Telling the Truth About Peace

Some acts of truth-telling about war and peace are easy, and some involve extreme risk. Some are simple, and some require great strategic planning. Some involve facts, some analysis, and some storytelling.

Yes, storytelling. I don’t believe war could go on existing long if major communications systems told large numbers of people the detailed sympathetic stories of war victims on all sides of all wars, similar to the way U.S. corporate media outlets “humanize” Ukrainian or Israeli war victims by giving them names and loved-ones and pets and quirks and dreams cut short. But one cannot simply announce the obvious fact that all humans are humans, that all populations have similar sympathetic stories that could be told. One has to actually tell them.

A whistleblower who risks prison to reveal, for example, what the U.S. drone-murder program actually consists of, or a journalist who risks death to reveal, for example, what a genocide in Gaza actually consists of is a truth-teller. But so are those who compel media outlets, and elected officials, and courts of law to remember and pay attention to those facts as time goes by — actions that sometimes risk physical harm, often risk jail, and increasingly risk bizarre Orwellian accusations of Antisemitism or working for Moscow (and the accompanying consequences for one’s career).

Beyond the work of memory maintenance is that of analysis. It’s a form of truth-telling, during a push for a war on Iran, to point out the similarities and differences between this and past efforts to start a war on Iran, and to draw informed conclusions as to what would avoid that catastrophe, and how catastrophic it might be. There are infinite useful acts of analysis critical to peacemaking, such as: pointing out when two sides that each declare the other impossible to speak with about peace are in fact speaking productively with each other about other things, or pointing out past occasions when an atrocity similar to a current one was not used as an excuse for war, or contextualizing current legislative efforts in terms of existing laws widely ignored, or suggesting alternatives to wars that many falsely imagine have been tried, or applauding outrage at presidential wars but adding that Congressional wars are not actually acceptable.

Part of analysis is working to establish decent norms for language usage, so that only those who are paid to do so call militarism “the defense sector,” so that populations are distinguished in our speech and in our minds from governments, and so that one side of a war’s victims are not always described as “brutally murdered” and the other as “surgically removed.” We need to use clear words and to understand why we’re using them. The war on Gaza is a genocide because it fits the legal definition, including in the expression of intentions by those waging it. That doesn’t make it cease being a war, or make it bigger or worse than any other war. The recent U.S.-led wars on Iraq and Afghanistan were more one-sided and more deadly than the latest war on Gaza, as of this writing — and if that changes they’ll all still be wars.

Truth is infinite. Media lies are mostly lies of omission. Truth-telling is mostly an act of selection. What is it that most needs to be told right now to do the most good and alleviate the most suffering in the short- and long-term? It may be necessary to prioritize opposing the largest wars that pose the greatest risk of expansion and of going nuclear.  It may be necessary to focus on those aspects that lead to strategic action.

We usually could use more deemphasizing of answering the wrong questions. The lies about weapons in Iraq were lies, but they could have all been true and not justified in the slightest launching a war on Iraq. The Israeli government told many lies in the early days of the escalated assault on Gaza in October 2023, but they could have all been true and never justified in the slightest the horrific war happening before our eyes in the months that followed. Propagandists would rather you put your energy into answering the wrong questions. And there’s a certain attraction to anything secret, anything not yet proven. In part that may stem from a belief that truth without action can instantly “set you free.” Often the most important truth to tell is sitting right out in the open, and the trick is to tell it clearly, loudly, relentlessly, disruptively, persuasively, and as a path to generation of pressure for change.

Truths do not become lies when you step into a different room. But which truth most needs telling changes. It may be more important to tell those who only oppose U.S. wars and support anti-U.S. wars that there’s a chance of getting the South African or Nicaraguan government to take the Israeli government to court, than it is to tell them what’s tragically counterproductive about anti-imperial violence. But it may be more important to tell believers in Israeli propaganda how deeply you condemn violence by Hamas, and repeat it a number of times, before urging consideration of how similar violence  — violence many times larger and likely to fuel a vicious cycle — must also be rejected.

These seemingly opposing truths should be presented without falsehood, without condoning what one opposes. And they should be followed up with more long-term educational material. Moments when wars are (always misleadingly) prominent in mass media are not just moments for short-term mobilization but also for long-term recruitment of those enraged by one side of one war into a principled movement to abolish all sides of all wars and all preparations for wars. In other words, we need to prevent some of the young people who have better opinions than old people in polling on wars from going through the process that causes people to become less wise poll respondents as they age.

Eventually, we have to try to tell people the whole, complex truth about war and peace, including that the side of a war they oppose is definitely in the wrong, and so is the side they support, that warmaking is barbaric and indefensible, that there are preferable alternatives that include unarmed civilian defense, the rule of law, diplomacy, cooperation, and conflict resolution. Sometimes certain basic facts can be of great help here. The U.S. built up to the war in Ukraine for decades, and carefully avoided peace before and after the Russian invasion. The alternatives are compromise, endless war, or nuclear apocalypse. Etc. But the argument is for a shift in worldview that is hard to accomplish in a couple of paragraphs. (That’s one reason for this voluminous website: ).

One key truth is not so much uncomfortable as unexciting. It is that the deadliest weapon in all of warmaking, until the nuclear bombs are used, is and has long been the federal budget of the United States government. More people die or suffer for lack of the resources dumped into U.S. military spending than die in all the wars. And its worse than that because of other tradeoffs that are made. Not only do we lack funding for environmental protection, for example, but the wars prevent the global cooperation needed to address climate and ecosystemic crises, the wars and war preparations are themselves huge environmental destroyers, and the wars are often driven by and in turn drive onward the efforts to control and profit from Earth-destroying fossil fuels.

The conclusion is, in fact, quite simple. It’s war or life. We have to choose which we value more, and be willing to do what’s needed to end the other one.

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