine and Yemen and Sudan and Azerbaijan. The well-known U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were extremely one-sided slaughters of mostly civilians and overwhelmingly of people living in the so-called battlefields. You can declare none of the wars to have been wars. But we shouldn’t imagine that some other cleaner version of war exists somewhere.

The dishonest notions that war prevented, rather than facilitated, genocide in World War II, or that war should have prevented genocide in Rwanda, where war helped create genocide and then continued to do far worse in the Congo following its moment of unacceptability in Rwanda, or that war prevented genocide in Libya where genocide had in fact not been threatened, or that war is fundamentally distinguishable from genocide — these false beliefs are a major impediment to ending war. There’s no better justification for war or preparations for war than the pretense that there can be something worse than war that war can prevent.

With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu committing war/genocide, people have been sharing a scandalous article from 2015 called “Netanyahu: Hitler Didn’t Want to Exterminate the Jews.” I’m afraid it may give people the wrong idea. Netanyahu’s lie was that a Muslim cleric from Palestine convinced Hitler to kill Jews. But when Netanyahu said that Hitler originally wanted to expel Jews, not murder them, he was telling the indisputable truth. The problem is that it wasn’t a Muslim cleric who convinced Hitler otherwise. And it isn’t any secret who it was. It was the world’s governments. It’s incredible that this remains unknown, as it similarly remains unknown that World War II could easily have been avoided by a wiser ending of World War I; or that Nazism drew on U.S. inspiration for eugenics, segregation, concentration camps, poison gas, public relations, and one-armed salutes; or that U.S. corporations armed Nazi Germany through the war; or that the U.S. military hired many top Nazis at the end of the war; or that Japan tried to surrender prior to the nuclear bombings; or that there was major resistance to the war in the United States; or that the Soviets did the vast bulk of defeating the Germans — or that the U.S. public at the time knew what the Soviets were doing, which created a momentary break in two centuries of hostility to Russia in U.S. politics. But the fact is that the world shamefully, and for openly bigoted reasons, refused to take the Jews, the British blockade prevented their evacuation, and appeals by peace activists to the U.S. and British governments to rescue the Jews were rejected in favor of focusing entirely on the war.

The weapons of war that the United States has given to Israel in recent years are used for genocide — and intended as such openly and explicitly by some members of Congress. One wants Gaza made into a parking lot, another calls it a religious war. There’s no such thing as a war weapon that’s not for genocide or a genocide weapon that’s not for war. There are attempts to ban particular war/genocide weapons. But war proponents generally refuse to ban them because they fit perfectly into the thinking behind war, which is very much the thinking behind genocide. There’s a difference between thinking “I will kill lots of people because their government is invading my country” and thinking “I will kill lots of people so that my government can invade their country.” But almost nobody thinks that second one. Almost everybody thinks their side is in the right, some with a lot more reason than others. And the notion of proper, justifiable war leads to many bad places. It leads to the U.S. government giving Israel simultaneously both bombs to drop on people and trucks of food for some small fraction of the people being bombed. It leads to human rights groups complaining that a family was not given a proper warning, up to the acceptable standards, moments before having a missile sent into its living room. There should be no proper standards for that. It leads to an abused and harassed government in Gaza sending rockets into Israeli homes, while knowing perfectly well that the result would be the mass murder of Gazans many times multiplied. It leads to Russia invading Ukraine, believing that a proper legal defense against the build-up of NATO, knowing full well that it would thereby vastly empower NATO. It leads to the U.S. blocking peace in Ukraine believing that justice requires continuing to fight against a Russian invasion, which is also not bad for weapons sales or funeral parlors. It leads to the U.S. attacking Afghanistan and Iraq and Somalia and Pakistan and Syria, and calling those wars defensive policing and a means of upholding the rule of law through the very worst violation of the law there is, the killing of millions of people through wars that cost enough money to have saved the lives of tens of millions of people or transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Something that helps make the most fantastic and undocumented lies credible are differences and prejudices, against others and in favor of one’s own. Without religious bigotry, racism, and patriotic jingoism, wars would be harder to sell.

Many of our best peace activists are motivated by their religions, but religion has also long been a justification for wars. The so-called “ultimate sacrifice” in war may be intimately connected with the practice of human sacrifice as it existed before wars. The crusades and colonial wars and many other wars have had religious justifications.

Americans fought religious wars for many generations prior to the war for independence from England. Captain John Underhill in 1637 described his own heroic war making against the Pequot: “Captaine Mason entering into a Wigwam, brought out a fire-brand, after hee had wounded many in the house; then hee set fire to the Westside…my selfe set fire on the South end with a traine of Powder, the fires of both meeting in the center of the Fort blazed most terribly, and burnt all in the space of halfe an houre; many couragious fellowes were unwilling to come out, and fought most desperately…so as they were scorched and burnt…and so perished valiantly…. Many were burnt in the Fort, both men, women, and children.”

This Underhill explains as a holy war: “The Lord is pleased to exercise his people with trouble and afflictions, that hee might appeare to them in mercy, and reveale more cleerely his free grace unto their soules.”

Underhill means his own soul, and the Lord’s people are of course the white Christian folks. The Native Americans may have been courageous and valiant, but they were not recognized as people in the full sense.

Two and a half centuries later, many Americans had developed a far more enlightened outlook, and many had not. President William McKinley viewed Filipinos as in need of military occupation for their own good: “There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” McKinley was proposing to civilize a nation with a university older than Harvard and to Christianize a population that was largely Roman Catholic.

Propaganda posters in the United States during World War I showed Jesus wearing khaki and sighting down a gun barrel.

Karim Karim, an associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, writes: “The historically entrenched image of the ‘bad Muslim’ has been quite useful to Western governments planning to attack Muslim-majority lands. If public opinion in their countries can be convinced that Muslims are barbaric and violent, then killing them and destroying their property appears more acceptable.”

In reality, of course, nobody’s religion justifies making war on them, and U.S. presidents no longer claim it does. But Christian proselytization is found in the U.S. military, and so is hatred of Muslims. Soldiers have reported to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation that when seeking mental health counseling, they have been sent to chaplains instead who have counseled them to stay on the “battlefield” to “kill Muslims for Christ.”

Religion can be used to encourage the belief that what you are doing is good even if it makes no sense to you. A higher being understands it, even if you don’t. Religion can offer life after death and a belief that you are killing and risking death for the highest possible cause. But religion is not the only group difference that can be used to promote wars. Any difference of culture or language will do, and the power of racism to facilitate the worst sorts of human behavior is well established.

The two world wars in Europe, while fought between nations now typically thought of as “white,” involved racism anyway — the content of race is pretty arbitrary. The French newspaper La Croix on August 15, 1914, celebrated “the ancient élan of the Gauls, the Romans, and the French resurging within us,” and declared that “The Germans must be purged from the left bank of the Rhine. These infamous hordes must be thrust back within their own frontiers. The Gauls of France and Belgium must repulse the invader with a decisive blow, once and for all. The race war appears.”

This kind of thinking helps not only in easing the war-funding check- books out of the pockets of Congress members, but also in allowing the young people they send to war to do the killing. It is much easier for a soldier to kill someone labeled subhuman.

Nationalism is the most recent, powerful, and mysterious source of mystical devotion aligned with war, and the one that itself grew out of war making. While knights of old would die for their own glory, modern men and women will die for a fluttering piece of colored cloth that itself cares nothing for them. The day after the United States declared war on Spain in 1898, the first state (New York) passed a law requiring that school children salute the U.S. flag. Others would follow. Nationalism was the new religion.

When the United States was lied more deeply into the Vietnam War, all but two senators voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. One of the two, Wayne Morse (D-OR) told other senators that he had been told by the Pentagon that the alleged attack by the North Vietnamese had been provoked. Any attack would have been provoked, and the attack itself was fictional. But Morse’s colleagues did not oppose him on the grounds that he was mistaken. Instead, a senator told him, “Hell, Wayne, you can’t get into a fight with the president when all the flags are waving.”

We now have a form of proxy patriotism, with people in the U.S. cheering for wars by waving Ukrainian and Israeli flags. I expect to wake up any day now and see the flag of Taiwan flying up and down my street in Virginia, and for that day to be one of the last on which anyone wakes up anywhere.

But flags are not the only thing that distant wars bring to U.S. streets. Historian Kathleen Belew documents that there has always been a correlation in the United States between the aftermath of war and the rise of white supremacist violence. “If you look, for instance, at the surges in Ku Klux Klan membership, they align more consistently with the return of veterans from combat and the aftermath of war than they do with anti-immigration, populism, economic hardship, or any of the other factors that historians have typically used to explain them,” she says.

Following a recent mass shooting in Maine, I read a news report that claimed it was the first U.S. mass shooting by a U.S. military veteran. In fact, while only a very small percentage of men under 60 in the United States are military veterans, at least 31% of male mass shooters under 60 (which is almost all mass shooters) are military veterans, and their mass shootings kill more people than do the mass shootings by non-veterans. Those mass shooters who are not military veterans tend to dress and speak as if they were, often claiming to be at war against some hated group. Other violent crimes are also committed against groups demonized in recent war propaganda. We’ve seen a great deal of anti-Muslim violence in the United States during the post-9-11 wars, and a recent upsurge in anti-Asian violence as the U.S. government demonizes China, as well as even anti-Jewish violence by some who apparently see through the pro-Israel propaganda yet fail to see through the underlying propaganda supporting violence and hatred. Who knows how many lives have been spared by the fact that most people in the U.S. do not think they can recognize someone of Russian ancestry by sight, or by the fact that so many racists in the United States oppose fueling the Ukrainian military for their own partisan or ideological reasons.

Needless to say, statistically, virtually all veterans are not mass shooters. But that can hardly be the reason for not a single news article ever mentioning that mass shooters are very disproportionately veterans. After all, statistically, virtually all males, mentally ill people, domestic abusers, Nazi-sympathizers, loners, and gun-purchasers are also not mass-shooters. Yet articles on those topics proliferate like NRA campaign bribes following every mass shooting.

War propaganda both requires blind support for militaries and dehumanizes groups. Just look at how a war is reported in the corporate media: One side of a war kills through barbaric savagery, while the other only regretfully wages a noble war that involves collateral damage. One side mysteriously dies after living blank lives with no stories or quirks or loved ones or suffering, while the other side is brutally killed cutting short lives rich in intimate detail. One side is made up of fighters or civilians, while the other consists of men and women and children and grandparents and somebody’s dear Aunt Kathy who was the sweetest woman on Earth. One side commits acts of terrorism, while the other applies pressure through surgical strikes.

It is of course the greatest of absurdities to not simply recognize every single human as human. If people have to be “humanized” by relating details about their lives, what in the world are we to suppose they were before they got humanized? Often the answer, I’m afraid, is demonic monsters. So this absurd humanization is clearly needed, and desperately so, to transform people in the popular imagination from monsters or blank pages into characters with names and faces, children and uncles, meals and pets and laughter and arguments and struggles and triumphs . . . and then vicious murder. We have to overcome the prejudice that one side of a war is acceptable killing. And we have to overcome the prejudice that various types of people are not humanized humans.

We know that corporate media outlets are capable of telling the stories of war victims, because they do it for Ukrainians and Israelis and U.S. troops. But how do you get them to do it, in more than small exceptions, for all types of war victims?

We know that people are capable of ignoring the corporate media and getting their information elsewhere, because young people do it. If you look at opinion polls in the U.S. by age group, the younger people are the wiser they are, and generally the less corporate media they have consumed. So it really is true that the more television news you watch, the dumber you become. But there are plenty of other news sources that are just as bad or worse, and no news at all is not the answer. So, how do we make sure that people are becoming well informed, and that people understand how to consume media and sort out the reliable information from the undesirable attitudes?

We know that amateur videos and photographs can change the conversation, at least in combination with activism and influence of various sorts, because Black Lives Matter happened — and goes on happening. So, how do we take all the tragic videos and photos from somewhere like Gaza that we see if we inhabit the right online bubble and make sure everyone else sees them too?

I think this question of communications and prejudice is far from the only way to work for peace. But I think it is an important one. One aspect of it is working the corporate media. People who want peace should be as dedicated as those who want war to making the best use of letters to the editor, phone calls to radio shows, press advisories, press releases, colorful events, and nonviolent interruptions in front of cameras. Once you get on U.S. television and oppose war once, you won’t be seen again, but you can train many others to get on in your stead.

Another aspect of it is producing the best social media, the best videos and graphics, the best independent media outlets, websites, webinars, books, banners, signs, etc. We need to be doing a lot more training and spending a lot more money.

Another aspect of it is media literacy. I recently tried to explain how and why I read the New York Times. I read it looking for two things: the insinuations and the independent evidence. By insinuations, I mean the bulk of it, the stuff that’s put in there to communicate without any straightforward assertion of verifiable facts. One article had the headline:

“A Former French President Gives a Voice to Obstinate Russian Sympathies: Remarks by Nicolas Sarkozy have raised fears that Europe’s pro-Putin chorus may grow louder as Ukraine’s plodding counteroffensive puts pressure on Western resolve.”

I explained at some length why the factual content of that headline could also be found in this one:

“Corrupt Warmonger Worthy of Our Attention Joins Significant Number of People in Disagreeing with the New York Times About Russia: Times Owners, Advertisers, and Sources Fear We Won’t Be Able to Go on Claiming Imminent Victory Much Longer, Request Public’s Help in Painting Naysayers as Loyal to the Enemy”

I explained why most of the article didn’t report any information, but that it did accurately quote an interview given by Sarkozy and did tell us what the New York Times was worried about. I think we have to learn to read more and less credible sources and to know what topics various sources are more credible about, but primarily to distinguish between independent evidence and insinuation. I also wrote a book called War Is A Lie to help in spotting war lies.

I also think there are good reasons to believe that culture matters, that it makes a difference what statues we put up and tear down, that it matters what music and food and art we ban and avoid because of the latest war fever. Equating a culture with an enemy means equating an entire population with an enemy government. There’s no excuse for thinking of governments as enemies, but there’s also no excuse for acting as if Russian music is evil or eating something called Freedom Fries or agreeing with a school board member who proposes to ban Arabic numerals.

If it happens on a significant scale, then personal contact matters as well. Cultural exchanges, student exchanges, zoom calls, and every other means of interaction should always prioritize those places one’s own government is targeting. People in the United States should be engaging in every possible activity, online and by mail, and by travel when possible and useful, with people in demonized and sanctioned nations.

Identifying with all of humanity and the population of the globe matters too. We at World BEYOND War organize online events and courses that result in people from all over the world getting to know each other as mutual supporters of peace and justice. It changes how we talk and think. People from the United States stop calling their country “America” when people from the rest of America are in the room. People from the United States stop saying “We just shipped more artillery shells,” to mean “The U.S. government just shipped more artillery shells,” when there are representatives from the other 96% of humanity in the room and they keep expressing confusion over this use of the word “We.”

It’s also important to remind each other of the vast majority of behaviors by the vast majority of humans that do not involve bigotry or hatred or violence and never have. This is needed to counter a somewhat silly yet popular belief that various negative behaviors are somehow inevitable. For any given war, one can examine the months or years or decades during which one or both sides worked diligently to make it happen, and both sides conspicuously failed to develop peaceful alternatives. Even in the moment of greatest violence, one can consider the unarmed-resistance alternatives that are carefully kept out of consideration.

But even if you can explain away all justification for every side of every particular war, there remains the false claim that war is somehow simply part of “humanity.” If ants were to stop waging wars, nobody would bat an eye, but such a feat is deemed simply beyond the intelligence of homo sapiens.

There is a problem for this belief, namely the problem of peaceful human societies. We know that many, if not most, hunter-gatherer groups of humans engaged for the vast bulk of human existence in nothing resembling low-tech war and that various nations have gone centuries without war. A professor at the University of North Carolina has a website documenting numerous indigenous peaceful societies still in existence. We know from anthropologists of societies that find it hard to even comprehend the idea of murder, and of people who have been traumatized by their first introduction to the violence of Hollywood movies. Children who grow up in societies without violence do not have it to imitate. Children who grow up in societies that condemn anger learn not to be angry. These facts are as endlessly proven as the reappearance of the sun each day, just as is the effectiveness of nonviolent action, even against coups, occupations, invasions, and apartheid.

If we’re going to tell each other that we are enlightened and face up to scientific facts, here are some of them:

Humans are biologically one species, not a bunch of races.

Humans do not become less intelligent or creative or valuable because they are in an ethnic group or a religion or a nation.

Humans almost always do whatever they can to avoid war, most participants in war suffer terribly, and there’s never been one case of trauma from war deprivation.

Human societies often do without war altogether.

Humans can choose our own future, whether its one we’ve seen before or something new and different.

There is nothing inevitable, necessary, beneficial, or justifiable about war.

War is immoral, endangers us, erodes our liberties, promotes bigotry, drains resources, destroys the environment, and impoverishes us.

War itself is a problem, and believing the problem is a wartime enemy adds to the real problem.

Governments and oligarchs do not train people in unarmed resistance to other nations, because they do not want such trained resistance within their own nation.

Governments and oligarchs are not as bothered as they should be when people divide themselves through foolish hatreds and prejudices, which allow people to forget where some major injustices actually begin.

Another world is entirely possible

And, every important change has been widely considered impossible right up until it happened.

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