We Must Be Antiwar Activists

By Leah Bolger
Remarks at #NoWar2016

How many people here consider themselves peace activists? Now, how many people here consider themselves anti-war activists? Although the terms “pro-peace” and “anti-war” are often used interchangeably, are they really the same thing? I don’t think so and that’s what I want to talk to you about.

Everyone says they are for peace, even people like President Obama, and Prime Minister Netanyahu—men who are directly responsible for the killing of thousands and thousands of people. Of course everyone says they are for peace…everyone wants kindness, empathy, communication, fairness, justice, human dignity, and beauty. Some examples of peace activism are: environmentalism, gun control, support of whistle blowers, working against racism, sexism and all forms of discrimination, working for open democracy, supporting health security and basic human rights such as clean air and water, housing and education, and working for freedom of speech and an uncensored and unbiased media. At the community level, activities which promote peace include: planting community gardens, installing peace poles, food drives, holding poetry, essay or art contests, singing, praying, –all of those things which make the world a better, nicer and more peaceful place, however they don’t speak directly against war. There are a great number of famous peace activists who have worked very hard on peace issues, such as Cesar Chavez, Julia Ward Howe, Henry David Thoreau and Nelson Mandela, but not directly against war. Even those who are known as anti-war activists such as Joan Baez, William Sloane Coffin, Pete Seeger, and Ron Kovic have concentrated their resistance to specific wars or weapons, not the institution of war itself.

Not everyone is against war. Many people believe that there are such things as a just war, or a necessary war. Although most people like to believe that they think of war as a last resort, in reality, they do not. Due in large part to the corporate-owned media, they often think that it is an either/or situation—go to war, or do nothing. Many people don’t know about, or understand the power of non-violence, or are aware of the other tools that can be used in place of violence, militarism and war. Another reason that people think of themselves as peace activists instead of anti-war activists, is that they don’t believe that war can really be abolished, so they almost feel like their efforts are a waste of time, and so they focus their energies into issues in which they feel they can make a difference.

The mission of World Beyond War was created very deliberately to be an anti-war organization as part of an international movement to abolish war forever and to create a lasting and just peace. Our intention was not to reinvent the wheel—we know there are thousands of peace organizations around the world. But we did not know of any international organizations whose mission is to eradicate war itself. Our intention is to build a movement focused directly on addressing the institution of war. Of course, we are opposed to specific wars like the U.S. war on Afghanistan, and we are opposed to weapons systems like drones, but that is not where World Beyond War concentrates its efforts.

World Beyond War believes that to eradicate war itself, we have to go beyond protesting specific wars–indeed by the time that the shooting and bombing start, it’s too late—scores of people will be killed or injured, there will be massive destruction of homes, businesses and infrastructure, and enormous sums of money will be spent before it is ended. As our buddy H.R. Haldeman said, “You can’t put toothpaste back into the tube.” Although protest and legislation can lead to the conclusion of a specific war (for instance anti-war activists are largely credited with putting an end to the Viet Nam war), if we are ever to eradicate war itself, we need to understand the causes of war and those who support it, and direct our attentions to eliminating them.  We need to develop an alternative to the current system which is based on militarism and war, and we really need to change the way we think about war and peace.

War is thought about in completely different ways depending on where you are coming from. In Costa Rica, there are very few anti-war activists because Costa Rica has no enemies. The citizens of Costa Rica, Switzerland, and Uruguay, whose countries do not have a military force and haven’t been in war, think of war and peace completely differently than do Afghanis, Vietnamese, or Syrians who are living, or have lived the horrors of war every day for years. Moreover, Americans think of war in still another way because there has never been (with the exception of Pearl Harbor) an attack on the U.S. and there have never been enemy ground troops on American soil at all. We have never personally experience the daily horrors of war, and so it seems like an abstract concept—it’s something that happens “over there.” The mainstream media no longer reports on the travesty of the wars waged by the U.S., and so the American public is largely indifferent to war with the exception of American lives lost. As long as those numbers are low, there will be little public resistance. Additionally, in the modern age, the U.S. has always been the most powerful military force in the world, which has led us to believe that “might makes right.” Our overall thinking about war is that there would be peace if all parties just agreed with what the U.S. wants.

Americans believe it is perfectly acceptable, even normal to make a show of military force by stationing aircraft carriers and submarines around the globe, holding provocative military exercises in the backyards of other countries, and maintaining hundreds of military bases in almost every country in the world. Can you imagine Americans tolerating a foreign military base here…accepting soldiers wearing the uniform of another country walking American streets?

According the the UN charter, “…armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest…,” “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.” and “…All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” Although the Charter does allow military force to be used for the purpose of self-defense, the United States has frequently violated these precepts, attacking countries which have not threatened and/or pose no threat to the United States, and it has even gone to war or exercised military force because this country needs their resources to support the “American Way of Life.” I once heard an American veteran who had fought in Iraq speak (ironically at a peace conference). He told me and the audience that the real reason behind the Iraq War was oil. I agreed with him, and asked him if he was willing to die for oil. He adamantly affirmed that he was, because otherwise his children would be paying a lot more for gasoline in the future. He felt that the United States had a right to the resources of a sovereign country. His remarks are a stunning example of American thinking about war and the indifference we have to the lives and rights of others outside our country.

In summary, as Americans—citizens of the most aggressive military country in the world, if we do nothing to address war, then we are part of the problem. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for the American public to affect real change in the policies of our government. It is no longer a democracy that listens to the will of the people. That means that it is going to take a truly international effort by anti-war activists from all corners of the globe to put pressure on the U.S. and other war mongering states. In short, we need more anti-war activists. Sure, it feels good to work for peace, and we can always use more of that. But I feel we are only kidding ourselves if we believe that being pro-peace is the same thing as being anti-war.

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