Why Work Against War
War engages me because of its unique relationship to morality. Killing is a long-standing taboo. Killing is often if not always the worst thing that can be done to someone. But killing on a larger scale, organizing numerous people to kill numerous other people is often treated very differently. When a government kills its own people, that's generally considered an outrage. But when a government kills another nation's people, that's not always viewed as a moral problem. In fact a government killing its own people is often used as a justification for another nation to come in and kill more of the first nation's people. Killing in war, and lesser crimes in war, are given a moral pass or even praised. A U.S. military sniper bragged on the debut episode this week of NBC's war reality show "Stars Earn Stripes" that he had "160 kills." Not that he killed 160 people. The people are erased in his language. "I have 160 kills." And the show itself is a dramatization of U.S. news coverage of U.S. wars, in which the only participants are Americans. The 95% of victims in our one-sided slaughters are rarely mentioned in U.S. news coverage, and on this new war-o-tainment show the heroic warriors attack empty fields, blow up guard towers with no guards, kick in doors of uninhabited houses, and spend so much time talking about how "real" it all is that none of them seem to notice that there are no enemies or victims to be found.
War used to get a moral pass as a sporting contest between two armies on a distant battlefield. Then it became the occupation of people's homes and the slaughter of those people. Now our propaganda is working to restore war's status as a sport, not against an honorable opponent but against an invisible one. Members of our government talk about wanting to make the Iranian people suffer with sanctions, but we're not to picture the Iranian people. Members of our government talk about funding killing as a jobs program, but we're not to see them as sociopaths.
War is becoming a sport to be approved of regardless of who dies, and with a blank spot for the piece of knowledge that tells us the leading cause of death for U.S. troops is suicide, and the second leading cause being shot by Afghan troops you are supposedly training. Real war is still hell. Human beings still suffer mental breakdowns from engaging in it, including engaging in it from a drone pilot's desk. But drones are part of an attempt to avoid danger for the five percent of humanity that appears in our news-o-tainment. This is an attempt to strip war of morality. Muhammed Ali wouldn't kill Vietnamese, but his daughter on the so-called reality show will blow the heads off paper targets that represent non-American humanity. We haven't created this kind of moral exemption for anything other than war, not for rape or slavery or child abuse or cruelty to animals. We lock up football stars who hurt dogs, but not Americans who torture and kill human beings in time of war -- and war is without limit in time or space. Among ourselves we've become less violent -- still outrageously violent, but less so -- and less racist, and less sexist, and less bigoted all around. But militarism is racism's partner. The idea of making war on white people has been taboo for 65 years. Making war on non-white people draws unquestioning support of both the genocidal and the humanitarian variety.
Do we need radical love? Yes, not only of enemies, but of invisible nonentities, those distant in space and those distant in time. We must love the foreigners we are killing and the great grandchildren we are depriving of a livable environment. And we must love them as equals, as exactly as worthy as ourselves, which obliges us to take considerable risks to our own well being. If our names and our resources are being used to murder, to maim, to terrorize, and to destroy the homes of people in huge numbers, what does that oblige us to do? And if most of us do little to nothing, what does that oblige those of us who are aware to do? My answer is anything that looks most likely to succeed, an answer that results in nonviolent actions and a lot more of them.
Why Not Give Up and Whine Miserably?
I do peace activism out of habit and paid employment. But I'm miserable when I'm not doing it, so there must be something motivating me. It certainly isn't hope that we're about to succeed. But neither have I ever spent a moment worrying that we won't. If we have a moral obligation to do something, we have the same moral obligation not to waste time fretting over whether we're about to succeed.
It certainly isn't the expectation of riches and fame and glory, which are all far more easily obtained elsewhere. But a lot of what I do is write, and I enjoy writing. I enjoy reading. I enjoy the stimulation I get from other minds through books and through discussions like this one. I enjoy the process of writing. I enjoy the praise and recognition that comes from writing and giving speeches. And yet there's no sum of money or volume of praise that can motivate me to write or speak a view I oppose or even to address a topic that I find unimportant. I just can't do it.
So, what drives me is not fundamentally recognition, but I do think it's worthwhile for those of us who are always speaking on panels to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are always in the audience. Should we not give each other recognition and praise and respect regardless of whether our roles are those of spokespeople. There are equally important and more important jobs in a movement. So take a moment right now to shake the hand of someone near you and thank them for what they do. Thank them in fact for their service, because unlike soldiers they are providing a service.
What motivates the people you just shook hands with? What motivates you? And what really motivates me? I suspect the answer is the same for all of us. We want to reduce suffering and increase happiness. I'm tempted to say I'm motivated by the severity of the crisis, the likelihood that we have very little time left to avert environmental and/or nuclear catastrophe. But this isn't true. Even a little injustice is enough. I was an activist before I knew we were destroying the atmosphere, before I knew of the level of death and trauma caused by our bombs and our billionaires, before we'd legalized baseless imprisonment, before we'd tossed out the Fourth Amendment, before we'd given presidents full war powers and personal lists of so-called nominees to be murdered. New outrages are added to old, but they weren't required to get most of us active in the first place, and we won't go silent if they're undone.
Think about a small child witnessing the death by missile of his parents and crying over their bodies in hopelessness and terror. This is not an uncommon scene. We fund it with our tax dollars. But it's in a different country far away. Were it here in this town, people would not stand for it. Undoing the policies of death would be priority number 1. But it's somewhere else. So people accept it. And that strikes me as either incredibly stupid or incredibly greedy. Stupidity offends me deeply. I have a hard time not myself offending people by mocking their cherished beliefs when I find them stupid. So, objecting to stupidity is almost certainly part of my motivation. But it's not clear to me that most people really are that stupid. I think most people go out of their way not to acknowledge what is happening because they feel ashamed and powerless and comfortable and greedy. We could have better lives without our empire, but most people don't believe that. They wish they could have the world's oil and gas and labor without killing anybody, but the next best thing is to not pay attention to the killing or the system of injustice it maintains. And that offends me. That's dishonesty -- a quality far worse than stupidity.
I'm not suggesting we worship honesty and intelligence for their own sake, but that we apply them to the basic morality of which we are all capable at close range. We can all love our loved ones. We ought to be able and willing to love, in a similar but not identical manner, everyone else as well. Everyone in some sense must be our loved one. That we don't achieve this or even strive for it is an embarrassment to be outgrown. It ought to be part of every child's education. Loving those we don't know can in fact be easier than loving some of the people we do know. It's not the same sort of love, but it has to be a kind of love if we are to find it in ourselves to take appropriate actions on their behalf and in partnership with them on behalf of us all.
What Way Forward?
I have a theory that we talk about peace and justice because we don't want to talk about peace. We chant "No justice, no peace," threatening to disturb the peace if we don't get our justice. I want to disturb the war. I want to nonviolently afflict the comfortable to comfort the afflicted but I think we need to reverse the chant. I say "No peace, no justice." You cannot begin to make justice in the middle of killing and dying. You can't build a just nation with bombs. First the bombs have to stop. That's the very first priority. Then the threat of bombs has to stop. That's the second priority. Then justice and democracy can begin.
We also talk a lot about peace without meaning it. We talk about peace in our hearts and in our personal lives. We don't mean the abolition of war and the elimination of standing armies. I'm all for peace in our hearts. And I'm all for peace in our personal lives. But I wouldn't kick out of the peace movement people who are unpleasant and acrimonious. We need all the people we can get. What I mean by peace is first and foremost and almost entirely the absence of war. It's popular to say "Peace must be more than just the absence of war," was if the mere absence of war is talk to be reserved for the speeches of beauty queens. But, you know, living is more than oxygen -- yet without reliable oxygen everything else falls apart. Without peace not much else matters.
Woody Allen said "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying." Well I don't want to achieve peace in my heart or in my little corner of a dying world. I want to achieve peace through putting an end to warfare.