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How I Became a Peace Activist

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When I was teaching myself how to write, when I was about 20 to 25, I churned out (and threw out) all kinds of autobiographies. I wrote glorified diaries. I fictionalized my friends and acquaintances. I still write columns all the time in the first person. I did write a children's book in recent years that was fiction but included my oldest son and my niece and nephew as characters. But I haven't touched autobiography in more years than I'd been alive when I used to engage in it.

I've been asked a number of times to write chapters for books on "how I became a peace activist." In some cases, I've just apologized and said I couldn't. For one book called Why Peace, edited by Marc Guttman, I wrote a very short chapter called "Why Am I a Peace Activist? Why Aren't You?" My point was basically to express my outrage that one would have to explain working to end the worst thing in the world, while millions of people not working to end it need offer no explanation for their reprehensible behavior.

I often speak at peace groups and colleges and conferences about working for peace, and I'm often asked how I became a peace activist, and I always politely dodge the question, not because the answer is too long but because it is too short. I'm a peace activist because mass-murder is horrible. What the hell do you mean why am I a peace activist?

This position of mine is odd for a number of reasons. For one thing, I'm a strong believer in the need for many more peace activists. If we can learn anything about how people have become peace activists, we damn well ought to learn it and apply those lessons. My nightmare for how the peace movement ends, other than the nuclear apocalypse ending, is that the peace movement ends when the last peace activist acquires Alzheimer's. And of course I fear being that peace activist. And of course that's crazy as there are peace activists much younger than I am, especially activists against Israeli wars who haven't necessarily focused on U.S. wars yet. But I still not infrequently find myself among the youngest in the room. The U.S. peace movement is still dominated by people who became active during the U.S. war on Vietnam. I became a peace activist for some other reason, even if influenced by those slightly older than myself. If the peace movement of the 1960s seemed admirable to me, how do we make today's seem admirable to those yet to be born? This sort of useful question arises in large numbers once I'm willing to investigate this topic.

For another thing, I'm a strong believer in the power of environment to shape people. I wasn't born speaking English or thinking anything that I now think. I got it all from the culture around me. Yet somehow I've always assumed that whatever made me a peace activist was in me at birth and holds little interest for others. I was never pro-war. I have no Saul on the road to Damascus conversion story. I had a typical suburban U.S. childhood pretty much like those of my friends and neighbors, and none of them ended up as peace activists -- just me. I took the stuff they tell every child about trying to make the world a better place seriously. I found the ethics of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace inevitable, although I'd never heard of that institution, an institution which in no way acts on its mandate. But it was set up to abolish war, and then to identify the second-worst thing in the world and work to abolish that. How is any other course even thinkable?

But most people who agree with me on that are environmental activists. And most of them pay no attention to war and militarism as the primary cause of environmental destruction. Why is that? How did I not become an environmental activist? How did an environmental movement grow to its current strength dedicated to ending all but the very worst environmental disaster?

If becoming a peace activist seems so obvious to me, what in my early childhood could have helped make me this person? And if it seems so obvious to me, why did it take me until I was 33 to do it? And what of the fact that I meet people all the time who would work as professional peace activists if someone would only give them that job? Heck, I hire people now to work as peace activists, but there are 100 applicants for each one hired. Isn't part of the answer to why the peace movement is old, that retired people have time to work for free? And isn't part of the question of how I became a peace activist actually a question of how I found out one could get paid for it, and how I managed to become one of the small number of people who does?

My interaction with the 1960s was a month in length, as I was born on December 1, 1969, along with my twin sister, in New York City, to parents who were a United Church of Christ preacher and an organist at a church in Ridgefield, New Jersey, and who had met at Union Theological Seminary. They'd left right-leaning families in Wisconsin and Delaware, each the only child of three to move very far from home. They'd supported Civil Rights and social work. My Dad had chosen to live in Harlem, despite the need to periodically buy back his possessions from people who stole them. They left the church theologically and physically, moving out of the house that went with the job, when my sister and I were two. We moved to a new town in suburban, Washington, D.C., that was just being built as a planned, pedestrian, mixed-income utopia called Reston, Virginia. My parents joined the Christian Science church. They voted for Jesse Jackson. They volunteered. They worked at being the best parents possible, with some success I think. And they worked hard at making a living, with my Dad having set up a business building additions on houses, and my Mom doing the paperwork. Later, my Dad would be an inspector and my mom write up the reports for prospective buyers of new houses. They forced the builders to fix so many mistakes that the companies started writing into their contracts that people could get inspections by anyone other than my Dad. Now my parents work as coaches for people with attention deficit disorder, which my Dad has diagnosed himself as having had his whole life.

I'm well aware that most people think Christian Science is crazy. I was never a fan of it, and my parents dropped it decades ago. The first time I heard of the concept of atheism, I thought, "Well, yeah, of course." But if you're going to try to make sense of an omnipotent benevolent god and the existence of evil, you do have to either (1) give up and just let it not make sense, as most people do who identify with some religion, often denying death, celebrating virgin births, and believing all sorts of things no less crazy than Christian Science including that a benevolent omnipotent being creates war and famine and disease, or (2) conclude that evil does not really exist, and that your eyes must be deceiving you, as Christian Scientists try to do, with all kinds of contradictions, very little success, and disastrous results, or (3) outgrow millennia-old worldviews based on anthropomorphizing a universe that really could not care less.

These were the lessons from my parents' example, I think: be courageous but generous, try to make the world a better place, pack up and start over as needed, try to make sense of the most important matters, pack up ideologically and try again as needed, stay cheerful, and put love for your children ahead of other things (including ahead of Christian Science: use medical care if truly needed, and rationalize it as required).

My family and close friends and extended family were neither military nor peace activists, nor any other sort of activists. But militarism was all around in the D.C. area and on the news. Friends' parents worked for the military and the Veterans Administration and an agency that was not to be named. Oliver North's daughter was in my high school class at Herndon, and he came into class to warn us about the Commie threat in Nicaragua. Later we watched him testify about his misdeeds before Congress. My understanding of those misdeeds was highly limited. His worst offense seemed to be having misspent money on a security system for his house over in Great Falls where my friends who had the coolest parties lived.

When I was in the third-grade, my sister and I tested into the "gifted and talented" or GT program, which was essentially a question of having had good parents and not being too dumb. In fact, when the school gave us the tests, my sister passed and I didn't. So my parents got someone to give me the test again, and I passed it. For the fourth grade we rode on a bus for an hour along with all the GT kids from Reston. For fifth and sixth, we attended a GT program at a new school on the other side of Reston. I got used to having school friends and home friends. For seventh grade we went to the new intermediate school in Reston, while my home friends went to Herndon. That year was, I think, both a let-down from the better teaching of grades 4-6, and a disturbing social scene for an immature little kid. For eighth grade I tried a private school, even though it was Christian and I was not. That was no good. So for high school I reunited with my home friends at Herndon.

Throughout this education, our text books were as nationalistic and pro-war as is the norm. I think it was in fifth or sixth grade that some kids performed in a talent show a song made notorious many years later by Senator John McCain: "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran!" In the case of my classmates, there was no criticism or disapproval, not that I heard. There were, however, yellow ribbons on trees for the poor hostages. I still have in my possession a lot of my school work, including reports that glorify people like George Rogers Clark. But it was a war victims' story I wrote, with the British Redcoats as the evildoers, and details including the killing of the family dog, that I recall eliciting the comment from my fifth-grade teacher that I should be a writer.

What I wanted to be was perhaps an architect or a town-planner, the designer of a better Reston, the creator of a house who wouldn't have to actually build it. But I gave very little thought to what I should be. I had very little notion that kids and adults were of the same species and that one day I would become the other. Despite attending school in one of the top-ranked counties in the country, I thought most of it was a load of manure. My perfect grades dropped steadily as I went through high school. The easy classes bored me. The AP (advanced placement) classes both bored me and required more work than I would do. I loved sports, but I was too small to compete at a lot of them, except back home in pick-up games where I could get picked based on reputation rather than appearance. I did not finish growing until well after high school, which I finished at 17 in 1987.

My awareness during these years of U.S. war-making and facilitating and coup-instigating in Latin America was negligible. I understood there to be a Cold War, and the Soviet Union to be a horrible place to live, but Russians I understood to be just like you and me, and the Cold War itself to be lunacy (that was what Sting said in his song Russians). I'd seen the Gandhi movie. I think I knew that Henry Thoreau had refused to pay war taxes. And I certainly understood that in the Sixties the cool people had opposed war and had been right. I knew The Red Badge of Courage. I knew that war was horrible. But I had no notion of what prevented ending the making of more wars.

I did have, for whatever reasons -- good early parenting or screwy genetics -- a couple of key things in my skull. One was the understanding taught to most children the world over that violence is bad. Another was a fierce demand for consistency and a total disrespect for authority. So, if violence was bad for kids, it was also bad for governments. And, related to this, I had a nearly complete arrogance or confidence in my own ability to figure things out, at least moral things. At the top of my list of virtues was honesty. It's still pretty high up there.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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