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Of the Radical and the Quaint

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Remarks in Boca Raton, Fla., February 26, 2011

I really want to thank Nancy Parker and everyone who helped put this event together. I would have come just to hear the other two speakers. I've learned a lot from Sandy Davies and consider his book required reading for all Americans. And it's an honor to speak together with Ben Ferencz who has been advancing the rule of law since the age when -- more so than not -- the United States was a proponent of international justice.

Today's Palm Beach Post's article about Mr. Ferencz and this event begins with this sentence:

"War is such a widespread force in the world that the very idea of treating it as a crime seems both radical and quaint."

As the proprietor of a website called War Is A Crime .org I have always strived to be radical and quaint. I don't dispute the Post's description, but I find it intriguing. How can an idea be both radical and quaint? One definition of quaint is "pleasingly or strikingly old-fashioned or unfamiliar." Another is "having an old-fashioned attractiveness or charm."

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In fact the idea of treating war as a crime is, in a very real way old-fashioned. In 1928, our government made war a crime when the Senate ratified by a vote of 85 to 1 the Kellogg-Briand Pact which condemned and renounced all war. The Senate tacked on an exception for the traditional right of self-defense. But our Secretary of State Frank Kellogg had rejected a proposal from France to include that exception in the treaty. Kellogg argued that if any such exception were included the treaty's "positive value as a guarantor of peace" would be "virtually destroyed." And hardly a dozen years later he was proven right as a second World War took some 70 million lives with the participation of several nations that had signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, and most of them acting in the name of defense. But the Pact remains the supreme law of the land under our constitution, and -- even as adopted by the U.S. Senate -- it treats legal war as an exception to the general rule that war is a crime.

When the second world war was over and the criminals on one side of it were prosecuted, another treaty was established called the United Nations Charter. This one too, which also remains the supreme law of the land, made war a crime -- but this time with two narrow exceptions. One is the traditional right to defense. The other is in some ways a reversal of a second provision that the U.S. Senate had attached to the Kellogg-Briand Pact. The Senate had stipulated that the United States could not be required to go to war to enforce the ban on war. The UN Charter, on the contrary, stipulated that the UN could authorize particular wars as a sort of global police officer. What ever you think of these exceptions to the ban on warfare or of that ban itself, the Palm Beach Post is perfectly right in understanding that the exceptions have overtaken the rule. We fight so-called defensive wars against impoverished unarmed nations halfway around the globe. And we maintain that the UN has authorized wars even in the face of the UN maintaining it has not. Defensive and global-policing wars are not exceptions so much as loopholes large enough to sail a fleet through. The assumption is now that war is legal. The burden of proof is on the quaint radicals to prove that a particular war is a crime.

Ben Ferencz is going to tell you about the hurdles to prosecuting war. There have been some advances in prosecuting lesser war crimes. The beautiful nation of Italy has prosecuted and convicted 23 CIA agents for kidnapping a man off an Italian street and sending him off to be tortured by the guy who now runs Egypt. But those 23 convicts go about their happy lives unnoticed in the United States, albeit unable to travel abroad. George W. Bush just canceled a trip to Switzerland for fear of arrest and prosecution for torture. Spain yesterday determined to move ahead with a case against US torturers, and a separate case may indict six former top US officials. But here in the Homeland, torture has been turned into a policy choice and aggressive war into a tool that needs to be used more quickly and efficiently going forward.

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Another definition of quaint is "unusual in an interesting, pleasing, or amusing way." It's not just old-fashioned to look back to the early days of this nation before the permanent standing army, or to Pennsylvania's banning of war in the extremely quaint year of 1682, or to rudely recall the goal of disarmament in the Atlantic Charter that I guess was already quaint by 1947. It's also amusingly shocking and scandalous, and thus radical, to imagine a nonviolent economy in a nation that leads the world in weapons sales, maintains a thousand military bases around the earth, slices the globe into various "commands" to be dominated, operates special forces in 75 countries, fights multiple simultaneous ground wars, murders at will and across all borders with unmanned aircraft, and devotes well over half of federal discretionary spending to the military and wars.

But we never anymore speak about good slavery or just rape. A mere 10 years ago, Americans universally denounced torture. Yet the horrors of war far outstrip, while encompassing, these other outrages, and we go on referring to good wars and just wars, or at least the theoretical possibility of them. The very worst thing humanity has ever created is culturally legal, regardless of what the actual laws say. And yet we cannot survive its continued presence, and we do not need to try. The justifications offered for each particular war -- before, during, and after -- and the justifications for the machinery of empire are a tissue of lies all the way through.

The money we put into the military, over half of every dollar raised through income tax or borrowing, produces fewer and lower paying jobs than could be had by investing in other sectors, including education, infrastructure, and energy, and -- if done right -- even in tax cuts. Military spending is worse than nothing, in economic terms, and we cannot survive it. Nor can our environment survive the destruction that wars and weapons testing bring. The blowback and weapons proliferation encouraged by our current policies may kill us all. And we will be powerless to resist these trends if we allow the so-called wartime erosion of our civil liberties and representative government to continue -- unless, I guess, we all master our impersonations of David Koch when phoning our elected officials.

There was a glitch in the "We're #1" corporate media line last week when a New York Times column noted that among industrialized nations the United States is at or near the worst ranking in income equality, employment, democracy, wellbeing, food security, life expectancy, education, and percentage of the population in prison, but right at the top in military spending whether measured per capita or as a percentage of GDP or in absolute terms. When Dr. King said that a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on the military than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death he wasn't warning us. He was warning our parents and grandparents. We're the dead.

But I think we're only in a coma. We don't choose to fund the war economy. When pollsters tell us what the budget looks like, we demand cuts to the pentagon. But the rest of the time we don't bother to find out what happens to our money. A recent poll found that only 25% of Americans thought we should fund the military at a rate of three times the next most militarized nation, but only 32%, not 75%, wanted to cut military spending, which would in fact have to be slashed drastically to get it down to three times what China spends.

We have two-thirds of the country opposed to a war in Afghanistan that costs over $100 billion per year, and a major debate in Washington over how to cut $100 billion from the budget -- a debate that does not include mention of that war. To effect change, we need more than majority opinion. We need massive strategic Wisconsin-Egyptian public pressure. And before we can generate that pressure to bring our war dollars home and defund the even more costly base military budget, we will have to show people that not just one war is based on lies; they all are.

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The Iraq War is typical of any war in terms of its dishonesty. My book attempts to lay out and refute the major categories of lies used in every war effort, so that from now on we can reject alleged reasons for war immediately upon hearing them. These include claims that only war can oppose evil, that war is needed for defense, and that wars serve humanitarian goals. Chris Matthews on MSNBC recently discovered that the Iraq WMD story was not quite kosher and demanded an investigation of Iraq War lies, which is more than anyone in Congress has done since 2006. Next week tune in as Matthews may discover that there was no Gulf of Tonkin incident or begin to doubt that Spain really sank the Maine.

Did you read the Rolling Stone article on Thursday about the U.S. military's program in Afghanistan to lie to visiting senators and think tankers and military officials themselves about the state of the war? It looks like an official from Florida saw his career suffer when he honorably refused to take part in that. And the people who did it may come off looking about as bright as the Men Who Stare at Goats, but the Senators who fell for it come off looking as bright as the goats. Seriously, for how many years can you believe victory is right around the corner?

An anonymous US military official was quoted in the New York Times yesterday explaining, as some of us have been screaming for nearly a decade, that the military occupation is itself causing violence and instability. The Secretary of War, Robert Gates, yesterday at West Point said that we shouldn't launch any more wars like the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, in an interview just published, Gates argues for further prolonging the war in Afghanistan -- an action every bit as criminal and immoral as initiating the war in the first place.

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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 http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works for the online (more...)
 

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