By David Swanson, Let’s Try Democracy.
Remarks in Arlington, Va., January 29, 2017
Happy Year of the Rooster!
Thank you for inviting me. Thank you to Archer Heinzen for setting this up. Of course I wouldn’t have come had I known UVA’s basketball team would be playing Villanova at 1 o’clock. I’m kidding, but I’ll catch it on the radio or watch the replay without the commercials. And when I do I can guarantee only this: the announcer will thank U.S. troops for watching from 175 countries, and nobody will wonder whether 174 wouldn’t be just about enough.
I wish I could also guarantee that UVA will win, but this is where sports monkeys around with rational thinking. I don’t actually have any say over whether UVA wins. So I can turn my wish into a prediction “We will win” and then declare that “we” won as if I’d been involved. Or let’s say that UVA blows it. Then I can remark that “we” decided to keep London Perrantes in the game even though he had a sprained wrist and the flu and had just lost one leg in a car accident, even though the obvious fact is that were I really the coach I would never have done that, just as — if I fully controlled the U.S. government — I wouldn’t actually spend a trillion dollars a year on war preparations.
Nothing I could possibly say about sports could be as dumb as the sportslike ways in which people talk about politics. If you protest a war and the U.S. military starts it anyway, don’t say “we started a war.” We didn’t. Perhaps somebody did it with money you paid in taxes. Perhaps you have a responsibility to persuade the House of Misrepresentatives to stop the war. But your “we” doesn’t just distinguish you from people outside that responsibility, it distinguishes you from the people being bombed and from the people throughout that non-U.S. 96% of humanity who are part of the peace movement. We the peace movement succeed at or fail at stopping a war, and we do not have a nationality.
We are also not the Democratic or Republican Party. We don’t need to “take back” the government from one party for the other party, because we never had it. And only a movement unwilling to dream of a better world requires that everything be a retaking or a taking back or a making great again. We don’t need to decide which party or personality is evil and declare the other saintly. We should be able to denounce a president who threatens war with China and praise a president who proposes peace with Russia even if it’s the same president, and even if the good moves are for bad reasons, and even if the vast majority of his actions fall on only one side of our ledger — even if we already hope he’s reelected or we are busy trying to get him impeached. (Yes, that would be me.) We should denounce the best politicians when they do wrong and praise the worst when they do right. That sounds like a deranged approach to friendship, but it’s an appropriate approach to representative government which should not get involved in imaginary friendships.
So, fair warning. If I criticize an action by a member of one party it is not because I adore and obey the other party. Politics is not watching a basketball game. In politics you’re supposed to actually be on the court. The accuracy of what you predict is supposed to be impacted by what you do. A couple of weeks ago, many of us were demanding that President Obama give Chelsea Manning clemency. The usual prediction was that it wouldn’t happen. Then it did. And the usual analysis was: well, of course it happened. But we weren’t making a prediction, we were making a demand. We made many others that failed. Many whistleblowers are still in cages or otherwise suffering. The fact that Obama did something right doesn’t change the fact that he helped lock Manning up in the first place. The question of whether he did more harm than good is not, I think, difficult to answer, but I think it’s misguided to ask.
I’m going to talk a bit about where we are, and then where I’d like to be, and then how to get there. So, I hope to move from the bad to the good to the energizing and fulfilling. The general trend of the U.S. government is from bad to worse to miserable. And it proceeds along that course fairly steadily. Obama set records for military spending. He dropped more bombs on Iraq than Bush did. He created drone wars. He ended the idea that presidents need Congress for wars. He put more troops in more countries. He massively escalated the still-going war on Afghanistan. He bombed eight countries and bragged about it. He firmly established warrantless spying, baseless imprisonment, torture, and assassination as policy choices rather than crimes. He wrote secret and public so-called laws that his successor is picking and choosing from without input from the legislature. He created a new cold war with Russia. He did these things willingly or he permitted his subordinates to do them.
And here comes Trump saying he’ll torture, saying he’ll steal oil, saying he’ll kill families, and stepping right into more power than any human has ever held before, as ill prepared to handle it as perhaps any human to ever have reached the age of 70. As Barack Obama and John McCain pretended to ban torture, which was already a felony, Trump will pretend to un-ban it. Many would be shocked if they discovered that that can’t legally be done — which means that it can in fact effectively be done. Many would be shocked to learn that Trump and his subordinates target numerous people with missiles from flying robots, most of the people not identified, none of them indicted, few if any of them proven unavailable to arrest, and not a one of them a continuing and imminent threat to the United States of America. And, by the way, something that is imminent isn’t continuing. I deeply hope that people are so shocked and that they grow outraged, even if I might have preferred that they had done so as Obama created this policy.
By the way, I recommend seeing a movie called National Bird because, among other things, it dramatizes the one transcript we have of drone pilots talking prior to, during, and after blowing a bunch of people up halfway around the globe. Or you can just read the transcript, thanks to the ACLU. It’s the opposite of humanitarian soldiers doing the tough job that must be done to protect our bank accounts and laptops. It’s vicious bloodthirsty eager sadism on display. It’s not what most groups will choose to view on Patriotism Day. Did you know Trump is creating a new holiday? I haven’t heard when it will be, but I think we should create a Peace Day on that day instead.
As you may have gathered, I’m going to touch on a lot of topics, and I hope to have lots of time for trying to answer questions about the ones that interest you. Some are topics I could go on for days about. Some are just topics on which I’m pretending to have some sort of a clue. So watch out for fake news.
I’m mostly kidding. But I’ll go ahead and answer the question of “How does one distinguish real from fake news?” I think the best thing you can do is go to the source. If I describe a movie that dramatizes a transcript, don’t believe me, and don’t believe the movie. Go read the transcript, or the key bit of it. If the New York Times reports that a so-called intelligence so-called community so-called assessment on Russian hacking is damning, but then reports later in the article that the government report didn’t contain any actual evidence, don’t pull your hair out. Don’t read that article in the first place. Read the report itself. It’s not any lengthier or harder to find. And you can tell in two minutes that it doesn’t even pretend to contain evidence. Don’t listen to how someone is paid to describe a police killing. Watch the youtube video of it. Don’t turn to CNN to find out what executive order the executive has ordered; read it on the White House website.
Going to the source isn’t a complete answer. You also have to read multiple sources, and you have to determine the relative credibility of them, even when they’re far away and in other languages. But to the extent possible go to the source, and be your own judge. I think my articles have appeared in 11 publications that the Washington Post suggested are Russian propaganda. Yet every article appeared also on my own website. Every one was produced by this method: I sat in front of my computer, I figured out what I thought, and I typed it. Most articles earned me not a dime. None ever earned me a penny from Russia. And most of the publications involved have no ties to Russia, a government that I criticize often. A Russian Air Force official once asked me if I would publish stuff he gave me under my name, and I declined publicly on my blog, naming him in the process, and denouncing his offer.
So, I’m far from infallible, but if I’m fake Russian news, what do you call the so-called Homeland Security Department lie printed by the Washington Post that Russia hacked Vermont’s energy system — a claim immediately rejected by Vermont’s energy system? And what should we make of the fact that the owner of the Washington Post gets paid a lot more by the CIA than by the Washington Post, a fact never revealed in Washington Post reports about the CIA? Earlier this week the New York Times for the first time in my memory called a presidential lie a lie. National Public Radio immediately announced that as a matter of principle it would never do that. In contrast, I’ve written a book that’s a whole collection of presidential lies called War Is A Lie. So, what’s fake and what’s news?
The world reaction to Donald Trump, like the domestic reaction, is very mixed. Some are encouraged that the U.S. push toward war with Russia may ease off. The United States and Russia each possess enough nuclear weapons to destroy all life on earth many times over. Pentagon officials have told journalists that the cold war with Russia is for profit and bureaucracy. When there was danger of peace breaking out in Syria some months back, the U.S. military acted to prevent it by bombing Syrian troops, apparently against the will of President Obama. The U.S. facilitated a coup in Ukraine, characterized a secession vote in Crimea as an invasion and seizure by force (though never proposing a re-vote), made unsubstantiated claims about the shooting down of an airplane, opened a missile base in Romania, started building a missile base in Poland, moved more troops and equipment into Eastern Europe than seen since World War II, dropped all pretense that the enemy provoking all this was Iran, and spread the word through endless repetition that Russia was threatening Europe (even though Russia, for all its real crimes and offenses, including bombing Syria, was not threatening Europe).
The U.S. so-called intelligence so-called community put out the word that Russia had hacked Vermont’s electricity grid — a story it apparently had simply made up. It may have been the same people who first claimed Trump had a computer server tied to a Russian bank. There was no evidence. The media began running with stories that C-Span and other channels had been hacked by Russia. There was no evidence. C-Span said Russia didn’t do it. Someone other than Russia had made Russian TV content air on C-Span. The so-called “intelligence” so-called “services” put out a series of evidence-free reports and stories that convinced many Americans that Vladimir Putin had broken into U.S. election machines. The reports attempted to imply without actually claiming the possession of evidence that Russia hacked into Democrats’ emails and gave them to WikiLeaks. Attempts at evidence of the first half of that fell wildly short, and the second half was not even attempted. Yet over half of Democrats told pollsters they believed Russia hacked actual vote counts, something not even claimed. Things in those reports that could be checked independently tended to fall apart. ISPs identified as Russian were not Russian. When the reports were augmented with publicly available information about a Russian TV network, many of the details were stupidly screwed up, suggesting a serious lack of concern with accuracy. When Donald Trump suggested evidence should be required before believing the CIA, out popped an unverified story of a Trump sex scandal and corruption.
To my mind, the above incidents suggest a death wish, an inclination toward speciecide. It should not be equated with simply opposing Donald Trump, though. I think the media’s willingness to hand Trump billions of dollars worth of free airtime and, consequently, the White House, as well as the FBI director’s possible support for Trump come from a similar inclination. But the Deep State would attack its own mother if she opposed the selection of an enemy, like Russia, and with it weapons sales and global domination. Do so at your own risk. Fail to do so at the risk of our future.
Many around the world are horrified at the Trump presidency. They see a pro-war, anti-environment, anti-voting, xenophobic, racist, anti-intellectual bigot with corrupting business interests, and they’re not wrong. The Russian media is condemned for cheering for Trump, as if the British media wouldn’t have cheered for Hillary Clinton. There may be advantages to Trump’s unpopularity. U.S. military bases around the globe create resentment and hostility and facilitate wars. If we were to close them we’d be safer and also save billions of dollars and a chunk of our atmosphere. One way to close them might be to point out to their hosts that they represent subservience to Trump and the real risk of being developed into secret torture prisons.
The world needs to see our support for such resistance. It needs to see our support for diplomacy with Russia and nuclear disarmament. It needs to see our resistance to bigotry and our love and acceptance of refugees and foreigners. We need to build, and people are building, united movements at the local, state, and global levels to protect the rights of all of us: immigrants, refugees, minorities, women, children, Muslims, gays, black lives, Latinos, everyone, everyone. But that everyone has to be a very different everyone from the 4% of humanity that it usually means, the 4% within the borders (or possibly walls) of the United States. Hillary Clinton told a room full of Goldman Sachs bankers that creating a no fly zone in Syria would require killing lots of Syrians. And she told the public she wanted to create that no fly zone. And if she had been declared the winner of the election, I can guarantee you that nobody would have been marching up and down my street yelling “Love Not Hate.” So, I worry that even those who value kindness to others value it mostly for the 4% of humanity in the United States but not so much for the other 96%, or value it only as directed by the less hateful of the two big political parties. That’s not how we’ll succeed.
We have had successes, by the way. Holding off a war on Iran, time and again. Those are successes. Stopping a massive bombing of Syria in 2013. That was a major success. It was incomplete, of course. Positive steps did not replace negative ones. But it showed our potential. And by “our” I mean we around the world who did that, including prominently the British public that persuaded its parliament to vote no. In Congress, the reluctance to vote for a big visible war on Syria, as opposed to a creeping and outsourced escalation, was explicitly driven by the fear of voting for “another Iraq.” That was the result of a decade of activism against the war on Iraq. But the war on Iraq rages on, and we aren’t shown much about the dead men, women, and children in Mosul that the Iraqi and U.S. forces kill. We’re shown those killed by ISIS or Assad. So, we have to actively search out the news we need.
President Trump went to the CIA on Day 1 and said the U.S. should have stolen Iraq’s oil and might have another chance to do so. Good liberal critics said this was absurd because the U.S. was now fighting in Iraq on the side of Iraq, not against it. But have the Iraqi people been polled on that point? Hasn’t that been claimed for over a decade? Is the continued war making benefitting Iraq and the region? We think of Western Asia as inherently violent, but outside of Israel it doesn’t make weapons. The United States is the top supplier of weapons to the Middle East and set records at it under Obama. Most other weapons in the world come from the U.S. and five other countries. None of the wars are in the places that make the weapons.
Remember it was a company from Manassas that provided Saddam Hussein with the materials for Anthrax. Remember that the U.S. justified an operation that killed over a million of his people with the statement that he had killed his own people — generally taken to be a much more horrible offense than killing someone else’s people. And now the Iraqi government is killing its own people and we’re told instead that it is liberating cities — as well as liberating fighters to run off and help overthrow the government of Syria. Remember in 2003 when a room full of corporate U.S. hacks was making up new laws for Iraq and the Iraqis seemed ungrateful? During the past week in Washington, D.C., I think a lot of people have gotten a sense of how they felt. Syrians would feel the same way.
But Trump says he’s against war and he’s for war. What are we to make of that? Well, he says he’s for more military spending, and that leads to more wars. He said he was against NATO until he got the slightest resistance. He said he was against the F-35 until the military and Lockheed Martin had a talk with him. So, opposing war making should be the order of the day, including ending several current wars, pulling troops out of numerous nations, and closing bases. But not only are people in the United States being hit with other types of crises, but the wars have gone secret. They’re outsourced. They’re privatized. They’re waged from the air more than the ground. That means more dying, not less. But it means less dying of the type we’re told about and told to care about. U.S. newspapers will still tell you that the U.S. Civil War has been the deadliest U.S. war, exactly as if Native Americans and Filipinos and Vietnamese and Iraqis and everybody else isn’t human.
The risk of nuclear war grows every moment that we don’t disarm the world of nuclear weapons. Even the so-called intelligence community’s generally bonkers vision of the future recently published predicts nukes being used. A nuclear war is not one that can be criticized after it starts on the grounds that it costs too much money or hurts someone sympathetic or because the people nuked are not showing gratitude. It has to be stopped beforehand.
Preventing war is not something you can do in a purely local way. Perhaps we can stop all the pipelines through not-in-my-backyard activism by people who generally favor pollution and choose to disbelieve in climate change. We can’t end war that way. It requires abstract thought. It requires caring about someone other than yourself. It requires either so-called “humanizing” possible victims by getting people from each targeted country into Hollywood movies, or recognizing that all humans are human whether or not they’ve been humanized. A wonderful development in itself and something to be built on is the growing support for refugees and immigrants seen in efforts at airports yesterday. What if the people of the United States were to develop the conscience and consciousness to not just protect refugees from nations that the U.S. government has been bombing, but also to want to stop bombing them?
But to imagine that ending war making and war preparation is not in everyone’s considered interest would be absurd. Nothing degrades our culture more than war. It is the most immoral and evil thing that people set out conscientiously to do. It sanctions murder, and its supporters ask reasonably enough why they can’t torture if murder is acceptable. War’s only close competitor is environmental destruction, and militarism is the leading cause of environmental destruction. The 400,000 or so buried in Arlington National Cemetery look like an immense number, row after row. But war kills in the millions. And it wounds many more than it kills. And it kills aggressor wealthy armies primarily through suicide. And it traumatizes many more than it injures. It spreads disease. It destroys infrastructure. It destroys soil and seas. It does damage through the testing of weapons to rival what it does in war — not counting the testing of weapons as a sometimes motivation for wars. It teaches us that violence solves problems. It brings violence to the societies where it’s waged and to those distant lands attacking them. It does so through culture and directly. Discussions of how to reduce violence by returning veterans somehow never seem to come around to the option of ceasing to produce more veterans.
I saw a video from 10 days ago in DC of an activist punching a white supremacist in the face. The idea that you can defeat fascism by punching fascists is as insane as the idea that you can stop terrorism by terrorizing people. Then I saw a graphic on social media with an image of a villain from a Star Wars movie and the question: “Is it OK to punch a Sith?” This produced lots of laughter. But it really isn’t very funny that people imagine the real world to resemble movies in which torture works and murder makes people happy and blowing up large objects solves problems. I mean, watch that stuff if you are able to distinguish it from reality, just like you should watch basketball if you can refrain from treating the Pentagon as a sports team, and drink alcohol if you can do it in moderation. And when MSNBC presents international events as if they were a Star Wars movie, make sure that you know better.
War and war preparations endanger us. They do not make us safe. They lead to war, not away from it. The rise of anti-U.S. terrorists rather than anti-Dutch or anti-Canadian or anti-Japanese terrorists had nothing whatsoever to do with civil liberties in the United States. Nobody is threatening to take over the U.S. government to reduce our liberties. On the contrary, our liberties are reduced in the name of all the wars for liberty. What would Canada have to do to generate anti-Canadian groups on a U.S. scale? A clue can be found perhaps in the statement made by, as far as I know, every single anti-U.S. foreign terrorist who has made any statement, namely that attacks are blowback for U.S. warmaking in other people’s countries. Knowing what Canada would have to do ought to inform us of what the U.S. could stop doing if it chose to break out of the vicious cycle that justifies more violence to counter the blowback from the current violence.
Speaking of the erosion of liberties, we have groups like the ACLU and CAIR that resist those symptoms without resisting the disease of militarism. In fact, both of those groups this past month put out fundraiser emails over the signature of a gold star father from Charlottesville that claimed the war on Iraq had been for the purpose of upholding the Bill of Rights. That’s not just false, but the opposite of the truth, and counterproductive to the mission of maintaining freedoms. Opposing war ought to be the top priority of groups interested in human rights.
War impoverishes those who invest in it. That’s very hard to see, perhaps especially in this part of the U.S., where you can hardly spit without hitting a military contractor. But the studies are clear that the same dollars put into peaceful industries or even never taxed in the first place would produce more jobs. So, military jobs are real, and a just transition would take care of everyone who has one, but they’re also a mirage. A transition to a peaceful economy ought to be a priority of everyone who has a military job. It also ought to be a priority of everyone who’d like to see funding for worker training, for schools, for trains, for sustainable energy, for parks, for anything useful in the world.
The United States could make itself the most loved nation on earth by giving in aid a small fraction of what it now spends on confronting the rest of the world with weapons. The United States has no friends or allies. It spies on every other government. It implants means of causing catastrophes in the infrastructure of allies in case they become enemies. And why wouldn’t they?
For a fraction of what the U.S. spends on militarism, we could end starvation and various diseases on earth, we could have top-quality education from pre-school through college, sustainable energy, sustainable agriculture, trains that get you across the country faster than Fox News switches its position on Julian Assange — I won’t list healthcare because the U.S. already spends far more than it needs to on that, it’s just wasted on insurance companies –but we could have the best of everything, we could actually make the whole world great, not again but for the first time. The only difficulty would be what to do with all the remaining money and with the attitudes of materialism that assume we need to do something with it.
So if you want free college instead of student debt, if you want to avoid nuclear apocalypse, if you want the right to a jury trial, if you’d like to visit other countries and be loved rather than resented, then you do have an interest — you have lots of interests — in ending war. Ending war should be the top priority of many movements, and it should be an integral part of movements to protect war refugees, to reduce the racism that is fueled by war and which fuels war, and to halt the militarization of police. Instead we have a lot of coalitions of all things progressive except peace.
Our job of making those coalitions broader, of suggesting that Libyan lives and Yemeni lives and Filipino lives matter, is perhaps advanced by painting a picture of where we might get. The vision that we at World Beyond War have published as A Global Security System: An Alternative to War is not one only of resistance. Once you’re willing to take on the trillion-dollar illness that many have adjusted to, all sorts of opportunities open up for the rule of law, for aid, for diplomacy, for restorative justice, for cooperation, for conflict resolution, and of course for what to do with some of that trillion dollars a year.
People sometimes get outraged at the hoarding of wealth by billionaires, and I really wish more people would. But their pile of gold is nothing compared to what gets dumped into war year after year after year: about $2 trillion globally, about $1 trillion in the U.S. alone, several trillion dollars in destruction by war, and additional trillions in lost opportunities from not putting those funds to better use. If anyone ever tells you there’s not enough money for something, they’re either mistaken or lying, but that’s certainly the fakest of fake news.
Of course, the main problem is that most people in the United States who don’t want as much war as possible don’t want to abolish all war either. They want to do away with the bad wars but keep the good wars, a standard not typically applied to other horrors such as rape, child abuse, racism, slavery, or various past horrors once treated as natural and inevitable, such as dueling or trial by ordeal or lynching. There are not actually any good wars, which is why my books focus on World War II, the Civil War, and others masquerading as good wars. And I will make a firm prediction that I won’t get past 3 questions from you guys without one of them being about World War II. But you don’t have to agree with ending all war to agree with taking positive steps that will eventually eliminate war. You can believe in militarized defense and abolish weapons that have no defensive purpose, scale the U.S. military back to something resembling the size of other countries’. That would launch a reverse arms race. Further demilitarization would follow more easily.
This past year I wrote a book called War Is Never Just refuting the claims of just war theory. Just War Theory’s criteria for a just war fall into three categories: the impossible, the immeasurable, and the amoral. Its a medieval doctrine that the Catholic Church is rejecting but U.S. universities have entrenched more deeply than evolution or climate science.
But there is evil in the world! someone will say. We must use the most evil acts possible that spread unending cycles of evil in order to address the evil in the world. I suspect I could find well over 100 million Christians in the United States who do not hate the men who crucified Jesus, but who do hate and would be highly offended at the idea of forgiving Adolf Hitler or ISIS. When John Kerry says that Bashar al Assad is Hitler, does that help you feel forgiving toward Assad? When Hillary Clinton says that Vladimir Putin is Hitler, does that help you relate to Putin as a human being? When ISIS cuts a white English-speaking man’s throat with a knife, does your culture expect of you forgiveness or vengeance?
What good would forgiveness do? Well, I don’t know. I’m not a Christian. You guys are. But I suspect it might allow clear thinking. People keep retiring from the U.S. military and blurting out that the wars are counterproductive. Every war produces more terrorist groups. Every attack on them spreads their violent ideology farther. At some point, the choices of doing what makes matters worse and doing nothing start to seem like they might not be the only two choices. Disarmament, targeted sanctions, halting support, using diplomacy, and providing aid begin to come into focus as options that were there all along.
Toward developing this vision, World Beyond War is building a nonviolent global movement focused on education and activism. The sign up sheets I have here are the same as what’s at WorldBeyondWar.org, a statement signed by people in 147 countries and counting. You can form a World Beyond War chapter. We have materials for events on the website: books, films, powerpoints, speakers, activities. We have a campaign focused on divestment of public dollars. Does Arlington have government pension funds invested in weapons dealers? It’s possible to find out and to change it. Teachers’ retirement shouldn’t depend on a boom in the war business. We have another campaign focused on closing bases, working with groups around the world resisting foreign, meaning U.S., bases in their areas. The mayor of the town in Okinawa where the U.S. wants a new base will be speaking in DC this Tuesday night — talk to me afterwards if you want to go. And we have another campaign focused on advancing the rule of law. You can help us with these or give us other ideas. Our website argues the case against war, and you can use it to educate others.
Our website WorldBeyondWar.org also has a calendar of upcoming events around the world, but being here I would start by joining with Code Pink and interrupting some Congressional hearings with some words of truth. In March a meeting is opening at the UN in New York on a new treaty to ban nuclear weapons. From the end of March through the first week of April, we’re encouraging people to hold events everywhere. April 4 is 50 years since Dr. King’s speech against war, and April 6 is 100 years since the U.S. got into a war that it claimed would end all wars. Toward the end of April there will be coalition protests in DC that will need peace added to them. In June the United National Antiwar Coalition will have its conference in Richmond, Va.
I recommend organizing locally here and globally through World Beyond War. Every town needs peace holidays and monuments and events to counter the war ones. Every locality needs commitments to sanctuary, to safe cities, to refusal to cooperate in official bigotry — including in attacks on people who live far away from the United States. Those people are part of us too. They’re our neighbors’ families now blocked from visiting. They’re witnesses to war who can teach us not to make more of them. They’re our allies who can move the United Nations and the warmaking and weapons buying nations of the world.
‘And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Heard again – again – again –
‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.’