Opposing War With a Smile

March 23, 2015

Remarks at teach-in at Spring Rising event March 20, 2015, UDC Law School. Note: Rally at White House is noon, March 21.

More times than I can count, after I've given a speech about war and peace without tears in my eyes I've afterward been either blamed or credited with optimism. As in "What the hell are you so optimistic about?" or "Oh, I'm so glad you're optimistic." So, as our local Nobel Laureate would say, let me be clear: I am not an advocate for optimism, have no respect for it, and as a matter of fact deeply despise it. I once interviewed a real expert on both nuclear dangers and environmental collapse, someone I truly respect and learn from, and asked him if he thought we'd survive these twin dangers. Yes, he declared, no question. Why? Because, he said, if you watch movies they always end happily. I don't mean that as the unconscious explanation of his confidence. I mean that's what he said and repeated when I questioned him disbelievingly. Because Hollywood, not to mention novels, plays, cartoons, etc., tends to have happy endings, at least in our culture, so will our species. What? That, to me, is about as logical as Samantha Powers' claim that bombing Iraq will work out better if we pay less attention to how bombing Libya worked out. If Hollywood is an accurate portrayal of reality, then torture works, violence rarely traumatizes, and high-speed car chases through city squares rarely hurt anybody. Are we at the point of openly encouraging each other to be idiots? That's how I view optimism.

Now, when I oppose a U.S. war on ISIS, I'm generally accused of supporting an ISIS war on the United States. After all, if you're against one side you must be for the other side. So, when I oppose optimism, I'm generally accused of supporting pessimism. And yet, in reality, I view pessimism as optimism's evil mutant twin. And I view the knowing spreading of pessimism as treason against the universe. This is because I don't think one should work to prevent death and suffering for the purpose of enjoying success. When you do that, you end up working for peace only in those cases where success is guaranteed or highly likely to arrive fast. Now, I find struggling for peace and justice highly rewarding, but that has nothing to do with the occasional successes, the expectations of success, or of course the lucrative salaries. I find struggling for peace and justice an end in itself, as Camus' Sisyphus found rolling the rock up the hill a joyful fulfillment.

Optimism and pessimism seem rather beside the point, and a bit self-indulgent. And by that I do not mean that we should act without strategic consideration of most likely routes to success. What other way to act is there? If we can lessen the damage on one particular war ever so slightly, we absolutely must do so even if we'd rather be painting a detailed picture of what a world without the institution of war would look like. The choice between demanding alternatives to war, as two of the four witnesses at a Congressional Progressive Caucus event did this week, and urging a properly civilized and limited war as the other two witnesses did, is a strategic choice, not a question of personality or emotional preference or zodiacal sign. If we don't present alternatives, the logic of war-or-nothing will land us in war up to our necks.

I've met thousands of peace activists over the past many years, and I wouldn't wish away a single one of them. We need each to bring a thousand more into the movement. But I find that I, as a proselytizing atheist who longs for a world beyond religion as well as war, often tend to have the most appreciation for the religiously driven peace activists, and I believe we usually have the most to learn from them. Why would this be? Well, for one thing, they tend not to be driven by optimism or pessimism but by something else, which they might call God's distaste for war and I might interpret as their own distaste for war. In addition, they're not typically as driven by partisanship, but rather by that purer opposition to war. And further, they're not as likely to oppose a particular war while favoring others, but to see opposing one war as a step on the path to ending all wars. On top of which, they are likely to make a moral argument against killing the people who make up over 95% of the victims of U.S. wars, namely the people who live where the wars are fought.

And here's why I prefer that approach despite rejecting as archaic its fundamental premise: I think it's the most likely to work. A U.S. war was prevented in 2013 because too many people thought it sounded too much like the war that began in 2003. But no alternative was pursued because we hadn't communicated the possibility of taking an alternative approach to the world. So the masters of war bided their time, fueled the war with trainers and weapons, and launched the same war, albeit on the opposite side of the conflict, in 2014 when the propaganda was right. By that I mean the beheading videos, which were much like the beheadings done by Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies, but these ones were used to manufacture consent for a military solution to a problem that everyone admits has no military solution although it does have a military origin.

When we wait for the right war, the right war always comes. And it is always the wrong choice.

War has a lot of new weapons these days. Who can tell me the single way in which war kills the most people? Just shout it out.

If you said through taking needed resources away from human needs you are correct, and if there's any justice we'll get President Obama's Nobel Prize transferred to you, because you've now done more than he has to earn it.

We like to get upset about the financial cost of war budgets. Yet the routine military budget, which is somehow considered non-war is typically 10 times the war budget. The solution to this is not an audit, not ending the slush-fund use of the war budget, and not ending the manufacture of weapons that don't work. The weapons that don't work are far preferable to the weapons that do work -- I mean if you're on the side of the victims rather than the executioners. The world spends about $2 trillion on war preparations each year, and the United States alone spends half of that. Meanwhile tens of billions could solve starvation, clean water, and other enormous problems, not just in a particular crisis zone but globally. That choice of how to spend unfathomable amounts of money is the top way war kills.

When we buy TV ads as one organization has just done, supporting diplomacy with Iran but falsely implying that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon and threatening to use it, and stating that the danger in a war on Iran is that Americans might die, we like to think we're being strategic. After all, people are selfish and stupid, and one must appeal to their selfishness and stupidity. I don't think so. If Iran were really trying to build a nuke and kill us all (including themselves of course) I'd be scared and lean toward distrust and be more likely to urge a tough approach. If a war to prevent the total destruction of Israel could really be prevented by risking a handful of U.S. deaths, I'd consider that brave and noble -- and I'd feel obliged to sign up. It matters when our rhetoric and the facts we tell and the facts we don't tell guide people away from the action we propose.

By the way, the new year in Iran begins at 6:45 and we apologize to anyone who couldn't be here for that reason. Sadly, there is a holiday for a different group of people any day we choose, and we have to schedule things as best we can.

Let's go back to 2013 for a moment. People and groups favoring peace, or at least a time-out from war, argued, in some cases, that investing in U.S. schools and roads and parks would be preferable to wasting our money on $2 million missiles for Syria. Smart and strategic, right? Appeal to selfishness in order to prevent what Seymour Hersh later exposed as a massive campaign to destroy Syria from the air. But humanitarian warriors were given an opening and they jumped through it. We must bomb Syria because we care about the Syrians, they said. Rejecting the argument that Iraqis had failed to be grateful for the destruction of Iraq, they proposed a generous and magnanimous, even friendly, launching of missiles into Syria for the good of the Syrians, and opposed that to the greed of people who wanted more, more, more at home -- isolationist irresponsible first-world ostriches. But of course wars cost very little compared to the base military budget that Congress now wants to increase to record heights, and yet even the war budgets could fund massive investment in human needs both at home and abroad. Why choose? And why allow a debate to go on in ignorance of the fact that non-Americans die in wars, thousands and thousands of them, women, men, children, and infants?

A week ago, the Washington Post ran a column claiming that a war on Iran was the best choice. Imagine the firestorm if they'd said that racism or rape or child abuse or cruelty to cats was the best choice. Nobody would have said "They print lots of columns against torturing kittens, would you stifle debate by censoring one column in support?" Some things are rightly put beyond the realm of acceptable behavior. Not war. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch put out a report on events of last August 31st when U.S. and Iraqi air strikes "drove ISIS forces away from the town" of Amerli. No doubt, many people died and were maimed and traumatized (also known as terrorized) by those "air strikes," but that's just part of war, which it wouldn't be ethical for Human Rights Watch to question. What concerns Human Rights Watch is what began on September 1st. About 6,000 fighters for the Iraqi government and various militias moved in, with their U.S. weaponry. They destroyed villages. They demolished homes, businesses, mosques, and public buildings. They looted. They burned. They abducted. In fact they behaved exactly as troops taught to hate and murder certain groups of people had behaved in every previously recorded war. Human Rights Watch recommends that Iraq disband the militias and care for the refugees who have fled their wrath, while holding "accountable" those responsible for the documented violations of the "laws of war." Human Rights Watch wants the United States to establish "reform benchmarks." That ought to do it. The possibility of ending participation in the war, creating an arms embargo, negotiating a ceasefire, and redirecting ALL energy into aid and restitution doesn't arise in reports on the proper and civilized if illusory conduct of mass murder.

What if we're trying to fix something that can't be fixed? What if we're asking rapists to wear condoms? Are there not things that should be ended rather than mended because they cannot be mended? Think of fossil fuel use or health insurance corporations or the death penalty or the prison complex or the United States Senate. If your children don't recite the pledge of allegiance will they be in danger of devoting their lives to the Soviet Union? Does altering the hand position to look less Nazi make the pledge non-fascist? Don't some things outlast their usefulness? The Bible verses cited to prove that climate change isn't real may have once served a purpose. Perhaps war did too.

The Strategy Committee of World Beyond War, led by Kent Shifferd, has produced a document that I have learned a lot from. It's called A Global Security System: An Alternative to War, and it begins thus:

"In On Violence, Hannah Arendt wrote that the reason warfare is still with us is not a death wish of our species nor some instinct of aggression, '. . . but the simple fact that no substitute for this final arbiter in international affairs has yet appeared on the political scene.' The Alternative Global Security System we describe here is the substitute. The goal of this document is to gather into one place, in the briefest form possible, everything one needs to know to work toward an end to war by replacing it with an Alternative Global Security System in contrast to the failed system of national security."

When we look at a rational proposal like this new book from World Beyond War, our first reaction should not be to choose optimism or pessimism. Many people look at the relentless presence of war despite all rational arguments and resign themselves to the idea that humans are driven by primitive primate inclinations. The problem with pessimism is not about whether its adherents are right or wrong on some analysis, it is that they turn their analysis into defeatism. This is the process that blaming things on biology is part of. For the vast majority of the existence of the human species there was zero war. War, which for millennia was closer to a game of football than to a nuclear strike, has been sporadically and rarely present. Most countries are not at war most of the time, and most people take no part. In many countries, large majorities say they would never take part in fighting for their country. War requires more conditioning than any other behavior, and the results are more damage to participants than from any other behavior. Not one single person has ever suffered PTSD from war deprivation. And we pick this institution to excuse as inevitable and natural?

No, the case made in A Global Security System is that war cannot result from an individual's or a group's emotional inclinations. It requires long-term investment, planning, and preparation. And if we prepare for other means of avoiding and resolving conflicts then we will end up using those means. If we create a culture of peace, develop peace journalism, invest in peace planning, support systems of global law and dispute resolution, disarm the world of which the United States is the leading armer, send in peaceworkers rather than bombs, negotiate ceasefires rather than military alliances -- if we strengthen and reform and ultimately replace international structures with global, democratic, and nonviolent means of solving our problems, war will go the way of blood feuds, dueling, and colored bathrooms.

Big changes will be needed in our politics, our economy, our energy use, our culture, and in the stories we tell each other about the world. But these changes can come step-by-step and advance self-aware toward complete replacement of the war system with a peace system. Attempting such a change, which is in some ways well underway already, can hardly be less sensible than the knowing failure of war. A few weeks ago Time Magazine featured a debate on the war on ISIS. One side argued for U.S. ground troops while admitting it probably wouldn't solve anything. The other side argued for U.S. bombs and local troops, while admitting that it probably wouldn't work. This is beyond attempting the same thing and expecting a different result. This is attempting the same thing and expecting the same disastrous result.

We can do better.

~ David Swanson serves as Secretary of Peace at the Green Shadow Cabinet