By David Swanson, Remarks for Peace and Justice Works, June 24, 2021
Thank you for inviting me. I’d like to speak briefly and spend a good deal of time on Q&A. I’d like to start by considering this question: If it’s true that madness is more common in societies than individuals, and if the society we live in is aggressively hastening (as I think is well-established) climate collapse, ecosystem devastation, wealth inequality, and institutional corruption (in other words, processes that are clearly counter to conscious, stated desires) is this society perhaps no exception to the rule? Is it perhaps insane? And are there perhaps other interconnected madnesses that we don’t see entirely clearly, precisely because we are members of this society?
What about locking huge numbers of people in cages at an expense much greater than giving them good lives? What about devoting land, energy, and resources to feeding animals to feed people, using food that could have fed ten times as many people without the environmental destruction and animal cruelty? What about employing armed and trained killers to tell people they’re driving too fast and shouldn’t bicycle on the sidewalk? Could it be that lots of stuff a saner culture would call loony looks as normal to us as burning witches, bleeding patients, and exhibiting eugenically awesome infants looked to others in the past?
In particular, what if it just isn’t permanently and universally normal and rational to be taking all the steps being taken to hasten nuclear apocalypse? We’ve got scientists saying the catastrophe is more likely now than ever, and that the nature of it would be worse than ever previously understood. We’ve got historians saying the near misses are more numerous than ever before known. And yet we’ve got media outlets informing everyone that the problem vanished 30 years ago. We’ve got a U.S. government dumping vast treasure into building more nuclear weapons, refusing to foreswear using them first, and talking about them as “usable.” One of the key reasons for the danger having supposedly passed is that the number of times the existing stockpiles of nukes could eliminate all life on earth has been reduced — if you can dignify that with the term “reason.” Much of the world is clamoring for the elimination of nukes, while another chunk of the world is defending their manufacture, distribution, and routine threats of using them. Clearly, somebody is right, and somebody is crazy. By somebody I mean a whole society, not its individuals, and despite the exceptions.
What about the whole idea of killing people? Killing prisoners to teach them not to kill people? Killing people who look, from the perspective of a distant video camera, like they might be an adult male in the wrong place and near a cell phone suspected of belonging to someone unliked, plus any men and women and children who happen to be nearby? Killing people who cross a border and run from armed fighters? Killing people who get in the way of police and look like their skin has a bit too much pigment? What if the whole practice of killing all of these people has something wrong with it? What if it’s as deranged as the doctors who bled George Washington to death, or Phil Collins’ belief that he died at the Alamo, or Joe Biden’s idea that the U.S. government doesn’t interfere in other nations’ elections?
What if killing people is certifiably bonkers even in an imaginary scenario in which the United Nations has authorized a good humanitarian war and the people being killed are all wearing uniforms, and nobody’s tortured or raped or looted, and every murder is super respectful and free of hatred or animosity? What if the problem is the careful avoidance of peace that gets each war started, not the details of the atrocities? What if “war crimes” as a phrase to say a lot in public so that nobody thinks you’re a fascist or a Republican is actually as nonsensical as “slavery crimes” or “mass-rape crimes” because war is a crime in its entirety? What if every war for decades has actually killed disproportionately the so-called wrong people, the elderly, the very young, the civilian? What if there’s nothing worse than war that can be used to justify war? What if wars are principally generated by wars and by preparations for wars? If this were true — and I’m willing to debate every claim that it isn’t — would there not be something a little bit shy of playing with a full deck to be found in the practice of investing trillions of dollars in the machinery of war?
The case made on the World BEYOND War website is, of course, that the diversion of money into war preparations that make people less safe, not more safe, itself kills vastly more people than have been killed in all the wars thus far. It does this by depriving us of those things we could have spent the money on, things like food, water, medicine, shelter, clothing, etc. If this is true, and if it’s additionally the case that war fuels hatred and bigotry and racism, that war and preparations for it devastate the natural earth, that war is the one and only excuse for government secrecy, that the war bases and weapons sales and free training and funding prop up horribly oppressive governments, that the war business erodes civil liberties in the name of some mysterious substance called “freedom,” and that war coarsens a culture while militarizing police and minds — if all of this is true, the offense of war that those infected by the madness call “the defense industry” might just be the most coocoo confabulation ever concocted.
This much I’ve said a billion times. And a billion and five times I’ve replied to the World War II delusion that you all will ask about as soon as I shut my mouth. No, WWII did not have anything to do with saving anyone from any death camp. The U.S. and allied governments explicitly refused to accept the Jews out of Germany, and for openly antisemitic reasons. No step was ever taken to halt the murders of the camps. The war killed several times what the camps did. The war came about after years of Western arms race with Japan and support for Nazi Germany. U.S. corporations critically supported the Nazis right through the war, for profit reasons and ideological ones. The Nordic race nonsense and the segregation laws and much of the extermination inspiration and technology came from the United States. The nuclear bombs were not needed for anything. Nothing about WWII proves that violence is needed for anything. And if it were needed for opposing Nazism, hiring lots of top Nazis into the U.S. military wouldn’t have made much sense. See my book Leaving World War II Behind for the long version.
Now, I want to say something even crazier. Or, if I’m right, I want to say quite sanely that something is even crazier than war. I have in mind the advancement of the risk of World War III, of the first war waged directly between big rich countries since WWII, of a war likely to involve nuclear apocalypse. I don’t think most of the people moving the world toward WWIII think of themselves as doing that. But I don’t think even the CEO of ExxonMobil thinks of himself as advancing the cause of climate collapse either. If the U.S. president wanted to start WWIII and be aware of doing so, he would simply launch the nukes. But here’s what I really want us to think about: if a society wanted to start WWIII without being aware of doing so, what would it do? I know Freud took a lot of flack for saying people had some mysterious death wish even though they would deny it. But I think at this point the burden of proof is on those who would try to prove him wrong, because I don’t think an effort to accidentally start WWIII and blame it on somebody or something else would look particularly different from what U.S. society is doing right now.
The U.S. military has plans for war on China, and talks about a war on China being perhaps a few years off. They call it a war with China, of course, and can count on Congress Members to saturate us with the idea that China has aggressively threatened U.S. prestige by growing wealthier, or aggressively moved into the waters just off the coast of China. But the fact is that, despite major increases in its military spending as the U.S. has moved bases, troops, missiles, and ships (including what the U.S. Navy ridiculously calls the Big Stick carrier strike group) near China, China still spends about 14% of what the U.S. and its allies and weapons customers spend on militarism each year. Russia is at about 8% of just U.S. military spending and falling. If there were a credible enemy for the U.S. military on this planet you’d be hearing a lot less about UFOs right now. We’ll also hear about Chinese violations of human rights, but bombs don’t actually improve human rights, and if human rights violations justified bombs, then the U.S. would have to bomb itself and many of its dearest allies as well as China. Also how do you threaten war against someone for how they manufacture products that you buy? Well, maybe making sense isn’t the goal. Maybe war is the goal.
If you wanted to bring WWIII closer, what would you have to do? One step would be to make war normal and unquestionable. Go ahead and check that one off. Done. Accomplished. Flags and pledges to them are ubiquitous. Thank yous for a supposed service are everywhere. Military advertisements and paid-for pre-game ceremonies are so omnipresent that if the military forgets to pay for one, people will create one for free. The ACLU is arguing that young women should be added to young men in being forced to register for a draft to be compelled against their will to go to war as a matter of civil liberties, the civil liberty to be completely stripped of all liberty.
When President Joe Biden went off to meet with President Vladimir Putin, both major political parties generally encouraged hostility. The Hill newspaper sent out an email with a video of the movie Rocky, demanding that Biden be Rocky in the ring with Putin. When, despite everything, Biden and Putin behaved almost civilly and issued a tiny little statement suggesting they might possibly pursue some unspecified disarmament, and Biden stopped calling Putin a soulless killer, the two presidents then held a pair of separate press conferences. There were no Russian media questions allowed at Biden’s, but U.S. media brought the craziness to both. They hurled nutty accusations. They demanded red lines. They wanted a commitment to war as a response to so-called cyber-war. They wanted declarations of distrust and enmity. They wanted self-righteous revenge for the supposed stealing of the 2016 election and enslavement of President Donald Trump. They would have appeared, I’m convinced, to a disinterested observer from one of the UFOs they’re always going on about, to have wanted WWIII.
The U.S. military and NATO have indeed said that war can be a response to cyberwar. At Putin’s press conference, he discussed various actual laws, existing and potential. Russia and China and other nations have long sought treaties to ban weaponizing space, and to ban cyberwar. At Biden’s press conference, I don’t think a single law was mentioned once by anyone. Yet the constant theme was imposing the “rule based order” on others in the name of stability. But nothing boosts instability more than replacing the very idea of written laws with arbitrary decrees from might-makes-right officials who believe in their own goodness — believe it so much that they announce, as Biden did, that were the U.S. government to interfere in anyone else’s election, and were the world to find out about it, the whole international order would crumble. We know of 85 foreign elections the United States has blatantly interfered in during the past 75 years, not to mention assassination attempts on over 50 foreign leaders, and we know that in poll after poll the world says it fears the U.S. government above all others as a threat to peace and democracy. Yet the international order does not collapse because it does not exist, not as a set of moral standards based on respect.
If you wanted to move the world closer to WWIII without realizing you were doing it, you could convince yourself that you were simply imposing a Pax Americana for the world’s own good, whether the world liked it or not, even while knowing in some back corner of your mind that sooner or later the world would not stand for it, and that when that moment came, some Americans would die, and that when those Americans died, the U.S. media and public would scream for blood and vengeance as if the past many millennia had taught them nothing, and BOOM you’d have what you never even knew you wanted, just like you have the day after browsing amazon.com.
But how to make sure to get those Americans killed? Well, nobody else has ever done this, but one idea would be to station them — and here’s a real stroke of genius — with their families along, on bases all over the world. The bases would prop up and control some horrible governments, enraging local populations. The bases would cause environmental damage as well as plagues of drunkenness, rape, and lawless privilege. They’d be sort of giant gated Apartheid communities that the locals could enter to work menial jobs if they got out by sundown. Maybe 800 of these bases in 80 nations or so ought to do the trick. They wouldn’t strictly speaking be justifiable in terms of unavoidable future wars, given what can be moved where how quickly by airplane, but they might just make future wars unavoidable. Check that off the list. Done. And almost unnoticed.
OK, what else? Well, you can’t very well have a war against enemies without weapons, can you? The United States is now the leading weapons supplier to the world, to rich countries, to poor countries, to so-called democracies, to dictatorships, to oppressive royal despots, and to most of its own designated enemies. The U.S. government allows weapons sales, and/or gives free money with which to buy weapons, and/or provides training for 48 out of 50 of the most oppressive governments in the world according to a ranking funded by the U.S. government — plus plenty of nasty governments left out of that ranking. Few if any wars happen without U.S. weapons. Most wars today happen in places that manufacture few if any weapons. Few if any wars happen in the handful of countries that manufacture most of the weapons. You may think China is coming to get you. Your Congress Member almost certainly thinks China is keenly focused on eliminating his or her right to send free mail and appear on television at will. But the U.S. government funds and arms China, and invests in a bio-weapons lab in China whatever may or may not have come out of it. The weapons dealers do not imagine, of course, that they are bringing on WWIII. They’re just doing business, and it’s been gospel in Western madness for centuries that business causes peace. Those who work for weapons dealers mostly don’t think they’re causing war or peace; they think they’re serving their U.S. flag and so-called service members. They do this by pretending that most of the weapons companies’ customers do not exist, that their only customer is the U.S. military.
All right, the weapons bit is well covered. What else is needed? Well, if you wanted to roll a society into WWIII over a period of years or decades, you’d need to avoid the vicissitudes of elections or popular mood swings. You’d want to increase corruption to the point that shifting power from one big political party to another didn’t change anything terribly important. People could have a bit of emergency funding or a new holiday. The rhetoric could vary dramatically. But let’s say you gave the White House and the Congress to the Democrats in 2020, what would have to happen for the death train to remain on the tracks? Well, you’d want no actual wars to end. Nothing makes wars more likely than other wars. With both houses having voted repeatedly in the previous Congress to end the war on Yemen, vetoed by Trump, you’d need those votes to cease immediately. You’d want Biden to pretend to sort-of partially end the war on Yemen, and Congress to go mute. Same with Afghanistan. Keep forces there and on surrounding bases quietly, and make sure Congress does nothing in the way of actually forbidding the continuation of the war.
In fact, it would be ideal to block Congress from ever lifting its grubby little paws again as it pretended to do on Yemen when it could count on Trump vetoes. Perhaps it could be permitted to repeal the AUMF (or authorization for the use of military force) from 2002, but keep the 2001 one around just in case it was ever needed. Or perhaps that one could be replaced by a new one. Also, the Senator Tim Kaine scam could be allowed to advance a bit perhaps — this is where Congress itself repeals the War Powers Resolution that specifies how it can prevent wars, and replaces it with a requirement that presidents consult with Congress before feeling free to ignore Congress. The trick is to market this abandonment of the War Powers Resolution as a strengthening of the War Powers Resolution. OK, that should work. What else?
Well, boost military spending beyond Trump levels. That’s key. And invite the so-called progressive members of Congress to lots of meetings, maybe even give them a few rides on presidential airplanes, threaten a few of them with primaries, whatever’s needed to keep them from actually trying to block military spending. Five of them in the House could block anything the Republicans oppose, but 100 of them putting out a public letter pretending to oppose what they facilitate will do no harm at all. OK, this part’s easy. What else?
Well, avoid peace with Iran. What good would that do? Just stall and prevaricate until we’re past the Iranian elections and they’ve got a new super-hostile government, and then blame the Iranians. That’s never failed before. Why would it fail now? Keep funding and arming the attacks of Israel on Palestine. Keep Russiagate going, or at least don’t renounce it, even if the journalists start appearing — rather than just being — crazy. A small price to pay, and nobody likes the media anyway, no matter how much they obey it.
What else? Well, a major tool that has increasingly proven its worth is sanctions. The U.S. government is brutally sanctioning numerous populations around the globe, fueling suffering, animosity, and bellicosity, and nobody knows it, or they think of it as law-enforcement rather than law violation. It’s brilliant. The U.S. government can even impose sanctions, cause suffering, blame the suffering on the local government’s efforts to alleviate suffering, and propose a coup as a solution straight from the Rule Based Order (we rule, so we give the orders).
Also we’d better be sure to keep the climate catastrophe on track, and for a number of reasons. First, if the nuclear apocalypse never comes, the climate one will. Second, the climate disasters can be used to fuel international crises that — with enough prodding and arming — can lead to wars. Third, the military can actually be marketed as a climate protector, because, although it’s a major contributor to climate change, it can announce how concerned it is and use natural disasters to excuse invasions and establish new bases. And nothing builds up war spirit better than refugees, no matter who caused the horrors that they’re fleeing.
Even disease pandemics can help advance the cause, as long as a reasonable and cooperative response to them is avoided. We’ll want to balance blaming China with avoiding blaming bio-weapons labs or their international partners and investors. The U.S. government can completely control through the media what possible explanations for the origin of a pandemic are acceptable and which ones are deemed, ironically enough, crazy. What we’ll want to avoid is questioning the priority of maintaining labs that can create new tools for wars, and proposing any global solutions to pandemics that might foster cooperation or understanding rather than profit and division.
OK, isn’t this enough? What else could be needed? Well, you can’t very well put WWIII straight onto the stage unrehearsed, can you? We’ll want to have some full-dress rehearsals, major ones, the sort that could accidentally morph into the real thing — the biggest ones ever in Europe and in the Pacific. And more missiles in place near Russia and China, and more nations invited into NATO — especially some of those right on the border of Russia that Russia says it would never sit still for. War in Ukraine is too obvious. How about a coup in Belarus perhaps? What you want is to risk WWIII without jumping straight in with both feet. After all, the other guys need to start it. Let’s think. How did the U.S. get into WWII?
Well there was the Atlantic Charter. Let’s make a new one. Check. There was sanctioning and threatening Japan. Make that China. Check. There was supporting Nazis in Germany. Make that Ukraine. Check. There were big new bases and ships and planes and troops in the Pacific. Check. But history doesn’t repeat exactly. There are many opportunities. Drone murders and bases and so-called anti-terror operations across Africa and Asia. Coups and destabilizations in Latin America. Plenty of hot spots. Plenty of weapons. Plenty of propaganda. Cyberwars anywhere at anytime and who can say who started them for sure? War is getting easier and easier.
Now let’s ask a different question. What would U.S. society look like if it wanted to avoid WWIII? Well, it would drop the exceptionalist schtick and join the world, stop being the biggest holdout on human rights treaties, stop being the biggest vetoer at the UN, stop being the biggest opponent of the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice, start supporting the rule of law instead of the #RuleBasedOrder, start supporting democracy at the United Nations instead of as a word you say in speeches, and prioritize cooperating in global efforts to address environmental and health issues.
In a United States intent on avoiding WWIII, you’d see masses of people demanding the money be moved from militarism to human and environmental needs, you’d see opposition to militarism across the population as well as from movements that are directly impacted by militarism and generally pretend they aren’t, such as environmentalism, anti-poverty, immigrants’ rights, civil liberties, and transparent government movements. You’d see moves to demilitarize, close foreign bases, close domestic bases, divest funding from weapons, convert war industries to peaceful and sustainable industries. You’d see people who appeared on television and were right about upcoming wars allowed to appear on television again rather than being banished to blogs and the bottom dregs of Facebook algorithms. You’d see lying about wars treated as something other than the top qualification to lie about more wars.
You’d see a lot more basic straightforward reporting on wars, including what’s called the humanizing of people. I’ve never understood what people supposedly are prior to being humanized, but it seems they’re decidedly not humans. Take, for example, a seven-year-old boy in Yemen who tells his mother that he wants to go to school. His name is Chakir and he speaks with a bit of difficulty caused by funny teeth and bad habit. But that’s not why his mother doesn’t want him to go to school. She’s afraid of missiles. She teaches Chakir at home. He sits at a little wooden desk next to the dining table, and he pretends to be at school. His mother loves him and finds him adorable and enjoys having him there, although she gets tired, needs a break, and knows school would be better. But then the buzzing grows louder. Chakir crawls under his desk. He smiles. He tries to think it’s funny. But the buzzing gets even louder. It’s straight overhead. Chakir starts to cry. His mother gets down on her knees and goes to him. When Chakir is finally able to get some words out, he says “It’s not safer here than at school. It’s not safer here than at school, Mommy!” The drone passes over. They’re still there. They’ve not been obliterated. The next day, Chakir’s mother allows him to board a bus to school. The bus is struck by a U.S.-supplied missile via the Saudi military and U.S. targeting. Chakir’s mother buries part of one of his arms, which is found in a tree. Now he’s humanized. But they’re all humans. The victims are all humans, though if the media won’t humanize them, people will deny it to themselves. In a society bent on avoiding war, the humanizing would be relentless. And when it wasn’t, protests would demand it.
Of course there is a wide gap between driving hard toward WWIII and proceeding to abolish all militaries. Of course it can only be done by stages. But when the stages are not understood as steps away from apocalypse and in the direction of sanity, they tend not to work very well, even to backfire. War has been so reformed and perfected that people imagine guided missiles killing only and exactly those who really need killing. We can’t survive much more reforming of war. The United States could radically scale back its militarism, destroy all of its nuclear weapons, and close all of its foreign bases, and you’d see a reverse arms race among other nations as a primary result. The United States could simply stop selling weapons to others and see militarism rolled back significantly. The United States could withdraw from NATO and NATO would vanish. It could stop badgering other nations to buy more weapons, and they’d buy fewer weapons. Each step toward a world beyond war would make such a world appear more reasonable to more people.
So, that’s what we’re working on at World BEYOND War. We’re doing education and activism to build a culture of peace and to advance demilitarization around the globe including through divestment of funding from weapons and through efforts to close bases. We’re also working to align more movements and organizations against war by making the connections across divisions, such as by pressuring the conference scheduled for November in Scotland to stop excluding militarism from climate agreements, and working to demilitarize domestic police forces. I’m not sure we shouldn’t be also developing alliances with mental health workers, because either war is crazy or I am. I ask only that you take your time in deciding which.