Remarks in Los Angeles, May 10, 2014.
Thank you to Pat Alviso and all the individuals and groups involved in setting this event up. Thank you to Lila Garrett for doing twice what I do at twice my age, including hosting the best radio show around. And thank you to our friend, recently lost, Tim Carpenter, for whom there is a memorial event today in Massachusetts. We will not forget you, Tim, and we will carry on.
Now, about ending war.
When we start talking about ending war, one common reaction -- not as common as "You're a lunatic," but fairly common -- is to propose that if we want to get rid of war we'll have to get rid of something else first, or sometimes it's a series of something elses. We'll have to get rid of bankers or bribery or the current structure of our government, or the corporate media monopoly. We'll have to get rid of racism or bigotry or extreme materialism. We'll have to abolish capitalism or environmental exploitation or religion or greed or resource shortages or sociopaths, and then we'll be able to move on to abolishing war.
Now, I think there's truth and falsehood in a lot of such two-step proposals. War is made easier by many evil things. Ending war would be easier if we ended those things. Ending war and some other things together might be an easier job because of the broader coalition that would work on it. And I'm in favor of ending lots of bad things -- racism, bribery, predatory capitalism, mass incarceration, the White House Correspondents Dinner, etc. -- and I would be even if doing so didn't help end war.
But war is not made necessary by anything else. The United States has roughly 5% of the world's population and 50% of the world's military spending. Many nations spend 10% or 5% or less what the United States spends on war, but they don't have only 5% of the racism or 5% as many sociopaths (how ever those are defined). Nations with plenty of bigotry and serious resource shortages manage to nonetheless avoid U.S. levels of war investment (whether measured absolutely or as a proportion of wealth). The U.S. media at the moment seems to care about burned Nigerians more than burned Ukrainians; racism can serve imperialism but can also be trumped by it.
In addition, if you look at particular wars launched and possible wars not launched, it becomes clear that the decisions are entirely contingent on human choices. When a particular war is stopped, the lesson we ought to take away is not that the forces of consumerism and capitalism and exploitation will build up greater pressure, making it more likely than before that another war will soon be launched. The lesson we ought to take away, on the contrary, is that because one war has been stopped, the next war can be stopped as well, and the one after it, and the next 100 after that one.
I'm a big fan of the journalist Seymour Hersh, including of the help he's been in exposing the fraudulent case that was built up to support a White House proposal last summer for missile strikes into Syria -- and the help he's been in exposing the massive scale of the attack that was being contemplated. Some of us had figured out all on our own that when Secretary of State John Kerry said the missile strikes would shift the balance in the war AND be so small as to have no effect on the war, at least one of those two assertions had to be false. It turns out that the plan was for a major assault, not a tiny one. What the result would have been nobody can be sure -- beyond widespread death, injury, trauma, and suffering. Two wings of B-52 bombers carrying 2,000-pound bombs were to take out "electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings." This was not a few missiles. This was shock and awe, targeting numerous facilities in densely populated urban areas. If you need an example of the Obama White House immediately expanding a war like this one once begun, the obvious example is Libya.
But when Hersh writes and talks about what went on back in August and September, he doesn't seem to even consider the possibility that public pressure might have played even the slightest role in preventing the missile strikes. Democracy Now! interviewed Hersh and didn't raise the topic. I don't mean to pick on Seymour Hersh or Democracy Now! Nobody else has done any different. A friend of mine, a former CIA officer, Ray McGovern, has been doing some great writing about Syria. He, like Hersh, considers the steps taken by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Congress, the Russians, the President. Nowhere is the public mentioned.
Now, even if the public played no role whatsoever, that fact in itself would be worthy of serious consideration. Members of both houses of Congress from both parties said they had heard more from their constituents on the missiles-into-Syria proposal than they had heard ever before on anything else, and that what they heard was more one-sided than anything they'd experienced before. If the public had no impact, or if Congress had no impact, the scale of the pretense otherwise -- and the possible futility of ever lobbying Congress on anything -- would make for a remarkable story.
Virtually this entire country was opposed to the missile strikes. Add to that the fact that Congress members were on break and being directly confronted at district townhall meetings, accused of joining a war on the side of al Qaeda, accused of falling for propaganda again. It didn't hurt that Jewish holidays left AIPAC missing in action. It was an advantage that many people in the halls of power were themselves reluctant to launch a war. But why were they? Why were members of Congress stating that they didn't want to be the guy who voted for another Iraq war? Why did the House of Commons oppose a prime minister on war for the first time since Yorktown? Why did the conversation swing away from the missile strikes?
President Obama and his Secretary of State were telling us to watch Youtubes of suffering children and support that suffering or support missile strikes. That's not a half-hearted sales pitch. Wall Street was completely sold: Raytheon, the company that made the missiles, saw its stock hit an all-time high. The leaders of both big political parties were on board. The corporate news outlets were gung ho. John Kerry was calling Bashar al Assad a new Hitler. The illegality of the proposed action was hardly a blip in the conversation, the way it might have been before Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya and the drone wars. Illegality had become the new normal.
Russia and Syria came up with a solution, but they'd been willing to do that for some time. President Obama allowed Congress to have a say as he had not on Libya and does not on most drone strikes (we all, including Congress, pretend it's up to the president to allow Congress to act). But why did he? I think it can help to contrast the war-and-peace climate in the U.S. in 2013 with a different, imaginary one. I proposed this to Ray McGovern, and he completely agreed.
Imagine that the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq were considered the peak of U.S. glory, were routinely celebrated, were what everyone had come to hope for as the ideal outcomes for all future wars. Imagine that those who voted against the war on Iraq were shamed and shunned and forced to defend their mistake. Imagine 90% of the country rather than 5 or 10% favored every new war proposal. Imagine that doubt of new assertions about chemical weapons use or other supposed reasons for wars was unheard of. Imagine crowds chanting their demands for more wars, bigger wars, more costly wars, greater destruction, more extravagant atrocities. Imagine the phones in Washington ringing off the hook and the online petitions flooding in with a demand for war rather than a demand to avoid it. In such a climate, would the balance have tipped the little bit that it tipped, bumping war -- which is never a last resort -- into the position of second resort, from the first-resort action that it had been the day before?
Now, to claim that public pressure, both over the past decade or longer and immediately, may have had some impact is not to reject other factors. This was a horribly timed, horribly marketed war that any self-respecting member of the world's second-oldest profession, war propaganda, should be ashamed of. Another war might have been harder to stop. Nor would it be right to claim a complete victory, with the U.S. government continuing to arm and train and support fighters in the war, and with no investment in humanitarian aid or diplomacy or nonviolent peace workers to match the public demand. The crisis in Syria rolls on, reinforcing the ridiculous notion that if you aren't going to bomb a country, there's nothing else you can do for it. But the resolution of the Syrian Missile Crisis, like the blocking of a sanctions-and-possible-war-on-Iran bill earlier this year, suggests possible victories to come, as well as suggesting that no underlying force makes any war inevitable.
If I had to pick a factor to eliminate, in hopes that war would be eliminated as well, and if I had the magical ability to effectively eliminate any factor I chose, I think I would pick, rather than bigotry or greed, the factor of dishonesty. While you can have dishonesty without war, you cannot have war without dishonesty. You can have lies about other, much smaller public programs: police, schools, parks, courts, housing, agriculture, research, environmental protection, diplomacy, etc., but you can also create and fund such programs without lying about them. In contrast, there's no example of an honest war, and there's reason to believe that there cannot be one.
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