By David Swanson
When I was teaching myself how to write, when I was about 20 to 25, I churned out (and threw out) all kinds of autobiographies. I wrote glorified diaries. I fictionalized my friends and acquaintances. I still write columns all the time in the first person. I did write a children’s book in recent years that was fiction but included my oldest son and my niece and nephew as characters. But I haven’t touched autobiography in more years than I’d been alive when I used to engage in it.
I’ve been asked a number of times to write chapters for books on “how I became a peace activist.” In some cases, I’ve just apologized and said I couldn’t. For one book called Why Peace, edited by Marc Guttman, I wrote a very short chapter called “Why Am I a Peace Activist? Why Aren’t You?” My point was basically to express my outrage that one would have to explain working to end the worst thing in the world, while millions of people not working to end it need offer no explanation for their reprehensible behavior.
I often speak at peace groups and colleges and conferences about working for peace, and I’m often asked how I became a peace activist, and I always politely dodge the question, not because the answer is too long but because it is too short. I’m a peace activist because mass-murder is horrible. What the hell do you mean why am I a peace activist?
This position of mine is odd for a number of reasons. For one thing, I’m a strong believer in the need for many more peace activists. If we can learn anything about how people have become peace activists, we damn well ought to learn it and apply those lessons. My nightmare for how the peace movement ends, other than the nuclear apocalypse ending, is that the peace movement ends when the last peace activist acquires Alzheimer’s. And of course I fear being that peace activist. And of course that’s crazy as there are peace activists much younger than I am, especially activists against Israeli wars who haven’t necessarily focused on U.S. wars yet. But I still not infrequently find myself among the youngest in the room. The U.S. peace movement is still dominated by people who became active during the U.S. war on Vietnam. I became a peace activist for some other reason, even if influenced by those slightly older than myself. If the peace movement of the 1960s seemed admirable to me, how do we make today’s seem admirable to those yet to be born? This sort of useful question arises in large numbers once I’m willing to investigate this topic.
For another thing, I’m a strong believer in the power of environment to shape people. I wasn’t born speaking English or thinking anything that I now think. I got it all from the culture around me. Yet somehow I’ve always assumed that whatever made me a peace activist was in me at birth and holds little interest for others. I was never pro-war. I have no Saul on the road to Damascus conversion story. I had a typical suburban U.S. childhood pretty much like those of my friends and neighbors, and none of them ended up as peace activists — just me. I took the stuff they tell every child about trying to make the world a better place seriously. I found the ethics of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace inevitable, although I’d never heard of that institution, an institution which in no way acts on its mandate. But it was set up to abolish war, and then to identify the second-worst thing in the world and work to abolish that. How is any other course even thinkable?
But most people who agree with me on that are environmental activists. And most of them pay no attention to war and militarism as the primary cause of environmental destruction. Why is that? How did I not become an environmental activist? How did an environmental movement grow to its current strength dedicated to ending all but the very worst environmental disaster?
If becoming a peace activist seems so obvious to me, what in my early childhood could have helped make me this person? And if it seems so obvious to me, why did it take me until I was 33 to do it? And what of the fact that I meet people all the time who would work as professional peace activists if someone would only give them that job? Heck, I hire people now to work as peace activists, but there are 100 applicants for each one hired. Isn’t part of the answer to why the peace movement is old, that retired people have time to work for free? And isn’t part of the question of how I became a peace activist actually a question of how I found out one could get paid for it, and how I managed to become one of the small number of people who does?
My interaction with the 1960s was a month in length, as I was born on December 1, 1969, along with my twin sister, in New York City, to parents who were a United Church of Christ preacher and an organist at a church in Ridgefield, New Jersey, and who had met at Union Theological Seminary. They’d left right-leaning families in Wisconsin and Delaware, each the only child of three to move very far from home. They’d supported Civil Rights and social work. My Dad had chosen to live in Harlem, despite the need to periodically buy back his possessions from people who stole them. They left the church theologically and physically, moving out of the house that went with the job, when my sister and I were two. We moved to a new town in suburban, Washington, D.C., that was just being built as a planned, pedestrian, mixed-income utopia called Reston, Virginia. My parents joined the Christian Science church. They voted for Jesse Jackson. They volunteered. They worked at being the best parents possible, with some success I think. And they worked hard at making a living, with my Dad having set up a business building additions on houses, and my Mom doing the paperwork. Later, my Dad would be an inspector and my mom write up the reports for prospective buyers of new houses. They forced the builders to fix so many mistakes that the companies started writing into their contracts that people could get inspections by anyone other than my Dad. Now my parents work as coaches for people with attention deficit disorder, which my Dad has diagnosed himself as having had his whole life.
I’m well aware that most people think Christian Science is crazy. I was never a fan of it, and my parents dropped it decades ago. The first time I heard of the concept of atheism, I thought, “Well, yeah, of course.” But if you’re going to try to make sense of an omnipotent benevolent god and the existence of evil, you do have to either (1) give up and just let it not make sense, as most people do who identify with some religion, often denying death, celebrating virgin births, and believing all sorts of things no less crazy than Christian Science including that a benevolent omnipotent being creates war and famine and disease, or (2) conclude that evil does not really exist, and that your eyes must be deceiving you, as Christian Scientists try to do, with all kinds of contradictions, very little success, and disastrous results, or (3) outgrow millennia-old worldviews based on anthropomorphizing a universe that really could not care less.
These were the lessons from my parents’ example, I think: be courageous but generous, try to make the world a better place, pack up and start over as needed, try to make sense of the most important matters, pack up ideologically and try again as needed, stay cheerful, and put love for your children ahead of other things (including ahead of Christian Science: use medical care if truly needed, and rationalize it as required).
My family and close friends and extended family were neither military nor peace activists, nor any other sort of activists. But militarism was all around in the D.C. area and on the news. Friends’ parents worked for the military and the Veterans Administration and an agency that was not to be named. Oliver North’s daughter was in my high school class at Herndon, and he came into class to warn us about the Commie threat in Nicaragua. Later we watched him testify about his misdeeds before Congress. My understanding of those misdeeds was highly limited. His worst offense seemed to be having misspent money on a security system for his house over in Great Falls where my friends who had the coolest parties lived.
When I was in the third-grade, my sister and I tested into the “gifted and talented” or GT program, which was essentially a question of having had good parents and not being too dumb. In fact, when the school gave us the tests, my sister passed and I didn’t. So my parents got someone to give me the test again, and I passed it. For the fourth grade we rode on a bus for an hour along with all the GT kids from Reston. For fifth and sixth, we attended a GT program at a new school on the other side of Reston. I got used to having school friends and home friends. For seventh grade we went to the new intermediate school in Reston, while my home friends went to Herndon. That year was, I think, both a let-down from the better teaching of grades 4-6, and a disturbing social scene for an immature little kid. For eighth grade I tried a private school, even though it was Christian and I was not. That was no good. So for high school I reunited with my home friends at Herndon.
Throughout this education, our text books were as nationalistic and pro-war as is the norm. I think it was in fifth or sixth grade that some kids performed in a talent show a song made notorious many years later by Senator John McCain: “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran!” In the case of my classmates, there was no criticism or disapproval, not that I heard. There were, however, yellow ribbons on trees for the poor hostages. I still have in my possession a lot of my school work, including reports that glorify people like George Rogers Clark. But it was a war victims’ story I wrote, with the British Redcoats as the evildoers, and details including the killing of the family dog, that I recall eliciting the comment from my fifth-grade teacher that I should be a writer.
What I wanted to be was perhaps an architect or a town-planner, the designer of a better Reston, the creator of a house who wouldn’t have to actually build it. But I gave very little thought to what I should be. I had very little notion that kids and adults were of the same species and that one day I would become the other. Despite attending school in one of the top-ranked counties in the country, I thought most of it was a load of manure. My perfect grades dropped steadily as I went through high school. The easy classes bored me. The AP (advanced placement) classes both bored me and required more work than I would do. I loved sports, but I was too small to compete at a lot of them, except back home in pick-up games where I could get picked based on reputation rather than appearance. I did not finish growing until well after high school, which I finished at 17 in 1987.
My awareness during these years of U.S. war-making and facilitating and coup-instigating in Latin America was negligible. I understood there to be a Cold War, and the Soviet Union to be a horrible place to live, but Russians I understood to be just like you and me, and the Cold War itself to be lunacy (that was what Sting said in his song Russians). I’d seen the Gandhi movie. I think I knew that Henry Thoreau had refused to pay war taxes. And I certainly understood that in the Sixties the cool people had opposed war and had been right. I knew The Red Badge of Courage. I knew that war was horrible. But I had no notion of what prevented ending the making of more wars.
I did have, for whatever reasons — good early parenting or screwy genetics — a couple of key things in my skull. One was the understanding taught to most children the world over that violence is bad. Another was a fierce demand for consistency and a total disrespect for authority. So, if violence was bad for kids, it was also bad for governments. And, related to this, I had a nearly complete arrogance or confidence in my own ability to figure things out, at least moral things. At the top of my list of virtues was honesty. It’s still pretty high up there.
War didn’t come up much. On television it showed up in MASH. We once had a guest visit us from out-of-town who wanted especially to visit the Naval Academy at Annapolis. So, we took him, and he loved it. The day was sunny. The sailboats were out. The mast of the U.S.S. Maine stood proudly as a monument to war propaganda, though I had no idea what it was. I just knew that I was visiting a beautiful, happy place where great resources were put into training people to engage in mass-murder. I became physically ill and had to lie down.
What had the biggest impact, I think, on my view of foreign policy, was going somewhere foreign. I had a Latin teacher named Mrs. Sleeper who was about 180 years old and could teach Latin to a horse. Her class was full of shouting and laughing, signals from her like kicking the trashcan if we forgot the accusative case, and warnings that “tempus is fugitting!” She took a group of us to Italy for some weeks junior year. We each stayed with an Italian student and their family and attended Italian high school. Living briefly in another place and another language, and looking back on your own place from the outside ought to be part of every education. Nothing is more valuable, I think. Student exchange programs merit all the support we can find them.
My wife and I have two sons, one almost 12, one almost 4. The little one has invented an imaginary machine that he calls a nexter. You pick it up, push some buttons, and it tells you what you should do next. It’s seriously helpful throughout the day. Perhaps I should have had a nexter to use when I graduated from high school. I really had no idea what to do next. So, I went back to Italy for a full school year as an exchange student through the Rotary Club. Again, the experience was invaluable. I made Italian friends I still have, and I’ve been back a number of times. I also made friends with an American stationed there in the military at a base whose expansion I’ve been back to protest years later. I’d skip school, and he’d skip whatever soldiers do in a peaceful Renaissance city, and we’d go skiing in the Alps. One Italian friend, whom I’ve not seen since, was at that time studying architecture in Venice, and I’d tag along for that too. When I got back to the U.S. I applied to and began attending architecture school.
By that time (1988) most of my friends were off at second-rate colleges studying the effects of high-consumption of alcohol. Some had already bailed out on college. Some who’d gotten great grades through high school were seriously studying. One was hoping to get into the military. None had been attracted by the peace movement’s billion-dollar recruitment campaign which didn’t exist.
I did a year of architecture school in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a year-and-a-half I think at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. The former was by far the better school. The latter was in by far the more interesting location. But my interest went to reading, as it never had before. I read literature, philosophy, poetry, history. I neglected engineering in favor of ethics, which was unlikely to make any buildings stand up for long. I dropped out, moved to Manhattan, and taught myself what I took to be a liberal arts education sans tuition, supported by my parents. The First Gulf War happened at this time, and I joined in protests outside the United Nations without giving the matter much thought. That just seemed the decent, civilized thing to do. I had no notion of what one might do beyond that. After a while I moved to Alexandria, Virginia. And when I’d run out of ideas, I did again what I’d done before: I went to Italy.
First I went back to New York City and took a month-long course on teaching English as a second language to adults. I got a certificate in that from Cambridge University, which I’ve never been to in my life. It was a very enjoyable month spent with would-be teachers and English students from around the world. Before long I was in Rome knocking on the doors of English language schools. This was before the EU. To get a job, I didn’t have to be able to do anything a European couldn’t do. I didn’t have to have a visa to legally be there, not with white skin and a pre-war-on-terra U.S. passport. I just had to do an interview without seeming too shy or nervous. That took me a few tries.
Eventually, I found that I could share an apartment with roommates, work half-time or less, and devote myself to reading in and writing in English and Italian. What eventually sent me back home, back to Reston, was not, I think, a need to get onto something serious so much as a need to not be a foreigner. Much as I loved and still love Europe, much as I loved and love Italians, as long a list as I could make of things I believe are done better there than here, as much progress as I made toward speaking without an accent, and as huge an advantage as I had over my friends from Ethiopia and Eritrea who were randomly harassed by police, I was forever at a disadvantage in Italy.
This gave me some insight into the lives of immigrants and refugees, just as exchange students at my high school (and my being an exchange student abroad) had done. Being treated like a 13-year-old when I was 18, and a 15-year-old when I was 20, just because I looked like that, gave me some slight notion of discrimination. Being resented by some African Americans in Brooklyn whom I believed I’d never done anything cruel to helped as well. The piles of novels and plays I read, however, were the primary means of opening my eyes to many things, including the vast majority of people on earth who’d gotten a worse deal than I had.
It must have been at least late 1993 when I was back in Virginia. My parents wanted a place in the country to build a house and move to. Utopia had turned to sprawl. Reston had become a mass of weapons makers, computer companies, and high-end condominiums, with the Metro train set to be built out to there any moment, just as they’d been saying for two decades. I proposed the area of Charlottesville. I wanted to study philosophy with Richard Rorty who was teaching at the University of Virginia. My parents bought land near there. I rented a house nearby. They paid me to cut down trees, build fences, move dirt, etc., and I signed up for a class at UVa through the school of continuing education.
I had no Bachelor’s degree, but I got professors’ approval to take graduate school classes in philosophy. Once I’d taken enough, I got their approval to write a thesis and pick up a Master’s degree in philosophy. I found much of the course work quite stimulating. It was the first school experience at least in many years I’d found to be so stimulating, and non-insulting. I simply adored the UVa Honor Code, which trusted you not to cheat. But I also found a lot of the stuff we studied to be sheer metaphysical bunk. Even ethics courses that sought to be useful, did not always seem aimed at determining the best thing to do so much as determining the best way to talk about, or even to rationalize, what people were already doing. I wrote my thesis on ethical theories of criminal punishment, rejecting most of them as unethical.
Once I’d done the Master’s degree, and Rorty had transferred elsewhere, and nothing interested me more, I proposed to move to the building next door and do a PhD in the English Department. Sadly, that department let me know that first I’d need a Master’s in English, which there was no way to get without picking up a Bachelor’s first.
Goodbye, formal education. It was nice knowing you.
While I’d studied at UVa I’d worked in the library and at local stores and restaurants. Now I looked for more fulltime work and settled on newspaper reporting. It paid terribly, and I discovered that I was allergic to editors, but it was a way into some kind of career in putting words on paper. Before I recount that career, I should mention two other developments in this period: activism and love.
At UVa I took part in a debating club, which made me comfortable with public speaking. I also took part in a campaign to get the people working at UVa cooking food and emptying trashcans paid a living wage. This got me involved with living wage activists around the country, including those working for a national group called ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. I didn’t start the living wage campaign at UVa. I just heard about it, and immediately joined in. Had there been some sort of campaign to end war, I would no doubt have jumped into that as well, but there wasn’t.
Also during this time, I was falsely accused of a crime. Because I had my parents’ help in finding lawyers and experts and other resources, I was able to minimize the damage. The primary result, I think, for me was a greater awareness of the incredible injustices experienced by a great many people as a result of deeply flawed systems of criminal punishment. Certainly the experience influenced my choice of articles to pursue as a newspaper reporter, where I came to focus on miscarriages of justice. Another possible result may have been some contribution to my turn away from autobiography. You can’t mention a false accusation of a crime without people believing you really did it. The most painful experiences in my life have always been the experience of not being believed. You also can’t mention a false accusation of a crime without people believing that you’re taking some sort of cartoonishly simple position that all such accusations are always false against everyone. Why get into such stupidity? And if you can’t mention something important to your story, you certainly can’t write an autobiography.
I said something about love, didn’t I? While I’d always been shy with girls, I’d managed to have some short-term and long-term girlfriends during and since high school. While I was at UVa I learned about the internet, as research tool, as discussion forum, as publishing platform, as activism tool, and as dating site. I met several women online and then offline. One of them, Anna, lived in North Carolina. She was great to talk to online and on the phone. She was reluctant to meet in person, until the day in 1997 that she phoned me late at night to say she’d driven to Charlottesville and been calling me all evening. We stayed up all night and drove up to the mountains in the morning. We then started driving four hours, one of us or the other, each weekend. She eventually moved in. In 1999 we got married. Best thing I’ve done so far.
We moved to Orange, Virginia, for a job in Culpeper. Then I picked up a job in D.C. at a place called the Bureau of National Affairs and began a crazy daily commute. I’d accepted a job there writing for two newsletters, one for labor unions and the other for “human resource managers.” I’d been promised I would not have to write against workers or unions. In reality, I was required to take the same piece of news, such as a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board, and report on it in terms of how to build up a union and then in terms of how to screw your employees. I refused to do it. I quit. I had a wife now with her own job. I had a mortgage. I had no job prospects.
I took a temporary job knocking on doors to raise money to save the Chesapeake Bay. The first day I set some kind of record. The second day I sucked. It was work I believed should be done. But it sure was a drag doing it. I clearly could not do a job with a supervisor editing me, or a job I opposed morally, or a job that didn’t challenge me. What in the world could I do? Here’s where ACORN came in, and the model I’ve followed ever since of working for people based at least 500 miles away from me.
ACORN had gone for decades without ever having a public relations person, someone at the national level to write press releases and schmooze with journalists, to train activists in speaking to TV cameras, to place op-eds, ghost-write speeches, or go on C-Span to explain why restaurant lobbyists don’t actually know better what’s good for workers than workers do. I took the job. Anna took a DC job. We moved to Cheverly, Maryland. And I became a workaholic. ACORN was a mission, not a career. It was all-in and I was all into it.
But it did sometimes seem like we were taking one step forward and two back. We’d pass local minimum wage or fair lending laws, and lobbyists would preempt them at the state level. We’d pass state laws, and they’d move on Congress. When 9/11 happened, my immaturity and naiveté were staggering. When everybody working on domestic issues immediately understood that nothing could be done anymore, that the minimum wage would not be having any value restored to it as had been planned, etc., I’ll be damned if I could see any logic or connection. Why should people earn less money because some lunatics flew planes into buildings? Apparently this was the logic of war. And when war drums began beating I was flabbergasted. What in the world? Hadn’t 9/11 just proved the uselessness of weapons of war to protect anybody from anything?
When the Bush-Cheney wars started, I went to every protest, but my job was domestic issues at ACORN. Or it was until I picked up a second job working for Dennis Kucinich for President 2004. A presidential campaign is a 24/7 job, just like ACORN. I worked them both for months before switching over to Kucinich alone. At that point, my colleagues in the communications department of the campaign let me know that (1) the campaign was a disastrous pile of in-fighting and incompetence, and (2) I was now going to be in charge of it as “press secretary.” Yet I was and remain grateful for having been brought on, I grew ever more to admire, and still do, our candidate, whom I found generally terrific to work with, and I simply proceeded to take few bathroom breaks, eat at my desk, and bathe infrequently, until I could do no more for the hopeless cause.
Years later ACORN was destroyed in large part by a right-wing fraud. I wished I was still there, not because I had a plan to save ACORN, but just to be there to try.
Kucinich for President was my first peace job. We talked about peace, war, peace, trade, peace, healthcare, war, and peace. And then it was over. I got a job for the AFL-CIO overseeing their organization of labor media outlets, mostly labor union newsletters. And then I got a job for a group called Democrats.com trying to stop a disastrous bill in Congress on bankruptcies. I’d never been a fan of most Democrats or Republicans, but I’d supported Dennis, and I thought I could support a group aimed at making the Democrats better. I still have many friends I fully respect who believe in that agenda to this day, while I find independent activism and education more strategic.
In May 2005, I proposed to Democrats.com that I work on trying to end the wars, in response to which I was told I should work on something easier like trying to impeach George W. Bush. We began by creating a group called After Downing Street and forcing news of what was called the Downing Street Memo or the Downing Street Minutes into U.S. media as evidence of the obvious, that Bush and gang had lied about the war on Iraq. We worked with Democrats in Congress who were pretending that they’d end the wars and impeach the president and the vice president if they were given majorities in 2006. I worked with many peace groups during this time, including United for Peace and Justice, and tried to nudge the peace movement toward impeachment and vice versa.
In 2006, the exit polls said the Democrats won the majorities in Congress with a mandate to end the war on Iraq. Come January, Rahm Emanuel told the Washington Post they’d keep the war going in order to run “against” it again in 2008. By 2007, Democrats had lost much of their interest in peace and moved on to what seemed to me like the agenda of electing more Democrats as an end in itself. My own focus had become ending each and every war and the idea of ever starting another one.
On Armistice Day 2005, and expecting our first kid, and with me able to work by internet from anywhere, we moved back to Charlottesville. We made more money by selling the house we’d bought in Maryland than I’ve made from any job. We used it to pay for half of the house in Charlottesville that we’re still struggling to pay for the other half of.
I became a fulltime peace activist. I joined the board of the local peace center here. I joined all kinds of coalitions and groups nationally. I traveled to speak and protest. I sat-in on Capitol Hill. I camped out at Bush’s ranch in Texas. I drafted articles of impeachment. I wrote books. I went to jail. I built websites for peace organizations. I went on book tours. I spoke on panels. I debated war advocates. I did interviews. I occupied squares. I visited war zones. I studied peace activism, past and present. And I began getting that question everywhere I went: How did you become a peace activist?
How did I? Are there patterns to be found in my story and others’? Does something in the above help explain it? I now work for RootsAction.org, which was created to serve as an online activist center that would back all things progressive including peace. And I work as the director of World Beyond War, which I co-founded as an organization to push globally for better education and activism aimed at abolition of the systems that sustain war. I now write books arguing against all justifications for war, critiquing nationalism, and promoting nonviolent tools. I’ve gone from writing for publishers to self-publishing, to publishing with publishers after I’ve published a book myself, to just now pursuing a major publisher despite knowing that it will require editing as the tradeoff to reach a larger audience.
Am I here because I like to write and speak and argue and work for a better world, and because a series of accidents planted me in a growing peace movement in 2003, and because I discovered a way to never leave it, and because the internet grew and has been — at least thus far — kept neutral? Am I here because of my genes? My twin sister is a great person but isn’t a peace activist. Her daughter is an environmental activist though. Am I here because of my childhood, because I had lots of love and support? Well, many people have had that, and many of them are doing great things, but usually not peace activism.
If you ask me today why I choose to do this going forward, my answer is the case for war abolition as presented on the website of World Beyond War and in my books. But if you’re asking how I got into this gig rather than something else, I can only hope that some of the preceding paragraphs shed some light. The fact is that I cannot work under a supervisor, I cannot sell widgets, I cannot be edited, I cannot work on anything that seems overshadowed by anything else, I cannot seem to write books that pay as well as writing emails, and the job of resisting wars and weapons dealing never seems to have enough people — and sometimes, in certain corners of it, seems to have nobody at all — working on it.
People ask me how I keep going, how I stay cheerful, why I don’t quit. That one is pretty easy, and I don’t usually dodge it. I work for peace because we sometimes win and sometimes lose but have a responsibility to try, try, try, and because trying is far more enjoyable and fulfilling than anything else.