Peace in the Pentagon
I’m a huge fan of peace studies as an academic discipline that should be spread into every corner of what we call, with sometimes unclear justification, our education system. But often peace studies, like other disciplines, manages to study only those far from home, and to study them with a certain bias.
I recently read a book promoting the sophisticated skills of trained negotiators and suggesting that if such people, conversant in the ways of emotional understanding, would take over the Palestine “peace process” from the aging politicians, then … well, basically, then Palestinians would agree to surrender their land and rights without so much fuss. Great truths about negotiation skills only go so far if the goal of the negotiation is injustice based on misunderstanding of the facts on the ground.
I recently read another book discussing nonviolent resistance to injustice and brutality. It focused on a handful of stories of how peace was brought to various poor tribes and nations, usually through careful, respectful, and personal approaches, that appeased some tyrant’s ego while moving him toward empathy. These books are valuable, and it is good that they are proliferating. But they always leave me wondering whether the biggest war-maker on earth is left out because war isn’t war when Westerners do it, or is it, rather, because the military industrial complex requires a different approach. How many decades has it been since a U.S. president sat down and listened to opponents of militarism? Does the impossibility of such a thing remove it from our professors’ consideration?
Here in Virginia’s Fifth District, a bunch of us met with our then-Congressman Tom Perriello a few years back and sought respectfully and persuasively to bring him to oppose and stop funding the war on Afghanistan. Perriello was and is, in some quarters, considered some sort of “progressive” hero. I’ve never understood why. He did not listen. Why? We had majority opinion with us. Was it because we lacked the skills? Was it because of his sincere belief in so-called humanitarian wars? Or was it something else? The New York Times last Friday reported on the corruption of the organization where Perriello was hired immediately upon his electoral defeat. The Center for American Progress takes funding from weapons companies and supports greater public funding of weapons companies. The Democratic National Committee gave Perriello’s reelection campaign a bunch of money just after one of his votes for a bill containing war money and a bank bailout (he seemed to oppose the latter). White House officials and cabinet secretaries did public events with Perriello in his district just after his vote.
I know another member of Congress who wants to end wars and cut military spending, but when I ask this member’s staff to stop talking about social safety net cuts as if they only hurt veterans rather than all people I can’t even make my concern — that of glorifying veterans as more valuable — understood. It’s like talking to a brick military base.
My friend David Hartsough was one, among others, who spoke with President John Kennedy when he was President, urged him toward peace and believed he listened. That didn’t work out well for President Kennedy, or for peace. When Gorbachev was ready to move the Soviet Union toward peace, President Ronald Reagan wasn’t. Was that because of sincere, well-meaning, if misguided notions of security? Or was it senility, stupidity, and stubbornness? Or was it something else? Was it a system that wouldn’t allow it? Was something more than personal persuasion on the substance of the matter needed? Was a new way of funding elections and communicating campaign slogans required first? Would peace studies have to revise its approach if it noticed the existence of the Pentagon?
Of course, I think the answer is some of each. I think reducing military spending a little will allow us to be heard a little more clearly, which will allow us to reduce military spending a little further, and so on. And part of the reason why I think it’s both and not purely “structural” is the opposition to war that brews up within the U.S. military — as it did on missile strikes for Syria this past summer. Sometimes members of the military oppose, protest, or even resist wars.
Another type of book that has proliferated madly is the account of military veterans’ activism in the peace movement during the Bush presidency — with always a bit on what survived of that movement into the reign of the Nobel Peace Laureate Constitutional Law Professor President. I’ve just read a good one of these books called Fighting For Peace: Veterans and Military Families in the Anti-Iraq War Movement by Lisa Leitz. This book, as well as any of them, provides insights into the difficulties faced by military and veteran peace activists, and military family member peace activists, as well as the contributions they’ve made. I’ve become an associate (non-veteran) member of Veterans For Peace and worked for that group and with other groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Military Families Speak Out because of the tremendous job they’ve done. The non-military peace movement needs to work ever harder at welcoming and encouraging and supporting military and veteran peace activism. And vice versa.
Different risks are involved. Different emotions are involved. Would you march against a war if it might ruin your own or a loved one’s career? To stretch the definition of war-maker a little, would you take a job with Lockheed-Martin if you oppose war? What if you oppose war but your child is in the military — would you be proud of his or her success and advancement into an elite murder team? Should you not be proud of your child?
The contributions of military and former military peace activists have been tremendous: the throwing back of medals, the memorials and cemeteries erected in protest and grief, the reenactment of war scenes on the streets, the testimony confessing to crimes no one wants to prosecute. New people have been reached and opinions changed. And yet, I want to say there is a downside.
Most peace activists have never been in the military. Most books about peace activists are about the military ones. This distorts and diminishes our understanding of what we’re doing. Most victims in our wars — and I mean statistically almost all of them — are on the other side, but most writing done about victims is about the U.S. military ones (assuming aggressors are victims). The giant cemeteries representing the dead in Iraq are orders of magnitude too small to be accurate. This severely distorts our understanding of one-sided slaughters, allowing the continuation of the myth of war as a contest between two armies.
Eliminating war would logically involve eliminating the war-making machine, but veteran and military opponents of war, more often than others, want the military preserved and used for good ends. Is that because it makes sense or because of personal identification? Nationalism is driving wars, but military peace activists tend, more than others, to favor “good patriotism” or “true patriotism.” Must a peace movement that ought to celebrate international law and cooperation follow that lead?
Leitz quotes Maureen Dowd claiming that veterans have “moral authority” to oppose war, unlike — apparently — those who have opposed war for a longer period of time or more consistently. Imagine applying that logic to some other offense, such as child abuse. We don’t suggest that reformed child abusers have the greatest moral authority to oppose child abuse. What about shoplifting? Do reformed shoplifters have the greatest authority to oppose shoplifting? I think that in any such situation, the former participants have a particular type of perspective. But I think there’s another valuable perspective in those who have opposed a crime. Some veterans, of course, were in the military before I was born and have worked for the abolition of war longer than I’ve breathed. I don’t think their past diminishes them in any way. I also don’t think it does what Dowd thinks it does.
Dowd’s idea may be that some wars are good and some bad, so we should trust those who’ve taken part in wars to make the distinction. I’d disagree with the conclusion even if I agreed with the premise. I don’t think it’s a premise the peace movement should accept. Peace is as incompatible with some wars as it is with all wars.
Accounts like Fighting for Peace bring out the segregation of military from civilian culture in the United States, a product of standing armies and standing foreign bases. I once spoke on a panel with a Democratic veteran candidate for Congress who thankfully lost but who advocated for everyone joining the military so that everyone would be familiar with what the military was. I have another proposal: everyone join civilian life, close the bases, dismantle the weapons, disassemble the ships, put solar panels on the runways, and give the Pentagon a new role to play. I think it would make a fine roller skating rink.
In the meantime, we should try to understand and work with each other to reduce the military, and that requires doing so without promoting it or joining it.
David Swanson is author of War is a Lie. He lives in Virginia.