By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, November 9, 2023
Remarks at The Columbus Free Press Annual Awards Dinner, November 9, 2023
The typical response in the United States to the gradual buildup to a war, or even the launching of a war, or even the launching of a war that is reported in U.S. corporate media, is absolutely nothing different: work, school, shopping, sports, movies, etc.
Among those who have some response, it’s typically based on their understanding of the particular war, shaped largely by corporate media, by the political party of the U.S. president at the time (which makes waging wars in the name of democracy even stranger), by the accumulated months or decades of related propaganda in the culture at large, and by the nature of the war itself — typically understood as if human history had begun the day the war began.
Some people thought it was especially greedy when President Biden asked Congress a few weeks ago for unfathomable piles of money for four particular wars at once, even though he asks for 10 times as much every year for preparations for unspecified wars. I thought it made perfect sense. The chances of any particular Congress Member finding the decency, opposing the media, opposing the legalized bribes, slamming shut the revolving door, and saying no to a single war is very small. The chances of any Congress Member saying No to four wars at once is dramatically smaller. Even a Congress Member who claims to oppose three out of four wars would be likely to vote yes on a bill to fund four wars, because their war support is typically far stronger than their war opposition.
If you’re wondering which four wars, it was Ukraine, Israel, and (even if it’s not a war yet) Taiwan, plus what might as well be a war in the U.S. infotainment system, the U.S. border of Mexico.
Typically, public opinion polls insist on a yes or a no, even if people haven’t got a clue and really don’t care. And typically, polls are worded in favor of wars. But, for what they are worth, in polls you typically see a majority in the U.S. support any new war for some months, even a year and a half or so, after which a majority says that the war never should have been begun. When there are U.S. troops in the war, a majority can say it never should have been begun and simultaneously say it should be continued indefinitely, because through some twisted logic it helps the tiny percentage of those already dead who were from the United States to get more people from the United States killed. But in those cases where the wars just involve mountains of U.S. weapons paid for by U.S. taxpayers, then when a majority says a war never should have been begun, it also says it should be ended. With Iraq and Afghanistan, it took many years for “It never should have been begun” to become “It should be ended.” With the latest burst of violence in Israel and Palestine, a U.S. majority opposed sending weapons from Day 1, at least in some polls that asked about weapons rather than aid. With Ukraine, a majority supported sending weapons after the Russian invasion, since when we’ve moved slowly to fewer and fewer people wanting to keep sending more weapons (even though the weapons are often combined with humanitarian aid and referred to simply as aid). But none of this indicates a deep growth in understanding as to why a particular war was and is wrong, much less why every war is wrong.
The most impressive propaganda feat I’ve ever seen, more than the days after 9/11, more than ISIS videos, more than Russiagate, was what was done in the days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Of course it took zero effort to depict an evil, immoral, illegal, mass-murderous invasion as something bad. And it turned out not to be difficult at all to do what they call “humanizing” of war victims. After two decades of endless wars, one might have been forgiven for wondering, but nope, it was no trouble at all to tell the stories of victims as we’d been imploring corporate media outlets to do for all these years. But the media coverage went beyond these basics. It very powerfully erased all context and history, applied the label “The Unprovoked War” to the most obviously provoked war in some time, built on Russiagate to demonize Russia as the single Hitlerized individual with one name, Putin, and — above all — created the moral urgency to do something, combined with the long-established doctrine that the only thing one can do when “doing something” is needed is war. In a matter of days the United States changed from a place where a random stranger would be unlikely to be able to tell you a single thing about Ukraine to a place where random strangers accosted you regarding the urgency to support the war effort in Ukraine. That’s impressive. That’s impressive at the level of how Nazis were influenced by reading U.S. books on public relations; you can be sure all manipulators of opinion are watching and learning. And on top of that, the first voices allowed in corporate media opposing sending piles of free weapons to Ukraine were rightwing voices who wanted the weapons to go to other wars or wanted to selfishly hoard wealth in their own corner of the globe rather than doing what they joined in calling “aiding” Ukraine. The media quickly defined favoring peace as agreeing with those people. So when Henry Kissinger said you know, you all are getting a little too war crazy for me, that wasn’t a giant fire alarm in a study hall; it was just confirmation that peace was the territory of rightwing warmongers.
The war sales pitch for the latest war on Gaza was radically less successful than the marketing of the war in Ukraine. In a matter of hours there were larger peace rallies in U.S. streets for peace in Palestine than there had been for peace in Ukraine in over a year and a half.
Those who agreed with every U.S. corporate media outlet on Ukraine imagined that Ukraine had no choice other than war. Whether or not one ignored the years of building up toward war and the waging of a smaller scale war, whether or not one paid any attention to the perfectly reasonable proposals for peace from Russia, rudely rejected by the U.S. government, including that of December 2021, Russia was now invading, and there was a need to do something, and “do something” means war.
Of course, “do something” could mean unarmed civilian resistance. Ukraine was a million miles away from doing that something. It would have been utterly unreasonable, unrealistic, unfamiliar, shocking, and not the least bit respectable to mention in any well-funded institution, for Ukraine to have employed massive unarmed resistance. But it would have been wiser. Even without the years of investment and preparation that would have been ideal and might have deterred the invasion, for the Ukrainian government and its allies to have put everything into unarmed resistance at the moment of invasion would have been the smart move.
Unarmed resistance has been used. Coups and dictators have been nonviolently ousted in dozens of places. An unarmed army helped liberate India. In 1997 unarmed peacekeepers in Bougainville succeeded where armed ones had failed. In 2005 in Lebanon, Syrian domination was ended through a nonviolent uprising. In 1923 the French occupation of part of Germany was ended through nonviolent resistance. Between 1987 and 91 nonviolent resistance drove the Soviet Union out of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania — and the latter established plans for future unarmed resistance. Ukraine had nonviolently ended Soviet rule in 1990. Some of the tools of unarmed resistance are familiar from 1968 when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.
In fact, in polls in Ukraine, prior to the Russian invasion, not only did people know what unarmed resistance was, but more of them favored it than favored military resistance to an invasion. When the invasion happened, there were hundreds of incidents of Ukrainians using unarmed resistance, stopping tanks, etc. Unarmed civilians kept the Russian military away from the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant, without a single death, whereas handing that job over to the National Guard resulted in an immediate takeover by the Russians, who fired even on a nuclear plant once there were armed troops there to fire on.
There was near media silence on early unorganized and unsupported attempts at unarmed resistance. What if the attention paid to Ukrainian war heroes had been paid to Ukrainian unarmed resister heroes? What if the world of people who want peace had been invited to join in the unarmed resistance, and the billions spent on weapons had been spent on that? What if Ukrainians had been asked to host international protectors, people like us with and without any training, rather than to flee their country or join the war?
People would likely have been killed, and for some reason, those deaths would have been deemed far worse. But they would very likely have been far fewer. Thus far in world history, massacres of unarmed resisters are a drop in the bucket compared to war deaths. The path that has been chosen in Ukraine has led to over a half a million casualties, 10 million refugees, an increased risk of nuclear war, a severing of international cooperation that pretty well dooms us to climate collapse, a diversion of resources globally into militarism, plus environmental destruction, food shortages, and risk of disaster at a nuclear powerplant.
It’s important to understand the primary reason that governments do not invest in unarmed civilian resistance, in training entire populations to disobey orders, sabotage infrastructure, and nonviolently apply pressure to get their way. It’s because no government on Earth wants its own population to be capable of resisting its own abuses of power. It’s not because bombing and shooting works better.
Of course, there was no need at all to get to the point of a Russian invasion. U.S. and other Western diplomats, spies, and theorists predicted for 30 years that breaking a promise and expanding NATO would lead to war with Russia. President Barack Obama refused to arm Ukraine, predicting that doing so would lead toward where we are now — as Obama still saw it in April 2022. Prior to the so-called “Unprovoked War” there were public comments by U.S. officials arguing that the provocations would not provoke anything. “I don’t buy this argument that, you know, us supplying the Ukrainians with defensive weapons is going to provoke Putin,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) One can still read a RAND report advocating creating a war like this one through the sorts of provocations that senators claimed wouldn’t provoke anything.
And once you got to this point, there was no need to keep making it worse. According to Ukrainian media, Foreign Affairs, Bloomberg, and Israeli, German, Turkish, and French officials, the U.S. pressured Ukraine to prevent a peace agreement in the early days of the invasion. Since then, the U.S. and allies have provided mountains of free weapons to keep the war going. Eastern European governments have expressed concern that if the U.S. slows or ends the weapons flow, Ukraine might become willing to negotiate peace.
In leftist and supposedly peace circles, quite a few people have been aware of all of these facts, which have not been secret so much as forbidden. But a disturbing number of them immediately leaped to the conclusion that if the U.S. government and the Ukrainian government weren’t innocent and spotless, then they deserved 100% of the world’s supply of blame, and the thing to do was to defend and justify Russian warmaking.
Russia, in the view of too many people, is supposed to have had no choice but to invade Ukraine in a major way in order to push back against the threat from NATO. But not only was there no immediate threat to Russia from Ukraine or NATO (and long-term concerns, such as those around the growing hostility and weaponry from NATO, allow for all kinds of options) but also even the most casual observer (not to mention Western instigator) could and did accurately predict that a Russian invasion would strengthen NATO and strengthen warmongers in the Ukrainian government. If we were to accept that Russia had no choice, on what grounds could we say that China has any choice but to immediately attack Taiwan, Japan, Australia, and South Korea?
Russia could have chosen nonviolence. Russia could have continued mocking the daily predictions of an invasion and created worldwide hilarity, rather than invading and making the predictions simply off by a matter of days, could have sent into Donbas many thousands of volunteers and the world’s best trainers in nonviolent civil resistance, could have made a motion for a vote in the UN Security Council to halt Ukrainian war-making in Donbas or to democratize the body and abolish the veto, asked the UN to oversee a new vote in Crimea on whether to rejoin Russia, joined the International Criminal Court and asked it to investigate Donbas, etc. Russia could have cut off trade rather than causing the West to do that.
That either side needed only a limited effort to achieve a satisfactory agreement is demonstrated by the fact that they’d had one in Minsk II, and by the fact that outside pressure was brought to bear to prevent one in the early days of the war and ever since.
The disastrous course chosen by both sides may end in a nuclear apocalypse or in a compromise agreement. In the highly unlikely event that it ends in the overthrow of the Ukrainian or Russian government, or even in territorial lines that don’t roughly correspond to what local residents might have voted for without war, it won’t end at all.
At this point, some observable action must precede negotiations. Either side could announce a ceasefire and ask that it be matched. Either side could announce a willingness to agree to a particular agreement. Russia did this prior to the invasion and was ignored. Such an agreement would include removal of all foreign troops, neutrality for Ukraine, autonomy for Crimea and Donbas, demilitarization, and lifting of sanctions. Such a proposal by either side would be strengthened by the announcement that it would be using and building its capacity to use unarmed resistance against any violation of the ceasefire.
Some people have done a better job of opposing both sides of the fighting in Palestine, without necessarily understanding where that wisdom should lead. The Western obsession with World War II, mischaracterized into a justification for warmaking, has actually done more for support of Ukrainian warmaking than Israeli warmaking. So carefully has Vladimir Putin been made into the latest Hitler, that an assumption has developed that anyone who ever fought against Russians was on the side of Good, even if that includes Nazis who fought for the original Hitler. In my book Leaving World War II Behind, I debunk many of the myths surrounding World War II and thereby driving militarism today.
With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hellbent on genocide, people keep sharing a scandalous article from 2015 called “Netanyahu: Hitler Didn’t Want to Exterminate the Jews.” I’m afraid it may give people the wrong idea. Netanyahu’s lie was that a Muslim cleric from Palestine convinced Hitler to kill Jews. But when Netanyahu said that Hitler originally wanted to expel Jews, not murder them, he was telling the indisputable truth. The problem is that it wasn’t a Muslim cleric who convinced Hitler otherwise. And it isn’t any secret who it was. It was the world’s governments. It’s incredible that this remains unknown, as it similarly remains unknown that World War II could easily have been avoided by a wiser ending of World War I; or that Nazism drew on U.S. inspiration for eugenics, segregation, concentration camps, poison gas, public relations, and one-armed salutes; or that U.S. corporations armed Nazi Germany through the war; or that the U.S. military hired many top Nazis at the end of the war; or that Japan tried to surrender prior to the nuclear bombings; or that there was major resistance to the war in the United States; or that the Soviets did the vast bulk of defeating the Germans — or that the U.S. public at the time knew what the Soviets were doing, which created a momentary break in two centuries of hostility to Russia in U.S. politics.
Opposing warmaking in Ukraine today is not a minor issue. Nothing in my lifetime has done more to increase the risk of nuclear apocalypse than the war in Ukraine. Nothing is doing more to impede global cooperation on climate, poverty, or homelessness. Few things are doing as much direct damage in those areas, devastating the environment, disrupting grain shipments, creating millions of refugees. While casualties in Iraq were heatedly disputed in U.S. media for years, there’s widespread acceptance that casualties in Ukraine are already over half a million. There’s no way to precisely count how many lives could have been saved around the world by investing hundreds of billions in something wiser than this war, but a fraction of that could end starvation on Earth.
No matter what you think of how the war in Ukraine began, or when it began, or which of the two sides is cartoonishly deserving of all of the blame, we now have endless stalemate, with years of killing yet to come, or nuclear war, or compromise. Well-meaning people want to do what they can to “help” Ukraine, but the millions of Ukrainians who have fled, and those who have stayed to face prosecution for peace activism, look wiser each day. We’re told to listen to the Ukrainians, and respect the Ukrainian’s right to defend themselves, and allow the Ukrainians agency. But how can we know the views of Ukrainians when so many have fled and everyone else can face criminal prosecution if they support peace? But the U.S. government denies the Ukrainian government the right to make peace.
Gerhard Schröder, former German Chancellor, says, in agreement with numerous other reports, that, “During the peace talks in March 2022 in Istanbul . . . , Ukrainians did not agree to peace because they were not allowed to. They had to coordinate everything they talked about with the Americans first.”
While the U.S. government can perhaps deny Ukraine various rights, I certainly cannot. I can only offer it advice, and have it rejected by cries that I am denying someone’s rights. And, as to agency, why not allow Ukraine the agency to manufacture its own weapons? Why not allow Israel and Egypt and the rest of the world the same agency? Peace might arrive more quickly than we’ve dreamed if we started handing out that much agency.
Peace is viewed by some on both sides of the war in Ukraine (many of them quite far removed from the fighting), not as a good thing, but as even worse than ongoing slaughter and devastation. Both sides insist on total victory. But that total victory is nowhere in sight, as other voices on both sides quietly admit. And any such victory would not be lasting, as the defeated side would plot vengeance as soon as possible.
Compromise is a difficult skill. We teach it to toddlers, but not to governments. Traditionally a refusal to compromise (even if it kills us) has more appeal on the political right. But political party means everything in U.S. politics, and the President is a Democrat. So, what is a liberal thinking person to do? I would suggest a heavy dose of independent thinking. Nearly two years of peace proposals from around the globe almost all include the same elements: removal of all foreign troops, neutrality for Ukraine, autonomy for Crimea and Donbas, demilitarization, and lifting sanctions.
Either side could announce a ceasefire and ask that it be matched. Either side could announce a willingness to agree to a particular agreement including the elements above. If a ceasefire is not matched, the slaughter can be quickly resumed. If a ceasefire is used to build up troops and weapons for the next battle, well then, the sky is also blue and a bear does it in the woods. Nobody imagines either side as capable of switching off the war business that quickly. A ceasefire is required for negotiations, and an end to weapons shipments is required for a ceasefire. These three elements must come together. They could be abandoned together if negotiations fail. But why not try?
Allowing the people of Crimea and Donbas to determine their own fate is the real sticking point for Ukraine, but that solution strikes me as at least as big a victory for democracy as sending more U.S. weapons to Ukraine despite the opposition of the majority of people in the United States. Why is it not a triumph for democracy to allow people to determine their own futures, rather than waging wars to prevent it?
Why isn’t war itself the enemy of democracy rather than its protector? If both sides of every war are engaged in immoral outrages, if the problem is not whichever side you’ve been trained to hate, but war itself, and if war itself is the biggest drain on resources desperately needed thereby killing more people indirectly than directly, and if war itself is the reason we are at risk of nuclear Armageddon, and if war itself is a leading cause of bigotry, and the sole justification for government secrecy, and a major cause of environmental destruction, and the big impediment to global cooperation, and if you’ve understood that governments do not train their populations in unarmed civilian defense not because it doesn’t work as well as militarism but because they are afraid of their own populations, then you are now a war abolitionist, and it’s time we set to work, not saving our weapons for a more proper war, not arming the world to protect us from one club of oligarchs getting richer than another club of oligarchs, but ridding the world of wars, war plans, war tools, and war thinking.
During a recent burst of media coverage of Palestine, a few voices of conscience snuck past the screening interviews and were heard for the final time for each of those guests on corporate media. One guest gave me a great deal of encouragement because he not only spoke the truth but did so through sarcasm — and people understood and appreciated it. I found this remarkable, because I get as many angry emails for using satirical writing as I do for opposing others’ views on wars. Thus encouraged, I’d like to close by reading you a short passage I recently wrote using the dangerous device of satire. I hope it doesn’t offend you, or at least that my use of satire does not offend you as much as governments’ use of mass murder.
Many years ago, it occurred to me to try teaching foreign policy in preschool.
In a typical preschool, anywhere on Earth, when children have disputes, there can be pushing, shoving, crying, screaming, and all sorts of unpleasantness. The teacher cannot always know what happened from the beginning. He or she may only see the ending. The general theory is that first one must stop any physical altercation, next comfort each child, and finally — when things have calmed down — teach each child to use words instead of violence, to apologize, to compromise, to make friends and figure out a way to share a mutually desired toy or otherwise to get along well going forward. Way down the list of priorities is figuring out who started it or did the worst of it.
This struck me as extremely misguided, and I decided to try applying foreign policy instead. With the agreement of an excellent facility, I began teaching a class in a new style. Whenever there was a dispute between two children, I would pick the child I liked best and encourage him or her to hit harder. I kept a plastic baseball bat in my hand at all times, just to be prepared, and I would give this to the favored child, urging him or her to bash the other child in the head with it. While they were doing that, I would round up all the children who were not involved and inform them that if they did not begin chanting “Death to Bobby” (or whatever the second child’s name was) they would never see a snack again in their lives.
In this way, disputes were quickly resolved, with one child reduced to helpless sobbing, and the other child getting their way (total use of the toy or whatever). Then I would gather the whole class and review with them our key lessons: the child I supported did nothing wrong and had been innocently attacked; words do not work as well as violence; compromise is treason; and weapons make all the difference.
There was resistance to my new methods, as there usually is to progress. I was told that I was going against the most basic values of pretty much all of humanity. For a while I held off the naysayers by pointing out to them the complete alignment of my methods with those of the U.S. State Department. I was giving lessons, I said, worthy of those a British Prime Minister might give to a President of Ukraine. But bad luck proved the undoing of my school. Some children became ill. A couple of families moved away. There were a few nutty lawsuits. One mother killed herself.
Years later, the little alumni of my only foray into teaching preschool were all grown up and scattered across the United States. I tried looking some of them up on facebook and was rather stunned by what I found. I think that what I found vindicates everything I did. I searched thoroughly and discovered that 82% of the still-living alumni of my foreign policy preschool are now members of the United States Congress.