Peace Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

By David Swanson

If you haven’t already, you really should read Chris Hedges’ book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” The portrait of war and wartime propaganda and emotion is brilliant and deadly accurate. But the headline is misleading. War does not give us lasting solid self-assured meaning. War gives us a temporary high that is rooted in desperate self-deception. Hedges’ book carries on the cover a photo of people with candles and U.S. flags, holding hands, eyes closed, mouths open. These people are smoking crack, they’re taking a two-week cruise of the Caribbean, they’re on stage at American Idol, they’re kneeling in church, they’re tapping shoes in airport men’s rooms. These people are escaping from their lives, not building lives that mean something to them.

Hedges describes war as a drug for those who participate, an adrenaline rush, a life and death struggle of great danger, and a noble cause that unites participants in the closest bonds of comradeship – at least until the day it’s over. Survivors of an attack can be brought together as well. Following 9-11, New Yorkers were remarkably friendly. And residents of an imperial homeland can get a rush of nationalistic heebie jeebies watching bombs explode in someone else’s country via satellite. But none of it ever amounts to meaning anything you might call “meaning” after the thrill is gone, after the yellow ribbons have rotted or choked the trees, after the lies have been exposed, after the veterans have been moved off the park benches in the nice parts of town.

If it were true that the occupation of Iraq gave Americans meaning, then 70 percent of Americans wouldn’t oppose it, wealthy kids and members of the Free Republic would sign up to participate, the children of presidents and senators would want in on the meaningful action, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would be replaced by Post Meaning Fulfillment Syndrome. Just on the level of friendship and social bonding, it is far easier in America to find people who oppose the occupation of Iraq than people who support it. When I wear a T-shirt that says “Impeach” I can walk past a group of strangers and get applause. I’ve never seen a T-shirt that said “Iraq War: Keep it Going.”

The majority of Americans who favor peace are a brotherhood and a sisterhood. Some of us have experienced that fact in Crawford, Texas, and at peace events all over the country. But the fact that we see so many familiar faces at these events is an indication of how many people are missing out. Medical studies have found that people who participate in mass protests are happier than other people. No study has found the same for people who participate in wars. I think this is because mass demonstrations for peace and justice involve something more than solidarity and camaraderie. They also involve the knowledge of working for the right end through the right means. What gives a life meaning is the awareness that you have dedicated your life to working to improve the world, not just at the end of a strategic sadistic adventure, but in every bit of the work you do. When you work for peace and justice, a little work does a little good, and a lot does a lot of good. And, while even your utmost exertion can fail, you know you will have done no harm, you will have set the right example, and you will have refused to sit silently by as crimes were committed.

Peace and justice work breeds and is suited to workaholics, but it works for everyone else as well. It demands discipline, but discipline driven by free and independent thought, not discipline subservient to someone else’s commands. And the opportunities for leadership and responsibility are there for the taking. Start devoting a few hours a week to peace and justice activism in your neck of the woods, and you will very quickly find yourself needed and valued. In a few rare cases, you will also find yourself monetarily rewarded, but probably not. For the most part, those making big bucks in organizations claiming to stand for peace are actually working in front groups for political parties, groups that entirely lack the solidarity of the peace and justice family, groups that use veterans and military families only somewhat less cruelly and cynically than do the warmakers. Smaller monetary compensation can be found, however, and the other rewards make up the difference. The brotherhood and sisterhood you feel as part of a movement for peace and justice is far greater than any you can know as a nationalist, because it includes the people of the world, notably the people of Iraq.

Peace and justice activism, when it is serious, involves sacrifice and risk. Soldiers who refuse illegal orders risk prison. Citizens who engage in civil disobedience risk jail. And, increasingly, ordinary exercising of the right to free speech risks fines and other punishments. We also now collectively face the risk of state-based and non-state-based attacks on us in response to our government’s policies. We face nuclear annihilation, global warming, and the declaration of complete martial law. We face the increased use of detention, torture, and murder. We face a growing difficulty and danger in doing what we do for peace and freedom. And we face the possibility of great glory and fame as our rewards. When Senator Chris Dodd stood up in the Senate and began the work of blocking a bill to legalize unconstitutional spying, he effectively put back the Fourth Amendment that we had lost, he effectively became a founding father of our nation, and every citizen who built the pressure to force him to act became a hero – some of them widely recognized, others less so. But recognition develops and shifts over time. We honor more the men who wrote our Constitution than those who fought the war against England that preceded it.

Principally, though, I think the peace movement has two central advantages over the war movement. First, it has much better music: Second, it’s co-ed, and the relationships between men and women tend not to involve harassment, assault, or command rape.

Maybe it’s time that we grew up as a nation. Maybe it’s time we joined hands, locked elbows, and forced our Congress to impeach, not for oral sex, but to restore our Bill of Rights. Maybe it’s time we made proper use of the positive force of nonviolent action. Maybe it’s time we stopped pledging to flags, praying to lords, saluting commanders, obeying authorities, and bowing before our televisions. Maybe it’s time we shut down the Washington crime machine under the banner “No War, No Warming” –

Maybe it’s time we took over the country with a massive collective meaning-filled movement for peace –

Bob Dylan said of individuals what he could have said of us collectively: if we’re not busy being born, we’re busy dying. Let’s stop dying. Let’s do it together. Let’s do it this year.

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