A Criminal for Peace, An Interview with William T. Hathaway

by William T. Hathaway
Guest Writer
Dandelion Salad
December 28, 2011

End the Endless Wars!

Image by Dandelion Salad via Flickr

“I used to be a war criminal, now I’m an anti-war criminal. The government awarded me medals for the first crime, now they’re trying to imprison me for the second,” says ex-Green Beret William T. Hathaway. “I’m a war criminal not because I committed atrocities. I didn’t, and most soldiers don’t. But the US government’s invasions of Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq were war crimes. The United Nations Charter clearly forbids aggressive attacks on other countries. That’s exactly what those invasions were. Every GI who participates in that has to share some of the blame.

“I’m an anti-war criminal because I’m part of a group of domestic insurgents who are helping soldiers to desert, destroying computer systems, trashing recruiting offices, burning military equipment, and sabotaging defense contractors. We’ve become criminals for peace out of despair. Obama’s morphing into a war president has convinced the only way to bring peace now is to bring the system down. We’re defying the Patriot Act and working underground in secret cells to undermine the US military empire. So it’s not surprising that the government’s trying to lock us up.”

In addition to his activism, Hathaway has authored four books and a series of articles about waging peace. His first book, A World of Hurt, won a Rinehart Foundation Award for its portrayal of the psychological roots of war: the emotional blockage and need for patriarchal approval that draw men to the military. His second book, CD-Ring, is a young-adult novel about a boy learning the need for peaceful communication. The third, Summer Snow, tells of an American warrior in Central Asia who falls in love with a Sufi Muslim and learns from her an alternative to the military mentality.

His latest book, Radical Peace: People Refusing War, presents the experiences of war resisters, deserters, and activists in the USA, Europe, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It’s a journey along diverse paths of nonviolence, the true stories of people working for peace in unconventional ways. The book has aroused controversy. Conservative critic Joanne Eddington described it as, “Loathsome … further evidence that the hatred of America is reaching hysterical dimensions.” On the other side of the political spectrum, Noam Chomsky described it as, “A book that captures such complexities and depths of human existence, even apart from the immediate message.”

Hathaway is currently an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. The following in an auto-interview by William T. Hathaway.

What led you to your radical opposition to US foreign policy?

It was a gradual process that started in Vietnam. Special Forces worked closely with the Vietnamese there, training them and taking them on combat patrols. I saw first hand how the South Vietnamese government was hated by the people, including its own soldiers, for its corruption, cruelty, and oppression. That government was held in power only by massive US support, so the people knew who was to blame for their suffering.

At first I thought we’d made a terrible mistake by supporting that government. But after I left the army I began to realize this is a worldwide pattern for the USA. Our standard procedure is to support rightwing dictators because they are the most anti-communist. Any government that’s even thinking about moving in a leftwing direction has to be violently opposed. It doesn’t matter how many people get killed.

I wrote an essay about this that got me accepted into Columbia University, where I got politicized and learned how this social and economic system is warping our lives … and how we can change it. Capitalism is not ordained by natural law. It’s set up and enforced to benefit certain people at the expense of others. And these “others” are the vast majority of humanity.

This is not easy to see. There’s a huge communications industry devoted to concealing and denying this. Even our schools do it. And patriotism blinds us.

I knew I had finally broken with my military past when at a peace demo I used my old green beret I was wearing to scoop up a hot tear-gas grenade the police had fired at us and hurl it back at them. As the cops ran from their own gas, I thought about all the grenades I’d thrown in Vietnam and felt much better about this one.

Was this during the time you were writing A World of Hurt?

Yes. When it was published, my professional-soldier father and some of my comrades felt I had betrayed the military, which was the core of their identity. My father disowned me and never spoke to me again, and the comrades shut me out. One even threatened, “I’ll put a bullet in your grape.” But that was just macho bluster, like so much of a soldier’s life.

I got a job teaching college English that left me enough time for writing and peace activism. Then I got a Fulbright grant to teach at universities in Germany. The Fulbright Commission didn’t know about my radical activities, or they would’ve never given me the grant. I got involved in the peace movement in Germany, helping US soldiers to desert.

Your group has members in the USA and Europe. How large is it?

I don’t really know. No one has an overview of the whole group. We’re organized on the basis of leaderless resistance with lots of cut-outs between us. We act alone as much as possible and don’t tell even close friends what we’re doing.

But now you’re telling everyone.

Now I’m out of the group. We agreed that I would write the book to let people know what’s happening, but after that I wouldn’t have direct contact with anyone in the group, to defend against surveillance. I miss them, but it helps keep us out of prison. The US and German governments would like to lock us up, but a book isn’t evidence for a conviction and mine’s the only real name in it. Now I’m very law-abiding.

You describe the program of the group as sedition, subversion, sabotage. Aren’t you afraid these sort of tactics will result in a government crackdown that will make life more difficult?

The crackdown is already here. Life is already more difficult. For working people it’s been declining for 30 years. Young workers now are earning less than their parents did. Conditions are getting inexorably worse in the USA, and now that’s spreading to Europe. The “have a nice life” days are over. We’re beginning to get the same treatment as people in the client states.

That’s the consolidation stage of capitalism we’re in. It swallows up small businesses and independent contractors and turns almost everyone into a low-wage worker. The Libertarians and Tea Partyers are mad as hell about that because they’re losing their privileged position. They want to turn the clock back to the old competitive stage of capitalism, when they still had a chance to make it big. But that’s a nostalgic illusion — those days are gone.

The liberals have their own nostalgic illusion — that we can turn the clock back to Keynesian capitalism. Back then, from the 1950s through the ’70s, wage increases were permitted because they stimulated consumption. But that was only true as long as the primary market for products was the home country. Now the market is global, so low price is more important, which means wages have to be held down. The international workforce is being leveled, and we’re on our way to a globalized proletariat. The challenge of capitalism then is going to be to keep us separated. Their think tanks are no doubt already concocting ways to do that.

Our worsening situation — working long hours for low pay, living in a deteriorating society, raising children amid fear and hostility — is caused by the same forces that drove us to war. Capitalism now manifests as invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan, as privatization and impoverishment in Latin America, and as the destruction of the middle class in the industrial nations. It’s the same system operating in different environments.

Rather than sheepishly obeying in hopes of avoiding more punishment, we need to actively resist and take back the power that’s been usurped from us. This struggle won’t be comfortable, but it will be meaningful. To go along with the rulers in hopes of having it easier is collaboration, a living death. Better to have a vivid life of opposition. Rebelling is revitalizing.

Rebelling has a romantic appeal, but what about traditional organizing? Isn’t that more important in the long run?

I don’t see it as either-or. Both are needed, diversity of tactics. Some people are drawn to organizing, others to direct action. But of the two, I would agree with you that the quiet work of building a mass movement is more important. Direct actions like ours aren’t a substitute for traditional organizing, but in critical situations like the present they can supplement it, reenergize it. Sedition, subversion, and sabotage won’t build a new society, but they can help weaken the old one so the new one can be built.

The sabotage your group carries out includes burning army trucks, destroying computers with electrical surges, smashing windows at recruiting offices, cutting military phone lines. Sounds pretty violent.

No, it’s not. Violence means harming living creatures. It’s only because our society sees property as more important than people that it labels destroying property as violence. We are destroying the government’s means of violence, the equipment it uses to kill people. And we’re very careful not to injure anyone while we’re doing that. In other words, we’ll throw a rock through the window of an army recruiting office, but we won’t throw a rock at the recruiter. We don’t have anything against him as a person. And we don’t have anything against the police as people. It’s the system we’re trying to break, and breaking its windows, burning its trucks, and zapping its electronics helps with that.

Setting bombs and burning buildings where people could be inside can’t achieve anything worthwhile. It just reproduces the same mentality we’re trying to change.

Rather than randomly smashing windows and torching autos, we restrict our activities to institutions that support or profit from the war. Our goal is to make the war too expensive to continue, to convince the politicians they don’t have enough money to conquer Iraq and Afghanistan. A few acts of sabotage won’t do that, but thousands can. Government and corporate resources are limited. Taxes and the deficit are already so high that they’re crippling the economy. Every dollar the government has to spend keeping things running here is one they can’t spend killing people overseas.

Many people claim that war is inevitable, it’s built into human nature.

We’re bombarded with propaganda to convince us of that. Conservatives say war is human nature, capitalism is human nature, our current gender roles and family structures are human nature. That same sort of person in previous centuries used that argument to support slavery, the divine right of kings, the subjugation of women. But those things were changed, and we can keep on making changes. I think our drive to change things shows our real human nature: to take control of our fate and improve our situation.

But if you look at history, it’s been one war after another.

That’s the history only of our patriarchal civilization The early matriarchal civilization of south-eastern Europe enjoyed centuries of peace. No trace of warfare has been found in excavations of the Minoan, Harappa, and Caral cultures. Many of the Pacific islands war were pacifistic. And the ancient Vedic civilization of India had meditation techniques that preserved the peace. The Transcendental Meditation program is using those today to reduce stress in society. War is not inevitable.

Our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees, make war. Doesn’t that say something about our evolutionary heredity?

It’s true that in certain situations chimpanzees do raid neighboring colonies and kill other chimps. Those studies on killer apes got enormous publicity because they implied that war is inevitable, it’s hardwired into human nature. Most scientists weren’t claiming that, but the mass media kept reinforcing that message.

But further research led to a key discovery: The chimps who invaded their neighbors were suffering from shrinking territory and food sources. They were struggling for survival. Groups with adequate resources didn’t raid other colonies. The aggression wasn’t a behavioral constant but was caused by the stress they were under. Their genes gave them the capacity for violence, but the stress factor had to be there to trigger it into combat. This new research showed that war is not inevitable but rather a function of the stress a society is under. Our biological nature doesn’t force us to war, it just gives us the potential for it. Without stress to provoke it, violence can remain one of the many latent capacities our human evolution has given us.

Isn’t stress is inevitable in life?

That assumption is deeply entrenched in our society. Many of our social and economic structures are based on conflict. Capitalism’s need for continually expanding profits generates stress in all of us. We’ve been indoctrinated to think this is normal and natural, but it’s really pathological. It damages life in ways we can barely perceive because they’re so built into us.

We don’t have to live this way. We can reduce the stress humanity suffers under. We can create a society that meets human needs and distributes the world’s resources more evenly. We can live at peace with one another. But that’s going to take basic changes. The first step is to take our government back from the corporations that now run it and restructure them both to serve human needs instead of private profits. Until that happens we don’t have a chance for lasting peace.

Chapters of Radical Peace are posted on Dandelion Salad and on a page of the publisher’s website at http://media.trineday.com/radicalpeace. A selection of Hathaway’s writing is available at www.peacewriter.org.

William T. Hathaway is also the author of Summer Snow, the story of an American warrior in Central Asia who falls in love with a Sufi Muslim and learns from her an alternative to the military mentality. Chapters are posted at www.peacewriter.org. His other books include A World of Hurt (Rinehart Foundation Award) and CD-Ring. He is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany.


Archived chapters as published:

Ch. 1: The Real War Heroes By William T. Hathaway