By David Swanson
Remarks at Peace and Justice Studies Association Conference in Birmingham, Alabama, October 28, 2017.
Thank you for inviting me. Can everyone who thinks that war is never, and can never be, justified please raise your hand. Thank you. Now if you think every war is always justified. Thank you. And finally all the moderates holding the balanced subtle middle ground: some wars are justified. Thank you. You may not be surprised to hear that this room is not typical of this country. Typical is for absolutely everyone to pile into that last group.
The relationship between peace and war is clearly not understood by the U.S. public as along the lines of that between alive and dead. Peace and war are things people imagine can coexist.
In Virginia, where I live, a school board member once said he would support recognizing the international day of peace as long as nobody misunderstood and thought he was opposed to any wars.
In Washington, D.C., two years ago I visited the U.S. Institute of Peace along with some other peace activists. We met with some of the top people there and asked them if they would join us in opposing wars. Their president told me there was more than one way to get to peace. I asked her if one of those ways was through war. She asked me to define war. I said that war was the use of the U.S. military to kill people. She said that “non-combat troops” could be the answer. I think I may have been left with only nonverbal words at that point in the conversation. A non-combat troop is a person trained for combat, armed for combat, sent to an area of likely combat, and called a “non-combat troop.”
Here’s a project on which I could use a great deal of help from Peace Studies programs. I want to persuade the general public that a choice has to be made. On one side is peace, and on the other war.
I believe we have plenty of models to work from. I believe that not only at an early childhood education conference but even in a public square virtually every person would raise their hand to say that child abuse is never justified and can never be justified. And very few would propose using child abuse as a means to arrive at a state of respectful nurturing. There are many other things that one has to work to find open defenders of, things like slavery, dueling, trial by ordeal, or Jeff Sessions. And there are nasty things that most people support or accept: mass incarceration, fossil fuel consumption, animal slaughter, nuclear weapons, hedge funds, the United States Senate — and yet, even with these, a proposal to abolish them is understood as squarely opposed to continuing them. Partial steps are good and necessary, but a plan to get to a green-energy world by burning off all the oil is not understood as actually being a green proposal — not in the way that millions of people imagine bombing North Korea or Iran is the best way to make peace with North Korea or Iran.
Of course no two things are the same, and the arguments that most people believe support wars do not support slavery or fossil fuel use or child abuse. Yet, I believe that most of what makes war unique weighs in favor of abolishing it. And I believe peace studies can go very far toward persuading people that common defenses of war don’t hold up.
I. Here’s the first point that I believe is established by the facts but badly in need of being learned: War endangers those in whose name it is threatened and waged. Obviously we don’t begin sporting events by thanking armed troops for endangering us, but we might be more in touch with reality if we did. Terrorism has predictably increased during the war on terrorism (as measured by the Global Terrorism Index). 99.5% of terrorist attacks occur in countries engaged in wars and/or engaged in abuses such as imprisonment without trial, torture, or lawless killing. The highest rates of terrorism are in “liberated” and “democratized” Iraq and Afghanistan. The terrorist groups responsible for the most terrorism (that is, non-state, politically motivated violence) around the world have grown out of U.S. wars against terrorism. Those wars themselves have left numerous just-retired top U.S. government officials and even a few U.S. government reports describing military violence as counterproductive, as creating more enemies than are killed. Every military action now seems to be launched by a chorus of cabinet secretaries, ambassadors, and senators chanting “There is no military solution. There is no military solution,” as they try to solve yet another problem militarily. The violence that the new enemies they create engage in sometimes makes it into the category of terrorism. Then there are the non-terrorism (that is, non-politically motivated) mass-murders that have become an epidemic in a United States that has militarized its police, its entertainment, its economy, and its culture. Here are some facts from a wonderful publication called the Peace Science Digest: “Deployment of troops to another country increases the chance of attacks from terror organizations from that country. Weapons exports to another country increase the chance of attacks from terror organizations from that country. 95% of all suicide terrorist attacks are conducted to encourage foreign occupiers to leave the terrorist’s home country.” In fact, I’m not aware of a foreign terrorist threat, attempt, or action against the United States, in which a motivation was stated, where that motivation was anything other than opposition to U.S. military imperialism. I think we can safely draw three conclusions.
1) Foreign terrorism in the United States can be virtually eliminated by keeping the U.S. military out of any country that is not the United States.
2) If Canada or some other country wanted the weapons sales that could only come from generating anti-Canadian terrorist networks on a U.S. scale or just wanted more threats of terrorism, it would need to radically increase its bombing, occupying, and base construction around the world.
3) On the model of the war on terrorism, the war on drugs that produces more drugs, and the war on poverty that seems to increase poverty, we would be wise to consider launching a war on sustainable prosperity and happiness.
II. Here’s the second big area where I think education is needed: We do not need wars to defend us. Given the number of people, and powerful people, and well-placed people who believe that we do need wars to defend us, and who view the renaming of the War Department as the Defense Department as essentially a question of accuracy, it’s worth taking this belief very seriously. In fact, I would like to take it so seriously as to insist that its proponents create effective definitions of defensive and offensive actions, and of defensive and offensive weaponry, and make eliminating the offensive varieties a top priority.
Is massing troops on a border thousands of miles from your own country defensive or offensive? If it’s defensive, should we demand that every country start routinely doing it? Is attacking seven countries that have not attacked yours offensive or defensive? Is an airplane designed to evade detection before dropping nuclear bombs or napalm defensive? Is installing missiles near a distant land that views them as offensive defensive if you call it “missile defense”? Is giving airplanes and pilots and trainers to China while blockading and threatening Japan until it attacks defensive or offensive? Is attacking territory where people attempt to secede from a country defensive or offensive? Is dropping white phosphorus on people because their ruler is alleged to have used chemical weapons on his own people offensive or defensive, or simply acceptable because you’re killing somebody else’s people? Is attacking first before someone else can attack you defensive, offensive, or does it depend on who is doing it — and if it depends on who is doing it, how does one obtain that special privilege?
I don’t think you can clearly define every action as defensive or offensive to everyone’s satisfaction, much less stop all parties from proclaiming their status as defensive actors. But I do think you can get broad agreement on enough to identify three quarters of U.S. military expenditures, and an enormous percentage of U.S. weapons sales, as having no defensive purpose, and serving rather to endanger than to protect. I would include on that list: U.S. troop presence in 175 countries, U.S. “Special” Forces in 135 countries, U.S./Saudi war in Yemen, U.S. warmaking in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, and Syria, all nuclear weapons, all aircraft carriers, all vehicles not designed for guarding U.S. borders, all State Department and Pentagon personnel employed marketing U.S. weaponry to foreign governments, and all U.S. weapons sales (and gifts) to foreign governments and non-state fighters. So, if someone believes in military defense, we need have no argument. Instead we can work on scaling the U.S. military back in a manner that I guarantee will create a reverse arms race around the world, make us safer, and make total abolition seem dramatically more realistic to everyone than it does now.
Of course we are not taking partial steps toward establishing a defensive Defense Department, because the distinction between “defensive” and “offensive” war is a distinction of rhetoric and justification, not of action. The U.S. prepares for and engages in so-called “defensive” wars in a manner that the earth could never survive, environmentally or militarily, if even just two nations did it, and in a manner indistinguishable from preparation for offensive wars. Thus it becomes important to recognize necessary partial steps away from militarism not as ends in themselves or steps toward better wars, but as steps toward abolition.
The idea that we don’t actually need some reasonable level of military defense is boosted by studies like Erica Chenoweth’s and Maria Stephan’s showing the superiority of nonviolent action to violent. My hope is that the more that people learn the tools of nonviolence and their power, the more they will believe in and choose to make use of that power, which will increase the power of nonviolence in a virtuous cycle. At some point I can imagine people laughing at the idea that some foreign dictatorship is going to invade and occupy a nation ten times its size, full of people dedicated to nonviolent noncooperation with occupiers. Already, I get a laugh on a frequent basis when people email me with the threat that if I do not support war I had better be prepared to start speaking North Korean or what they call “the ISIS language.” Apart from the nonexistence of these languages, the idea that anybody is going to get 300 million Americans to learn any foreign language, much less do so at gun point, almost makes me cry. I can’t help imagining how much weaker war propaganda might be if all Americans did know multiple languages.
Peace Studies, I think, has the job of replacing just war theory with just peace theory. It shouldn’t be that hard a job. Just war criteria come in three types: non-empirical, impossible, and amoral.
The Non-Empirical Criteria: A just war is supposed to have the right intention, a just cause, and proportionality. But these are devices of rhetoric. When your government says bombing a building where ISIS stashes money justifies killing up to 50 people, there’s no agreed upon, empirical means to reply No, only 49, or only 6, or up to 4,097 people can be justly killed. There’s no kilodometer or mechanical Madeleine Albright that I can plug in and use to measure the number of justifiable murders. Identifying a government’s intention is far from simple, and attaching a just cause like ending slavery to a war doesn’t make that cause inherent to that war. Slavery can be ended in many ways, while no war has ever been fought for a single reason. Slavery in Birmingham, Alabama, certainly wasn’t ended by a war. If Myanmar had more oil we’d be hearing about genocide prevention as a just cause for invading, and no doubt worsening, the crisis.
The Impossible Criteria: A just war is supposed to be a last resort, have a reasonable prospect of success, keep noncombatants immune from attack, respect enemy soldiers as human beings, and treat prisoners of war as noncombatants. None of these things is even possible. To call something a “last resort” is in reality merely to claim it is the best idea you have, not the only idea you have. There are always other ideas that anyone can think of. Every time we urgently need to bomb Iran or we’re all going to die, and we don’t, and we don’t, the urgency of the next demand to bomb Iran loses a bit of its shine and the infinite options of other things to do become a little easier to see. If war really were the only idea you had, you wouldn’t be debating ethics, you’d be running for Congress.
What about respecting a person while trying to kill her or him? There are lots of ways to respect a person, but none of them can exist simultaneously with trying to kill that person. In fact, I would rank right at the bottom of people who respect me those who were trying to kill me. Remember that just war theory began with people who believed killing someone was doing them a favor. Noncombatants are the majority of casualties in modern wars, so they cannot be kept safe, but they are not locked in cages, so prisoners cannot be treated like noncombatants while imprisoned.
The Amoral Criteria: Just wars are supposed to be publicly declared and waged by legitimate and competent authorities. These are not moral concerns. Even in a world where we had legitimate and competent authorities, they wouldn’t make a war any more or less just. Does anyone really picture a family in Yemen hiding from a constantly buzzing drone and expressing gratitude that the drone has been sent to them by a competent authority? Are there any documented cases of such attitudes?
But the biggest reason that no war can ever be just is not that no war can ever meet all the criteria of just war theory, but rather that war is not just an incident, it is an institution.
III. This is the third lesson that I think needs to be taught widely. War carries a lot of baggage, and it all has to be paid for. Some people who believe that some wars might be good can’t identify any of them beyond wars they wish had happened that didn’t, most prominently in Rwanda. Others can identify a handful of recent wars they think are justifiable. But most people in the United States are willing to concede that most wars have not been justified, often including every war of the past three-quarters of a century. Yet, most such people (generally oblivious to a half dozen wars currently underway, and having formed no conclusions about their justness) insist that there might be a necessary war any minute, or as soon as a president from their preferred party is in the White House, and that World War II, the U.S. Civil War, and the American Revolution were justified. I’ve written at great length and talked myself out of breath on why those examples do not hold up, but let’s just concede for the sake of argument that they do. Can a choice from a radically different era justify war the institution now, this year and next year and the year after that?
If a candidate for the title of just war were to materialize next week, here’s what it would have to do to be just. First, it would have to meet enough criteria to somehow count as a morally defensible action in itself. Second, it would have to outweigh all the damage done by, let’s say, 72 years of unjust wars that would not have occurred but for the maintenance of the institution of war. Third, it would have to do so much good as to outweigh 72 years of spending on a scale that has killed many more people than have 72 years of wars. The U.S. government spends about $1 trillion on war and war preparations each year, while $30 billion per year could end starvation, and $11 billion could end the lack of clean drinking water globally. Fourth, this miraculously just war would have to outweigh 72 years worth of environmental damage by the leading destroyer of the earth and its climate. (The fact that the U.S. military is that top environmental destroyer also needs to be made much better known and understood.) Fifth, for a war to actually measure up as just it would have to outweigh the damage that war does to the rule of law. War is illegal under the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and all current wars are also illegal under the U.N. Charter. Numerous atrocities within the wars are also illegal. Fraud committed to start wars is illegal. And of course we lose more legal rights as citizens, defendants, and activists through the course of each war.
A rather disgusting last-ditch effort to put something on the positive side of the balance for the institution of war is the claim that war is economically beneficial, at least to those nations waging wars far from home. The University of Massachusetts – Amherst studies showing that other spending and even tax cuts for working people are economically preferable to war have been invaluable. So have various studies informing us of how much people know about levels of military spending (very little) and what they want to do once informed, for example, of what the U.S. federal budget looks like (they want to move a great deal out of the military).
There is no significant upside to war. Thrill seekers can find them in nonviolent action. Courage can be exercised against a growing onslaught of fires and hurricanes — though the popularity of shooting guns at hurricanes is not what I have in mind, and is, I think, a symptom of war madness. Young people helped to grow up and mature by being screamed at and disciplined in the military would in most cases have been better off with loving and dedicated parents or friends. War is not needed. We can leave it to the ants, who are far better at it. We’re better off without it. We can actually stop denouncing something as “not a necessary war.” Nobody accuses anyone of a non-necessary rape or a kitten-torturing of choice or an illegal kidnapping. No qualifiers are needed for these evils, or for the greatest evil of all: war.
But what do we replace war with? I have three answers, progressively less flippant.
1) What do we replace murder or rape or arson or looting with? Nothing. We just stop committing those crimes. What should the U.S. government have done instead of attacking Afghanistan? Not attacked Afghanistan.
2) We replace war with talking. Jimmy Carter who has successfully negotiated with North Korea suggests negotiating with North Korea. Mikhail Gorbachev who has successfully negotiated with Ronald Reagan suggests that Trump and Putin give it a try. The government of Afghanistan prior to the past 16 years of war was open to discussing the handover of Osama bin Laden to a third nation to be tried on any charges against him.
3) We replace the institution of war with new and improved institutions of peace that advance cooperation, aid, diplomacy, democracy, and the rule of law. On behalf of World Beyond War, I recently submitted an entry in a competition created by a Hungarian-Swedish billionaire for a design of a better system of world government. Once we’ve failed to win a million dollars (and save the world) we’ll publish our proposal. But we have already published a book called A Global Security System that outlines a future without war systems and war economies. In all such planning we can draw on the work of Peace Studies informing us of what sorts of sanctions have been helpful and hurtful, and what forms of governments best resist war. Instead of attacking Afghanistan, the U.S. government could have presented evidence against those it accused and sought their extradition, offered aid to Afghanistan, built schools in Afghanistan — as Shirin Ebadi proposed — each named for a victim of 9/11, withdrawn its troops from the Middle East and Asia, joined the International Criminal Court, moved to eliminate the veto power at the United Nations, impeached George W. Bush, opened negotiations for a global nuclear weapons ban, abolished the CIA, returned the stolen land at Guantanamo to the nation of Cuba and ended its blockade, increased green energy rather than war spending by a half-trillion dollars a year, and pledged never ever to create any agencies with the word “Homeland” in their names.
Treating war as an institution makes it seem larger and more daunting, but it also means that it is possible to create the conditions in which wars do not happen. That’s far more difficult with individual crimes. Tomorrow a major dispute may arise between Costa Rica and Iceland, but they are almost certain to resolve it short of war, principally because they’d have to create militaries before attacking each other.
IV. The fourth big area where I think Peace Studies can help end war is through the advancement of Peace History, Peace Journalism, and Peace Training in Resistance to Propaganda. I realize that we face hurdles here other than lack of accurate and well-conceived information. I remember when believers in weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were shown evidence to the contrary and consequently believed in the weapons all the more strongly. And, by the way, you generally do not, of course, have to persuade people who believe their televisions that their facts are wrong. You can choose to start a very different conversation, such as asking whether all nations that possess weapons of mass destruction should be utterly destroyed, or asking whether the CIA was all wrong when it suggested that the best way to get Iraq to use its weapons would be to attack Iraq. I also remember when the U.S. public powerfully opposed attacking Syria in 2013 only to completely lose its mind the next year when it saw or heard about horribly frightening ISIS videos. Fear is not always conquerable by means of facts or context — such as the fact that toddlers with guns are a bigger danger in the United States than ISIS is. But, among many other things, facts do matter, useful analysis does matter, and changing the conversation to one not framed by sound bytes on subservient corporate advertising-based media matters.
I’m not sure that, in general, even without an unfair draft, one’s level of formal education makes one more likely to oppose militarism. But it does seem to be the case that in general the more one knows about a country, a situation, and the range of options the more one favors peace. Various studies have found people’s ability to accurately locate a country on a globe to be inversely proportional to their desire to see the U.S. government bomb that country. Ordinary folks and even members of Congress have, when prompted, expressed their belief in the need to bomb various countries with funny names that do not actually exist. Without a doubt people would not hold those relatively harmless beliefs if they knew the names of the world’s nations. I’d also be willing to bet, although I have no evidence for it, that an American’s willingness to declare the United States the “greatest nation on earth” is inversely proportional to the amount of time he or she has spent outside of the United States or its military bases. And then there’s a study I read about in Peace Science Digest that found that people are much more willing to oppose a war if told there are alternatives, but that if neither told that there are nor that there are not alternatives then they are just as supportive of a war as if they had been told there are no alternatives. The researchers concluded that, contrary to logic and past experience, many people simply assume that the U.S. government has already exhausted all alternatives before launching any war. This, it seems to me, can be countered in three ways. First, by creating the understanding that there are ALWAYS alternatives. Second, by pointing out specific current alternatives. And third, by reviewing a little peace history — taking peace history to include antiwar history.
I don’t think most text books in U.S. schools point out the following pattern:
- Spain wanted the matter of the Maine to go to international arbitration, but the U.S. preferred war.
- Mexico was willing to negotiate the sale of its northern half without war.
- Peace activists urged the British and Americans to negotiate to transport the Jews out of Germany, but Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden replied that it would be too much bother when they needed to focus on the war.
- The Soviet Union proposed peace negotiations before the Korean War.
- The United States rejected peace proposals for Vietnam from the Vietnamese, the Soviets, and the French, including through Richard Nixon secretly sabotaging a peace agreement prior to his first election.
- Prior to the First Gulf War, the Iraqi government was willing to negotiate withdrawal from Kuwait, as the King of Jordan, the Pope, the President of France, the President of the Soviet Union, and many others urged a peaceful settlement.
- Prior to Shock and Awe, the U.S. president had been concocting cockamamie schemes to get a war started; the Iraqi government had approached the CIA’s Vincent Cannistrato to offer to let U.S. troops search the entire country; the Iraqi government had offered to hold internationally monitored elections within two years; the Iraqi government had offered Bush official Richard Perle to open the whole country to inspections, to turn over a suspect in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, to help fight terrorism, and to favor U.S. oil companies; and the Iraqi president had offered, in the account that the president of Spain was given by the U.S. president, to simply leave Iraq if he could keep $1 billion.
- In March 2011 the African Union had a plan for peace in Libya but was prevented by NATO, through the creation of a “no fly zone” and the initiation of bombing, to travel to Libya to discuss it. In April, the African Union was able to discuss its plan with Ghadafi, and he expressed his agreement. The U.S. preferred war.
- The U.S. government has spent years sabotaging UN attempts at peace in Syria, and dismissed out of hand a Russian peace proposal for Syria in 2012.
The point of this handful of examples, which could be multiplied, is that, just as racism has to be carefully taught, war has to be carefully created and peace carefully avoided at all costs. War doesn’t just occur naturally of its own volition, even though threats and buildups and faulty nukes and radar systems can risk making it more likely. Most people don’t engage in war without intense conditioning, and most people suffer intensely from having done so. This point is strengthened greatly by the work of Douglas Fry and others who document the common existence of humans through history and prehistory without war. Believe it or not, despite our great admiration for innovation, many people simply refuse to be part of anything (even living without war) unless it has been done before. So, informing people that it has been done before performs a great service.
Peace Studies needs to include lessons in lie detection, in recognition of common propaganda techniques, and in smart reading of news.
Raise your hand: who can tell me the most successful step yet taken to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons program?
The U.S.-Iran nuclear deal? No. The correct answer is the 2005 decree against nuclear weapons by Iran’s religious leader, or in other words the fact that Iran did not in 2015 have any nuclear weapons program, nor did it in 2007 according to the U.S. “National Intelligence Estimate.” Nor did it ever, according to the reporting of Gareth Porter and others. Of course a deal is better than a war, but believing all the rhetoric of the deal’s supporters can be counterproductive, and assuming that one corrupt political party must be 100% right if the other corrupt political party is wrong guarantees disaster.
We need to be trained in resisting demonization of groups of people and identification of groups of people with single demonized individuals. We need practice at distinguishing people from warmongering officials, abroad and at home. We need to resist identifying ourselves with a military. Even a peace activist who has protested a war and gone to jail to try to stop it will blurt out “We just dropped bombs.” No, we didn’t. The U.S. military did. Of course non-tax-resisters will immediately proclaim their responsibility to talk about the Pentagon in the first person because they pay taxes or simply because they live in the United States. But they pay local taxes and refer to their local government as their local government, not as “we.” They pay state taxes and refer to their state government as the government of their state. And when the federal government bails out a bank or eliminates an estate tax or denies people health care it’s rarely in the first person. Nobody says “We just eliminated my health coverage.” The first person is used for what a government does to other people. The first person accompanies the military and the flag that must be worshiped, which is not a local, state, or earth flag, or a flag of peace.
Studies find that many people in the United States value U.S. lives far more highly than they value the other 96% of humanity. We need to learn to resist the immorality of that, to do what is called humanizing to most of humanity, and to learn who it is that suffers in what we call wars but could as accurately call one-sided slaughters. Ralph Peters wrote in the New York Post that it is worth killing a million North Koreans to save 1,000 U.S. lives.
We have to learn to be wise judges of claims that wars can be humanitarian, beneficial, philanthropic. There has yet to be a humanitarian war that benefitted humanity. Claims that opportunities for such successes have been missed or are still ahead of us should be treated with the skepticism they deserve.
We have to learn to counter the propaganda of troopism and the silly but dangerous notion that opposing a war is the equivalent of supporting the other side of a war. I want to read here a few paragraphs from my book War Is A Lie:
“The chairman of the house appropriations committee from 2007 through 2010 was David Obey (D-WI). When the mother of a soldier being sent to Iraq for the third time and being denied needed medical care asked him to stop funding the war in 2007 with a ‘supplemental’ spending bill, Congressman Obey screamed at her (and a Youtube video of him screaming made the news for 15 minutes), saying among other things: ‘We’re trying to use the supplemental to end the war, but you can’t end the war by going against the supplemental. It’s time these idiot liberals understand that. There’s a big difference between funding the troops and ending the war. I’m not gonna deny body armor. I’m not gonna deny funding for veterans’ hospitals, defense hospitals, so you can help people with medical problems, that’s what you’re gonna do if you’re going against the bill.’ Congress had funded the war on Iraq for years without providing troops with adequate body armor. But funding for body armor was now in a bill to prolong the war. And funding for veterans’ care, which could have been provided in a separate bill, was packaged into this one. Why? Precisely so that people like Obey could more easily claim that the war funding was for the benefit of the troops. Of course it’s still a transparent reversal of the facts to say that you can’t end the war by ceasing to fund it. And if the troops came home, they wouldn’t need body armor, [at least outside of Las Vegas and Orlando and wherever’s next]. But Obey had completely internalized the crazy propaganda of war promotion. He seemed to actually believe that the only way to end a war was to pass a bill to fund it but to include in the bill some minor and rhetorical antiwar gestures. On July 27, 2010, having failed for another three-and-a-half years to end the wars by funding them, Obey brought to the House floor a bill to fund an escalation of the war on Afghanistan, specifically to send 30,000 more troops plus corresponding contractors into that hell. Obey announced that his conscience was telling him to vote no on the bill because it was a bill that would just help recruit people who want to attack Americans. On the other hand, Obey said, it was his duty as committee chair (apparently a higher duty than the one to his conscience) to bring the bill to the floor. Even though it would encourage attacks on Americans? Isn’t that treason? Obey proceeded to speak against the bill he was bringing to the floor. Knowing it would safely pass, he voted against it. One could imagine, with a few more years of awakening, David Obey reaching the point of actually trying to stop funding a war he ‘opposes,’ except that Obey had already announced his plan to retire at the end of 2010. He ended his career in Congress on that high note of hypocrisy because war propaganda, most of it about troops, has persuaded legislators that they can be ‘critics’ and ‘opponents’ of a war while funding it.”
Something else Peace Studies can help us with is figuring out the actual motivations for wars that are hiding behind all the false ones. I’ve never found a war with only one motivation, but some motivations are quite common. Pleasing what we euphemistically call election campaign donors is one, pleasing the media another, pleasing certain voters yet another, and pleasing the irrational urges of warmakers one of the biggest of all. The Pentagon Papers famously revealed that the Pentagon thought 70% of the reason to keep killing people in Vietnam was to save face. Often the reasons for wars that kill millions closely resemble the reasons for bullying in a school hallway that frightens one child (which may be why it makes sense for anti-bullying clubs to call themselves peace clubs, though I wish they’d oppose wars). But other, more solid (or sometimes liquid) reasons for wars exist. Again I quote from Peace Science Digest: “Oil importing countries are 100 times more likely to intervene in civil wars of oil exporting countries. The more oil produced or owned by a country, the higher the likelihood of third-party interventions. Oil is a motivating factor for military interventions in civil wars.”
But how do we find honest and accurate accounts of motivations or of anything else? With the internet telling us everything and its opposite, how do we find the right news? My top 10 tips are:
- Read more books than articles.
- Avoid allowing Facebook or Google to decide what’s news for you.
- Diversify your sources of news, and read news about your country that comes from outside your country.
- Consider what smart people you trust believe.
- Read websites that collect articles on topics that interest you.
- Don’t read about a video, watch the video; and don’t read about a statement or report or tweet, read the statement or report or tweet.
- Read only what you believe are important topics, whether or not they are the big and popular topics.
- Question everything, especially what is assumed without being asserted.
- Believe what is best documented, not what is most in the middle of a range of claims.
- Be willing to remain in doubt, and willing to believe horrible things when proven.
V. The fifth and final area where I think Peace Studies can help end wars is in correcting a blind spot in parts of academia by pointing out that, while many countries make weapons and wars, the world’s leading warmaker and weapons dealer is the United States government.
There is a reason that most countries polled in December 2013 by Gallup called the United States the greatest threat to peace in the world, and why Pew found that viewpoint increased in 2017. But it is a reason that eludes that strain of U.S. academia that first defines war as something that nations and groups other than the United States do, and then concludes that war has nearly vanished from the earth.
Since World War II, during a supposed golden age of peace, the United States military has killed or helped kill some 20 million people, overthrown at least 36 governments, interfered in at least 82 foreign elections, attempted to assassinate over 50 foreign leaders, and dropped bombs on people in over 30 countries. The U.S. government provides military aid to 73% of the world’s dictatorships. Wars often have U.S. weapons on both sides.
In conjunction with learning to outgrow nationalism, we need to outgrow what I sometimes call Pinkerism, though it’s something found in Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Daniel Goldhagen, Ian Morris, and many, many others.
To claim that war is vanishing is one point. To erase the warmaking of what Dr. King called the greatest purveyor of violence on earth, the U.S. government, is another.
That war is vanishing is dubious, and certainly exaggerated. Looking at pre-historic tribes only back to 14,000 BCE, as Pinker does, misses most of human existence, puts a controversial interpretation on what early tribes did, and spins the statistics by measuring casualties in relation to those in the immediate area while measuring recent war deaths against the larger population of distant imperial countries, and while excluding delayed deaths from toxic poisoning, injuries, poverty, and suicides — and, of course, excluding deaths from famines and disease epidemics created by wars, and obviously not considering the lives that could have been saved with the funding that is wasted on wars.
Pretending that the United States is not the leading war-maker on earth, that war or genocide is something that arises elsewhere and must be corrected by non-war U.S. militarism is strictly false. Wars, in Pinker’s view, originate in poor and Muslim nations. Pinker indicates no awareness that wealthy nations fund and arm dictators in poor countries, that these countries no more manufacture weapons than the Chinese grew all their own opium or Native Americans made all their own alcohol.
Pinker blames the high death rate in what the Vietnamese call the American War on the willingness of the Vietnamese to die in large numbers rather than surrender, as he thinks they should have. Somehow the Soviets’ far-greater willingness to die against the Nazis doesn’t get mentioned.
The U.S. war on Iraq ended, in Pinker’s view, when President George W. Bush declared “mission accomplished,” since which point it has been a civil war, and therefore the causes of that civil war can be analyzed in terms of the shortcomings of Iraqi society. “[I]t is so hard,” Pinker complains, “to impose liberal democracy on countries in the developing world that have not outgrown their superstitions, warlords, and feuding tribes.” Indeed it may be, but where is the evidence that the United States government has been attempting it? Or the evidence that the United States has such democracy itself? Or that the United States has the right to impose its desires on another nation?
After all the fancy footwork calculating our path to peace, we look up and see a war kill 5% of Iraq’s population just in the years after March 2003, or perhaps 9% counting previous war and sanctions, or at least 10% between 1990 and today. And far more deadly U.S.-supported wars in terms of absolute numbers in places like the Congo. And war has been normalized. Most people can’t name them all, much less tell you why they should be continued.
Peace Studies should get war noticed. The first step, addicts say, is recognizing that you have a problem. I think the value of peace studies is limitless in reaching young people, activists, and the general public, and in showing activists how to reach the general public — also in connecting young people with activists. It’s usually in speaking to students or in a debate that I get any chance to speak to people not self-selected to already agree with me.
We really need to create and fund a career path that leads peace studies students into careers in peace activism.
We really need peace activism to better connect with peace studies, and professors to have their names on every statement and their voices at every rally.
World Beyond War is working to organize a nonviolent movement to abolish war and will eagerly accept any input from anyone interested in helping.
Let’s try one more time, just for fun: Please raise your hand if you believe war is never justified.