Remarks for conference on Building Bridges and Creating the Beloved Community, April 13, 2013
Sponsored by Maryland United for Peace and Justice, http://www.mupj.org
By David Swanson
Several years ago a bunch of peace activists were eating in a restaurant in Crawford, Texas, and we noticed George W. Bush. He was actually a cardboard version of George W. Bush like you might get your photo with in front of the White House, but he was almost as lifelike as the real thing. We picked him up and stood him in the corner of the restaurant, facing the corner. We asked him to stay there until he understood what he’d done wrong. For all I know he’s still standing there.
Of course, a piece of cardboard wasn’t going to really understand what it had done wrong, and the real president probably wouldn’t have either. The benefit of standing him in the corner, if there was one, was for everybody else in the restaurant. And the benefit of impeaching or prosecuting Bush for his crimes and abuses would have been, and still would be, for the world — not for him and not for those who are angry at him. We shouldn’t imagine that vengeance would be very satisfying. Not when you punish a man. And not when that man destroys the nation of Iraq. Wishing others ill does ill to yourself. It cannot be truly satisfying.
Twelve days from now I’ll be down in Dallas for the dedication of the Bush Library, or rather the Bush Lie Bury, a half-billion-dollar project aimed at burying lies. We’ll be there to unearth what should not be forgotten.
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Now, I’m not so simple-minded as to believe that Bush ran the entire country on his own. I know how Dick Cheney manipulated him. I know that if people wanted to protest Cheney’s disastrous role they could find him living near here at 1126 Chain Bridge Road in McLean, Virginia, as well as 7879 Fuller Road in St. Michael’s, Maryland. Not that I would ever, ever recommend holding massive noisy protests at either of those homes.
I also realize that there’s a permanent military-industrial-corporate-bankster complex. I know the Democrats controlled the Senate that voted for the war on Iraq. I know the corporate media spoon-fed the war lies to my friends and neighbors. But we should be holding all of these parties accountable, not excusing the man who was seated in virtually a royal throne just because he had a lot of help and encountered a massive outpouring of obedience.
When we tried to impeach Bush, people accused us of being cruel and vengeful. I denied it. I said that I was concerned about precedents being set for the future. But the fact is that a lot of people in the movement enjoyed being cruel and vengeful, and at moments I did too. It’s great fun to point to a leader as the embodiment of evil policies. It humanizes structural wrongs.
We are actually up against the very same interlocking evils that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said we were up against when he spoke at Riverside Church 46 years ago last week. We’re facing militarism, racism, and extreme materialism. But how do you take those and stand them in the corner? How do you mock their funny accent or their bad grammar? How do you throw your shoes at them?
We had a lot of fun denouncing Bush as an idiot and a liar. We had so much fun that we forgot he was an idiot when we were calling him a liar. Don’t get me wrong: he knew perfectly well that he was lying. That’s been completely established. This is a man who told Tony Blair he’d like to paint an airplane with a U.N. logo, fly it low over Iraq, get it shot at, and thereby start a war. This is a man who moments later walked out, together with Tony Blair, to the White House Press Corpse and declared his intention to avoid war if at all possible. This is a man who was asked after the invasion why he’d made the claims he made about weapons, and who replied, “What’s the difference?”
But here’s what I do mean to say: every leader who launches or continues a war does so using lies. Always. Without exception. But some of them tell their lies better than an idiot. Some of them don’t pick obvious lies or lies that can be swiftly exposed by events.
Not everyone caught onto this. Some opposed the war on Iraq without opposing the war machine that generates new wars. Some even started calling Iraq the bad war and Afghanistan the good war, as if there can be a good war. Some imagined that because Iraq was based on lies and launched against the will of the United Nations, Afghanistan must have been based on truth and launched with a U.N. authorization. That was not the case. The U.N. approved of the occupation of Afghanistan two-months into it. That’s how conquest has worked for millennia. Treaties and courts had been in place to pursue the prosecution of alleged 9-11 terrorists, and the Afghan government was open to such arrangements. Attacking the people of Afghanistan was not self-defense or moral or legal in any way, not even under the U.N. Charter, much less some of the stronger laws that we generally choose to ignore.
The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, for example, bans all war. It is the product of a peace movement of our great grandparents that sought the elimination of war and has much to teach us.
We ought to have opposed the war on Iraq because it killed people. There’s no better reason. But then we would have had to oppose all wars. They all kill people. It sounds so much more REASONABLE to oppose particular wars. Half of our neighbors work in the war industry. What about their jobs? North Korea may attack us at any moment. There are evil people in the world who want to kill us. Our government is pursuing economic and military policies that are sure to make them really, really want to kill us. Surely we can’t oppose all war.
Well then, we needed to find a different reason to oppose the war on Iraq. And we found lots. And they were all bad ones. I’ll give you four examples.
1. The war on Iraq was bad because Iraq had no weapons. What’s wrong with that? Well, it implies that nations that do have weapons should be bombed. That would include our nation, by the way, above all others. But — more immediately — it would include Iran, which is being falsely accused of having weapons exactly as if that is grounds for bombing that country.
2. The war on Iraq was bad because Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11. This implies that if the government of Afghanistan had anything to do with even indirectly supporting anyone involved in 9-11, then the people of Afghanistan — most of whom had never heard of 9-11 and still haven’t — should be bombed. The same logic is costing drone strike victims their lives by the thousands.
3. The war on Iraq was bad because it wasn’t being won. This of course contributed to escalating the war in hopes of winning it, whatever that would have meant.
4. The war on Iraq was bad because it was a Republican Party war. This wasn’t entirely true. It was also a position destined to create support for wars whenever a Democrat moved into the White House.
The argument for opposing little bits of militarism rather than the whole thing is that more people are likely to quickly join you. If you appeal to their patriotism or partisanship or religion or militarism but nudge them toward opposing one particular war for some tangential reason, well then maybe they’ll be ever so slightly more likely to oppose the next war and the next war. I don’t accept that argument.
For one thing, ill-informed as I think people are, I don’t think they’re stupid enough not to notice when I’m telling the truth and when I’m not — when I’m actually making up excuses for a position that I hold for a different reason. I actually want wars ended because they kill people. If I claim to oppose just the Iraq War but not the Afghanistan War, what happens when the Iraq War ends and I shift to opposing the Afghanistan War? Who will take me seriously?
Also, if we don’t tell the truth then people never find out how bad the wars are. But if they do find out how bad the wars are, then they oppose them along with us for all the right reasons, reasons that carry over to counter-recruitment and conversion — that is, to keeping our kids from becoming cannon-fodder and converting our war industries to peace industries, which — by the way — produces more and better paying jobs for the same investment, not to mention greater happiness with one’s career.
It’s not easy to tell people how our wars really look while telling them that you support the troops and want to see wars waged with better strategies. Our wars are one-sided slaughters. U.S. deaths in Iraq were 0.3% of the deaths. Iraq lost a greater number of people and a greater percentage of its people than the U.S. lost in its civil war or World War II, or than Japan or France or England lost in World War II. Iraq lost millions of refugees, its education system, its health system, its entire society. The nation was destroyed. And a majority of Americans believe Iraq benefitted from the war while the United States suffered. We were happy year after year to see a majority of Americans say they wanted the war ended, but many of them were saying they wanted an act of generosity ended, not the war as it actually existed.
The trillions of dollars spent destroying Iraq and not rebuilding it could have been put to other uses. It could have eliminated world hunger. It could have saved many times the lives it was used to kill. But that would require real generosity, not just frustration that a war wasn’t being managed well.
I was involved in working hard to make sure people knew Bush lied about Iraq. I’m pleased that a slim majority still says it knows that. I don’t know how long that will last. But an overwhelming majority still believes some other war could be a good war.
Sitting on a train recently, I spoke to a young woman who told me she was studying dentistry and would be in the Air Force. Couldn’t she be a dentist without the military, I asked? No, she answered, not without $200,000 in debt. Yes, I replied, but without the Air Force, we could have free colleges and no debts. No, she replied . . .
And, if you think for a moment, I know you’ll know what she said next. It had nothing to do with the lies about Iraq, the financial cost of Iraq, the number of U.S. troops killed in Iraq, or what war mongers the Republicans are. It had nothing to do with any of that. Think for a second, and you’ll know.
She replied: if we didn’t have the Air Force, North Korea would kill us.
Now, if you have a little education you probably realize that North Korea spends less than 1% of what the United States does on war preparations, that North Korea couldn’t attack the United States without being completely obliterated, and that any nation on earth would scream angry threats if we pretended to drop nuclear bombs on it after having destroyed all of its cities, killed millions of its people, and threatened and antagonized it for over half a century through control of the military belonging to its former other half.
But if you’d just learned that the war on Iraq was a dumb war that cost too much, that nothing is more heroic than militarism, that even the peace movement should be led by soldiers, and that waving flags and valuing a particular 5% of humanity to a special degree are admirable values, where would you be?
There will always, always, always be another North Korea that’s supposedly about to kill us. We don’t need rapid-response fact corrections. We need citizens with some understanding of history, with knowledge of the Other 95%, with the capacity to resist terrorism-by-television, and capable of independent thought. To get there, we need a peace movement that moves us, at whatever pace it can, toward peace — toward the popular demand for the absolute abolition of all war. And to get there we need to stop behaving like politicians.
Legislators have to compromise, and would have to compromise even if our government weren’t so corrupted by money. We don’t. Our unions and activist groups didn’t have to ban the words “single payer” from rallies for the so-called “public option,” thus pre-compromising and predictably ending up with nothing. We can let Congress do the compromising, but it will do it from where we begin. If we begin with self-censorship, we lose.
When Bill McKibben picks Bernie Sanders as his model, he’s picking one of our better legislators. He shouldn’t be picking any of them as a model for activism. Instead he should be looking to leaders of our civil rights movement, women’s rights movement, labor, peace, and justice movements. He should be looking to activist models in Tunisia, Egypt, Spain, South Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe.
Activists’ work is to speak the truth and nonviolently move the nation. Loyalty to political parties and officials is misplaced. Elections are relatively unimportant. We need teach-ins, sit-ins, boycotts, protests, marches, and direct actions and artwork and education of every variety. We have so much to do that elections ought not to be sitting anywhere near the top of the list, much less distracting people with something bordering on obsession.
I must have received emails from a dozen large organizations this week on the topic of Social Security with the message “This isn’t what we voted for.” They meant to say “This isn’t what we want.” They may have even meant to say “This isn’t something we’ll stand for.” But they did vote for it in voting for President Barack Obama. We knew he would try to cut Social Security and now he’s trying to. You may believe that backing some other candidate wouldn’t have stopped him or would have been worse. But we have to recognize a certain incompleteness in a strategy that says, “We will vote for you no matter what, and please end the war and don’t build the pipeline and don’t pursue NAFTA on steroids in the Pacific and don’t cut Social Security and don’t prosecute whistleblowers and don’t go through a list of men, women, and children every Tuesday and pick which ones to have murdered.” Even when that strategy shifts to saying, “We voted for you and now we would really like you to end that war and stop building that pipeline and break off the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations and take back your proposal on Social Security and Medicare and free Bradley Manning and abandon the kill list and ground the drones,” there’s still something notably incomplete, at the very least, in such an approach.
President Obama has not killed the same number of people President Bush did. And President Bush gets some of the blame for having expanded the powers that Obama now abuses. But Obama has expanded those powers further still, and he too must take some of the blame for what all future president do now.
I helped draft about 70 articles of impeachment against Bush, from which Congressman Dennis Kucinich selected 35 and introduced them. I later looked through those 35 and found 27 that applied to President Obama, even though his own innovations in abusive behavior weren’t on the list. Bush’s lying Congress into war (not that Congress wasn’t eager to play along) is actually a standard to aspire to now. When Obama went to war in Libya, against the will of Congress, he avoided even bothering to involve the first branch of our government.
When Bush locked people up or tortured them to death, he kept it as secret as he could. Obama — despite radically expanding secrecy powers and persecuting whistleblowers — does most of his wrongdoing wide out in the open. Warrantless spying is openly acknowledged policy. Imprisonment without trial is so-called law. Torture is a policy choice, and the choice these days is to outsource it. Murder is, however, the new torture. The CIA calls it “cleaner.” And Americans tell pollsters that they oppose killing U.S. citizens but support killing non-U.S. citizens. And activists begin to focus on the danger to U.S. citizens, as if that were the strategic way to generate opposition.
President Obama runs through a list of men, women, and children to murder on Tuesdays, picks some, and has them murdered. We don’t know this because of a whistleblower or a journalist. We know this because the White House wanted us to know it, and to know it before the election. Think about that. We moved from the pre-insanity state we were in circa 1999 to an age in which presidents want us to know they murder people. That was primarily the work of George W. Bush, and every single person who yawned, who looked away, who cheered, who was too busy, who said “it’s more important to elect a new president than to keep presidential powers in check,” or who said “impeachment would be traumatic” — as if this isn’t.
The war in Afghanistan is twice the size it was when Obama arrived, and we talk about it as if it’s ending, even though they tell us it will continue for longer than most wars have taken from beginning to end. Military spending has risen in the Obama years. Foreign bases have expanded. The CIA has been given war making powers (and is being regularly protested just next door to Dick Cheney’s house mentioned earlier). Special forces are operating in more countries. A new form of war, waged with drones, has been taken into new nations without any say from Congress or the U.N. or we the people. The Pentagon is moving into Africa in a major way.
And when we spend a trillion dollars a year on war preparations through various government departments, it’s a banker bailout we never get back. Inequality of wealth in this country has been growing under Obama even faster than under Bush. The super-profitable, super-corrupt, and super-unaccountable war industry is part of the reason why. Any one of the 10 richest people in this country could set aside his income for one year and buy housing for every person who doesn’t have housing. The poorest 47% of Americans own less than nothing. The poorest 62% of Americans own less than the richest 400 people. Only three nations on earth are more unequal than the land of the free and home of the suckered. The Wall Street crash reduced median wealth 66% for Latinos and 53% for African Americans. Dr. King said if we continued to spend more on war than on programs of social uplift we would approach spiritual death. The question now, these many years and wars later, is whether we can manage spiritual resurrection.
To do so, we’ll need unity. We can’t lack understanding for the student who goes into the military in order to become a dentist. We must appreciate the economic bind that we’ve all been put in. But that doesn’t mean its wise to oppose cuts to Social Security by hyping the supposed “service” that veterans have done for us in wars. For one thing, just stop and consider where all the money is going that could lower the retirement age rather than increasing it. It’s going to billionaires and the war machine. Glorifying the war machine is not a smart way to change that.
President Kennedy once wrote that war would continue until the conscientious objector had the prestige and honor that the soldier has now. Of course, soldiers would have to lose prestige as conscientious objectors and other resisters gain. The two cannot be honorable together. But opposing participation in the military is not the same thing as condemning any person who has done it. Most do it for economic, among other, reasons. I’m proud to be an associate (non-veteran) member of Veterans For Peace.
We also must separate the sin from the sinner when we consider employment in the weapons industry. When Congress funds a war machine that builds momentum for war, and does so for the stated reason of creating jobs, that’s sociopathic. When someone with a family to feed takes one of those jobs, that’s often a matter of survival. When the state of Maryland, even while banning the death penalty, forces Montgomery County to give millions of dollars to Lockheed Martin, that’s pure corruption. But Lockheed’s employees can’t be expected to all just quit without alternative employment.
Our goal should be economic conversion from making weapons to making windmills and every other useful product. Bills to begin coordinating this at the national level made progress in Congress from the 60s through the 80s but haven’t been heard of in recent years. One opportunity to begin this at the local level is anywhere that war jobs are actually lost during the much exaggerated current cuts, if any. Localities and states are starting to create commissions to lobby for more war money. Instead they should be studying the advantages of conversion.
The advantages include: more and better paying jobs, significantly so according to a study from the University of Massachusetts. The labor movement, which has been rather weak on opposing wars for many years in this country, should be opposing war spending even for purely economic reasons. Even tax cuts for working people produces more jobs than military spending. The only way you can cut military spending and get fewer jobs is if you give the money to that crowd we call the Job Creators.
Another advantage is, of course, safety. The Department of Defense endangers us. De-funding it is in fact in the interests of what they call national security. But there are many more advantages.
Civil liberties groups have done heroic work in this country in recent years opposing warrantless spying, lawless imprisonment, torture, assassination, and other atrocities generated by military spending. These groups ought to heed President Eisenhower’s warning and oppose the root of the problem. Some of them are not just refraining from opposing war spending. They’re actually supporting wars, even while opposing various evils that wars involve. We need to work on this with people concerned about civil liberties. When we recently passed a resolution against drones in Charlottesville, Va., it opened up a discussion about drone use abroad as well. I recommend that. I’ll be glad to talk with you about how to do it. Also please be at the U.S. Senate hearing on drones a week from Tuesday morning if you can.
The School of the Americas Watch has not shut down the school, but has persuaded various nations to stop sending students to be trained in torture and murder at Fort Benning, Georgia. Sometimes our best allies are abroad. Powerful movements against U.S. military bases in the Philippines, Puerto Rico, South Korea, Italy, and elsewhere need our help, as we need theirs.
The torture techniques used by our death squads and proxies abroad are also developed in U.S. prisons. We lead the world in weapons sales, war spending, and incarceration. And these are connected. Taking on the prison industrial complex and the military industrial complex together is the most likely way for us to take on militarism, racism, and extreme materialism without dividing our strength.
Gun control should be holistic and international. While the NRA and the White House debate local gun restrictions, they join hands to oppose international ones. But selling weapons to the world, against some of which U.S. soldiers will certainly later fight, spreads the idea of righteous violence. Peace activists should work for gun control at home, but should take the opportunity to make people more aware of U.S. weapons sales abroad, and the kinds of governments those weapons are sold to.
Fox News’ Sean Hannity says it’s OK for basketball coaches to hit players because, “My father hit me with a belt and I turned out OK.” I suppose we can each judge for ourselves how he turned out. Violence in any aspect of our lives can help to legitimate it in others. Hannity has not distinguished himself as an opponent of wars.
Environmental groups have largely, but not entirely, shied away from opposing our greatest consumer of oil, a machine that fights wars for oil and uses the oil to fight wars, poisoning our nation and others with chemicals and radiation to an extent that would rank such abuses above 9/11 or Pearl Harbor if foreigners were responsible. The anti-bases movement is slowly making connections, as in Jeju Island, South Korea, between environmental activism and peace activism. Such alliances can only make us stronger.
Immigrants rights can sometimes be thought of as “refugee rights.” Little produces immigration the way wars do. And denying rights to people whose country your own military has ravaged is beyond the rudeness of most people, once made aware of it. Immigrants rights and peace are causes that must unite.
Education and housing and green energy infrastructure advocates, advocates for all good programs, have two possible sources of funding. We can tax the plutocrats. Or we can scale back a war machine currently as large as the rest of the world’s combined. Practically speaking, we’ll have to do both. The war machine generates plutocrats, and vice versa. About half of our tax dollars on Monday will go to war funding. There are funds that you can put that money into instead, an approach that some of you might want to investigate.
The Pentagon just announced that it went $10 billion over budget on killing children in Afghanistan. Oops. Meanwhile, Congress has manufactured the pretense that the U.S. Postal Service is billions of dollars in the hole. We are a nation that can afford services we don’t dare imagine, and our government still hopes to privatize the post office. Instead of having no mail on Saturdays, I, for one, would prefer to wars on Saturdays.
The Military Industrial Complex is everything Eisenhower feared, and then some. But if every interest group and individual for whom it is a major stumbling block were to unite against it, and in favor of conversion to a peace economy, the Pentagon’s walls would come crumbling down. Opposing militarism is not a separate little campaign, but ought to be part of a comprehensive plan for justice. Instead of shouting “Jobs Not Cuts,” we should be demanding cuts to the military and to highways and to banks and to corporate welfare, and expanded investment in all the things we want and the things we don’t dare dream of but can easily afford.
By direct democracy, Americans would reduce military spending right now. No persuasion is needed. But a movement of dedicated activists intent on enacting a major conversion program will require stronger and deeper public opinion than now exists.
We’re up against belief in the possibility of a good war, and myths about past wars being good and just. We have to correct those myths and point out the altered state of the world that makes them unhelpful anyway. Weaponry, communications, and understanding of the tools of nonviolence have changed. War is no longer useful, even if you imagine it ever was. What we need is a movement for the abolition of war, and one place to look for inspiration might be to the original abolitionists, to Thomas Clarkson and Olaudah Equiano, and those who launched a movement that built pressure to end the British slave trade and slavery — a movement that gained, of course, from rebellions by those enslaved in Jamaica and what we now call Haiti.
If you’re like me, there are some things you would like to abolish. My list includes weapons, fossil fuel use, plutocracy, corporate personhood, corporate nationhood, health insurance corporations, poverty wages, poverty, homelessness, factory farming, prisons, the drug war, the death penalty, nuclear energy, the U.S. Senate, the electoral college, gerrymandering, electronic voting machines, murder, rape, child abuse, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and the Washington Post. I could go on. I bet you can think of at least one institution you believe we’d be better off without. I put war around the top of the list.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England, activists invented committees with chapters and newsletters, posters, speaking tours, book tours, petitioning, boycotts, theatrical props, and investigative journalism. Most people couldn’t vote, and voting had nothing to do with it. Slavery was the norm across the world, and activists faced defeat after defeat for many years. They didn’t quit. They demanded rights — and not for themselves, but for others unlike them and for the most part unseen by them. Britons were familiar with having their sons kidnapped and enslaved by the British navy, but they applied that understanding to others in other circumstances. We can do the same. We see disasters in New Orleans or New York. We can begin to see them in Baghdad and Kabul.
Frederick Douglass went to England to meet with Clarkson. Douglass worked for the abolition of slavery here, but later remarked, “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights of woman, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act.” Perhaps we too can act on behalf of others. Perhaps we can expand concern for U.S. citizens killed by drones to human beings killed by drones.
Douglass also said this: “War is among the greatest calamities incident to the lives of nations. They arrest the progress of civilization, corrupt the sources of morality, destroy all proper sense of the sacredness of human life, perpetuate the national hate, and weigh down the necks of after coming generations with the burdens of debt.”
When Britain and France went to war, the anti-slavery movement stalled. When the global war on the globe started, progressive movements in the United States stalled. The idea that North Korea will kill us all aids the idea that we should cut Social Security and get started on killing ourselves. Permanent war means a permanent impediment to progress. We have the power to abolish war and to put a trillion dollars a year to better use.
“And these words shall then become,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley,
“Like Oppression’s thundered doom
“Ringing through each heart and brain,
“Heard again – again – again –
“Rise like Lions after slumber
“In unvanquishable number –
“Shake your chains to earth like dew
“Which in sleep had fallen on you –
“Ye are many – they are few.”
David Swanson’s books include “War Is A Lie.” He blogs at https://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works for http://rootsaction.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook.