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Ending the Mindset That Gets Us into War

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MAY 20, 2012, MILITARIZED CHICAGO -- Next month in Baltimore they're going to celebrate the War of 1812.   That's what we do with wars.   We say they're the last resort.   We say they're hell.   We say they're for the purpose of eliminating themselves: we fight wars for peace.   Although we never keep peace for wars.   We claim to wage only wars we have been forced into despite all possible effort to find a better way.   And then we celebrate the wars.   We keep the wars going for their own sake after all the excuses we used to get them started have expired.   The WMDs have not been found.   Osama bin Laden's been killed.   Al Qaeda is gone from the country where we're fighting it.   Nobody's threatening Benghazi anymore.   But the wars must go on!   And then we'll celebrate them.   And we'll celebrate the old ones too, the ones that were fought here, the ones that were in their day not quite so heavily painted as last resorts or humanitarian missions.  

Last year Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee persuaded Congress to create an Iraq-Afghanistan Wars holiday.   It's on our calendars now along with Loyalty Day (formerly May Day), Veterans Day (formerly Armistice Day), Memorial Day, Yellow Ribbon Day, Patriots Day, Independence Day, Flag Day, Pearl Harbor Day, and of course September 11th, among many others.   Last week there was an Armed Forces Spouses Appreciation Day.   The military holiday calendar is like the Catholic saints' days now: there's something every day of the year.  

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But there's no celebration of the times we avoided war. We claim to prefer peace to war, but we don't make heroes of those presidents or Congresses who most avoided war.   In fact, we erase them.   Our history books jump from war to war as if nothing happened in between.   Nobody celebrates 1811, only 1812.   Even the peace movement doesn't celebrate the past decade's prevention, thus far, of a war on Iran.

Some might say that once an unavoidable war begins we have to celebrate the brave sacrifices of the soldiers and sailors.   Even if the war was a bad idea, we can't blame those who participated in it.   They were too ignorant and obedient to do otherwise, but they were brave and loyal.   We weren't in their shoes.   We had other means to pay for college.   So we are obliged to celebrate their moral failings.   We must value bravery and loyalty above intelligent independent thinking.   And, because they ignorantly and obediently supported the war, we must do so too -- even if we honestly don't.  

As if there is not bravery, solidarity, and self-sacrifice to be celebrated in our history of nonviolent protest, labor struggles, women's struggles, the environmentalist movement, and in resistance to war -- in all the efforts that have improved and are improving our lives.   Freedom isn't free, as the saying goes, but we don't honor the work that actually achieves it. " War will exist," President Kennedy privately wrote, "until the distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today."   And here's the hard part of that: the conscientious objector will not be honored and respected as long as the warrior is.   We have to choose.  

Thousands have refused to deploy or refused to fight in our current wars, gone AWOL, or hidden out rather than harassing the occupied populations for a day.   They have no medals, no ribbons, no holiday, and never enough support or gratitude.   They should be honored.   We should appreciate Veterans For Peace because they are for peace, not because they are veterans.  

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Frederick Douglas taught himself to read in Baltimore, a far more significant event than a flag surviving a barrage of cannon balls.   But the website tells us: "The War of 1812 represents what many see as the definitive end of the American Revolution. A new nation, widely regarded as an upstart, successfully defended itself against the largest, most powerful navy in the world during the maritime assault on Baltimore and Maryland. America's victory over Great Britain confirmed the legitimacy of the Revolution."   Wow.   That sounds significant, even noble.

In reality, the U.S. government chose to launch the War of 1812 three decades after the revolution had ended.   Many nations have won their independence without war.   War leaves behind bitter hatred and resentment of the sort now raging in Libya, albeit out of the news.   Prior to the War of 1812, the United States had built up a navy to go and fight in what we now call Libya, introducing suicide bombing by sailing a ship into port there and blowing it up.   The United States wanted to trade with the world.   The British objected, captured U.S. ships, and forced the men on board to sail for Britain.   That offense, combined with war fever lingering from a generation back, became grounds for war.   But there were other reasons, including the drive to take more land from Native Americans, to conquer Florida, and to add Canada to the fledgling U.S. empire.

Congressman Samuel Taggart said, "The conquest of Canada has been represented to be so easy as to be little more than a party of pleasure. We have, it has been said, nothing to do but to march an army into the country and display the standard of the United States, and the Canadians will immediately flock to it and place themselves under our protection. They have been represented as ripe for revolt, panting for emancipation from a tyrannical Government, and longing to enjoy the sweets of liberty under the fostering hand of the United States."   Taggart went on to present reasons why such a result was by no means to be expected, and of course he was right. But being right is of little value when war fever takes hold.

The expectation that people will appreciate being occupied, whether a pretense or sincere and truly stupid, didn't work out in Iraq, and didn't work out two centuries ago in Canada.   The Soviets went into Afghanistan in 1979 with the same stupid expectation of being welcomed as friends, and the United States has been repeating the same mistake there since 2001. Of course, such expectations would never work out for a foreign army in the United States either, no matter how admirable the people invading us might be or how miserable they might find us.

What if Canada and Iraq had indeed welcomed U.S. occupations? Would that have produced anything to outweigh the horror of the wars? Norman Thomas speculated as follows:

"[S]uppose the United States in the War of 1812 had succeeded in its very blundering attempt to conquer all or part of Canada. Unquestionably we should have school histories to teach us how fortunate was the result of that war for the people of Ontario and how valuable a lesson it finally taught the British about the need for enlightened rule! Yet, to-day the Canadians who remain within the British Empire would say they have more real liberty than their neighbors to the south of the border!"

The War of 1812 would seem to have undone the legitimacy of the Revolution rather than confirming it.   In 1812, the choice of war resulted in the burning of our national capital, the death in action of some 3,800 U.S. and British fighters, and the death of 20,000 U.S. and British from all causes, including disease.   About 76 were killed in the Battle of Baltimore, plus another 450 wounded.   Nowadays an incident in Baltimore that resulted in that kind of carnage would be described with words other than "glorious," and "successful."   Peace was made by negotiation after the War of 1812, just as it could have been made prior to the killing.

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Is saying so an insult to the troops whose cause the war was?   Well, 12.7% of U.S. troops deserted during the War of 1812, facing the serious risk of torture, mutilation, or execution.   Does that sound like an army that had chosen that war?   Many soldiers believed they served their state, not a nation, and not an empire.   Many refused to invade Canada.   The Governor of Vermont called his state's militia home, during the war, to serve his state.   Now there's an action worth celebrating!   There's a lesson to be learned.   Our states' militias have been nationalized, making it much easier to use them abroad.   In fact, each state's national guard has been paired up with a foreign nation's military as a means of spreading imperial influence.   Maryland is matched up with Bosnia-Herzegovina. This murder-exchange program began as a quiet way of spreading U.S. militarism east toward Russia, but now it's throughout Africa and the rest of the world.

The U.S. military is never disbanded anymore.   The wars are never fought here anymore, unless you count drone pilots.   The wars kill mostly civilians and almost entirely non-Americans.   The preparation for wars and stationing of armed forces around the globe costs far more money and effort than the wars themselves.   Taxes never go away in between wars anymore.   We don't get our civil liberties back anymore.   Much of the military is privatized.   A lot has changed.   But some things have not changed.   More than ever we require lies before we'll tolerate war.   Even though many of the lies must now depict the wars as philanthropic, we would still never get wars off the ground without racism, bigotry, and genocidal emotions -- or without waving flags.

Prior to 2001, the Taliban was willing to turn Osama bin Laden over to a third country if he was promised a fair trial and no death penalty, and if some evidence of his guilt of crimes were offered.   In 2001, the Taliban warned the United States that bin Laden was planning an attack on American soil.   In July 2001 the United States was known to have plans to take military action against the Taliban by mid-October.  

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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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