Where Does War Come From?

Remarks to the Marin Peace & Justice Coalition, Social Justice Center of Marin, and Community Media Center of Marin, Armistice Day 2012.

Most members of our species that have lived on this earth have never known war.  Most societies that have developed war have later abandoned it.  While there’s always war somewhere, there are always many somewheres without war.  War deprivation, the prolonged absence of war, has never given a single person post traumatic stress disorder.  Most nations that participate in wars do so under duress as members of coalitions of the willing but not the eager.  Most nations that engage in wars refuse to use particularly awful weapons and tactics.  Most incidents that are used to spark wars are identical to other incidents not used to spark wars.  War making does not increase with population density, resource scarcity, testosterone, or the election of Republicans.  War making is, like all forms of violence, on the decline globally, even as the Greatest Purveyor of Violence in the World develops a permanent war economy and gives war powers to temporary despots or 4-year kings.

Today we celebrate Armistice Day, a moment of tremendous opposition to war — opposition that built understanding and structures to prevent war, structures that failed once and only once as regards wars like World War I, wars among the wealthy well-armed and white nations of the world.  That the rich nations continue to wage racist and exploitative wars against the poor nations doesn’t erase the fact that Europe stopped attacking itself until Yugoslavia became an opportunity for NATO.  Soldiers in the U.S. civil war and drone pilots would not recognize each other as engaged in the same enterprise.  There is no central core to war that homo sapiens are obliged to continue by their genes.  We can choose not to eat, drink, sleep, have sex, or breathe.  The notion that we can’t choose to refrain from something as complex and laborious as war is just incoherent.

That Europeans only attack poor people is not, of course, grounds to give the European Union a Nobel Peace Prize.  Yes, indeed, it is a little-acknowledged feat of miraculous life-saving power that Europe has not gone to war with itself — other than that whole Yugoslavia thing — since World War II.  It’s as clear a demonstration as anything that people can choose to stop fighting.  It’s a testament to the pre-war peace efforts that criminalized war, the post-war prosecutions of the brand new crime of making war, the reconstruction of the Marshall Plan, and … and something else a little less noble, and much less Nobel-worthy.

Alfred Nobel’s will, written in 1895, left funding for a prize to be awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Fredrik Heffermehl has been leading a valuable effort to compel the Nobel committee to abide by the will. Now they’ve outdone themselves in their movement in the other direction.

Europe is not a person.  It has not during the past year — which is the requirement — or even during the past several decades done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations.  Ask Libya.  Ask Syria.  Check with Afghanistan.  See what Iraq thinks.  Far from doing the best work to abolish or reduce standing armies, Europe has joined with the United States in developing an armed global force aggressively imposing its will on the world.   The Nobel prize money will not fund Europe’s supposed disarmement work remotely as much as Europe could fund itself by simply buying fewer armaments.

There were good nominees and potential nominees available, even great ones, including a young man named Bradley Manning.  In fact, I happen to believe a truly qualified nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize next year would be Medea Benjamin.

Now, instead of moving in that direction, the Nobelites have almost guaranteed themselves a second-ever pro-war peace-prize acceptance speech.  If you don’t recall who gave the first one, I’ll give you a clue. If he were a Republican we’d all have posters and bumper stickers denouncing him for it.

Was Nobel asking so much really when he asked that a prize go to whoever did the best work toward abolishing war?

Was Carnegie asking so much when he required that his endowment work to eliminate war?

Is it asking too much today for our so-called progressive movement to address the spending of over half of federal discretionary dollars on preparations for the criminal act of war?

Ninety-four years ago today, on the original Armistice Day in 1918, much of the world ended a four-year war that served no useful purpose whatsoever while costing the lives of some 10 million soldiers, 6 million civilians, 21 million soldiers wounded, an outbreak of Spanish influenza that took another 100 million lives, environmental destruction that is ongoing today, the development of new weapons—including chemical weapons—still used today, huge leaps forward in the art of propaganda still plagiarized today, huge setbacks in the struggle for economic justice, and a culture more militarized, more focused on stupid ideas like banning alcohol, and more ready to restrict civil liberties in the name of nationalism, and all for the bargain price, as one author calculated it at the time, of enough money to have given a $2,500 home with $1,000 worth of furniture and five acres of land to every family in Russia, most of the European nations, Canada, the United States, and Australia, plus enough to give every city of over 20,000 a $2 million library, a $3 million hospital, a $20 million college, and still enough left over to buy every piece of property in Germany and Belgium.  And it was all legal.  Incredibly stupid, but totally legal.  Particular atrocities violated laws, but war was not criminal.  It never had been, but it soon would be.

A powerful movement would ban war in 1928 in a treaty still on the books and to which 81 countries are now party.  In 1935, the New York Herald-Tribune’s Institute of Public Opinion found that 75% of voters wanted a public referendum before any war could be launched, and 71% opposed joining in any war with other countries to “enforce the peace.”  That’s not just a quantitative difference from today.  Our great grandparents were able to think of war very differently.  They’d ended blood feuds and duelling and other barbaric habits.  War was to be next.  It was mass murder.  The problem wasn’t butchering or urinating on corpses.  You couldn’t clean that up and make war OK.  The problem was the creation of the corpses.  War was to be abolished, and not just bad wars and aggressive wars.  All wars.  They didn’t keep defensive duelling around. There was no humanitarian duelling.  War needed to be set behind us. 

In this militarized nation that has essentially never ended World War II, never left Germany or Japan, never undone the taxes and the spending, never stopped seeking out uses and customers for weaponry, we’ve lost track of the campaign to abolish war and of the steps already taken on that path.  As war evolves to minimize further the deaths of the aggressing army, while continuing to kill foreigners (and even occasional U.S. citizens made to seem frighteningly foreign) war is ironically coming to resemble more closely in the minds of many what it has always been: murder.  An assassination program is a form of war no more or less moral or dangerous or controllable or legal than any other form of war.  But it may bring home to people that war is not a sport, that war is the killing of men, women, and children in their homes at such expense that we could instead have bought new homes for them and all their neighbors.

We should remember at a time like this that when the slightly less funded of two corporate funded candidates wins, we don’t win.  President Obama publicly and illegally instructed the Attorney General not to prosecute the CIA for torture.  We accepted that.  Obama told environmental groups not to speak of climate change and most of them obeyed.  Obama told unions not to say “single payer” and they didn’t.  The peace movement spent the first Obama year muttering about how it was too early, the second worrying about the midterm elections, the third trying to focus the Occupy Movement on our collective antagonists, and the fourth being scared of Mitt Romney.  Now we’re being told we must not demand military spending cuts or the prosecution of war crimes or the immediate withdrawal of forces abroad.  Progressive groups want to pretend to take a stand on Social Security and Medicare before caving.  And their opening pretense doesn’t even touch military spending. 

It’s our job to add that to the conversation.  It’s our job to focus our friends and neighbors on the fact that our money and our names are being used to kill, and that there is nothing necessary about it.  War is waged by a particular type of nation.  War is waged by a nation that accepts the waging of war.  That acceptance needs to end now.

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