War Should Be Ended: Part II Of “War No More: The Case For Abolition” By David Swanson
II. WAR SHOULD BE ENDED
While most people don’t believe that war can be ended (and I hope Section I of this book begins ever so slightly to change some minds), many also don’t believe that war should be ended. Of course it’s easier to dismiss the question of whether war should be ended if you’ve decided that it can’t be ended, just as it’s easier not to worry about the possibility of ending it if you’ve decided that it should be maintained. So, the two beliefs are mutually supporting. Both are mistaken, and weakening one helps to weaken the other, but both run deep in our culture. There are even some people who believe that war can and should be abolished, but who propose using war as the tool with which to do the job. That confusion illustrates just how difficult it is for us to arrive at a position in favor of abolition.
“Defense” Endangers Us
Since 1947, when the Department of War was renamed the Department of Defense, the U.S. military has been on the offensive at least as much as always. Assaults on Native Americans, the Philippines, Latin America, etc., by the War Department had not been defensive; and neither were the Defense Department’s wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc. While the best defense in many sports may be a good offense, an offense in war is not defensive, not when it generates hatred, resentment, and blowback, not when the alternative is no war at all. Through the course of the so-called global war on terrorism, terrorism has been on the rise.
This was predictable and predicted. People outraged by attacks and occupations just weren’t going to be eliminated or won over by more attacks and occupations. Pretending that they “hate our freedoms,” as President George W. Bush claimed, or that they just have the wrong religion or are completely irrational doesn’t change this. Pursuing legal recourse by prosecuting those responsible for the crimes of mass-murder on 9/11 might have helped to deter additional terrorism better than launching wars. It also wouldn’t hurt for the U.S. government to stop arming dictators (as I write this, the Egyptian military is attacking Egyptian civilians with weapons provided by the United States, and the White House is refusing to cut off the “aid,” meaning weapons), defending crimes against Palestinians (try reading The General’s Son by Miko Peled), and stationing U.S. troops in other people’s countries. The wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the abuses of prisoners during them, became major recruiting tools for anti-U.S. terrorism.
In 2006, U.S. intelligence agencies produced a National Intelligence Estimate that reached just that conclusion. The Associated Press reported: “The war in Iraq has become a cause célèbre for Islamic extremists, breeding deep resentment of the U.S. that probably will get worse before it gets better, federal intelligence analysts conclude in a report at odds with President Bush’s contention of a world growing safer. … [T]he nation’s most veteran analysts conclude that despite serious damage to the leadership of al-Qaida, the threat from Islamic extremists has spread both in numbers and in geographic reach.”
The extent to which the U.S. government pursues counter-terrorism policies that it knows will generate terrorism has led many to conclude that reducing terrorism is not a big priority, and some to conclude that generating terrorism is in fact the goal. Leah Bolger, a former president of Veterans For Peace, says, “the U.S. government knows that the wars are counter-productive, that is, if your purpose is to reduce the number of ‘terrorists.’ But the purpose of American wars is not to make peace, it is to make more enemies so that we can continue the endless cycle of war.”
Now comes the part where it indeed gets worse before better. There is a new top recruiting tool: drone strikes and targeted killings. Veterans of U.S. kill teams in Iraq and Afghanistan interviewed in Jeremy Scahill’s book and film Dirty Wars said that whenever they worked their way through a list of people to kill, they were handed a larger list; the list grew as a result of working their way through it. General Stanley McChrystal, then commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan told Rolling Stone in June 2010 that “for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and others have meticulously documented the names of many innocents killed by drone strikes.
In 2013, McChrystal said there was widespread resentment against drone strikes in Pakistan. According to the Pakistani newspaper Dawn on February 10, 2013, McChrystal, “warned that too many drone strikes in Pakistan without identifying suspected militants individually can be a bad thing. Gen. McChrystal said he understood why Pakistanis, even in the areas not affected by the drones, reacted negatively against the strikes. He asked the Americans how they would react if a neighbouring country like Mexico started firing drone missiles at targets in Texas. The Pakistanis, he said, saw the drones as a demonstration of America’s might against their nation and reacted accordingly. ‘What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world,’ Gen. McChrystal said in an earlier interview. ‘The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.’”
As early as 2010, Bruce Riedel, who coordinated a review of Afghanistan policy for President Obama said, “The pressure we’ve put on [jihadist forces] in the past year has also drawn them together, meaning that the network of alliances is growing stronger not weaker.” (New York Times, May 9, 2010.) Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair said that while “drone attacks did help reduce the Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, they also increased hatred of America” and damaged “our ability to work with Pakistan [in] eliminating Taliban sanctuaries, encouraging Indian-Pakistani dialogue, and making Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal more secure.” (New York Times, August 15, 2011.)
Michael Boyle, part of Obama’s counter-terrorism group during his 2008 election campaign, says the use of drones is having “adverse strategic effects that have not been properly weighed against the tactical gains associated with killing terrorists. … The vast increase in the number of deaths of low-ranking operatives has deepened political resistance to the US programme in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries.” (The Guardian, January 7, 2013.) “We’re seeing that blowback. If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted,” echoed Gen. James E. Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (The New York Times, March 22, 2013.)
These views are not uncommon. The CIA’s station chief in Islamabad in 2005-2006 thought the drone strikes, then still infrequent, had “done little except fuel hatred for the United States inside Pakistan.” (See The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzetti.) The top U.S. civilian official in part of Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh, resigned in protest and commented, “I think we’re engendering more hostility. We’re wasting a lot of very good assets going after midlevel guys who don’t threaten the United States or have no capacity to threaten the United States.” For many more such viewpoints see Fred Branfman’s collection at WarIsACrime.org/LessSafe.
An Unusual Hearing
With Something to Be Heard
In April 2013, a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on drones that it had previously delayed. As it happened, during the delay, the home town of one of the scheduled witnesses was struck by a drone. Farea al-Muslimi, a young man from Yemen, described “an attack that terrified thousands of simple, poor farmers.”
Al-Muslimi said, “I have visited locations where U.S. targeted killing strikes have hit their intended targets. And I have visited sites where the U.S. strikes missed their targets and instead killed or injured innocent civilians. I have spoken with grieving family members and angry villagers. I have seen Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) use U.S. strikes to promote its agenda and try to recruit more terrorists.”
Al-Muslimi detailed some of these cases. He also explained his gratitude to the United States for scholarships and an experience as an exchange student that allowed him to see more of the world than his tiny Yemeni village of Wessab. “For almost all of the people in Wessab,” al-Muslimi said, “I’m the only person with any connection to the United States. They called and texted me that night with questions that I could not answer: Why was the United States terrifying them with these drones? Why was the United States trying to kill a person with a missile when everyone knows where he is and he could have been easily arrested?”
After the strike, the farmers in Wessab were afraid and angry. They were upset because they know Al-Radmi but they did not know that he was a target, so they could have potentially been with him during the missile strike. …
In the past, most of Wessab’s villagers knew little about the United States. My stories about my experiences in America, my American friends, and the American values that I saw for myself helped the villagers I talked to understand the America that I know and love. Now, however, when they think of America they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads ready to fire missiles at any time. …
There is nothing villagers in Wessab needed more than a school to educate the local children or a hospital to help decrease the number of women and children dying every day. Had the United States built a school or hospital, it would have instantly changed the lives of my fellow villagers for the better and been the most effective counterterrorism tool. And I can almost certainly assure you that the villagers would have gone to arrest the target themselves. …
What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.
Al-Muslimi arrived at the same conclusion that one hears from countless people, including top U.S. officials, in Pakistan and Yemen:
The killing of innocent civilians by U.S. missiles in Yemen is helping to destabilize my country and create an environment from which AQAP benefits. Every time an innocent civilian is killed or maimed by a U.S. drone strike or another targeted killing, it is felt by Yemenis across the country. These strikes often cause animosity towards the United States and create a backlash that undermines the national security goals of the United States.
When Is Murder Not Murder?
Farea al-Muslimi’s testimony was an unusually intense dose of reality in the halls of Congress. The rest of the witnesses in that hearing and most other hearings on the topic were law professors chosen for their unreserved approval of the drone kill program. A professor expected to approve of drone kills in Afghanistan but to oppose them as illegal in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere “outside the war zone,” was stricken from the witness list. While the United Nations is “investigating” the illegality of drone strikes, the closest the senators came to hearing that viewpoint in the hearing at which al-Muslimi spoke came in the testimony of law professor Rosa Brooks.
The White House had refused to send any witnesses, as it had refused for various other hearings on the same topic. So Congress made do with law professors. But the law professors testified that, due to White House secrecy, they were incapable of knowing anything. Rosa Brooks testified, in effect, that drone strikes outside of an accepted war zone could be “murder” (her word) or they could be perfectly acceptable. The question was whether they were part of a war. If they were part of a war then they were perfectly acceptable. If they were not part of a war then they were murder. But the White House was claiming to have secret memos “legalizing” the drone strikes, and Brooks could not know without seeing the memos whether the memos said the drone strikes were part of a war or not.
Think about this for a minute. In this same room, at this same table, is Farea al-Muslimi, afraid to visit his mother, his heart bleeding for the terror inflicted on his village. And here comes a law professor to explain that it’s all in perfect harmony with U.S. values as long as the President has put the right words down on a secret law that he won’t show the U.S. people.
It’s odd that murder is the only crime that war erases. Believers in civilized warfare maintain that, even in war, you cannot kidnap or rape or torture or steal or lie under oath or cheat on your taxes. But if you want to murder, that’ll be just fine. Believers in uncivilized war find this hard to grasp. If you can murder, which is the worst thing possible, then why in the world—they ask—can you not torture a little bit too?
What is the substantive difference between being at war and not being at war, such that in one case an action is honorable and in the other it’s murder? By definition, there is nothing substantive about it. If a secret memo can legalize drone kills by explaining that they are part of a war, then the difference is not substantive or observable. We cannot see it here in the heart of the empire, and al-Muslimi cannot see it in his drone-struck village in Yemen. The difference is something that can be contained in a secret memo. To tolerate war and live with ourselves, the majority of members of a community must engage in this moral blindness.
The results are not so secret. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in January 2013, “There appears to be a strong correlation in Yemen between increased targeted killings since December 2009 and heightened anger toward the United States and sympathy with or allegiance to AQAP. … One former senior military official closely involved in U.S. targeted killings argued that ‘drone strikes are just a signal of arrogance that will boomerang against America. … A world characterized by the proliferation of armed drones … would undermine core U.S. interests, such as preventing armed conflict, promoting human rights, and strengthening international legal regimes.’ Because of drones’ inherent advantages over other weapons platforms, states and nonstate actors would be much more likely to use lethal force against the United States and its allies.”
Our government has given this disastrous idea a name and is seeking to spread it far and wide. Gregory Johnson wrote in the New York Times on November 19, 2012: “The most enduring policy legacy of the past four years may well turn out to be an approach to counterterrorism that American officials call the ‘Yemen model,’ a mixture of drone strikes and Special Forces raids targeting Al Qaeda leaders. … Testimonies from Qaeda fighters and interviews I and local journalists have conducted across Yemen attest to the centrality of civilian casualties in explaining Al Qaeda’s rapid growth there. The United States is killing women, children and members of key tribes. ‘Each time they kill a tribesman, they create more fighters for Al Qaeda,’ one Yemeni explained to me over tea in Sana, the capital, last month. Another told CNN, after a failed strike, ‘I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined Al Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake.’”
Who Would Carry Out
Such Disastrous Policies?
A partial answer is: people who obey too readily, trust their supervisors excessively, and feel deep remorse when they stop and think. On June 6, 2013, NBC News interviewed a former drone pilot named Brandon Bryant who was deeply depressed over his role in killing over 1,600 people:
Brandon Bryant says he was sitting in a chair at a Nevada Air Force base operating the camera when his team fired two missiles from their drone at three men walking down a road halfway around the world in Afghanistan. The missiles hit all three targets, and Bryant says he could see the aftermath on his computer screen—including thermal images of a growing puddle of hot blood.
‘The guy that was running forward, he’s missing his right leg,’ he recalled. ‘And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.’ As the man died his body grew cold, said Bryant, and his thermal image changed until he became the same color as the ground.
‘I can see every little pixel,’ said Bryant, who has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, ‘if I just close my eyes.’
‘People say that drone strikes are like mortar attacks,’ Bryant said. ‘Well, artillery doesn’t see this. Artillery doesn’t see the results of their actions. It’s really more intimate for us, because we see everything.’ …
He’s still not certain whether the three men in Afghanistan were really Taliban insurgents or just men with guns in a country where many people carry guns. The men were five miles from American forces arguing with each other when the first missile hit them. …
He also remembers being convinced that he had seen a child scurry onto his screen during one mission just before a missile struck, despite assurances from others that the figure he’d seen was really a dog.
After participating in hundreds of missions over the years, Bryant said he ‘lost respect for life’ and began to feel like a sociopath. …
In 2011, as Bryant’s career as a drone operator neared its end, he said his commander presented him with what amounted to a scorecard. It showed that he had participated in missions that contributed to the deaths of 1,626 people.
‘I would’ve been happy if they never even showed me the piece of paper,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen American soldiers die, innocent people die, and insurgents die. And it’s not pretty. It’s not something that I want to have—this diploma.’
Now that he’s out of the Air Force and back home in Montana, Bryant said he doesn’t want to think about how many people on that list might’ve been innocent: ‘It’s too heartbreaking.’ …
When he told a woman he was seeing that he’d been a drone operator, and contributed to the deaths of a large number of people, she cut him off. ‘She looked at me like I was a monster,’ he said. ‘And she never wanted to touch me again.’
We’re Endangering Others Too,
Not Protecting Them
Wars are packaged in falsehoods with such consistency (see my book War Is A Lie) largely because their promoters want to appeal to good and noble motivations. They say a war will defend us against a nonexistent threat, like the weapons in Iraq, because an open war of aggression wouldn’t be approved of—and because fear and nationalism make many people eager to believe the falsehoods. There’s nothing wrong with defense, after all. Who could possibly be against defense?
Or they say that a war will defend helpless people in Libya or Syria or some other country from dangers they are facing. We must bomb them to protect them. We have a “Responsibility to Protect.” If someone is committing genocide, surely we should not stand by and watch when we could stop it.
But, as we’ve seen above, our wars endanger us rather than defending us. They endanger others too. They take bad situations and make them worse. Should we stop genocides? Of course, we should, if we can. But we shouldn’t use wars to make the people of a suffering nation even worse off. In September 2013, President Obama urged everyone to watch videos of children dying in Syria, the implication being that if you care about those children you must support bombing Syria.
In fact, many war opponents, to their shame, argued that the United States should worry about its own children and stop shouldering the responsibilities of the world. But making things worse in a foreign country by bombing it is not anyone’s responsibility; it’s a crime. And it would not be improved by getting more nations to help with it.
So What Should We Do?
Well, first of all, we should create a world in which such horrors are not likely to occur (see Section IV of this book). Crimes such as genocide do not have justifications, but they do have causes, and there is usually plenty of warning.
Second, nations like the United States should adopt an even-handed policy toward human rights abuse. If Syria commits human rights abuses and resists U.S. economic or military domination, and if Bahrain commits human rights abuses but lets the U.S. Navy dock a fleet of ships in its harbor, the response should be the same. In fact, the fleets of ships should come home from other countries’ harbors, which would make the even-handedness easier. The dictators overthrown in recent years by nonviolence in Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia had, but should not have had, U.S. support. The same goes for the dictator overthrown violently in Libya and the one threatened in Syria, as well as the one overthrown in Iraq. These were all people with whom the U.S. government was happy to work when it seemed to be in U.S. interests. The United States should stop arming, funding, or supporting in any way governments that commit human rights abuses, including the governments of Israel and Egypt. And, of course, the United States should not commit human rights abuses itself.
Third, individuals, groups, and governments should support nonviolent resistance to tyranny and abuse, except when association with them will so discredit those supported as to be counterproductive. Nonviolent victories over tyrannical governments tend to be more frequent and longer lasting than violent ones, and those trends are increasing. (I recommend Erica Chenoweth’s and Maria J. Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.)
Fourth, a government that goes to war against its own people or another country should be shamed, ostracized, prosecuted, sanctioned (in a manner imposing pressure on the government, not suffering on its people), reasoned with, and moved in a peaceful direction. Conversely, governments that do not commit genocide or war should be rewarded.
Fifth, the nations of the world should establish an international police force independent of the interests of any nation engaged in military expansionism or the stationing of troops and weapons in foreign nations around the globe. Such a police force needs to have the sole aim of defending human rights and to be understood to have only that aim. It also needs to use the tools of policing, not the tools of war. Bombing Rwanda wouldn’t have done anyone any good. Police on the ground could have. Bombing Kosovo resulted in increased killing on the ground, not cessation of war.
Of course we should prevent and oppose genocide. But using war to stop genocide is like having sex for virginity. War and genocide are twins. The distinction between them is often that wars are made by our country and genocides by others’. Historian Peter Kuznick asks his classes how many people the United States killed in Vietnam. Students often guess no more than 50,000. Then he tells them that former Secretary of “Defense” Robert McNamara was in his classroom and acknowledged that it was 3.8 million. That was the conclusion of a 2008 study by Harvard Medical School and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves suggests that the real number is higher.
Kuznick then asks his students how many people Hitler killed in concentration camps, and they all know the answer to be 6 million Jews (and millions more including all victims). He asks what they would think if Germans failed to know the number and to feel historical guilt over it. The contrast in Germany is in fact striking with how U.S. students think—if they think at all—about U.S. killing in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, or—indeed—in World War II.
A War on Genocide?
While the genocide of several million in Germany was as horrific as anything imaginable, the war took 50 to 70 million lives total. Some 3 million Japanese died, including hundreds of thousands in air raids prior to the two nuclear bombs that killed some 225,000. Germany killed more Soviet troops than it killed prisoners. The allies killed more Germans than Germany did. They may have done so for a higher purpose, but not without a certain murderous glee on the part of some as well. Prior to U.S. entry into the war, Harry Truman stood up in the Senate and said that the United States should help either the Germans or the Russians, whoever was losing, so that more people would die.
“Kill anything that moves” was an order that showed up, in various wording, in Iraq as in Vietnam. But various anti-personnel weapons, such as cluster bombs, were used in Vietnam specifically to maim and horribly injure rather than to kill, and some of those same weapons are still used by the United States. (See Turse, p. 77.) War can’t fix anything worse than war because there isn’t anything worse than war.
The answer to “what would you do if one country attacked another?” should be the same as the answer to “what would you do if a country committed genocide?” Pundits express their greatest outrage at a tyrant who is “killing his own people.” In fact, killing someone else’s people is evil too. It is even evil when NATO does it.
Should we go to war or sit by? Those are not the only choices. What would I do, I’ve been asked more than once, rather than killing people with drones? I’ve always replied: I’d refrain from killing people with drones. I’d also treat criminal suspects as criminal suspects and work to see them prosecuted for their crimes.
The Case of Libya
I think a bit of detail on a couple of specific cases, Libya and Syria, is justified here by the alarming tendency of many who claim they oppose war to make exceptions for particular wars, including these—one a recent war, the other a threatened war at the time of this writing. First, Libya.
The humanitarian argument for the 2011 NATO bombing of Libya is that it prevented a massacre or it improved a nation by overthrowing a bad government. Much of the weaponry on both sides of the war was U.S. made. The Hitler of the moment had enjoyed U.S. support off-and-on in the past. But taking the moment for what it was, regardless of what might have been done better in the past to avoid it, the case is still not a strong one.
The White House claimed that Gaddafi had threated to massacre the people of Benghazi with “no mercy,” but the New York Times reported that Gaddafi’s threat was directed at rebel fighters, not civilians, and that Gaddafi promised amnesty for those “who throw their weapons away.” Gaddafi also offered to allow rebel fighters to escape to Egypt if they preferred not to fight to the death. Yet President Obama warned of imminent genocide.
The above report of what Gaddafi really threatened fits with his past behavior. There were other opportunities for massacres had he wished to commit massacres, in Zawiya, Misurata, or Ajdabiya. He did not do so. After extensive fighting in Misurata, a report by Human Rights Watch made clear that Gaddafi had targeted fighters, not civilians. Of 400,000 people in Misurata, 257 died in two months of fighting. Out of 949 wounded, less than 3 percent were women.
More likely than genocide was defeat for the rebels, the same rebels who warned Western media of the looming genocide, the same rebels who the New York Times said “feel no loyalty to the truth in shaping their propaganda” and who were “making vastly inflated claims of [Gaddafi’s] barbaric behavior.” The result of NATO joining the war was probably more killing, not less. It certainly extended a war that looked likely to end soon with a victory for Gaddafi.
Alan Kuperman pointed out in the Boston Globe that “Obama embraced the noble principle of the responsibility to protect—which some quickly dubbed the Obama Doctrine—calling for intervention when possible to prevent genocide. Libya reveals how this approach, implemented reflexively, may backfire by encouraging rebels to provoke and exaggerate atrocities, to entice intervention that ultimately perpetuates civil war and humanitarian suffering.”
But what of the overthrow of Gaddafi? That was accomplished whether or not a massacre was prevented. True. And it is too early to say what the full results are. But we do know this: strength was given to the idea that it is acceptable for a group of governments to violently overthrow another. Violent overthrows almost always leave behind instability and resentment. Violence spilled over into Mali and other nations in the region. Rebels with no interest in democracy or civil rights were armed and empowered, with possible repercussions in Syria, for a U.S. ambassador killed in Benghazi, and in future blowback. And a lesson was taught to other nations’ rulers: if you disarm (as Libya, like Iraq, had given up its nuclear and chemical weapons programs) you may be attacked.
In other dubious precedents, the war was fought in opposition to the will of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations. Overthrowing governments may be popular, but it isn’t actually legal. So, other justifications had to be invented. The U.S Department of Justice submitted to Congress a written defense claiming the war served the U.S. national interest in regional stability and in maintaining the credibility of the United Nations. But are Libya and the United States in the same region? What region is that, earth? And isn’t a revolution the opposite of stability?
The credibility of the United Nations is an unusual concern, coming from a government that invaded Iraq in 2003 despite UN opposition and for the express purpose (among others) of proving the UN irrelevant. The same government, within weeks of making this case to Congress, refused to allow the UN special rapporteur to visit a U.S. prisoner named Bradley Manning (now named Chelsea Manning) to verify that she was not being tortured. The same government authorized the CIA to violate the UN arms embargo in Libya, violated the UN ban on “a foreign occupation force of any form” in Libya, and proceeded without hesitation from actions in Benghazi authorized by the UN to actions around the country aimed at “regime change.”
Popular “progressive” U.S. radio host Ed Schultz argued, with vicious hatred in every word he spat out on the subject, that bombing Libya was justified by the need for vengeance against that Satan on earth, that beast arisen suddenly from the grave of Adolph Hitler, that monster beyond all description: Muammar Gaddafi.
Popular U.S. commentator Juan Cole supported the very same war as an act of humanitarian generosity. Many people in NATO countries are motivated by humanitarian concern; that’s why wars are sold as acts of philanthropy. But the U.S. government does not typically intervene in other nations in order to benefit humanity. And to be accurate, the United States is not capable of intervening anywhere, because it is already intervened everywhere; what we call intervention is better called violently switching sides.
The United States was in the business of supplying weapons to Gaddafi up until the moment it got into the business of supplying weapons to his opponents. In 2009, Britain, France and other European states sold Libya over $470m-worth of weapons. The United States can no more intervene in Yemen or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia than in Libya. The U.S. government is arming those dictatorships. In fact, to win the support of Saudi Arabia for its “intervention” in Libya, the U.S. gave its approval for Saudi Arabia to send troops into Bahrain to attack civilians, a policy that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly defended.
The “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, meanwhile, whatever civilians it may have begun by protecting, immediately killed other civilians with its bombs and immediately shifted from its defensive justification to attacking retreating troops and participating in a civil war.
Washington imported a leader for the people’s rebellion in Libya who had spent the previous 20 years living with no known source of income a couple of miles from the CIA’s headquarters in Virginia. Another man lives even closer to CIA headquarters: former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. He expressed great concern in a speech in 1999 that foreign governments were controlling oil. “Oil remains fundamentally a government business,” he said. “While many regions of the world offer great oil opportunities, the Middle East, with two thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies.” Former supreme allied commander Europe of NATO, from 1997 to 2000, Wesley Clark claims that in 2001, a general in the Pentagon showed him a piece of paper and said:
I just got this memo today or yesterday from the office of the secretary of defense upstairs. It’s a, it’s a five-year plan. We’re going to take down seven countries in five years. We’re going to start with Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, then Libya, Somalia, Sudan, we’re going to come back and get Iran in five years.
That agenda fit perfectly with the plans of Washington insiders, such as those who famously spelled out their intentions in the reports of the think tank called the Project for the New American Century. The fierce Iraqi and Afghan resistance didn’t fit in the plan at all. Neither did the nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. But taking over Libya still made perfect sense in the neoconservative worldview. And it made sense in explaining war games used by Britain and France to simulate the invasion of a similar country.
The Libyan government controlled more of its oil than any other nation on earth, and it was the type of oil that Europe finds easiest to refine. Libya also controlled its own finances, leading American author Ellen Brown to point out an interesting fact about those seven countries named by Clark:
“What do these seven countries have in common? In the context of banking, one that sticks out is that none of them is listed among the 56 member banks of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). That evidently puts them outside the long regulatory arm of the central bankers’ central bank in Switzerland. The most renegade of the lot could be Libya and Iraq, the two that have actually been attacked. Kenneth Schortgen Jr., writing on Examiner.com, noted that ‘[s]ix months before the US moved into Iraq to take down Saddam Hussein, the oil nation had made the move to accept euros instead of dollars for oil, and this became a threat to the global dominance of the dollar as the reserve currency, and its dominion as the petrodollar.’ According to a Russian article titled ‘Bombing of Libya – Punishment for Gaddafi for His Attempt to Refuse US Dollar’, Gaddafi made a similarly bold move: he initiated a movement to refuse the dollar and the euro, and called on Arab and African nations to use a new currency instead, the gold dinar.
“Gaddafi suggested establishing a united African continent, with its 200 million people using this single currency. During the past year, the idea was approved by many Arab countries and most African countries. The only opponents were the Republic of South Africa and the head of the League of Arab States. The initiative was viewed negatively by the U.S. and the European Union, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy calling Libya a threat to the financial security of mankind; but Gaddafi was not swayed and continued his push for the creation of a united Africa.”
The Case of Syria
Syria, like Libya, was on the list cited by Clark, and on a similar list attributed to Dick Cheney by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in his memoirs. U.S. officials, including Senator John McCain, have for years openly expressed a desire to overthrow the government of Syria because it is allied with the government of Iran which they believe must also be overthrown. Iran’s 2013 elections didn’t seem to alter that imperative.
As I was writing this, the U.S. government was promoting U.S. war-making in Syria on the grounds that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. No solid evidence for this claim had yet been offered. Below are 12 reasons why this latest excuse for war is no good even if true.
1. War is not made legal by such an excuse. It can’t be found in the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the United Nations Charter, or the U.S. Constitution. It can, however, be found in U.S. war propaganda of the 2002 vintage. (Who says our government doesn’t promote recycling?)
2. The United States itself possesses and uses chemical and other internationally condemned weapons, including white phosphorus, napalm, cluster bombs, and depleted uranium. Whether you praise these actions, avoid thinking about them, or join me in condemning them, they are not a legal or moral justification for any foreign nation to bomb us, or to bomb some other nation where the U.S. military is operating. Killing people to prevent their being killed with the wrong kind of weapons is a policy that must come out of some sort of sickness. Call it Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
3. An expanded war in Syria could become regional or global with uncontrollable consequences. Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Russia, China, the United States, the Gulf states, the NATO states … does this sound like the sort of conflict we want? Does it sound like a conflict anyone will survive? Why in the world risk such a thing?
4. Just creating a “no fly zone” would involve bombing urban areas and unavoidably killing large numbers of people. This happened in Libya and we looked away. But it would happen on a much larger scale in Syria, given the locations of the sites to be bombed. Creating a “no fly zone” is not a matter of making an announcement, but of dropping bombs on anti-aircraft weaponry.
5. Both sides in Syria have used horrible weapons and committed horrible atrocities. Surely even those who imagine people should be killed to prevent their being killed with different weapons can see the insanity of arming both sides to protect each other side. Why is it not, then, just as insane to arm one side in a conflict that involves similar abuses by both?
6. With the United States on the side of the opposition in Syria, the United States will be blamed for the opposition’s crimes. Most people in Western Asia hate al Qaeda and other terrorists. They are also coming to hate the United States and its drones, missiles, bases, night raids, lies, and hypocrisy. Imagine the levels of hatred that will be reached if al Qaeda and the United States team up to overthrow the government of Syria and create an Iraq-like hell in its place.
7. An unpopular rebellion put into power by outside force does not usually result in a stable government. In fact there is not yet on record a case of U.S. humanitarian war clearly benefitting humanity or of nation-building actually building a nation. Why would Syria, which looks even less auspicious than most potential targets, be the exception to the rule?
8. This opposition is not interested in creating a democracy, or—for that matter—in taking instructions from the U.S. government. On the contrary, blowback from these allies is likely. Just as we should have learned the lesson of lies about weapons by now, our government should have learned the lesson of arming the enemy of the enemy long before this moment.
9. The precedent of another lawless act by the United States, whether arming proxies or engaging directly, sets a dangerous example to the world and to those in Washington and in Israel for whom Iran is next on the list.
10. A strong majority of Americans, despite all the media’s efforts thus far, opposes arming the rebels or engaging directly. Instead, a plurality supports providing humanitarian aid. And many (most?) Syrians, regardless of the strength of their criticism for the current government, oppose foreign interference and violence. Many of the rebels are, in fact, foreign fighters. We might better spread democracy by example than by bomb.
11. There are nonviolent pro-democracy movements in Bahrain and Turkey and elsewhere, and in Syria itself, and our government doesn’t lift a finger in support.
12. Establishing that the government of Syria has done horrible things or that the people of Syria are suffering, doesn’t make a case for taking actions likely to make matters worse. There is a major crisis with refugees fleeing Syria in large numbers, but there are as many or more Iraqi refugees still unable to return to their homes. Lashing out at another Hitler might satisfy a certain urge, but it will not benefit the people of Syria. The people of Syria are just as valuable as the people of the United States. There is no reason Americans shouldn’t risk their lives for Syrians. But Americans arming Syrians or bombing Syrians in an action likely to exacerbate the crisis does no one any good at all. We should be encouraging de-escalation and dialogue, disarmament of both sides, the departure of foreign fighters, the return of refugees, the provision of humanitarian aid, the prosecution of war crimes, reconciliation among groups, and the holding of free elections.
Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire visited Syria and discussed the state of affairs there on my radio show. She wrote in the Guardian that, “while there is a legitimate and long-overdue movement for peace and non-violent reform in Syria, the worst acts of violence are being perpetrated by outside groups. Extremist groups from around the world have converged upon Syria, bent on turning this conflict into one of ideological hatred. … International peacekeepers, as well as experts and civilians inside Syria, are nearly unanimous in their view that United States involvement would only worsen this conflict.”
You Can’t Use War to End War
In 1928, the major nations of the world signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, also known as the Peace Pact or the Pact of Paris, which renounced war and committed nations to resolving international disputes by peaceful means alone. Abolitionists hoped to develop a system of international law, arbitration, and prosecution, and to see wars prevented through diplomacy, targeted sanctions, and other nonviolent pressures. Many believed that proposals to enforce a ban on war through the use of war-making would be self-defeating. In 1931, Senator William Borah remarked:
Much has been said, and will continue to be said, for the doctrine of force dies hard, about implementing the peace pact. It is said that we must put teeth into it—an apt word revealing again that theory of peace which is based upon tearing, maiming, destroying, murdering. Many have inquired of me: What is meant by implementing the peace pact? I will seek to make it plain. What they mean is to change the peace pact into a military pact. They would transform it into another peace scheme based upon force, and force is another name for war. By putting teeth into it, they mean an agreement to employ armies and navies wherever the fertile mind of some ambitious schemer can find an aggressor … I have no language to express my horror of this proposal to build peace treaties, or peace schemes, upon the doctrine of force.
Because World War II proceeded to occur, the common wisdom is that Borah was wrong, that the pact needed teeth. Thus the U.N. Charter includes provisions for the use of war to combat war. But during the Twenties and Thirties the U.S. and other governments weren’t just signing a peace treaty. They were also buying more and more weaponry, failing to develop an adequate system of international law, and encouraging dangerous trends in places like Germany, Italy, and Japan. Following the war, making use of the pact, the victors prosecuted the losers for the crime of war-making. This was a first in world history. Judged by the absence of World War III (also probably attributable to other causes, including the existence of nuclear weapons) those first prosecutions were remarkably successful.
Judged by the first half-century of the United Nations and NATO, schemes for ending war through force remain deeply flawed. The U.N. Charter permits wars that are either defensive or U.N. authorized, so the U.S. has described attacking unarmed impoverished nations halfway around the globe as defensive and U.N.-approved whether or not that has actually been the case. NATO nations’ agreement to come to each other’s aid has been transformed into collective assaults on distant lands. The tool of force, as Borah understood, will be used according to the desires of whoever has the most force.
Of course, many involved will mean well as they grow outraged at dictators their government drops its support for and begins opposing, and as they demand to know whether we should do something or nothing in the face of attacks on innocents—as if the only choices are war and sitting on our hands. The answer, of course, is that we should do many somethings. But one of them is not war.
The Wrong Kind of War Opposition
There are ways to oppose war that are less than ideal, because they’re based on falsehoods, are limited by their nature to opposing only some wars, and don’t generate a sufficient level of passion and activism. This is true even once we get beyond opposing only wars by non-Western states. There are ways in which to oppose particular U.S. wars that don’t necessarily advance the cause of abolition.
A majority of Americans, in several recent polls, believes the 2003-2011 war on Iraq hurt the United States but benefitted Iraq. A plurality of Americans believes, not only that Iraqis should be grateful, but that Iraqis are in fact grateful. Many Americans who favored ending the war for years while it continued, favored ending an act of philanthropy. Having heard mainly about U.S. troops and U.S. budgets from the U.S. media, and even from U.S. peace groups, these people had no idea that their government had inflicted on Iraq one of the most damaging attacks ever suffered by any nation.
Now, I’m not eager to refuse anyone’s war opposition, and I would not want to take it away. But I don’t have to do that in order to try to augment it. The Iraq war did hurt the United States. It did cost the United States. But it hurt Iraqis on a much larger scale. This matters not because we should feel the appropriate level of guilt or inferiority, but because opposing wars for limited reasons results in limited war opposition. If the Iraq war cost too much, maybe the Libya war was affordably priced. If too many U.S. soldiers died in Iraq, maybe drone strikes solve that problem. Opposition to the costs of war for the aggressor may be strong, but is it likely to build as dedicated a movement as opposition to those costs combined with righteous opposition to mass murder?
Congressman Walter Jones cheered the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and when France opposed it, he insisted on renaming french fries, freedom fries. But the suffering of U.S. troops changed his mind. Many were from his district. He saw what they went through, what their families went through. It was enough. But he didn’t get to know Iraqis. He didn’t act on their behalf.
When President Obama began talking about war in Syria, Congressman Jones introduced a resolution essentially restating the Constitution and the War Powers Act, by requiring that Congress give approval before the launching of any war. The resolution got many points right (or close to it):
Whereas the Constitution’s makers entrusted decisions to initiate offensive warfare not in self-defense exclusively to Congress in article I, section 8, clause 11;
Whereas the Constitution’s makers knew that the Executive Branch would be prone to manufacture danger and to deceive Congress and the United States people to justify gratuitous wars to aggrandize executive power;
Whereas chronic wars are irreconcilable with liberty, a separation of powers, and the rule of law;
Whereas the entry of the United States Armed Forces into the ongoing war in Syria to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad would make the United States less safe by awakening new enemies;
Whereas humanitarian wars are a contradiction in terms and characteristically lead to semi-anarchy and chaos, as in Somalia and Libya;
Whereas if victorious, the hydra-headed Syrian insurgency would suppress the Christian population or other minorities as has been similarly witnessed in Iraq with its Shiite-dominated government; and
Whereas United States military aid to the Syrian insurgents risks blowback indistinguishable from the military assistance provided to the splintered Afghan mujahideen in Afghanistan to oppose the Soviet Union and culminated in the 9/11 abominations.
But the following gratuitous piece of bigotry marred the resolution and played right into the hands of the “humanitarian” warriors:
Whereas the fate of Syria is irrelevant to the security and welfare of the United States and its citizens and is not worth risking the life of a single member of the United States Armed Forces.
The fate of an entire nation of some 20 million people is not worth a single person, if the 20 million are Syrians and the 1 is from the United States? Why would that be? Of course, the fate of Syria is relevant to the rest of the world—see the paragraph above regarding blowback. Jones’ unnecessary nationalism will convince many of his ignorance. He plays right into the idea that a war on Syria would benefit Syrians but cost the United States. He encourages the idea that no one should risk their life for others, unless those others are from the same little tribe. Our world won’t survive the coming environmental crises with that mindset. Jones is aware that Syria would suffer—see the paragraphs above. He should say so. The fact that our wars have no upside, that they hurt both us and their supposed beneficiaries, that they make us less safe while slaughtering human beings, is a stronger case. And it’s a case against all war-making, not just some of it.
The Costs of War
The costs of war are mostly on the other side. U.S. deaths in Iraq totaled 0.3 percent of the deaths in that war (See WarIsACrime.org/Iraq). But the costs back home are also much more extensive than is commonly recognized. We hear about the deaths more than the far more numerous injuries. We hear about the visible injuries more than the far more numerous invisible injuries: the brain injuries and the mental pain and anguish. We don’t hear enough about the suicides, or the impact on families and friends.
The financial cost of wars is presented as enormous, and it is. But it is dwarfed by routine non-war spending on war preparations—spending that, according to the National Priorities Project, combined with war spending, accounts for 57 percent of federal discretionary spending in the President’s proposed budget for 2014. And all of that spending is falsely presented to us as at least having the silver lining of economic benefit. In fact, however, according to repeated studies by the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, military spending produces fewer and worse-paying jobs than just about any other kind of spending, including education, infrastructure, green energy, etc. In fact, military spending is worse for the economy than tax cuts for working people—or, in other words, worse than nothing. It’s an economic drain presented as a “Job Creator,” just like the fine folks who make up the Forbes 400 (See PERI.UMass.edu).
Ironically, while “freedom” is often cited as a reason for fighting a war, our wars have long been used as justifications to seriously curtail our actual freedoms. Compare the fourth, fifth, and first amendments to the U.S. Constitution with common U.S. practice now and 15 years ago if you think I’m kidding. During the “global war on terror,” the U.S. government has established serious restrictions on public demonstrations, massive surveillance programs in blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment, the open practice of indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial, an ongoing program of assassinations by secret presidential orders, and immunity for those who commit the crime of torture on behalf of the U.S. government. Some large non-governmental organizations do a terrific job of addressing these symptoms but intentionally avoid addressing the disease of war-making and war preparation.
The culture of war, the weapons of war, and the profit-making functions of war are transferred into an ever more militarized domestic police force, and ever more warlike immigration control. But police viewing the public as an enemy rather than an employer doesn’t make us safer. It puts our immediate safety and our hopes for representative government at risk.
Wartime secrecy takes government away from the people and characterizes whistleblowers who try to inform us about what is being done, in our names, with our money, as national enemies. We’re taught to hate those who respect us and to defer to those who hold us in contempt. As I was writing this, a young whistleblower named Bradley Manning (now named Chelsea Manning) was put on trial for revealing war crimes. She was charged with “aiding the enemy” and with violating the World War I-era Espionage Act. No evidence was presented that she’d aided any enemy or attempted to aid any enemy, and she was acquitted on the charge of “aiding the enemy.” Yet she was found guilty of “espionage,” purely for fulfilling her legal and moral responsibility to expose government wrong-doing. At the same time, another young whistleblower, Edward Snowden, fled the country in fear for his life. And numerous reporters said that sources within the government were refusing any longer to speak to them. The federal government has established an “Insider Threat Program,” encouraging government employees to snitch on any employees they suspect of becoming whistleblowers or spies.
Our culture, our morality, our sense of decency: these can be casualties of war even when the war is thousands of miles off-shore.
Our natural environment is a primary victim as well, these wars over fossil fuels being themselves leading consumers of fossil fuels, and poisoners of earth, air, and water in a wide variety of ways. The acceptability of war in our culture can be gauged by the large environmental groups’ unwillingness thus far to take on one of the most destructive forces in existence: the war machine. I asked James Marriott, co-author of The Oil Road, whether he thought fossil fuel use contributed more to militarism or militarism more to fossil fuel use. He replied, “You’re not going to get rid of one without the other” (only a mild exaggeration, I think).
As we put our resources and energy into war we lose out in other areas: education, parks, vacations, retirements. We have the best military and the best prisons, but trail far behind in everything from schools to healthcare to internet and phone systems.
In 2011, I helped organize a conference called “The Military Industrial Complex at 50” that looked at many of the types of damage the military industrial complex does (See DavidSwanson.org/mic50). The occasion was the half-century mark since President Eisenhower found the nerve in his farewell speech to articulate one of the most prescient, potentially valuable, and tragically as yet unheeded warnings of human history:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Another World Is Possible
A world without war could be a world with many things we want and many things we don’t dare dream of. This book’s cover is celebratory because war’s abolition would mean the end of a barbaric horror, but also because of what could follow. Peace and freedom from fear are far more liberating than bombs. That liberation could mean a birth for culture, for art, for science, for prosperity. We could begin by treating top-quality education from pre-school to college as a human right, not to mention housing, healthcare, vacation, and retirement. We could raise lifespans, happiness, intelligence, political participation, and prospects for a sustainable future.
We don’t need war in order to maintain our lifestyle. We need to shift to solar, wind, and other renewables if we are going to survive. Doing so has many advantages. For one thing, a given country will be unlikely to hoard more than its fair share of sunshine. There’s plenty to go around, and it’s best used near where it’s gathered. We may want to improve our lifestyle in some ways, growing more local food, developing local economies, reversing the unequal concentration of wealth that I called medieval until a professor pointed out that medieval economies were more equitable than ours. Americans need not suffer in order to treat resources more equitably and with careful stewardship.
Public support for war, and participation in the military, draw in part on qualities often romanticized about war and warriors: excitement, sacrifice, loyalty, bravery, and camaraderie. These can indeed be found in war, but not exclusively in war. Examples of all these qualities, plus compassion, empathy, and respect are found not only in war, but also in the work of humanitarians, activists, and healers. A world without war need not lose excitement or bravery. Nonviolent activism will fill that gap, as will proper responses to the forest fires and floods that lie in our future as our climate changes. We need these variations on glory and adventure if we are to survive. As a side benefit they render any argument for the positive aspects of war-making moot. It’s been a long time since William James sought an alternative for all the positive aspects of war, the courage, solidarity, sacrifice, etc. It’s also been a long time since Mohandas Gandhi found one.
Of course, environmental apocalypse is not the only kind of super-catastrophe that threatens. As nuclear weaponry proliferates, as drone technology proliferates, and as the hunting of humans becomes routine, we also risk nuclear and other war-related disaster. Ending war is not just a path toward utopia; it’s also the way to survival. But, as Eisenhower warned, we cannot eliminate war without eliminating war preparations. And we cannot eliminate war preparations without eliminating the idea that a good war may come along some day. To do that, it will certainly help if we eliminate, or at least weaken, the idea that we’ve seen good wars in the past.
“There Never Was
A Good War or a Bad Peace” or
How to Be Against Both Hitler and War
Benjamin Franklin, who said that bit inside the quotation marks, lived before Hitler and so may not be qualified—in the minds of many—to speak on the matter. But World War II happened in a very different world from today’s, didn’t need to happen, and could have been dealt with differently when it did happen. It also happened differently from how we are usually taught. For one thing, the U.S. government was eager to enter the war, and to a great extent did enter the war, in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, prior to Pearl Harbor.
Pre-WWII Germany might have looked very different without the harsh settlement that followed World War I which punished an entire people rather than the war makers, and without the significant monetary support provided for decades past and ongoing through World War II by U.S. corporations like GM, Ford, IBM, and ITT (see Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler by Anthony Sutton).
(Let me insert a parenthetical remark here that I hope many will find quite silly, but that I know others will need to hear. We are talking about World War II, and I’ve just criticized someone other than Hitler—namely U.S. corporations—so let me hasten to point out that Hitler still gets to be responsible for every hideous crime he committed. Blame is more like sunshine than like fossil fuels; we can give some to Henry Ford for his support of Hitler without taking the slightest bit away from Adolph Hitler himself and without comparing or equating the two.)
Nonviolent resistance to the Nazis in Denmark, Holland, and Norway, as well as the successful protests in Berlin by the non-Jewish wives of imprisoned Jewish husbands suggested a potential that was never fully realized—not even close. The notion that Germany could have maintained a lasting occupation of the rest of Europe and the Soviet Union, and proceeded to attack in the Americas, is extremely unlikely, even given the 1940s’ relatively limited knowledge of nonviolent activism. Militarily, Germany was primarily defeated by the Soviet Union, its other enemies playing relatively minor parts.
The important point is not that massive, organized nonviolence should have been used against the Nazis in the 1940s. It wasn’t, and many people would have had to see the world very differently in order for that to have happened. Rather the point is that tools of nonviolence are much more widely understood today and can be, and typically will be, used against rising tyrants. We should not imagine returning to an age in which that wasn’t so, even if doing so helps to justify outrageous levels of military spending! We should, rather, strengthen our efforts to nonviolently resist the growth of tyrannical powers before they reach a crisis point, and to simultaneously resist efforts to lay the ground work for future wars against them.
Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, which was not then part of the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt had tried lying to the American people about U.S. ships including the Greer and the Kearny, which had been helping British planes track German submarines, but which Roosevelt pretended had been wrongly attacked. Roosevelt also tried to create support for entering the war by lying that he had in his possession a secret Nazi map planning the conquest of South America, as well as a secret Nazi plan for replacing all religions with Nazism. However, the people of the United States rejected the idea of going into another war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, by which point Roosevelt had already instituted the draft, activated the National Guard, created and begun using a huge Navy in two oceans, traded old destroyers to England in exchange for the lease of its bases in the Caribbean and Bermuda, and secretly ordered the creation of a list of every Japanese and Japanese-American person in the United States.
When President Roosevelt visited Pearl Harbor seven years before the Japanese attack, the Japanese military (which, just like Hitler or anyone else in the world, gets full blame for all of its inexcusable crimes) expressed apprehension. In March 1935, Roosevelt bestowed Wake Island on the U.S. Navy and gave Pan Am Airways a permit to build runways on Wake Island, Midway Island, and Guam. Japanese military commanders announced that they were disturbed and viewed these runways as a threat. So did peace activists in the United States.
In November 1940, Roosevelt loaned China $100m for war with Japan, and after consulting with the British, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau made plans to send the Chinese bombers with U.S. crews to use in bombing Tokyo and other Japanese cities.
For years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Navy worked on plans for war with Japan, the March 8, 1939, version of which described “an offensive war of long duration” that would destroy the military and disrupt the economic life of Japan. In January 1941, the Japan Advertiser expressed its outrage over Pearl Harbor in an editorial, and the U.S. ambassador to Japan wrote in his diary: “There is a lot of talk around town to the effect that the Japanese, in case of a break with the United States, are planning to go all out in a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor. Of course I informed my government.”
On May 24, 1941, the New York Times reported on U.S. training of the Chinese air force, and the provision of “numerous fighting and bombing planes” to China by the United States. “Bombing of Japanese Cities is Expected” read the subheadline.
On July 24, 1941, President Roosevelt remarked, “If we cut the oil off, [the Japanese] probably would have gone down to the Dutch East Indies a year ago, and you would have had a war. It was very essential from our own selfish point of view of defense to prevent a war from starting in the South Pacific. So our foreign policy was trying to stop a war from breaking out there.” Reporters noticed that Roosevelt said “was” rather than “is.” The next day, Roosevelt issued an executive order freezing Japanese assets. The United States and Britain cut off oil and scrap metal to Japan. Radhabinod Pal, an Indian jurist who served on the war crimes tribunal in Tokyo after the war, called the embargoes a “clear and potent threat to Japan’s very existence,” and concluded the United States had provoked Japan.
The U.S. government is imposing what it proudly calls “crippling sanctions” on Iran as I write.
On November 15, 1941, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall briefed the media on something we do not remember as “the Marshall Plan.” In fact we don’t remember it at all. “We are preparing an offensive war against Japan,” Marshall said, asking the journalists to keep it a secret.
Ten days later Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote in his diary that he’d met in the Oval Office with Marshall, President Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Admiral Harold Stark, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Roosevelt had told them the Japanese were likely to attack soon, possibly next Monday. It has been well documented that the United States had broken the Japanese’ codes and that Roosevelt had access to them.
What did not bring the United States into the war or keep it going was a desire to save Jews from persecution. For years Roosevelt blocked legislation that would have allowed Jewish refugees from Germany into the United States. The notion of a war to save the Jews is found on none of the war propaganda posters and essentially arose after the war was over, just as the idea of the “good war” took hold decades later as a comparison to the Vietnam War.
“Disturbed in 1942,” wrote Lawrence S. Wittner, “by rumors of Nazi extermination plans, Jessie Wallace Hughan, an educator, a politician, and a founder of the War Resisters League, worried that such a policy, which appeared ‘natural, from their pathological point of view,’ might be carried out if World War II continued. ‘It seems that the only way to save thousands and perhaps millions of European Jews from destruction,’ she wrote, ‘would be for our government to broadcast the promise’ of an ‘armistice on condition that the European minorities are not molested any further. … It would be very terrible if six months from now we should find that this threat has literally come to pass without our making even a gesture to prevent it.’ When her predictions were fulfilled only too well by 1943, she wrote to the State Department and the New York Times, decrying the fact that ‘two million [Jews] have already died’ and that ‘two million more will be killed by the end of the war.’ Once again she pleaded for the cessation of hostilities, arguing that German military defeats would in turn exact reprisals upon the Jewish scapegoat. ‘Victory will not save them,’ she insisted, ‘for dead men cannot be liberated.’”
In the end some prisoners were rescued, but many more had been killed. Not only did the war not prevent the genocide, but the war itself was worse. The war established that civilians were fair game for mass slaughter and slaughtered them by the tens of millions. Attempts to shock and awe through mass slaughter failed. Fire-bombing cities served no higher purpose. Dropping one, and then a second, nuclear bomb was in no way justified as a way to end a war that was already ending. German and Japanese imperialism were halted, but the U.S. global empire of bases and wars was born—bad news for the Middle East, Latin America, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and elsewhere. The Nazi ideology was not defeated by violence. Many Nazi scientists were brought over to work for the Pentagon, the results of their influence apparent.
But much of what we think of as particularly Nazi evils (eugenics, human experimentation, etc.) could be found in the United States as well, before, during, and after the war. A recent book called Against Their Will: The Secret History of Medical Experimentation on Children in Cold War America collects much of what is known. Eugenics was taught in hundreds of medical schools in the United States by the 1920s and by one estimate in three-quarters of U.S. colleges by the mid 1930s. Non-consensual experimentation on institutionalized children and adults was common in the United States before, during, and especially after the U.S. and its allies prosecuted Nazis for the practice in 1947, sentencing many to prison and seven to be hanged. The tribunal created the Nuremberg Code, standards for medical practice that were immediately ignored back home. American doctors considered it “a good code for barbarians.” Thus, we had the Tuskegee syphilis study, and the experimentation at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in Brooklyn, the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, and so many others, including U.S. experiments on Guatemalans during the Nuremberg proceedings. Also during the Nuremberg trial, children at the Pennhurst school in southeastern Pennsylvania were given hepatitis-laced feces to eat. Human experimentation increased in the decades that followed. As each story has leaked out we’ve seen it as an aberration. Against Their Will suggests otherwise. As I write, there are protests of recent forced sterilizations of women in California prisons.
The point is not to compare the relative levels of evilness of individuals or people. The Nazis’ concentration camps are very hard to match in that regard. The point is that no side in a war is good, and evil behavior is no justification for war. American Curtis LeMay, who oversaw the fire bombing of Japanese cities, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, said that if the other side had won he’d have been prosecuted as a war criminal. That scenario wouldn’t have rendered the disgusting war crimes of the Japanese or the Germans acceptable or praiseworthy. But it would have led to the world giving them less thought, or at least less exclusive thought. Instead, the crimes of the allies would be the focus, or at least one focus, of outrage.
You need not think that U.S. entry into World War II was a bad idea in order to oppose all future wars. You can recognize the misguided policies of decades that led to World War II. And you can recognize the imperialism of both sides as a product of their time. There are those who, by this means, excuse Thomas Jefferson’s slavery. If we can do that, perhaps we can also excuse Franklin Roosevelt’s war. But that doesn’t mean we should be making plans to repeat either one of those things.