War no more: An interview with David Swanson
David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. A prolific writer, his books include War Is a Lie, When the World Outlawed War, War No More: The Case for Abolition, War Is Never Just, A Global Security System: An Alternative to War, and his most recent, Curing Exceptionalism: What’s wrong with how we think about the United States? What can we do about it? All are available on his website. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio and is a three-time Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. Just last month, at the Veterans For Peace Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, he received the U.S. Peace Memorial Foundation’s 2018 Peace Prize. Michael Knox, chair of the U.S. Peace Memorial Foundation, remarked: “We have a culture of war in the U.S. Americans who oppose a war are often labeled traitors, unpatriotic, un-American, and anti-military. As you know, to work for peace you must be brave and make great personal sacrifices. . . .
“I am very pleased to announce that our 2018 Peace Prize is awarded to the honorable David Swanson — for his inspiring antiwar leadership, writings, strategies, and organizations which help to create a culture of peace.”
On his website, Swanson describes himself as the child of a United Church of Christ preacher and an organist who’d left right-leaning families in Wisconsin and Delaware to move far from home. They’d supported Civil Rights and social work and voted for Jesse Jackson. Swanson says he learned from their example: be courageous but generous; try to make the world a better place; pack up and start over as needed — physically or ideologically; try to make sense of the most important matters; stay cheerful, and put love for your children ahead of other things.
When asked why he became a peace activist, he admits that his first gut-level reaction is, “Why aren’t you?” He is confounded by the need to explain working to end the worst thing in the world, while millions of people not working to end it need offer no explanation.
He says, “I had a typical suburban U.S. childhood, pretty much like those of my friends and neighbors, and none of them ended up as peace activists — just me. I took the stuff they tell every child about trying to make the world a better place seriously. I found the ethics of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace inevitable, although I’d never heard of that institution, an institution which in no way acts on its mandate. However, it was set up to abolish war, and then to identify the second-worst thing in the world and work to abolish that. How is any other course even thinkable?
“But most people who agree with me on that are environmental activists. And most of them pay no attention to war and militarism as the primary cause of environmental destruction. Why is that? How did I not become an environmental activist? How did an environmental movement grow to its current strength dedicated to ending all but the very worst environmental disaster?”
Swanson said he had no one experience that made his path as a peace activist clear. In general, he attended every war protest that current events made necessary, but it wasn’t until he went to work for Dennis Kucinich’s campaign for president that he had his “first peace job. We talked about peace, war, peace, trade, peace, healthcare, war, and peace.” When that job ended, Swanson held communications positions with the AFL-CIO and later Democrats.com, where he discovered that the Democratic Party was only “pretend interested” in ending war.
As he says on www.davidswanson.org, “In 2006, the exit polls said the Democrats won the majorities in Congress with a mandate to end the war on Iraq. Come January, Rahm Emanuel told the Washington Post they’d keep the war going in order to run ‘against’ it again in 2008. By 2007, Democrats had lost much of their interest in peace and moved on to what seemed to me like the agenda of electing more Democrats as an end in itself.”
Meanwhile, Swanson’s own focus “had become ending each and every war and the idea of ever starting another one.” He speaks tirelessly; advocates tirelessly; writes tirelessly, while living with his wife and children in Charlottesville, VA (yes, that Charlottesville). — Leslee Goodman
The MOON: Americans seem to accept war as a way of life, the so-called price of democracy. You have spent the greater part of your life debunking the myths that justify war. Will you do so for us briefly here, please?
Swanson: I don’t think we should generalize about “every American.” There are many residents of the Americas — in Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, and even the United States — who in no way accept the inevitability of war. But in the U.S. we do live in a highly militarized culture, and many people have accepted and internalized the myths that are used to support warfare. As a result, the idea that we could abolish war and still survive is almost unthinkable for many people in this country. So we have to revise public opinion in stages. If, for example, war is created by something called “human nature,” then let’s look for a minute at the other 96% of humans on the planet who are represented by governments that invest radically less than the United States in war. If we’re not ready to abolish war, might we be willing to move in the direction of the other 96% of humanity? And might we still consider ourselves within the bounds of so-called human nature? One would have to think yes. And in fact, you can poll people in the United States and, depending on how the poll is conducted, find that a strong majority would like to do just that. They would be happy to move money out of the military into useful things, like education and the environment and so forth.
If the United States were an actual democracy, rather than a country that bombs people in the name of democracy, it would begin to move away from ever more militarism, more war spending, more bases, and more threats, and in the direction of peace — because that’s actually what the people want. When it did that, we would see a reverse arms race all over the world. We would see China and the other countries reciprocating, moving away from greater investments in militarism and toward investment in far more productive endeavors, such as education, research, healthcare, environmental restoration, and on and on. Although it’s wonderful that there’s a growing campaign to try to ban even the possession of nuclear weapons, we’re not going to get those countries that possess nuclear weapons to get rid of them as long as the United States continues with its aggressive policies on warfare.
The MOON: Why do you imply that the United States is not an actual democracy?
Swanson: I researched this point for my book, Curing Exceptionalism. There are nearly 400 references in that book, including one for a study by Pippa Norris, comparative political scientist at Harvard and Sydney Universities and founding Director of the Electoral Integrity Project, whose research shows that U.S. elections are the worst among Western democracies and ranked 52nd, out of 153 countries worldwide in the 2016 Perceptions of Electoral Integrity index. The Perceptions of Electoral Integrity study measures things like how difficult it is to vote; how reliable the vote collection and counting methodology are; how much influence money has in determining outcomes; etc.
There are other possible measures of democracy, of course. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t fare as grandly as we imagine in any of them. The British-based Legatum Institute ranks the United States 18th overall in “prosperity” and 28th in “personal freedom.” The U.S.-based Cato Institute ranks the United States 24th in “personal freedom” and 11th in “economic freedom.” The Canadian-based World Freedom Index ranks the United States 27th in a combined index of “economic,” “political,” and “press” freedoms. The CIA-funded Polity Data Series gives the U.S. democracy a score of 8 out of 10, but gives 58 other countries a higher score. Finally, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern University conclude that the United States is more accurately identified as an oligarchy, “in which the wealthy elite largely determine government policy,” than a democracy. No doubt most citizens would agree.
But back to your original question, on www.worldbeyondwar.org, you will find a section describing and debunking the myths that are used to justify war. “It’s human nature” is one of them. “War is natural,” whatever that might mean, is another. However, there’s not a single case of anyone suffering from war deprivation. War is not something that one needs, like food, or water, or love. It’s not a requirement for human happiness. On the contrary, to get people to participate in war requires intense training and conditioning, which is often followed by deep moral regret following participation. This is why the majority of the deaths from participants in the most recent U.S. wars — the so-called global war on terrorism — have been suicides. Participants are not satisfactorily convinced of the reasons for participating in these one-sided slaughters, which they then they must go on reliving through PTSD.
There’s also the myth that war is inevitable and, since it can’t be avoided, we have to try to win it. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Yet, if you look more specifically at any particular war, there’s nothing inevitable about it. It takes the concerted efforts of warmongers intent on creating a war for political, and profit, and bureaucratic, and sadistic, and irrational reasons to create a war. It’s something that requires doing; it doesn’t just fall from the sky. For those readers who are unwilling to try something unless it’s been done before, please know that human societies have existed for centuries, in recent times and in the distant past, without war. Many anthropologists now argue that hunter-gatherer societies really had nothing you could call war, and their era accounts for the vast majority of human existence. It was only with the settlement of stationary, agricultural societies with excess production and urban development — which is to say, only in the past 10,000–12,000 years — that you had anything you could call war. Of course, what was called war even 200 years ago was nowhere near the same thing as what we call war today, just as the Second Amendment, as envisioned by the Founding Fathers, is a far cry from the automatic weaponry we’re dealing with today. War, as it exists with the weaponry and technology involved today, is extremely new. It’s only since World War II that the vast majority of the deaths from war have been civilians, rather than combatants. Wars used to take place on battlefields — not in cities, towns, and villages. Yet, people still think of wars in outdated terms. They think of teams of armies with different-color uniforms in battlefields or battle spaces, and of course they want the team wearing their color to win. Because these teams are not fighting anywhere near the United States, most Americans aren’t aware that it’s mostly civilian men, women, and children being killed, not soldiers. Moreover, if you examine American societies before the arrival of Columbus, and societies in parts of Australia and other continents, and even nations now in recent decades and centuries, many have chosen to do without war. Japan famously locked out the world and flourished without significant war for centuries until it was “opened up” again, as they say, by the Americans, who proceeded to train the Japanese in warfare and we know how well that worked out.
Other myths include the idea that war is necessary to protect ourselves. We’d be opening ourselves up to danger, displaying our jewelry before a crowd of thieves, standing our door open to murderers and rapists, if we didn’t have war — and war preparations — to protect ourselves. This is one of these most deeply-seated myths in people’s minds; one they find it almost impossible to think their way around. I certainly can’t get most people to do so in the course of one short interview. I’ve had some luck with my books. (The most satisfying thing as an author is when people write to me and say that my books did completely turn their worldview around.) I think it usually takes a book, but hopefully in an interview we can start people questioning a little bit to the point where maybe they will go ahead and read some books, or watch some videos.
The MOON: Most Americans have no idea just how warlike the United States has become relative to other countries — even those we consider threats, or rivals, like China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea. Again, I know you’ve written entire books on this subject, but please share some facts to give us a more accurate view of reality.
Swanson: Most countries on Earth don’t spend anything like what the United States does in terms of war and war preparations. Part of the United States’ war business is weapons-dealing to the rest of the world. Three-quarters of the world’s dictatorships, by the U.S. government’s own definition of dictatorship, are buying U.S. weapons. It’s unusual to have a war now without US weapons on at least one side, and usually both sides. The war business is sold as nationalistic, as patriotic, but were it not for General Motors and Ford, and Standard Oil, and IBM, and other U.S. companies doing business in Nazi Germany right through the war and beyond, the Nazis never could have done what they did. Were it not for U.S. government complicity in those acts of legal treason — avoiding bombing U.S. factories in Germany, even compensating them for damage afterward — the Nazis never could never have done what they did. So much of what drives war is profit, not whatever is contained in the propaganda that sells the war to the public. And when the U.S. government itself is spending almost as much as the rest of the world put together — including its close allies, which together add up to three-quarters of the world’s military spending — the result is not actually protection, but endangerment.
I can give you a long list of recently retired U.S. military and “intelligence professionals” who say the exact same thing — that the wars, or particular wars, or particular tactics like drone wars — are counterproductive, are producing more enemies than they remove. And in fact, the so-called war on terrorism has predictably increased terrorism, not reduced it. Many of us have gone on predicting this result year after year, to no avail. Take suicide terrorism, for example. Ninety-five percent of suicide bombers are explicitly motivated to try to get a country to stop occupying or bombing another country. There is not a single recorded case of a terrorist attack motivated by resentment for providing food, or water, or medicine, or schools, or clean energy or no-strings-attached development assistance. It doesn’t happen. Of course, we could do a world of humanitarian good for a tiny fraction of what we spend making ourselves less safe through the traditional means of massive militarism. This is actually the number one way in which war kills; not by the violence; but by the missed opportunities for all the things we could have done with that money instead.
For example, just 3% of U.S. military spending, or about 1.5% of global military spending, could end starvation on Earth. A little over 1% could end the lack of clean drinking water. If we were to make a serious attempt to address climate destruction, the only place to get the kind of funds needed is from the military, and it would only take a fraction of what’s we spend on the military to put up a serious struggle. Instead, continuing the course we’re on, the military is itself the number-one destroyer of the climate and various other parts of our natural environment. That’s a huge reason to reduce militarism right there. There are many more myths I could discuss, but for the sake of time, let me address just one more — and that is the notion that war can be just. In the United States, most people overwhelmingly think of WWII as a just war. That is how it is overwhelmingly portrayed in U.S. history classes, U.S. entertainment, and U.S. historical references in current news reporting. That perspective dominates U.S. culture.
The MOON: “The Good War,” yes.
Swanson: Right. “The Good War” is a name it acquired when the war in Vietnam grew to be the “Bad War.” (Because if you’re going to have a Bad War, you must have a Good War, otherwise you’re threatening the very idea of war, and that’s not permissible.) In a similar sort of process, when Iraq became another “Bad War,” people began characterizing Afghanistan as the “Good War,” to the point where people imagine that anything bad that took place in Iraq didn’t happen in Afghanistan. People will even tell me that the United Nations authorized the war on Afghanistan 17 years ago, which of course never happened. They think it must have because the United Nations famously didn’t authorize the war on Iraq. Similarly, people know that horrible things were done in Vietnam; civilians were tortured, mutilated, and murdered; but that was the Bad War; those things must not have happened in WWII. Of course, they did, and on a much larger scale. So I’ve gone to great lengths — book lengths — to investigate the claim that WWII was a just war. I find this necessary because some people will never give up the belief in war so long as there’s even one example of a war that was just. This strikes me as absurd, because we don’t go back 75 years to find the most recent justifiable instance of anything else; only for our biggest public program. Might we not have progressed since then? We live in a different world now. We have laws banning war for territorial conquest; we have nuclear weapons, which change the entire calculus of warfare; we have (flawed) international institutions for resolving differences and enforcing cease-fires; and we have far greater knowledge of, and experience with, non-violent resistance. We know that non-violence is more than twice as likely as violence to succeed, and its successes are almost guaranteed to be much longer-lasting than those achieved through violence in opposition to tyranny and oppression, even foreign-imposed.
The crux of the argument justifying WWII is that the Nazis had to be stopped because they were killing Jews — and lots of other people, too. However, the U.S. never justified its involvement in the war for that reason at the time. There was never a poster that said, “Join the Army and save the Jews.” In fact, U.S. immigration policy, by popular demand, banned any increase in admitting Jewish refugees into the United States and for explicitly racist, anti-Semitic reasons. At the Evian Conference of 1938, where representatives from 32 nations met to discuss “the Jewish refugee problem” — in other words, the large numbers of people seeking to flee Hitler’s pogroms — the United States and every other country except the Dominican Republic publicly refused to accept any additional Jews. This enabled Hitler to respond, “Look at these hypocrites. They want me to stop abusing the Jews, but they won’t take them. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.” In pointing this out, I am not by any stretch of the imagination defending Hitler, or suggesting there’s something excusable about murdering millions of people. But there’s also nothing excusable about the conduct of the rest of the world’s nations refusing to accept Jewish refugees; about the Coast Guard chasing a ship of refugees away from Miami, Florida; about the state department turning down Anne Frank’s family visa application.
The fact is that peace activists went to the United States and British governments throughout the war and demanded that something be done to bring the Jews out of Germany. Even after the British had evacuated so many thousands of their own troops from Germany and shown how they could do the same for refugees, they said they couldn’t be bothered; they had a war to fight. So the primary justification for the Good War in most people’s minds — although serious historians have their own justification and I won’t even get into that one here — actually had nothing to do with the war until after the war was over. In the public’s imagination, the war was justified because the Nazis were killing Jews. The war itself killed 10 times as many people as were killed in the camps, which, one would think would make people wonder whether the cure was worse than the disease. Sadly, that kind of questioning doesn’t happen very often.
The MOON: Could you give us a context for the massive amount of public funds and resources that the U.S. invests in its war machine relative to the rest of the world — even those countries that Americans are constantly told are a threat?
Swanson: Gallup and Pew have conducted international polls in recent years asking people what country is the greatest threat to peace in the world. In the majority of countries, the top vote-getter is, of course, the United States. This would be shocking news to many people in the United States, even though it has been reported in their newspapers. In the United States, depending on what week it is, Americans will name Iran or North Korea as the greatest threat to peace. In a Gallup poll in December 2013, Americans said Iran, although Iran hasn’t started a war in centuries. Iran spends less than 1% of what the U.S. does on its military. Moreover, in 2015, Iran agreed to more intense inspections of its nuclear facilities and other locations than any country ever has. The United States would never dream of agreeing to any such thing. The inspections clearly showed that the agreement had never been needed in the first place, as any serious observer already knew. Yet, to this day, Americans are likely to name Iran as an answer to the “greatest threat” question, depending whether Russia or North Korea or some other country has been more prominent in the recent news cycle.
Similarly, Russia spends less than 10% what the United States does on its military and has been significantly decreasing that percentage in recent years. However, Russia has, as the United States also has, roughly half the nuclear weapons in the world, so Russia, as well as the United States, could easily destroy life on Earth with a tiny fraction of their nuclear arsenals. But the idea that North Korea or Iran or Iraq or any small, impoverished, relatively unarmed country is the greatest threat to world peace is ridiculous and is a position held not just by uninformed, uneducated television-viewers, but unfortunately, by most U.S. academics who have any opinion on the matter. I mean, I could point you to a pile of books put out by university professors in the United States, each of which will tell you that the greatest threat to the system of law and peace and justice on Earth in recent history was the Russian seizure of Crimea. Never mind the war in Vietnam, or the war on Iraq, or the current bombing of Yemen, or any of the many wars and all of their millions of deaths and injuries the U.S. has participated in. Instead, these academics argue that this operation, in which the people of Crimea held a vote to rejoin Russia, and which didn’t involve a single casualty, was the greatest threat to peace in the world. At the same time, I’ve yet to hear a single advocate of this position propose having the people of Crimea do a new vote with a new system of voting, or different international observers. They don’t propose it because every poll shows the people of Crimea are happy with their vote. So, if it’s breaking off a piece of Serbia, that’s okay. If it’s splitting Slovakia off from Czechia, that’s okay. I mean, the idea that people have the right to secede and determine what country they’re going to be a part of is selectively respected, based on our own national interests.
The MOON: I think that most Americans have absolutely no idea just how militaristic our country has become. Again, I know you’ve written whole books on this subject, but will you please go ahead and educate us? Afterward, I’m sure the next question will be “Isn’t that the role we have to play, because we’re the only remaining superpower? As the world’s policeman, if we don’t do it we’ll all go to hell in a handbasket.”
Swanson: Right. I mean, if the United States doesn’t overthrow the government of Libya and turn the place into a living hell, proliferating violence and chaos throughout North Africa, who will step in and do that job? If the United States doesn’t turn Yemen into a hotbed for terrorism, and create a major war with every kind of weaponry, and join with Saudi Arabia in creating the biggest human catastrophe in recent years — which is saying something — who will do it?
By the way, we’re told that drone wars are the future of warfare because “nobody” gets hurt — by which they mean, “Nobody you need to care about.” But these “nobodies” are somebodies to their families and countrymen. Imagine if a foreign government’s drone assassinated one of our citizens. Would that breed anger and resentment?
We spoke a moment ago about some of the polling that’s been done. Polls show that the rest of the world doesn’t appreciate the global policeman. “Global policeman” is a self-appointed position. It’s not requested; it’s not appreciated. It is also unique in history.
When I speak publicly I typically begin by asking a pair of questions. The first is, “Do you think war is always justified, sometimes justified, or never justified?” Of course, almost everybody goes with “sometimes justified.” Then I ask those people to keep their hands in the air and, if they can, to name current U.S. wars. Almost never can I find a single person who can even name the countries we are actively bombing. (Which, of course, is a far fewer number than the countries where we have a handful of so-called special forces working to destabilize the government.) I mean, even the Roman Empire could keep track of its wars. Our militarism is unprecedented. It’s a global enterprise with the United States dominating weaponry in space and satellite technology for weaponry in space. The U.S. has weaponry on the oceans, with fleets at major ports around the world, as well as nearly 800 military bases in some 70 countries and territories around the world. We have the military bragging about having troops in 175 or 176 countries. Sometimes that’s just a handful of troops; however, at many of them, it’s thousands of troops. We saw Putin standing next to Trump in Helsinki recently saying he wanted the U.S. to enter into a treaty to ban all weapons from bases. Of course, Trump has no interest in that; nor has any other president in the last 75 years. The rest of the world’s nations combined have perhaps 30 military bases that are outside their borders. We label Russia, which has military bases in nine countries — most of them former members of the Soviet Union — and countries we haven’t been able to dominate like Iran or North Korea, which don’t have any outside military bases, as lawless, as rogue.
But there’s nothing lawful about imposing U.S. militarism on other people’s countries. The clear goal is to make U.S. military presence everywhere. That is an incredible financial expense, environmental disaster, and provocateur of violence. It leads us to support tyrannical governments that have permitted U.S. basing. It leads to the use of U.S. forces against democratic efforts opposing these tyrannical governments. It’s a disaster from start to finish. And it’s not popular anywhere. It’s the really bipartisan cross-ideology, low-hanging fruit for taking down U.S. militarism. Everybody wants to close the foreign bases except the U.S. military. Most local populations never wanted them to begin with and/or want to get rid of them immediately. This is something that World Beyond War is working to achieve in coalition with many other groups. We had a big conference in Baltimore last year and have a global conference planned in Dublin, Ireland, in November 2018. It ought to be possible to get some of these bases closed. Unfortunately, even candidates who run on a platform opposed to nation-building and foreign occupations — as both Obama and Trump did — once in office continued down the same path of spreading militarism. So we don’t yet have a force within the political system in Washington, DC, that’s on the right side on this.
The MOON: So war is barbaric and obscenely expensive. What are our alternatives?
Swanson: Again, I’ve written an entire book on this subject (A Global Security System, an Alternative to War), which can be read for free at the World Without War website. The United States could easily make itself the most beloved nation on Earth with much less expense and effort by ceasing its “military aid” and providing a fraction of that aid in non-military forms instead.
The first step in handling crises is to stop creating them in the first place. Threats and sanctions and false accusations over a period of years can escalate tensions that can then flash into war over a relatively small incident, even an accident. By taking steps to avoid provoking crises, much effort — as well as lives — can be saved.
When conflicts inevitably do arise, they can be better addressed if investments have been made in diplomacy and arbitration. The United Nations needs to be strengthened, reformed, or replaced with an organization that forbids war and allows equal representation by population for every nation.
We also need to work diligently on disarmament. The most heavily armed nations can help in three ways. First, disarm — partially or fully. Second, stop selling weapons to so many other countries. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, at least 50 corporations supplied weapons, at least 20 of them to both sides. Third, negotiate disarmament agreements with other countries and arrange for inspections that will verify disarmament by all parties.
The MOON: Let’s talk a little bit about your most recent book, Curing Exceptionalism: What’s wrong with how we think about the United States and what can we do about it. Here again, Americans seem to believe a story about themselves that doesn’t jibe with the facts the rest of the world are looking at.
Swanson: Yes; that’s what motivated me to write the book. A lot of Americans believe there are qualities that make the United States the best country in the world — things like freedom, or democracy, or our court system, or free enterprise, or civil liberties, or advanced research, or innovation, or something else the United States is the greatest at. Yet, when you look, it’s very difficult to find anything that anybody in any research institute, in the United States or elsewhere, from any political perspective, that the United States is number-one in, except for some horrible things that nobody should want to be number one in. We’re the leader, of course, in military spending, various types of environmental destruction, locking people up in cages, and a few other unfavorable categories. When you compare the United States to other wealthy countries — and most of them are actually not as wealthy as the United States — you find that in many of these countries, there’s longer lifespan, greater health, greater security, greater happiness, greater environmental sustainability, less militarism, less violence, better schools, better education, and so forth. The United States frequently ranks better than many poor countries, but in some desirable categories it’s trailing even those. Unfortunately, residents of the United States are ignorant of these facts and are more likely than residents of any other country to say that their country is the best.
The problem with believing this way is reflected in our foreign policy — and also in our treatment of the very first Americans. Because we believe that our way of life is superior to others, we think nothing of imposing it on others. We actually believe we’re doing them a favor; that they should be grateful. We believe our country has the right to attack other countries, even acting unilaterally, without the approval of the United Nations. Yet we never consider ourselves a rogue nation. Why? Because we’re the U.S. We’re number one!
It’s fine to love one’s country and to prefer one’s culture over others; but it also seems reasonable to expect that people in other countries feel the same way about where they live. In the book I consider ways of thinking that might better serve us — such as identifying more with our local communities and with our global human community, and less with a national government, a grotesque national military, and less in a bigoted sense of superiority to the other 96% of humanity. “American exceptionalism” is really the last acceptable form of bigotry among educated liberals and everyone else in the United States. In many segments of the U.S. — media, academia, and even government, there has been great progress in combatting racism, sexism, and numerous forms of bigotry, but bigotry toward the people of other countries is still a major problem.
Just today I was looking at a tweet from a CNN reporter claiming that the U.S. media had never pushed the U.S. government toward war. I tweeted back a YouTube video clip from a 2016 Republican primary debate where the presidential candidates were asked by a CNN debate moderator, “Would you be willing to kill hundreds and thousands of innocent children as part of your basic duties as president?” I don’t think there’s another country on earth where that kind of question has been asked in an electoral debate. It’s grotesque. It’s sociopathic. And yet it didn’t even make a story. It was hardly a scandal. It was just a question in a debate, but it’s uniquely American.
I don’t mean that you should come to the realization Americans are evil and need to feel guilty and ashamed. I think we should come to the realization that, as in any country, great things and horrible things have been done. We’ll be far more likely to make more good things happen if we stop identifying with a national military team and start identifying with humanity — all the good and bad in it that can be found everywhere. I think there’s a great deal to be gained. We can take pride in German environmentalism and Finnish education. We can take pride in everything we find good around the world and stop rejecting it and failing to benefit from it because it’s not American. There’s nothing to be lost in setting aside the thrills of patriotism. You will never regret losing that nonsense. You will wonder how you ever lived without the benefits of identifying with all of humanity.
The MOON: You write that a fair and democratic international system of law is needed to replace war. What would that look like?
Swanson: That’s a long question with many possible answers. World Beyond War is having a conference on that topic in September 2018 in Toronto. I can tell you most easily what it wouldn’t look like. It wouldn’t look like the structure in which the five biggest weapons dealers, or at least four of the five biggest, make up the UN Security Council and have special powers to run the world; or to have veto power over the larger body; or to overrule the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. This is obviously not a system of fairness, even with nations as the constituents. I think a real global democracy, difficult as it would be and horrifying as it sounds to many people who’ve been trained to flee from the very idea, would involve representation of populations in relation to their size, not just nations. I mean, it’s a little ridiculous for Liechtenstein and China to each have one vote, but it’s even more ridiculous for the biggest war-makers to be given the special powers of the UN Security Council. The United Nations was created as an international institution to end war, like the United Nations, and then we put the biggest war-makers in charge of it.
So we have to either reform or replace the United Nations with a system that represents nations, but also represents people in proportion to population, and involves real democracy. Technologies exist to allow democratic discussions and decision-making; what we need is the political will. It is a real challenge. We can’t seem to get out from under the financial corruption of national governments enough to work through them to create a much bigger government — which we would then have to steer clear of financial corruption. Yet I think we have to. I think part of the answer is moving power down to the local level and developing real democracy and decision-making at the local level, while simultaneously moving power up to the global level, neither of which national governments are always going to like. But I think the two efforts can actually facilitate each other. To the extent that localities can take on the responsibility of working to create a global system of law, we will be better able to circumvent the roadblock that is the bought-and-paid-for, so-called democratic nation-state.
The MOON: How do audiences generally receive your anti-war messages?
Swanson: It actually takes very little to change people’s minds. In half an hour to an hour people want to become peace activists because they’ve never heard any argument against war before. It’s all new to them. They’ve been exposed to the pro-war media saturation, but they’ve seldom had anyone walk them through arguments for the other side. This is true, too, when I’m part of a panel or debate, and there are representatives for the pro-war arguments on the same platform. I think there’s a lot more openness to opposing war in the general public than we’re encouraged to believe.
The MOON: How do you maintain your optimism, even your commitment, when even our response to people who disagree with us tends to be so violent? For example, Obama was vehemently attacked for making the Iran deal, just as Trump has been attacked for “cozying up” to Putin. Any kind of questioning of American exceptionalism, or of the United States’ gargantuan military budget, is assailed as “un-American” and “weak.” What does keep you going? What gives you hope? Do you have to look to other countries for encouragement?
Swanson: I probably don’t have an answer that you’ll consider satisfying, but in my view, it’s quite likely we are doomed to environmental catastrophe. It’s also fairly likely we’re doomed to nuclear apocalypse. But the more we work to avoid those disasters, the better our odds. If we accept these outcomes as inevitable then we’re doomed for certain. So I believe it’s our moral obligation to do everything we can to prevent catastrophe and make everything we can a little better. Who knows? We may succeed. And the effort is actually more enjoyable than moping about it. Some may try to adopt the attitude, “Well, the world’s screwed; I’m going to enjoy myself as long as it lasts.” But in my experience, you actually don’t enjoy yourself more that way. You remain miserable. However, if you get engaged with people who are committed to the same work, who encourage each other and work to make the world a better place, you’ll actually find the fulfillment and satisfaction and solidarity and camaraderie that people have always longed for. Many of them have even found it in war — with terrible consequences and side-effects. Scientific studies of the matter have confirmed that activists are generally more mentally sound and emotionally happy than cynics who’ve bailed out. So for your own good [laughter], get involved!
This interview was originally published on The MOON: http://moonmagazine.org/war-no-interview-david-swanson-2018-09-01/