War Is Over If You Want It

War Is Over If You Want It: Chapter 14 Of “War Is A Lie” By David Swanson


When President Barack Obama joined the ranks of Henry Kissinger and the other gentle souls who have received Nobel Peace Prizes, he did something that I don’t think anyone else had previously done in a Peace Prize acceptance speech. He argued for war:

“There will be times when nations — acting individually or in concert — will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified. I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: ‘Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.’ . . . But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by [King’s and Gandhi’s] examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history . . . . So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.”

But, you know, I’ve never found any opponent of war who didn’t believe there was evil in the world. After all, we oppose war because it is evil. Did Martin Luther King, Jr., stand idle in the face of threats? Are you serious? Did King oppose protecting and defending people? He worked for that very goal! Obama claims that his only choices are war or nothing. But the reason people know the names Gandhi (who was never given a Nobel Peace Prize) and King is that they suggested other options and proved that those other approaches could work. This fundamental disagreement cannot be smoothed over. Either war is the only option or it is not — in which case we must consider the alternatives.

Couldn’t we have halted Hitler’s armies without a world war? To claim otherwise is ridiculous. We could have halted Hitler’s armies by not concluding World War I with an effort seemingly aimed at breeding as much resentment as possible in Germany (punishing a whole people rather than individuals, requiring that Germany admit sole responsibility, taking away its territory, and demanding enormous reparations payments that it would have taken Germany several decades to pay), or by putting our energies seriously into the League of Nations as opposed to the victor-justice of dividing the spoils, or by building good relations with Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, or by funding peace studies in Germany rather than eugenics, or by fearing militaristic governments more than leftist ones, or by not funding Hitler and his armies, or by helping the Jews escape, or by maintaining a ban on bombing civilians, or indeed by massive nonviolent resistance which requires greater courage and valor than we’ve ever seen in war.

We have seen such courage in the largely nonviolent eviction of the British rulers from India, in the nonviolent overthrow of the ruler of El Salvador in 1944, in the campaigns that ended Jim Crow in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. We’ve seen it in the popular removal of the ruler of the Philippines in 1986, in the largely nonviolent Iranian Revolution of 1979, in the dismantling of the Soviet Union in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, as well as in the Ukraine in 2004 and 2005, and in dozens of other examples from all over the world. Why should Germany be the one place where a force more powerful than violence could not possibly have prevailed?

If you can’t accept that World War II could have been avoided, there is still this crucial point to consider: Hitler’s armies have been gone for 65 years but are still being used to justify the scourge of humanity that we outlawed in 1928: WAR. Most nations do not behave as Nazi Germany did, and one reason is that a lot of them have come to value and understand peace. Those that do make war still appeal to a horrible episode in world history that ended 65 years ago to justify what they are doing — exactly as if nothing has changed, exactly as if King and Gandhi and billions of other people have not come and gone and contributed their bit to our knowledge of what can and should be done.

Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda to lay down its arms? How would President Obama know that? The United States has never tried it. The solution cannot be to meet the demands of terrorists, thereby encouraging terrorism, but the grievances against the United States that attract people to anti-U.S. terrorism seem extremely reasonable:

Get out of our country. Stop bombing us. Stop threatening us. Stop blockading us. Stop raiding our homes. Stop funding the theft of our lands.

We ought to satisfy those demands even in the absence of negotiations with anyone. We ought to stop producing and selling most of the weapons we want other people to “lay down.” And if we did so, you would see about as much anti-U.S. terrorism as the Norwegians giving out the prizes see anti-Norwegian terrorism. Norway has neither negotiated with al Qaeda nor murdered all of its members. Norway has just refrained from doing what the United States military does.

Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama disagree, and only one of them can be right. I hope the arguments of this book have inclined you toward MLK’s side of this disagreement. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, King said:

“Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

Love? I thought it was a big stick, a large Navy, a missile defense shield, and weapons in outerspace. King may in fact have been ahead of us. This portion of King’s 1964 speech anticipated Obama’s speech 45 years later:

“I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of thermonuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. . . . I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up.”

Other-centered? How odd it sounds to imagine the United States and its people becoming other-centered. It sounds as outrageous as loving one’s enemies. And yet there may just be something to it.


There will be war lies as long as there is war. If the wars are launched without public process and debate or even public knowledge, we will have to force awareness and force debate. And when we do so, we will be confronting war lies. If we do not halt the war preparations in time, small wars will escalate, and we will be presented with a public argument for more war than ever before. I think we can be prepared to meet all war lies head-on and reject them. We can expect to encounter the same types of lies we’ve encountered in this book, always with slight variation.

We will be told how evil the opponent in our war is, and that our choices are war or acceptance of evil. We should be prepared to offer other courses of action and to expose the real motivations of the war makers. They will tell us they have no choice, that this war is defensive, that this war is an act of international humanitarianism, and that to question the launching of the war is to oppose the brave troops not yet sent off to kill and die. It will be yet another war for the sake of peace.

We must reject these lies, in detail, as soon as they appear. But we need not and must not wait for the war lies to come. The time to educate each other about the motives for war and the ways in which wars are dishonestly promoted is right now. We should educate people about the nature of war, so that the images that pop into our heads when we hear about war resemble the reality. We should increase awareness of the incredible dangers of escalating wars, of weapons production, of the environmental impact, of nuclear annihilation, and of economic collapse. We should make sure that Americans know that war is illegal and that we all value the rule of law. We should create the educational and communications systems needed for all of this sharing of information. Some ideas on how to do those things can be found in my previous book Daybreak.

If we work to expose secret warfare and to oppose ongoing wars, while at the same time working to shrink the military machine and build peace and friendship, we could make war as shamefully backward an activity as slavery. But we will have to do more than educate. We cannot teach that wars are illegal without prosecuting the crimes. We cannot interest people in making the right decisions about wars unless we democratize war powers and allow people some influence on the decisions. We cannot expect elected officials in a system completely corrupted by money, the media, and political parties, to end war just because we want it ended and because we have made strong arguments. We will have to go beyond that to acquiring the power to compel our representatives to represent us. There are a lot of tools that may help in that project, but there are not any weapons.



If our engagement is limited to opposing every proposed war and demanding that each current war end, we may prevent or shorten some wars, but more wars will be coming right behind. Crimes must be deterred, but war is currently rewarded.

Punishing war should not mean punishing an entire people, as was done to Germany after World War I and to Iraq after the Gulf War. Nor should we pick out a few low-ranking committers of colorful atrocities, label them “bad apples,” and prosecute their crimes while pretending that the war itself was acceptable. Accountability must start at the top.

This means pressuring the first branch of our government to assert its existence. If you aren’t sure what the first branch of our government is, get a copy of the U.S. Constitution and read what Article I is about. The whole Constitution fits on a single piece of paper, so this should not be a lengthy assignment.

This also means pursuing possible civil and criminal court actions at the local, state, federal, foreign, and international levels. It means sharing resources with our friends in other countries who are actively investigating their governments’ complicity in our government’s crimes or pursuing charges against our criminals under universal jurisdiction.

It means joining the International Criminal Court, making clear that we are subject to its rulings, and supporting the prosecution of others who there is probable cause to believe have committed war crimes.

There are those among us who invent and promote war lies, those who give deference to authority and believe whatever they are told to believe, those who are fooled, and those who go along because it’s easier. There are government liars and volunteer liars helping out in the public relations industry or the news reportainment industry. And there are the great many of us who try our best to understand what is going on and to speak up when we need to.

We have to speak up a hell of a lot more, educate those who have been fooled, empower those who have kept quiet, and hold accountable those who create war lies.


The Ludlow Amendment was a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring a vote by the American people before the United States could go to war. In 1938, this amendment appeared likely to pass in Congress. Then President Franklin Roosevelt sent a letter to the Speaker of the House claiming that a president would be unable to conduct an effective foreign policy if it passed, after which the amendment failed 209-188.

The Constitution from its inception and still today requires a vote in Congress before the United States can go to war. What Roosevelt was telling Congress was either that presidents needed to be free to violate the existing Constitution or that a public referendum might reject a war whereas Congress, in contrast, could be counted on to do as it was told. Of course, the public was indeed more likely to reject wars than Congress, and a public referendum could not have been held on a moment’s notice. Congress declared war on Japan the first day after Pearl Harbor. The public would at least have been given a week to hold a referendum, during which time any sort of accurate knowledge might have been spread about by the sort of people White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in 2010 scornfully derided as “the professional left.”

The public could conceivably vote for an illegal war, however. Then we would have a war approved by the true sovereigns of the nation, even though that war would have been banned by laws previously enacted through a process presumed to represent the public’s wishes. But that wouldn’t put us in any worse position than we are in now, with the people cut out of the loop and congress members answering to their funders, their parties, and the corporate media. If we amended the Constitution, through Congress or through a convention called by the states, we could also take the money out of the electoral system and recover the possibility of being listened to in Washington.

If we were listened to in Washington, a lot of changes would be made. Having Congress listen to us wouldn’t get us very far unless Congress took back some of the powers it has given to the White House over the centuries. We will need to abolish the CIA and all secret agencies and budgets for war, and to create real congressional oversight for the entire military. We will need to create in Congress the understanding that it can choose whether or not to fund wars, and that it must act in accordance with the public will.

It wouldn’t hurt to strengthen the War Powers Act to eliminate exceptions and add time limits and penalties. It would also help to make aggressive war and war profiteering felonies in the U.S. Code, ban the use of mercenaries and private contractors in the military, get the recruiters out of schools, forbid involuntary extensions of military contracts, and various other reforms.

And then we’ll need to move on to reforming, democratizing, and funding the United Nations, with which — by the way — most Americans ultimately agreed about Iraq. The U.N. was correct when it mattered; a lot of Americans came around to believing the war was a bad idea years later.


Compelling governmental reforms requires a great deal of organizing and risk taking beyond education and persuasion. The peace movement can demand huge sacrifices. The experience of being a peace activist is a little bit like the thrill of going off to war, the main difference being that rich people don’t support you.

The military reform being promoted with the most heavily funded campaign as I write is the effort to allow gay and lesbian Americans equal rights to participate in war crimes. Heterosexuals should be demanding equal rights to be excluded. The second biggest reform push at the moment is to allow immigrants to become citizens by joining the military, without offering them any non-violent alternative other than college, which most immigrants cannot afford. We should be ashamed.

We should be working, as many are, to build resistance within the military and to support those who refuse illegal orders. We should be strengthening our efforts to counter recruitment and assist young people in finding better career paths.

If you promise to set up a table outside a recruitment office, I’ll send you copies of this book really cheap. Will you give one to your library? Your congress member? Your local newspaper? Your brother-in-law with the “If you can read this, you’re in range” bumper sticker? I’m self-publishing this book, allowing me to provide it very inexpensively to groups that want to sell it and raise money for their activities. See WarIsALie.org.

We need people energized about working to dismantle the war economy and convert it to peace. This may not be as hard as it sounds when people find out that this is how we can create jobs and income. A broad coalition can and must be built to include those who want military funding reduced and war funding eliminated, together with those who want funding increased for jobs, schools, energy, infrastructure, transportation, parks, and housing. At the time of this writing, a coalition was beginning to come together that included on the one hand the peace movement (the people who knew where all the money was being misspent) and on the other hand labor and community and civil rights groups, housing advocates, and proponents of green energy (the people who knew where all the money was needed).

With Americans facing unemployment and foreclosure, their top priority is not ending wars. But a movement to move the money from the military to providing the human right to a home grabs everybody’s attention. Bringing activists focused on international issues together with those working on the domestic side has the potential to combine major resources with radical and aggressive strategy — never an easy fit, but always a necessity.

If we build such a coalition, the peace movement will be able to add its strength in an organized way to struggles for domestic needs. Meanwhile, labor and community groups, and other activist coalitions could insist that they want only federal funding (for jobs, housing, energy, etc.) that is clean of war spending. This would avoid the situation we saw in 2010 when funding for teachers was included in a bill to fund an escalation of the War on Afghanistan. The teachers’ unions apparently felt compelled to back any legislation that would keep their members employed for the time being, so they promoted the bill without mentioning that its biggest component was war funding, knowing full well that the war would keep eating away at our economy like a cancer while increasing the risks of terrorism.

How much larger, more passionate, principled, and energized would have been a unified front demanding money for schools instead of wars! How much larger would the available pot of money have appeared! A unified activist front would disarm the Congress. No longer could it push through war funding by tacking a little bit of disaster relief funding on top. Our collective voice would thunder through the Capitol Hill office buildings:

Use the money for the war to fund 10,000 times the proposed disaster relief, but do not fund the war!

For this to happen, groups that have shied away from foreign policy would have to recognize that that’s where all the money is going, that wars are driving politics away from domestic agitation for a better life, that wars are stripping away our civil liberties, and that wars endanger us all, whether we’ve been good little patriots and waved our war flags or not.

The peace movement would have to recognize that the money is where the action is. The wars have the money, and everybody else needs it. This would mean dropping the common focus on weak and arcane proposals for “benchmarks” or national intelligence estimates or unenforceable requests for unspecified “timetables” for withdrawal. It would mean focusing like a laser on the money.

To build such a coalition would require organizing outside the dominance of Washington’s political parties. Most activist groups and labor unions are loyal to one of the two parties, both of which back policies the American people oppose, including war. The benchmark and timetable sort of rhetorical legislation originates in Congress, and then the peace movement promotes it. The demand to cut off the funding originates out among the people and must be imposed on Congress. That’s a key distinction that should guide our organizing.

And the organizing should be doable. On October 2, 2010, a broad coalition held a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The organizers sought to use the rally both to demand jobs, protect Social Security, and advance a hodgepodge of progressive ideas, and also to cheer for the Democratic Party, whose leadership was not on board with that program. An independent movement would back particular politicians, including Democrats, but they would have to earn it by supporting our positions.

The peace movement was included in the rally, if not given top billing, and many peace organizations took part. We found that, among all of those tens of thousands of union members and civil rights activists who showed up, virtually all of them were eager to carry anti-war posters and stickers. In fact the message “Money for Jobs, Not Wars,” was immensely popular. If anyone at all disagreed, I haven’t heard about it. The theme of the rally was “One Nation Working Together,” a warm message but one so vague we didn’t even offend anyone enough to produce a counter-rally. I suspect more people would have shown up and a stronger message would have been delivered had the headline been “Bring Our War Dollars Home!”

One speech outshone all others that day. The speaker was 83-year-old singer and activist Harry Belafonte, his voice strained, scratchy, and gripping. These were some of his words:

“Martin Luther King, Jr., in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech 47 years ago, said that America would soon come to realize that the war that we were in at that time that this nation waged in Vietnam was not only unconscionable, but unwinnable. Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in that cruel adventure, and over two million Vietnamese and Cambodians perished. Now today, almost a half-a-century later, as we gather at this place where Dr. King prayed for the soul of this great nation, tens of thousands of citizens from all walks of life have come here today to rekindle his dream and once again hope that all America will soon come to the realization that the wars that we wage today in far away lands are immoral, unconscionable and unwinnable.

“The Central Intelligence Agency, in its official report, tells us that the enemy we pursue in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the al-Qaeda, they number less than 50 — I say 50 — people. Do we really think that sending 100,000 young American men and women to kill innocent civilians, women, and children, and antagonizing the tens of millions of people in the whole region somehow makes us secure? Does this make any sense?

“The President’s decision to escalate the war in that region alone costs the nation $33 billion. That sum of money could not only create 600,000 jobs here in America, but would even leave us a few billion to start rebuilding our schools, our roads, our hospitals and affordable housing. It could also help to rebuild the lives of the thousands of our returning wounded veterans.”


Shifting our spending priorities and getting clean votes in Congress on funding all the things we want also gets us straight, unencumbered (I can’t say clean) votes on the war funding. And those votes provide us with two lists: the list of those who did what we told them and the list of those who did not. But these lists cannot remain, as they are today, lists of congress members to thank and lists of congress members to go meekly whining to. They have to become the lists of whom we are going to reelect and whom we are going to send packing. If you won’t send a politician packing in a general election because of the party they belong to, then replace them in a primary. But send them packing we must, or they will never heed our demands, not even if we win over 100 percent of the country and reject every lie the day it’s uttered.

Pressuring elected officials in between elections is going to be needed as well. Nonviolently shutting down the military industrial congressional complex can communicate our demands very strongly. But we can’t sit in elected officials’ offices demanding peace while promising to vote for them, no matter what they do — not if we expect to be heard.

If sitting in congress members’ offices and voting them out of office strikes you as exhibiting a naïve faith in the system, and if you want us to instead march in the street and appeal to the president, our views may not be as far apart as you imagine. We do need to march in the streets. We also need to create democratic media outlets and impact every segment of our culture and population. And we need to march in the suites, too, to disrupt what it happening and grab the attention of those responsible by letting them know that we can end their careers. If that’s “working with the system” I certainly hope nobody tries working like that with me. We can neither ignore our government, nor obey it. We have to impose our will on it. That requires, in the absence of millions of dollars to “donate,” millions of people dedicated to applying pressure. Those people need to know where to press. One important answer is on the public checkbook.

Appealing to presidents doesn’t hurt. Really, that’s just another way of saying that we need to reach everyone everywhere. And we do. But we have far less power over presidents than over members of the House of Representatives — and that’s saying something! If we accept the idea that presidents, and only presidents, have the power to begin and end wars, we will guarantee ourselves a lot more wars from a lot more presidents, if the world survives that long.

The power of war must belong to us. If we can find a way to directly control presidents’ war making, that will certainly work. If we can do so by controlling and re-empowering Congress, which seems at least slightly more likely, that will also work. As long as you’re trying to influence someone away from war or toward peace, whether it’s a congress member, a president, a weapons maker, a soldier, a neighbor, or a child, you are doing work worthy of the highest honors on earth.


In November 1943, six residents of Coventry, England, which had been bombed by Germany, wrote to the New Statesman to condemn the bombing of German cities, asserting that the “general feeling” in Coventry was the “desire that no other people shall suffer as they have done.”

In 1997, on the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica, the president of Germany wrote a letter to the Basque people apologizing for the Nazi-era bombing. The Mayor of Guernica wrote back and accepted the apology.

Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights is an international organization, based in the United States, of family members of victims of criminal murder, state execution, extra-judicial assassinations, and “disappearances” who oppose the death penalty in all cases.

Peaceful Tomorrows is an organization founded by family members of those killed on September 11, 2001, who say they have

“united to turn our grief into action for peace. By developing and advocating nonviolent options and actions in the pursuit of justice, we hope to break the cycles of violence engendered by war and terrorism. Acknowledging our common experience with all people affected by violence throughout the world, we work to create a safer and more peaceful world for everyone.”

So must we all.

Please get involved at http://warisalie.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles

Our Theory of Change

How To End War

2024 War Abolisher Awards
Antiwar Events
Help Us Grow

Small Donors Keep Us Going

If you select to make a recurring contribution of at least $15 per month, you may select a thank-you gift. We thank our recurring donors on our website.

This is your chance to reimagine a world beyond war
WBW Shop
Translate To Any Language