Plenary: How to Get to a World BEYOND War
UNITY EARTH on Sep 19, 2022
Why it’s needed, what educational work moves us toward it, and what nonviolent activism can accomplish.
With World BEYOND War Executive Director David Swanson, Education Director Phill Gittins, and Canada Organizer Maya Garfinkel. There will be time for questions and answers.
[Swanson begins at 6:50 minutes into the video; Q&A begins at 1:06:38.]
Why Abolish War
Thank you for including us. After I speak, World BEYOND War Education Director Phill Gittins will discuss the educational work that can move us away from war, and World BEYOND War Canada Organizer Maya Garfinkel will discuss the nonviolent activism that can do the same. This way, I can talk just about the easy part, which is why we should abolish war.
It’s an even easier part when a particular war isn’t dominating your televisions and media outlets. I won’t say in time of peace, because for decades now there have always constantly been numerous wars, usually with several of them involving the U.S. military, always with virtually all of them involving U.S. weaponry — frequently U.S. weaponry on both sides. But sometimes all the current wars join the largest ongoing public project in the U.S., the massive constant funding and preparations for war, in moving off stage. And we call those times the times of peace. Vegetarians between meals love peace in times of peace.
As an example of what happens when you speak up for peace in times of war, a brilliant artist in Australia named Peter Seaton recently painted a mural of a Ukrainian soldier and a Russian soldier hugging. He had asked people about his plans, including local Ukrainians, and they had thought it sounded great. But some of the same people joined in a disturbing sort of groupthink once the mural was up, going so far as to declare themselves traumatized, not to mention offended. How dare an artist, now suspected, of course, of working for Moscow, depict soldiers hugging while the evil Russian soldiers were actually killing Ukrainians? I think there was no mention of what Ukrainian soldiers are doing. As someone who daily receives angry emails defending the two different sides of this war, I can easily imagine supporters of the Russian side indignantly professing their outrage at not depicting the Ukrainian soldier slitting the Russian’s throat. It’s less clear to me that the good people of Melbourne, so offended by hugging, would have found it tasteful to show the two soldiers hacking each other with knives. For virtually any audience, one of the two soldiers would have to be stabbing the other in the back while the victim penned a beautiful note home to his mother. Now that would be art.
What have we come to that we’re outraged by hugging? Do we not want reconciliation? Do we not wish for peace? While we all know of the Christmas Truces of WWI and similar incidents, while we can all think in general of soldiers as the victims of top government officials, we are supposed to reserve such thoughts for all wars in general, never for the current war during the sacred and beautiful demonization phase in which we live and breathe our hatred for the leader and every supporter of the other side, whichever side that is. I’ve had friends of many years, including radio hosts you can go and listen to, scream at me that I can either demand Putin’s immediate assassination or admit that I’m working for Putin. I’ve had other friends of many years accuse me of working for NATO. These are all people who could unite against the war on Iraq at least when that war was identified with a U.S. president of the Republican Party.
Because opposing both sides of a war is usually understood as supporting whichever side someone else opposes, I’ve taken to inhaling deeply and blurting out the following run-on sentence:
I oppose all of the horrible killing and destruction in Ukraine, fully aware of the imperialistic history of Russia and of the fact that NATO expansion predictably and intentionally led to this war, disgusted that peace activists in Russia are locked up, and sickened that they are so effectively ignored in the U.S. that it’s not needed except for high-profile whistleblowers — and I hold these weird positions while actually not suffering from any particularly extreme ignorance of the history of the Cold War or NATO expansion or the death-grip of U.S. weapons dealers on the U.S. government or the status of the U.S. government as top weapons dealer, top promoter of militarism to other governments, top foreign base builder, top war instigator, top coup facilitator, and yes, thank you, I have heard about the rightwing lunatics in the Ukrainian as well as the Russian governments and militaries, I just haven’t picked one of the two to want killing people or overseeing nuclear weapons or powerplants during battles, and I am indeed sickened by all the slaughtering of people the Russian military is engaged in, even while I can’t fathom why human rights groups should feel ashamed for reporting on the atrocities being committed by the Ukrainian military, and I do know how much the U.S. and UK have done to prevent peaceful resolution as well as how much Russia has, and I am aware that some Russians feel scared and threatened and that Russian-speaking Ukrainians have felt scared and threatened, just as I am aware that other Ukrainians — not to mention Western television viewers — feel scared and threatened; in fact I myself feel quite scared and threatened that the risk of nuclear apocalypse is going to keep climbing while the war continues, and I think that both sides, while radically different, and deserving blame for very different things, should be able to recognize at the very least that a stalemate that drags on and on, killing and destroying, while building the risk of nuclear war, serves nobody other than the weapons dealers, not even the politicians, so that it would be better to negotiate peace now than to do so later or to find it to be too late, that the world has non-optional environmental and disease crises it could be better dealing with in the absence of this insane butchery; and this could be recognized with or without recognizing that the two sides have been able to negotiate, with some outside help, on questions of grain exports and prisoner exchanges, rendering ridiculous the tired claims by both sides that the other side is a monster with whom one shouldn’t and couldn’t negotiate; and with or without recognizing that both sides have engaged in both unspeakable horrors and restraint of various sorts, targeting helpless people for death and suffering both more than is acceptable (needless to say, none is acceptable) and less than is possible; and with or without beginning to open any minds to the alternatives that existed for both sides even at the point of greatest escalation, and the nonviolent unarmed defense alternatives that exist for governments and nations around the world should they choose to pursue them on the scale that would make them most effective.
By the way, we’re putting the hug mural, which was taken down in Melbourne, up on walls and buildings and billboards and yard signs around the world.
At World BEYOND War we’ve created a website that addresses four sets of myths common to war support: that war can be inevitable, justified, necessary, or beneficial.
Most people live without war and without ever suffering from war deprivation. Most human history and prehistory is without war. Most war in history bears very little resemblance to war today. Nations have used war for centuries and then not used war for centuries. Most participants in and victims of war suffer from it. Just war theory is medieval nonsense concocted by people trying to reconcile imperialism, pacifism, the belief that pagans are worthless, and the belief that the good people are better off it they’re killed. Wars are very carefully and laboriously maneuvered into, huge energies going into fending off peace. Not a single humanitarian war has yet benefitted humanity. War requires major preparations and conscious decision. It doesn’t blow across the world like the weather or a disease. Not far from my house are giant bunkers under hills where various parts of the U.S. government are supposed to hide after having been given several hours’ warning that someone has decided to create a nuclear apocalypse. There are alternatives to preparing the world for war, and there are alternatives to using war in the moment of being attacked by someone else using war. In fact it is possible to stop arming the world, to support the rule of law and cooperation, and to prepare unarmed defense strategies.
Through organized nonviolent actions, occupations have been ended in places like Lebanon, Germany, Estonia, and Bougainville. Coups have been stopped in places like Algeria and Germany, dictators overthrown in places like El Salvador, Tunisia, and Serbia, armed takeovers by corporations blocked in places like Ecuador and Canada, foreign military bases kicked out of places like Ecuador and the Philippines.
See WorldBEYONDWar.org for elaboration of all of these points debunking the myths of war. We of course include huge volumes of material on WWII, on which I’ve written a book called Leaving World War II Behind, and we’ve done an online course on the topic. It might even make sense to watch the new film on the U.S. and the Holocaust by Ken Burns et alia, but here’s my prediction: This film will be surprisingly honest but shift blame subtly away from the U.S. and other governments and onto ordinary people, will omit the efforts of peace activists to get the U.S. and UK governments to act, will exaggerate how hard it would have been for them to do so, and will defend the war as perfectly justified for reasons other than everyone’s favorite reason (now debunked in the film). I hope it’s better than that; it could be worse.
While there has yet to be a war that can clearly be celebrated as morally defensible from any side, there is a great tendency to imagine one, and to invest enough resources to totally transform the world (I mean to end environmental destruction, poverty, and homelessness) into preparing for the imagined good war. But were there actually a war that did more good than harm, it would still never do enough good to outweigh having kept the institution of war, the standing armies, the bases, the ships, the planes around waiting for the just war to arrive. This is so, both because military preparedness generates wars, most of which nobody tries to defend as just, and also because the institution of war kills more than the wars, through its environmental destruction, its promotion of bigotry, its erosion of the rule of law, its justification for secrecy in governance, and especially through its diversion of resources from human needs. Three percent of just U.S. military spending could end starvation on earth. Militarism is first and foremost a literally unfathomable spending of money, a fraction of which could transform any number of urgently needed projects on a global scale, if the globe could bring itself to cooperate on things, the greatest impediment to which is war and preparations for war.
So, we’ve also included on the website at worldbeyondwar.org links to reasons for ending war, including: It’s immoral, it endangers, it erodes liberty, it promotes bigotry, it wastes $2 trillion a year, it threatens the environment, it impoverishes us, and alternatives exist. So, the bad news is that war ruins everything it touches and it touches darn near everything. The good news is that if we could see past the flags and propaganda, we could build a massive coalition of darn near everybody — including even most of the people making the weapons, who would be happier and better off with other jobs.
A rather sad side effect of media focus on a war is the silence on other wars. We hear very little about the suffering and starvation in Afghanistan while the U.S. government steals those people’s money. We hear next to nothing about the ongoing disease and starvation in Yemen while the U.S. Congress refuses to do what it pretended to do to help Yemen three years ago, namely vote to end a war. I want to finish by focusing on that because so many lives are in the balance and because the precedent of the U.S. Congress actually ending a war would give a huge boost to campaigns to demand that it end some others.
Despite campaign promises, the Biden Administration and Congress keep the weapons flowing to Saudi Arabia, and keep the U.S. military participating in the war on Yemen. Despite both houses of Congress voting to end U.S. participation in the war when Trump had promised a veto, neither house has held a debate or a vote in the year-and-a-half since Trump left town. A House resolution, HJRes87, has 113 cosponsors — more than were ever obtained by the resolution passed and vetoed by Trump — while SJRes56 in the Senate has 7 cosponsors. Yet no votes are held, because the Congressional so-called “leadership” chooses not to, and because NOT ONE SINGLE MEMBER of the House or Senate can be found who’s willing to compel them to.
It’s never been a secret, that the Saudi-“led” war is so dependent on the U.S. military (not to mention U.S. weapons) that were the U.S. to either stop providing the weapons or compel its military to cease violating all of the laws against war, never mind the U.S. Constitution, or both, the war would end. The Saudi-U.S. war on Yemen has killed many more people than the war in Ukraine thus far, and the death and suffering continue despite a temporary truce, which has failed to open roads or ports; famine (potentially aggravated by the war in Ukraine) still threatens millions. CNN reports that, “While many in the international community celebrate [the truce], some families in Yemen are left watching their children slowly die. There are around 30,000 people with life-threatening diseases requiring treatment abroad, according to the Houthi-controlled government in the capital Sanaa. Some 5,000 of them are children. “The passionate speeches by Senators and Representatives demanding an end to the war when they knew they could count on a veto from Trump have vanished during the Biden years chiefly because Party is more important than human lives.
Now, I think I’ve strayed into both education and activism, but I hope not to have overlapped with what Phill and Maya will be discussing. I do want to note that for those inclined to make super-important arguments for why we cannot abolish all war, there will be someone doing that in a debate with me two days from now, and you can watch it online and suggest questions to the moderator. Find it at WorldBEYONDWar.org. Also, I look forward to lots of questions for me, Phill, and Maya, after our presentations.
David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include Leaving World War II Behind (2020), Curing Exceptionalism: What’s wrong with how we think about the United States? What can we do about it? (2018) and War Is A Lie (2010; 2nd Ed. 2016). He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee and U.S. Peace Prize Recipient. Support David’s work.
From the archives: