Remarks by David Swanson at Houston Peace and Justice Center Conference on April 25, 2015.
I hope to be brief enough to leave lots of time for questions after I talk.
I know that most of you are probably exceptions to what I’m about to say, because I suspect that most of you came here voluntarily. If you’re here on duty for the FBI, raise your hand.
You may all be the exceptions, but most people in the United States have no idea of the suffering that war brings.
War brings suffering first through the wasting of some $2 trillion every year, roughly half of it by the U.S. government alone, but much of the weaponry purchased with the other $1 trillion, spent by other governments, is U.S.-made weaponry. Never mind what the money is spent on. It could be dumped in a hole and burned and we’d all be better off, but the most suffering is caused by what it’s not spent on.
For tens of billions of dollars the world could end starvation, unclean drinking water, and various health problems; it could invest in green energy and sustainable agriculture and education in massive, undreamed of ways. Yet $2 trillion is wasted every year on a criminal enterprise without redeeming merit of any sort. To get a sense of the scale of the funding, all the accumulated student debt of former and current students in the United States is $1.3 trillion. The United States spends $1.3 trillion on militarism in a single year, and the same amount again the next year, and the next year. For tens of billions, college could be free. Whether the students who emerged would have learned to love the bomb would depend on how the funding was handled and other factors, but a tiny fraction of military spending would do it — I’m referring to military spending across numerous departments of the government, and it has doubled or close to it during the Bush-Obama wars. Military spending is over half the money Congress spends each year. The recently proposed Congressional Progressive Caucus budget proposed to cut military spending by 1%, which gives you an idea of the extreme limits of debate in U.S. politics, which I think Robert Jensen will be telling us more about. In fact, no statement from the Progressive Caucus even mentioned the existence of military spending; you had to hunt through the numbers to find the 1% cut.
Now, it’s hard to separate deaths due to disease and starvation, from the direct effects of warfare, with warfare creating refugee crises and destroying farms and so forth. It’s also true that the financial resources to address human needs could be found in another place other than war, namely in the pockets of the greediest 400 people in the United States. Their hoarding of wealth, even those of them not principally funded by the war machine, can certainly be blamed as well when a child starves to death anywhere on earth. But blame is not a finite quantity. You can blame plutocracy or militarism, and niether one exculpates the other. Military spending could end starvation for the price of a small rounding error and is therefore culpable.
Most people, I think, also fail to understand that the suffering created by military spending is mostly created by routine war preparations by an empire ever planning for more wars, and much less by the wars themselves. We need to stop announcing how many schools we could have had instead of a particular war, because we could have had 10 times as many instead of the routine so-called non-war military spending during the same period. Or, better, we could have provided 10 times as many to the world rather than to one particular little country that is far from the worst off.
Most people also fail to understand that there is no up side to military spending, that it doesn’t balance the slaughter of human beings with the creation of jobs. The same money, if spent on peaceful enterprises, would create more jobs and better paying jobs. Military spending is a drain on the economy of the aggressor.
The U.S. weapons industry is the leading arms dealer to the world, and it arms and props up dictatorships on a permanent basis. Who can calculate the suffering that causes? A former president of Egypt was just sentenced to prison for killing protesters, while the current president tortures them to death and gets a personal phone call from President Obama promising him more free weaponry — billions of dollars worth for free every year, just as for Israel. And when Israel engages in one of its genocidal fits of bombing, the U.S. rushes more weaponry over to fill the armories. The Saudi war on Yemen is a proxy war, not between Iran and anyone but between the United States and the United States. U.S. weapons provided to support a brutal dictator in Yemen are blown up by U.S. weapons sold to a brutal dictator in Saudi Arabia who also uses them to prop up the U.S.-armed brutal dictator in Bahrain.
Wars and arms races around the world are fueled by the United States, but the United States is also the leading direct user of war. And, again, I think most people do not understand the suffering inflicted. U.S. newspapers refer to the U.S. Civil War as the deadliest U.S. war. It killed some 750,000 people, or 2% of the population. Compare that to a million and a half killed out of a population of 6 or 7 million in the Philippines, or 2 million killed in Korea, or 4 million killed in Vietnam, or 3 million killed by war and sanctions in Iraq since 1991 — 11% of the Iraqi population. Nobody knows these numbers, but even if they did, the lack of understanding would be intense because the United States still thinks of wars in the terms of the last war fought here, other than the wars of Native American genocide, namely the U.S. Civil War. Everyone still talks about so-called battlefields, while the wars are fought in people’s cities, towns, and farms. Most people killed are on one side; most are civilian; as many are women and children and elderly as men. More are injured than killed. More are traumatized than injured. Huge areas are depopulated. Permanent refugee camps are created. Poisons unknown during the U.S. Civil War create permanent health crises and birth defect epidemics. Children unborn during wars die later when picking up cluster bombs. And urban societal structures of energy, health, transportation, and education, unknown in the 1860s, are devastated by war’s destruction.
On January 26 of this year, Mohammed Tuaiman, age 13, of Marib, Yemen, became the third member of his family to be killed by a U.S. drone strike. The drone struck a car carrying Mohammed, his brother in law, Abdullah al-Zindani, and another man. Mohammed’s older brother Maqded told the Guardian newspaper, “I saw all the bodies completely burned, like charcoal. When we arrived we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t move the bodies so we just buried them there, near the car.”
During the 20th century, not counting the lives that could have been saved with the same money, 190 million deaths could be directly and indirectly related to war — more than in the previous four centuries. The 21st century is in the running to dwarf that record, or indeed to shatter it through nuclear or environmental catastrophe.
Is there any imaginable way in which the most recent 200 million war deaths could have each been just? If 200 million men, women, and children are guilty of something deserving murder, then must we not all be? If even 10 percent of them are, then must we not all be?
On May 15, 2012, Ahmed Abdullah Awadh of Ja’ar, Yemen, was killed. “It was 9 am in the morning,” said his neighbor. “I was at home with my son, Majed. Suddenly we heard a loud noise and we all ran out to see what happened. Everyone in the neighborhood came out. To our surprise, we find our sweet neighbor, Ahmed, a taxi driver, burned and in pieces. About 15 minutes later a second strike struck the same place. I survived but my 25 year old son, Majed was hit pretty hard. 50% of his body was burned. When we went to the only clinic we have here in Ja’ar, they said he was too seriously injured to be treated there. The nearest hospital is in Aden, and the main road was closed. It took four hours to get there. I held him in my arms while we were driving, and he kept bleeding. On the third day in the hospital, at 2:30 a.m., Majed’s heart stopped and he died.”
According to former U.S. general Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military creates 10 new enemies for every innocent person it kills. But most of the people being killed are innocent, in the drone strikes, in the bombing campaigns, in the ground wars. Could that help explain why the U.S. loses every war? Why ISIS begs the U.S. to attack it and then watches its recruitment soar after the U.S. obliges? Why 65 nations polled at the end of 2013 almost all said the United States was the greatest threat to peace on earth? Imagine if Canada decides to continue down its current militarist path how many years it will have to work to generate anti-Canadian terrorist groups to match those the United States has germinated? Canada will have to shut down its schools and hospitals to invest in creating animosity abroad if it hopes to catch up at all.
If I weren’t speaking to you exceptional people but to a typical group of Americans, I would be asked at the end how the U.S. might defend itself if it reduced its war preparations. Well, how do other nations do it? I don’t mean who does France call on when it thinks Libya needs to be destroyed, the region thrown into chaos, thousands of desperate people left to risk their lives on rafts in the Mediterranean trying to escape post-liberation Libya. I mean, how does France defend itself from being conquered by evil foreign hordes? How does Costa Rica or Iceland or Japan or India? To match average military spending by all other nations, the United States would have to cut 95% of its military spending. And what does that extra 95% buy? It buys less safety, not more.
On January 23, 2012, an eight-year-old girl named Seena in Sanhan, Yemen, lost her father to a drone strike. “I want to play outside,” she says. “But I can’t dream of that ever happening anymore.” Numerically, most victims of drone wars in Yemen and Pakistan are not those killed or injured, but those afraid to go outdoors. Families teach children at home rather than send them to school. But how do they teach them to live with the ongoing sense of horror created by the buzzing noise in the sky, the buzzing of an evil god that can obliterate their world at any moment and for no apparent reason? And how does forcing children to live that way “defend” the United States?
Exceptional as you all are, I doubt you can understand — I certainly cannot understand — what the weight of 190 million stories like Seena’s feels like. Multiply that times 10 according to Stanley McChrystal. What does that feel like? During the war on Iraq of the last decade, U.S. commanders could plan operations that they expected to kill up to 30 innocent Iraqis. If they expected 31, then they had to get Donald Rumsfeld’s approval — which I dare suggest was something of a known known. U.S. deaths in that war amounted to about 0.3% of the death toll, and fittingly Iraqi deaths were valued by the U.S. government at 0.3% the dollar value of U.S. deaths. That is to say, the U.S. typically paid $0 to $5,000 dollars as compensation for an Iraqi life, while the State Department and Blackwater arrived at the figure of $15,000, but the lowest government value for a U.S. life was $5 million assigned by the Food and Drug Administration.
In Pakistan, the people terrorized by U.S. drones heard about the phrase that drone pilots in the United States use to refer to their murders. They call them “bug splat,” because to them, on their video monitors, it looks like they are squishing bugs. So an artist created a giant image on a Pakistani farm, visible to drones above, of a young girl for a project called Not A Bug Splat.
Are we idiots? Do we not know that a girl thousands of miles away is a girl? Do we have to be told? Apparently we do. Our entire culture is permeated with the idea that humans must be “humanized” in order to be recognized as humans. When we see photos or hear personal stories with detail about a person or a group of people, when we learn someone’s name and daily habits and little quirks and weaknesses, we declare, “Wow, that really humanizes them.” Well, I’m sorry, but what the hell were they before they were humanized?
We have liberal law professors who believe that a drone murder that has been observed in close detail can remain in a state of legal limbo: if it’s not part of a war then it’s murder, but if it’s part of a war then it’s perfectly fine — and whether it’s part of a war is unknowable because President Obama claims his legal reasoning is officially secret even though we’ve already seen it. Even thought it blatantly makes no sense, we maintain the formal pretense that secretly it might.
Have any of you seen a movie called My Cousin Vinny? In it a woman screams at her boyfriend for worrying about what pair of pants to wear when he goes deer hunting. Her concern is for the life of the deer, not the pants of, if you can excuse the language, the SOB who shoots the deer. Here’s a modified version of that little speech:
Imagine you’re an Iraqi. You’re walking along, you get thirsty, you stop for a drink of cool clear water… BAM! A fuckin missile rips you to shreds. Your brains are hanging on a tree in little bloody pieces! Now I ask ya. Would you give a fuck whether the son of a bitch who shot you was part of a war or not?
I can’t even say UN-authorized war because the U.S. no longer bothers with that.
I can’t even say Congressionally authorized war because the president no longer bothers with that.
The latest stage in the U.S. war on Iraq is called Operation Inherent Resolve. Eager to maintain some pretense of relevance, Congress is constantly debating whether to debate whether to “authorize” this ongoing war, which Obama says will go on just the same with or without their feckless chattering. And somehow we’re supposed to hear the name “Operation Inherent Resolve” and not burst out laughing at the sort of idiots who would think we were the sort of idiots who would like that name.
Unless of course we are.
But but but but what would you do about ISIS? That’s the question, right? A group of rebels created by the previous U.S. war on Iraq kills some people in the style used on a much grander scale by U.S.-backed governments in places like Saudi Arabia, and suddenly it’s my job to explain how to destroy ISIS using the same tools that created it? I wouldn’t have created it in the first place. Like you, I protested the war that destroyed Iraq before it even began, and before it even began the first time in 1990. And now I have to choose yet more war or nothing, because the range of debate has been limited to another knowingly hopeless U.S. ground war or a knowingly hopeless U.S. air war with ground troops momentarily assigned as enemies of an enemy, albeit not of other enemies?
The Middle East is armed by the United States. The region explodes in death and destruction using weapons 80-90 percent of which come from the United States. The first step is to stop arming the Middle East. The second is to negotiate an arms embargo. The third is to stop propping up brutal dictators. The fourth is to provide humanitarian aid and diplomacy, peaceworkers, human shields, journalists, video cameras, green energy, doctors, agriculture. All of those steps could be launched on Monday. The urgency of the crisis demands it, in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
We need a shift from war to peace. This is why preventing the bombing of Syria in 2013 was a short-lived victory. Instead of taking an approach of peace, the CIA sent in arms and trainers and bided its time until better propaganda could be found.
Now, there are lots of things we can do. We can work on transition to peaceful industries at the local, state, and federal levels. We can build up democratic institutions, workplaces, and credit unions that divest from war and offer jobs to those considering the military or mercenary company careers. We can educate, protect, encourage peaceful alternatives, engage in cultural and educational and economic exchanges.
We can build a movement for the abolition of war like the one we are building at WorldBeyondWar.org where people in 112 countries have signed a statement supporting the ending of all war, and I hope you will too.
But one thing in particular that we can do, and related to my current topic, is that we can convey the reality of the human suffering created by war.
Until a video surfaced recently of South Carolina policeman Michael Slager murdering a man named Walter Scott, the media was reporting a package of lies manufactured by the police: a fight that never occurred, witnesses who didn’t exist, the victim taking the policeman’s taser, etc. The lies collapsed because the video appeared.
I find myself asking why videos of missiles blowing children into little bits and pieces can’t dissolve the stories churned out by the Pentagon. With several qualifications, I think part of the answer is that there are not enough videos. The struggle for the right to videotape the police at home in the United States should be accompanied by a campaign to provide video cameras to populations targeted for wars. Of course the struggle to videotape people dying under a bombing campaign is at least as great a challenge as videotaping a murderous policeman, but enough cameras would produce some footage.
We can also search for stories and photographs and promote awareness of them to new audiences. The stories I’ve mentioned today, and more, are found at SupportYemen.org
We can find stories closer to home as well. The suffering of U.S. troops and mercenaries and their families is more than enough to shatter any heart with even the faintest beat in it. But there’s an educational shortcoming. When we only tell the stories of U.S. troops, people imagine that they make up some significant portion of the victims, even half, even a majority. And people imagine that the other victims are also mostly troops and mercenaries. These are dangerous misconceptions that leave the U.S. population offering some significant degree of support for wars that the rest of the world sees as one-sided slaughters.
And, of course, encouraging Americans to think that they should only care about American lives is the root of the problem. It also merges subtly into cheerleading for the military, which merges imperceptibly into cheerleading for the wars.
We need a culture that opposes war and celebrates nonviolent action, peace, the rule of law, and sustainable practices that resist militarism, racism, and extreme materialism.
Yes, yes, yes, of course the presidents and congress members and generals get more blame than the rank and file. Yes, of course, everyone is redeemable, everyone remains human, every troop is a potential resister, whistleblower, and peace activist. But there is nothing accomplished by internalizing “support the troops” propaganda. Nobody says they oppose the death penalty but “support” the guy who flips the switch. Nobody says they oppose mass incarceration but “support” the prison guards. Why should they have to? What would that mean? Our failure to “support the prison guards” is not interpreted as some sort of treasonous plan to harm the prison guards. Why would it be? And, by the way, please go to RootsAction.org to email your state legislators to try to protect prisoners in Texas from dying of extreme heat and other inhumane conditions. You won’t be failing to support the prison guards.
I live in Virginia, which probably does more for war than any other U.S. state. But on Thursday I got an email from Francis Boyle who wrote the Biological Weapons Act and who tends to notice when it’s being violated. He was alerting people to a notice that the National Biocontainment Laboratories at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, as well as at Boston University, is, in his words, “aerosolizing BSL4 Biowarfare Agents—a telltale sign of offensive biowarfare work for delivery as a weapon by air to human beings.” Now, I know that every corner of the United States is packed full of places to protest the military, but Galveston suddenly seems like an especially important one to me.
Another might be Ellington Airport from which I understand drone pilots have been killing people in Afghanistan. If there aren’t protests of that yet, there are people in New York, Nevada, California, Virginia, etc., who can help. KnowDrones has been running TV ads in some of these places asking pilots to refuse to fly.
Another thing we can do is to stop celebrating war holidays and instead celebrate peace ones. We have a calendar of peace holidays at WorldBeyondWar.org. Today, for example, is the day on which, in 1974, the Carnation Revolution ended military rule in Portugal. Almost no shots were fired, and crowds of people stuck carnations into the muzzles of rifles and onto the uniforms of soldiers. There are in fact suitable holidays for peace every day of the year, just as there are for war. It’s up to us which we choose to mark.
Four years ago Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee created a new holiday that I’m pleased to say I’ve never heard of anyone celebrating. This is the law as passed:
“The President shall designate a day entitled a National Day of Honor to celebrate members of the Armed Forces who are returning from deployment in support of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other combat areas.”
Catchy, isn’t it?
Did the president designate such a day? Just once or annually? I have no idea. But this is part of what the Congresswoman said in proposing it:
“Today I rise . . . to ask support for an amendment that can bring all of us together, the designation of a national day of honor to celebrate the members of the Armed Services who will be returning from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan and other combat areas. This national day of honor would recognize the enormous sacrifice and invaluable service that those phenomenal men and women have undertaken to protect our freedom and share the gift of democracy in other parts of the world. How many of us have stopped to say ‘thank you’ to a soldier walking alone in an airport. . . . ”
Now, the alternative to this is not the apocryphal spitting on troops. The alternative to this is to grow out of a barbaric culture that continues to recruit and train and send off more troops, albeit in such insufficient numbers for the Pentagon that mercenaries and robots are coming to dominate. The alternative is to honestly recognize that even if you say “freedom” and “troops” in the same breath the fact remains unaltered that we lose our freedoms with every passing year of war. The alternative is to join the rest of the earth in recognizing the grotesqueness of pretending that the U.S. military has brought democracy to Iraq or Afghanistan or to the unnamed “other combat areas” that our great democracy does not always afford us the right to even know the names of.
Do not thank a soldier in an airport. If you’re able to sit down and speak with a soldier, tell them that you know of veterans who suffer horribly, that you’d like to help, that if they ever want to consider a different career there may be a way to make that change. Give them your number or one for a GI Rights Hotline. And you can say more or less the same thing to the TSA agents in the airport as well of course.
Much more importantly is for us to figure out how we can say to the people of the many places the U.S. military makes war: we are sorry, we are with you, we are working to end it.
PAINTING BY FARIBA ABEDIN.