High School Students and Peace Making

Remarks at Student Peace Awards of Fairfax County, Va., March 10, 2019

By David Swanson, Director, World BEYOND War

Thank you for inviting me here. I’m honored. And I’m reminded of lots of happy memories of Herndon High School, class of 87. If there was encouragement back then to take on the sort of projects that our honorees today have taken on, I missed it. I suspect that some improvements have been made in high school education since my day. Yet I did manage to learn a lot at Herndon, and also by participating in a trip abroad with one of my teachers, and from spending a year abroad as an exchange student following graduation prior to beginning college. Seeing the world through a new culture and language helped me to question things I hadn’t. I believe we need a lot more questioning, including of things familiar and comfortable. The students being honored today have all been willing to push themselves beyond what was comfortable. You all don’t need me to tell you the benefits of having done that. The benefits, as you know, are much more than an award.

Reading the summaries of what these students have done, I see a lot of work opposing bigotry, recognizing humanity in those who are different, and helping others to do the same. I see a lot of opposing cruelty and violence and advocating nonviolent solutions and kindness. I think of all of these steps as part of building a culture of peace. By peace I mean, not exclusively, but first and foremost, the absence of war. Prejudice is a wonderful tool in marketing wars. Human understanding is a wonderful impediment. But we have to avoid allowing our concerns to be used against, avoid accepting that the only way to solve some alleged crime is to commit the larger crime of war. And we have to figure out how to persuade governments to behave as peacefully on a large scale as we try to on a smaller one, so that we aren’t welcoming refugees while our government causes more people to flee their homes, so that we aren’t sending aid to places while our government sends missiles and guns.

I recently did a couple of public debates with a professor from the U.S. Army’s West Point Academy. The question was whether war can ever be justified. He argued yes. I argued no. Like many people who argue his side, he spent a fair amount of time talking not about wars but about finding yourself confronted in a dark alleyway, the idea being that everyone must simply agree that they would be violent if confronted in a dark alleyway, and therefore war is justifiable. I responded by asking him not to change the subject, and by claiming that what one person does in a dark alleyway, whether violent or not, has very little in common with the collective enterprise of constructing massive equipment and preparing massive forces and making the calm and deliberate choice to drop explosives on distant people’s homes rather than negotiate or cooperate or make use of courts or arbitration or aid or disarmament agreements.

But if you’ve read this excellent book that’s being given to these outstanding students today, Sweet Fruit from a Bitter Tree, then you know that it simply is not true that a person alone in a dark alleyway never has any better option than violence. For some people in some cases in dark alleyways and other similar locations, violence could prove the best option, a fact that would tell us nothing about the institution of war. But in this book we read numerous stories — and there are many, no doubt millions, more just like them — of people who chose a different course.

It sounds not just uncomfortable but ridiculous to the dominant culture we live in to suggest starting a conversation with a would-be rapist, making friends with burglars, asking an attacker about his troubles or inviting him to dinner. How can such an approach, documented to have worked over and over again in practice ever be made to work in theory? (If anyone here is planning to attend college, you can expect to encounter just that question quite often.)

Well, here’s a different theory. Very often, not always, but very often people have a need for respect and friendship that is much stronger than their desire to inflict pain. A friend of mine named David Hartsough was part of a nonviolent action in Arlington trying to integrate a segregated lunch counter, and an angry man put a knife up to him and threatened to kill him. David calmly looked him in the eye and said words to the effect of “You do what you have to do, my brother, and I am going to love you anyway.” The hand holding the knife began to shake, and then the knife fell to the floor.

Also, the lunch counter was integrated.

Humans are a very peculiar species. We don’t actually need a knife to the throat to feel uncomfortable. I may say things in a speech like this one that don’t threaten anyone in any way, but nonetheless make some people pretty darn uncomfortable. I wish they didn’t, but I think they have to be said even if they do.

A little over a year ago there was a mass shooting at a high school in Florida. Many people have, quite rightly I think, asked the people just up the street here at the NRA to consider what role their corruption of government may play in the endless epidemic of gun violence in the United States. Thank you to Congressman Connolly for having voted for background checks, by the way. But almost nobody mentions that our tax dollars paid to train that young man in Florida to kill, trained him right in the cafeteria of the high school where he did it, and that he was wearing a t-shirt advertising that training program when he murdered his classmates. Why wouldn’t that upset us? Why wouldn’t we all feel some responsibility? Why would we avoid the subject?

One possible explanation is that we’ve been taught that when the U.S. Army trains people to shoot guns it’s for a good purpose, not murder, but some other kind of shooting people, and that a t-shirt from a JROTC program is an admirable, patriotic, and noble badge of honor that we shouldn’t disgrace by mentioning it in conjunction with a mass murder of people who matter. After all, Fairfax County has the JROTC too and hasn’t experienced the same result as Parkland, Florida — yet. Questioning the wisdom of such programs would be vaguely unpatriotic, perhaps even treasonous. It’s more comfortable just to keep quiet.

Now, let me say something even more uncomfortable. Mass shooters in the United States very disproportionately have been trained by the U.S. military. That is to say, veterans are proportionately more likely to be mass shooters than are a random group of men of the same age. The facts in this regard are not in dispute, only the acceptability of mentioning them. It’s all right to point out that mass shooters are almost all male. It’s all right to point out how many suffer from mental illness. But not how many were trained by one of the biggest public programs the world has ever seen.

Needless to say, or rather I wish it were needless to say, one doesn’t mention mental illness in order to encourage cruelty to the mentally ill, or veterans in order to condone anyone being mean to veterans. I mention the suffering of veterans and the suffering that some of them sometimes inflict on others in order to open up a conversation about whether we ought to stop creating more veterans going forward.

In Fairfax County, as much as anywhere in this country, questioning militarism is questioning an existing economy of military contractors. Studies have found that if you moved money from military spending to education or infrastructure or green energy or even tax cuts for working people you’d have so many more jobs and better-paying jobs at that, that you could in fact divert sufficient funds into aiding anyone who needed help in transitioning from military to non-military work. But in our current culture, people think of the enterprise of mass killing as a jobs program, and investment in it as normal.

When the Guantanamo base in Cuba became known for having tortured people to death, someone asked Starbucks why they chose to have a coffee shop at Guantanamo. The response was that choosing not to have one there would have been a political statement, whereas having one there was simply normal.

In Congressman Gerry Connolly’s last campaign, the political action committees of at least nine weapons companies chipped in $10,000 each.

In Charlottesville, we’ve just asked our city council to adopt a policy of no longer investing in weapons or fossil fuels. A quick glance at a few websites shows me that Fairfax County, too, invests retirement funds, for example, in such life-threatening enterprises as ExxonMobil and in State of Virginia investments in funds that invest heavily in weapons. I think of some of the wonderful teachers I had at Herndon and wonder whether they would have appreciated someone making their retirement dependent on the flourishing of the war business and the destruction of the earth’s climate. I also wonder whether anyone asked them. Or rather I’m certain nobody did.

But does anyone ever ask us the most important questions that we need to simply go ahead and answer anyway?

I remember history classes in school — this may have changed, but this is what I remember — focusing very heavily on U.S. history. The United States, I learned, was very special in a great many ways. It took me quite a while to figure out that in most of those ways, the United States was not actually very special. Before I learned that — and it may be that it was necessary that this come first — I learned to identify myself with humanity. I generally think of myself as a member of lots of different small groups, including the residents of Charlottesville and the Herndon High School Class of 1987, among many others, but most importantly I think of myself as a member of humanity — whether humanity likes it or not! So, I’m proud of us when the U.S. government or some U.S. resident does something good and also when any other government or person does anything good. And I’m ashamed by failures everywhere equally. The net result of identifying as a world citizen is often quite positive, by the way.

Thinking in those terms may make it easier, not only to examine ways in which the United States is not so special, such as its lack of a health coverage system to measure up to what other countries have got working in practice even if our professors deny its ability to work in theory, but also easier to examine ways in which the United States is indeed a very special outlier.

Some weeks from now, when the University of Virginia men’s basketball team wins the NCAA championship, viewers will hear the announcers thank their troops for watching from 175 countries. You’ll not hear anything of the sort anywhere else on earth. The United States has some 800 to 1,000 major military bases in some 80 countries that are not the United States. The rest of the world’s nations combined have a couple of dozen bases outside their borders. The United States spends almost as much each year on war and preparations for war as the rest of the world combined, and much of the rest of the world is U.S. allies, and much of the spending is on U.S.-made weapons, which are not infrequently found on both sides of wars. U.S. military spending, across numerous government departments, is some 60% of the spending that Congress decides on each year. U.S. weapons exports are number one in the world. The U.S. government arms the vast majority of the world’s dictatorships by its own definition. When people are outraged that Donald Trump speaks with a North Korean dictator, I’m actually relieved, because the typical relationship is to arm and train the forces of dictators. Very few people in the United States can name all the countries their country has bombed in the current year, and this has been true for many years. In a presidential primary debate last time around, a moderator asked a candidate if he would be willing to kill hundreds and thousands of innocent children as part of his basic presidential duties. I don’t think you’ll find a similar question in an electoral debate in any other country. I think it suggests a normalization of something that never should have been accepted even in rare circumstances.

Chapter 51 of Sweet Fruit from the Bitter Tree describes a U.S. military operation in Iraq that managed to avoid violence on a particular day. What is not mentioned is that this advanced a catastrophic occupation that devastated a nation and led to the development of groups like ISIS. On page 212, the U.S. military commander recounting the incident remarks how horrible it is to kill another human being at close range. “I would shoot all the artillery,” he writes, “drop all the Air Force’s bombs and strafe the enemy with the division’s attack helicopters before I would see one of my young soldiers in a street fight with the enemy at close quarters.” This sounds like kindness, like humaneness. He wants to spare his young soldiers the horror and the moral injury of killing at close range.

But here’s the catch. Aerial attacks usually kill and injure and traumatize and render homeless overwhelmingly civilians, by which I do not mean to accept the killing of the non-civilian so-called enemy — and they do so in much larger numbers than ground attacks. The more the United States wages its wars from the air, the more people die, the more the dying is one-sided, and the less any of it makes it into U.S. news reports. Perhaps those facts are not all-decisive for everyone, but their absence from such accounts is best explained, I think, by the accepted idea that some lives matter and some lives do not matter, or certainly matter much less.

The case that we make at an organization I work for called World BEYOND War is that if everybody matters, war can never be justified at all. Three percent of U.S. military spending could end starvation on earth. A slightly bigger slice could put up an undreamed of attempt to slow down climate collapse — to which militarism is an unheralded major contributor. War kills most, not with any weapon, but through the diversion of funding away from where it’s needed. War kills and injures directly on a major scale, erodes our liberties in the name of freedom, risks nuclear apocalypse for reasons that make any arguments my friends and I had in high school seem mature and practically saintly by comparison, poisons our culture with xenophobia and racism, and militarizes our police and our entertainment and our history books and our minds. If some future war could be plausibly marketed as likely to do more good than harm (which it cannot) it would also have to do enough good to outweigh all the harm of keeping the institution of war around, plus all the harm of all the various wars thereby generated.

Ending militarism could be done by stages, but even getting people to the point of working on it usually requires getting past the number one topic of U.S. history and entertainment, answering a question that we can probably all recite in unison. It’s just three words: “What . . . about . . . Hitler?”

A few months ago, I spoke at a high school in D.C. As I often do, I told them I’d perform a magic trick. I only know one, but I know it will almost always work with no skill required. I scribbled on a piece of paper and folded it up. I asked someone to name a war that was justified. They of course said “World War II” and I opened up the paper, which read “World War II.” Magic!

I could do a second part with equal reliability. I ask “Why?” They say “the Holocaust.”

I could do a third part, as well. I ask “What does Evian mean?” They say “No idea” or “bottled water.”

Of the many times I’ve done this, only once that I recall did someone say something other than “World War II.” And only once did someone know what Evian meant. Otherwise it has never failed. You can try this at home and be a magician without learning any sleight of hand.

Evian was the location of the biggest, most famous of the conferences at which the nations of the world decided not to accept Jews from Germany. This is not secret knowledge. This is history that has been out in the open from the day it occurred, massively covered by the major world media at the time, discussed in endless papers and books since the time.

When I ask why the nations of the world refused Jewish refugees, the blank stares continue. I have to actually explain that they refused to accept them for openly racist, anti-Semitic reasons expressed without shame or embarrassment, that no World War II posters read “Uncle Sam Wants You to Save the Jews!” If there had been a day on which the U.S. government decided to save the Jews it would be one of the biggest holidays on the calendar. But it never happened. Preventing the horror of the camps did not become a justification for the war until after the war. The U.S. and British governments right through the war refused all demands to evacuate those threatened on the grounds that they were too busy fighting the war — a war that killed many more people than were killed in the camps.

There are, of course, more fact-based defenses of World War II, and I could do my best to reply to each one if I had another several weeks and didn’t need to wrap this up. But isn’t it odd that one of the main public projects of the U.S. government is almost always defended by reference to an example of its use 75 years ago in a world with radically different systems of law, with no nuclear weapons, with brutal colonization by European powers, and with little understanding of the techniques of nonviolent action? Is there anything else we do that we justify by reference to the 1940s? If we modeled our high schools on those of the 1940s we’d be considered backward indeed. Why should our foreign policy not have the same standards?

In 1973 Congress created a means for any Congress Member to force a vote on ending a war. Last December, the Senate used it for the first time to vote to end U.S. participation in the war on Yemen. Earlier this year, the House did the same, but added in some unrelated language that the Senate refused to vote on. So, now both houses have to vote again. If they do — and we should all insist that they do — what’s to stop them from ending another war and another and another? That’s something to work for.

Thank you.


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