John Lennon and Yoko Ono pose on the steps of the Apple building in London, holding one of the posters that they distributed to the world’s major cities as part of a peace campaign protesting against the Vietnam War. (Picassa/Frank Barratt)
Even in his proposal for “perpetual peace,”Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant lamented that war “seems inborn in human nature.” Yet he believed it possible to overcome and outlined a strategy for doing so. Just as ambitious today is veteran activist and writer David Swanson, who is part of a group that is beginning to build a coalition broad and strong enough to bring an end to the practice of war as an instrument of ordinary policy. His most recent book, to that point, is War No More: The Case for Abolition. And while he recognizes that challenge of ending war is a daunting one, he argues that it may be less difficult than many of us would think.
What exactly is it that you’re proposing, in a sentence?
We’re organizing groups in the United States and around the world to make a re-energized — and we hope broader and more diverse — push toward the total abolition of the institution of war.
What would a world that had abolished war actually look like?
There would be $2 trillion, roughly $1 trillion of it from the United States, invested in something other than war every year. You can imagine how that might transform health and well-being, sustainable energy, education, housing, or all of the above, and many other things. That redirection of resources would also be likely to spread wealth among more people, as compared to the concentration of wealth facilitated by war spending. Very likely many more lives would be saved by redirected funds than would be spared from dying in wars. But that benefit is not to be minimized. War has become a very deadly form of one-sided slaughter, murdering men, women, and children by the hundreds of thousands. That would end if war ended. One of the greatest sources of environmental destruction would end if war ended — as well as that tremendous waste of resources needed for environmental protection.
Gone too would be the justification for secrecy in government. Civil liberties could no longer be stripped away in the name of fighting an enemy. With enemies gone, international cooperation would flourish. With imperialism gone, it would be possible for the international community to aid abused minorities around the world and assist in natural (so-called) disasters in a way that cannot happen now. Of course, conflicts would remain, but they would be taken to courts, to arbitrators and to the correcting tools of nonviolent action. And of course there are many steps along the way to this final war-free vision, including the step of making militaries actually defensive, rather than offensive — a step that would reduce the U.S. military by at least 90 percent. A world beyond war would benefit from the disappearance of a hugely influential example that teaches groups and individuals the utility of violence.
What makes you think that now is a time when this can happen? It has been tried before, right?
I recently read a proposal to abolish war written in 1992. The authors believed that that was an opportune moment. I’m sure they honestly believed it was. And I’m sure that it, in fact, was — even if there’s a tendency to find such a remark comical in retrospect. Strategic-minded people want to know why 2013 is such a moment, and they can be pointed toward many indicators: opinion polls, the rejection of the proposed missile attack on Syria, increased awareness of war propaganda, the diminishment of drone attacks, the ever-so-slight reduction in military spending, the possibility of peace in Colombia, the growing success of nonviolent conflict resolution, the growing and improving use of nonviolent movements for change, the existentially urgent need for a shifting of resources from destroying the planet to protecting it, the economic need to stop wasting trillions of dollars, the arrival of technologies that allow for instant international collaboration among war resisters. But just as many indicators were available in 1992, albeit different ones, and nobody has developed the means for quantifying such things.
Here’s the key question, I think: If all of those predecessors to Rosa Parks — the many heroes who resisted segregated busing over many decades — hadn’t acted, would Rosa Parks have ever been Rosa Parks? If not, then isn’t the strategic time for a moral and necessary campaign always right now?
What’s the basic strategy?
There are many angles for approaching this task, including education, communications, counter-recruitment, lawsuits, cultural exchange, legislation, treaties, campaigns to resist particular wars or tactics or weapons, and efforts to organize economic interests in support of transition to peaceful industries. Our goal is to strengthen and expand existing efforts by building a broad coalition, influencing the culture, shaping people’s understanding. We need to convincingly make the case that war can be ended, should be ended, is not going to end on its own, and we can make it happen. Our perspective will then change.
We may not oppose wars largely because of the damage done to the aggressor if we understand war as an evil imposed on the victim. We may not struggle against Pentagon waste so much as against Pentagon efficiency. We may not work to distinguish good from bad drone murders if eliminating drones is part of eliminating warfare. We may find that rejecting missiles into Syria was just a start. We may organize a massive program of conversion to peaceful jobs if we come to understand that war makes us less safe rather than protecting us. If this sounds like a vague strategy, that it in part because this campaign is just forming, groups that have not joined yet will have a major say in shaping it. We’re still settling on a name, and drafting a website. You’re getting a preview, in other words, of an idea whose time has almost come.
Who is involved so far? Who do you think needs to be involved?
Several great organizations are involved, and many terrific individuals. More are being added to our preliminary discussions almost every day. I don’t want to announce who is and isn’t involved yet, as that would seem to give more importance to those earliest on board. We’re really just starting to form what needs to be a global campaign, even while focusing on warmaking where it is found, recognizing that the United States is the world’s leading warmaker.
Involved must be the nations victimized, the nations pressured, the nations complicit, the nations making their own warfare on smaller scales, the nations abused by the presence of U.S. troops permanently stationed there. Involved must be environmentalists who overcome their patriotism and militarism in order to take on our largest consumer of oil, greatest creator of superfund sites, and greatest example of an energy-and-economy regime based on assault and exploitation. Involved must be civil libertarians who step back from treating the symptoms of torture and assassination to face the cause of military spending. Involved must be advocates of open government, of education and of all useful causes neglected by our pursuit of warmaking. Involved must be producers of trains, solar panels, schools and everything that stands to benefit from a transition to a law-abiding, cooperative approach to the world.
Do you expect to see an end to war in your lifetime?
Assuming that I live a long life, we will need to see war largely ended or there will be a huge risk of catastrophic wars, of nuclear apocalypse, and of environmental apocalypse aggravated by investment in war. So we’d darn well better see it end. And of course we can. When Congress was overwhelmed with opposition to dropping missiles on Syria, that was less than 1 percent of us overwhelming them. Imagine if 3 or 4 percent of us got seriously engaged in ending the greatest and most inexcusable evil ever devised. The task is not nearly as great as we imagine, and understanding that properly is not a path to naivety but to success.
- Nathan Schneider is an editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, both published in 2013 by University of California Press, are Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse and God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet. He has written about religion, reason and violence for publications including The Nation, The New York Times, Harper’s, Commonweal,Religion Dispatches, AlterNet and others. He is also an editor at Killing the Buddha. Visit his website at TheRowBoat.com.