By David Swanson
Remarks for first session of Kateri Peace Conference, September 8, 2023
I think I’m preaching largely to the choir here. As we know from the song by Emma’s Revolution, it can be enjoyable to do that. But I actually prefer trying to persuade the unconverted. Just look around. There are millions of people dramatically unconverted. Activism is mocked. There are real estate construction booms in places guaranteed to go under water or become uninhabitably hot. Two governments with most of the nuclear weapons on Earth are locked in a war that can end only through nuclear apocalypse or compromise, and both have declared compromise to be heresy. Residents of the country that principally drives the world’s war business dine on the dead flesh of the world-killing livestock industry in airconditioned funhouses watching television broadcasts explain how a government that sets new records for the unpopularity of its political candidates every four years and polls below used car dealers for trustworthiness must coat the planet with weapons in the name of democracy, including weapons that will deform infants, blow the arms and legs off children, and poison soil for centuries to come, including weapons that never make it to the destination used to justify them but end up killing elsewhere, even while that same government sabotages peace talks and deports Russians who fled the war because upholding the sanctity of the military draft is even more important than crushing Russia.
And your average person appears intent on changing as few behaviors as possible. Outdoor exercising can get moved to the middle of the night. Burning Man can switch from the name of an event to the name of a species. But lifting a finger to protest nuclear weapons? That would be crazy! Isn’t watching a movie about it enough?
And what about us in the choir? Are we also intent on changing as few behaviors as possible? I don’t think we should change for its own sake or blame ourselves for the misdeeds of others. But we should change when we see a more strategic path to peace.
If I saw three people drowning and two people sitting on a bench watching, I wouldn’t ask any questions, but immediately scream “Get up and let’s help!” Yet when I see the whole world’s ecosystems collapsing and governments racing toward nuclear apocalypse, and I see two people sitting on a bench, I’m more inclined to walk up to them mumbling “Excuse me, I’m really sorry to disturb you but I’m conducting a survey for the Chamber of Commerce to raise funds for stranded kittens in Ukraine — may I ask, if it’s not too much trouble, Have you ever heard of nuclear winter?”
Now, I think we need something in between those two extremes of screaming at people and treating people like they’re delicate china. We need to sympthize with people, assume the best of people, recognize that almost everybody put together are not doing the damage that a very few billionaires are doing, recognize that people are sometimes overworked, overstressed, and underinformed, be aware that people only arrive or stay in office in Washington D.C. through developing horrible habits that it can be hard for them to break, but at the same time be honest with people. It’s not fair to them or ourselves or the generations that might or might not be to come for us not to tell them, not to speak when we are aware of crimes being committed, crimes that can only be reported to an authority higher than a government, namely the people.
I think we need to focus ever more of our efforts against war on the issues of nuclear threat and environmental destruction. If nuclear weapons continue to exist, there will very likely be a nuclear catastrophe, and the more the weapons have proliferated, the sooner it will come. Hundreds of incidents have nearly destroyed our world through accident, confusion, misunderstanding, and extremely irrational machismo. When you add in the quite real and increasing possibility of non-state terrorists acquiring and using nuclear weapons, the danger grows dramatically — and is only increased by the policies of nuclear states that react to terrorism in ways that seem designed to recruit more terrorists.
We should celebrate Vassily Arkhipov, with the presumably easy lesson being that we shouldn’t count on always having a Russian sailor to save us.
War and preparations for war are not just the pit into which trillions of dollars that could be used to prevent environmental damage are dumped, but also a major direct cause of that environmental damage. Global militarism produces roughly twice the greenhouse gases as non-military aviation, and if it were a country it would rank fourth in greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. military’s greenhouse gas emissions are more than those of most entire countries. To the damage of militaries’ pollution should be added that of the weapons manufacturers, as well as the enormous destruction of wars: the oil spills, oil fires, methane leaks, etc. In militarism we’re talking about a top destroyer of land and water and air and ecosystems — as well as climate, as well as the chief impediment to global cooperation on climate, as well as the primary sinkhole for funds that could be going into climate protection (well over half of U.S. tax dollars, for example, go to militarism).
We also need to adjust to the partisan situation in the United States, where CNN says the majority oppose more weapons to Ukraine, but many peace groups are wary of catching up to that majority. The problem is that we’re more familiar with having millions of people oppose a war because the president is a Republican. We don’t know what to do with people who oppose a war because the president is a Democrat, or because they want a war with China, or because they’ve just discovered that wars cost money, or because they support Russian warmaking, or because Tucker Carlson told them to. How do we collaborate without accepting horrible views as part of the package? How do we work for peace while shunning fascistic and rightwing notions that make peace impossible?
We also need to adjust to the propaganda around Ukraine. How do we help well-meaning people understand that keeping an endless war going is not “helping” anyone, quite the reverse? How can we build on new-found awareness that wars cost money and have victims? How can we build on the tendency of the U.S. public to get tired of mass slaughters after about 18 months?
We also need to adjust the language we use and I recommend the new guide to talking about war that’s found at wordsaboutwar.org.
We also need to adjust to the coming pandemic known as a U.S. election year. We have to figure out how to do events for peace that are not painted as rallies for one side of a war or for one political candidate — neither one of the hopeless ones, nor one of the two actually allowed to compete. Can we use and abuse election events to communicate? And can we at the same time stop the election from eating up quite all of our energy and funding?
World BEYOND War recently gave out our third annual War Abolisher Awards to stand-out activists — perhaps putting human faces on activism can give it some of the allure of elections.
We also have to recognize which of our activities simply need to be increased and which abandoned. I think a great deal — not all — of what we lobby for in Washington D.C. is a complete waste of time, at best assisting certain Congress Members in scamming us and themselves into believing they’re trying.
I think most protests and rallies and teach-ins and media production and local organization building and global solidarity efforts need primarily to be expanded. World BEYOND War has hired organizers in Canada and Latin America and is searching for the funding to hire them across the globe, because we are stronger as a global movement.
As much as any other town in the U.S., my town, Charlottesville, Virginia, has failed in recent years when it comes to opposing wars. We used to be a leader, passing early resolutions through our city council — inspiring others — to advocate against wars in Iraq or Iran, against armed drones, telling Congress to move funding to human and environmental needs, divesting public dollars from weapons companies, ridding local police of weapons of war, etc. Peace rallies were not rare occurrences.
At long last we now have an event planned to advocate and strategize for peace in Ukraine, one that will be livestreamed for the world to see at cvilleukraine.org. Many towns are ahead of mine, but many more have yet to get started. Let’s help them.