Armistice Day in the M.I.C.

Remarks at the Mt. Diablo Peace and Justice Center on November 10, 2012.

Thank you to Sergio for inviting me and helping set up this little trip I’m on.

Before I forget, tomorrow is Armistice Day, so we’ll be celebrating by dying in front of Senator Feinstein’s house at 10 a.m. at Vallejo & Lyon Streets before walking across the Golden Gate Bridge.  Please come.  And at 1:30 Medea Benjamin and Cindy Sheehan and I will be speaking on the question of whether U.S. wars are legal at the main public library in San Francisco.  We can talk about that question today, if you want, but I won’t make it the main focus of my opening remarks.

Ninety-four years ago tomorrow on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, fighting ceased in the “war to end all wars.” Thirty million soldiers had been killed or wounded and another seven million had been taken captive during World War I.  Never before had people witnessed such industrialized slaughter, with tens of thousands falling in a day to machine guns and poison gas.  After the war, more and more truth began to overtake the lies, but whether people still believed or now resented the pro-war propaganda, virtually every person in the United States wanted to see no more of war ever again.  Posters of Jesus shooting at Germans were left behind as the churches along with everyone else now said that war was wrong.  Al Jolson wrote in 1920 to President Harding:

The weary world is waiting for
Peace forevermore
So take away the gun
From every mother’s son
And put an end to war.

Congress passed an Armistice Day resolution calling for “exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding … inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.” Later, Congress added that November 11th was to be “a day dedicated to the cause of world peace.”

While the ending of warfare was celebrated every November 11th, veterans were treated no better than they are today.  When 17,000 veterans plus their families and friends marched on Washington in 1932 to demand their bonuses, Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, and other heroes of the next big war to come attacked the veterans, including by engaging in that greatest of evils with which Saddam Hussein would be endlessly charged: “using chemical weapons on their own people.”  The weapons they used, just like Hussein’s, originated in the U.S. of A.

It was only after another war, an even worse war, a war that has in many ways never ended to this day, that Congress, following still another now forgotten war — this one on Korea — changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day on June 1, 1954.  And it was six-and-a-half years later that Eisenhower warned us that the military industrial complex would completely corrupt our society.  Veterans Day is no longer, for most people, a day to cheer the elimination of war or even to aspire to its abolition.  Veterans Day is not even a day on which to mourn or to question why suicide is the top killer of U.S. troops or why so many veterans have no houses at all in a nation in which one high-tech robber baron monopolist is hoarding $66 billion, and 400 of his closest friends have more money than half the country.  It’s not even a day to honestly, if sadistically, celebrate the fact that virtually all the victims of U.S. wars are non-Americans, that our so-called wars have become one-sided slaughters.  Instead, it is a day on which to believe that war is beautiful and good.  Towns and cities and corporations and sports leagues call it “military appreciation day” or “troop appreciation week” or “genocide glorification month.”  OK, I made up that last one.  Just checking if you’re paying attention.

This year, Veterans For Peace is celebrating Armistice Day in over 50 cities, including by ringing bells at 11 a.m. tomorrow.  Up in Auburn, Washington, however, Veterans For Peace Chapter 92 was been banned from marching in the Veterans Day Parade today.  Auburn said that other applicants more closely met the parade’s goals and purpose.  Among the applicants accepted were a motorcycle club, a Corvette club, the Optimists and Kiwanis International, the Sons of Italy, and a Daffodil Festival float.  Veterans For Peace was too off-topic.  But VFP and the ACLU sued and won, so Vets For Peace 92 is marching.

Veterans For Peace president Leah Bolger had remarked:

Look at the choice that Auburn is setting up for people who have seen war for themselves.  Either play along with the deadly lie that war is good and glorious, or be banished from the community and excluded from public events. Imagine the position that puts people in who know that, as Ben Franklin said, there has never been a good war or a bad peace. We should honor their courage in saying so, not deny them First Amendment rights that our highest courts now tell us even corporations can claim!

On the original Armistice Day in 1918, much of the world ended a four-year war that served no useful purpose whatsoever while costing the lives of some 10 million soldiers, 6 million civilians, 21 million soldiers wounded, an outbreak of Spanish influenza that took another 100 million lives, environmental destruction that is ongoing today, the development of new weapons—including chemical weapons—still used today, huge leaps forward in the art of propaganda still plagiarized today, huge setbacks in the struggle for economic justice, and a culture more militarized, more focused on stupid ideas like banning alcohol, and more ready to restrict civil liberties in the name of nationalism, and all for the bargain price, as one author calculated it at the time, of enough money to have given a $2,500 home with $1,000 worth of furniture and five acres of land to every family in Russia, most of the European nations, Canada, the United States, and Australia, plus enough to give every city of over 20,000 a $2 million library, a $3 million hospital, a $20 million college, and still enough left over to buy every piece of property in Germany and Belgium.  And it was all legal.  Incredibly stupid, but totally legal.  Particular atrocities violated laws, but war was not criminal.  It never had been, but it soon would be.

One of the soldiers who died in World War I was a young British man named Wilfred Owen.  Ninety-four years ago last Sunday he was shot and killed.  The news of his death reached his parents home in England as the Armistice bells were ringing 94 years ago tomorrow.  When the war had begun, many fools were fond of quoting an old Latin saying: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, meaning, “it is sweet and right to die for your country.”  During the war, Owen wrote a poem about how sweet and right it was to suffer from poison gas for no apparent purpose.  I’m sure you’ve heard it, but I think it could be well directed to most U.S. corporate media outlets in business today, so if you don’t mind, it went like this:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

And it’s not as if nobody knew.  It’s not as if wars have to be fought in order to learn each time that war is hell.  It’s not as if each new type of weaponry suddenly makes war evil.  It’s not as if war wasn’t already the worst thing ever created.  It’s not as if people didn’t say so, didn’t resist, didn’t propose alternatives, didn’t go to prison for their convictions.

In 1915, Jane Addams met with President Wilson and urged him to offer mediation to Europe.  Wilson praised the peace terms drafted by a conference of women for peace held in the Hague.  He received 10,000 telegrams from women asking him to act.  Historians believe that had he acted in 1915 or early in 1916 he might very well have helped bring the Great War to an end under circumstances that would have furthered a far more durable peace than the one made eventually at Versailles.  Wilson did act on the advice of Addams, and of his Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, but not until it was too late.  The Germans did not trust a mediator who had been aiding the British war effort.  Wilson was left to campaign for reelection on a platform of peace and then quickly propagandize and plunge the United States into Europe’s war.  And the number of progressives Wilson brought, at least briefly, to the side of loving war makes Obama look like an amateur.

It was not a new story.  From 1856 to 1860 Elihu Burritt had promoted a plan to prevent civil war through compensated emancipation, or the purchase and liberation of slaves by the government, an example that the English had set in the West Indies.  Burritt traveled constantly, speaking all over the country.  He organized a mass convention that was held in Cleveland.  He lined up prominent supporters.  He edited newsletters.  And he was right.  England had freed its slaves in the Caribbean without a war.  Russia had freed its serfs without a war.  Slave owners in the U.S. South would almost certainly have preferred a pile of money to five years of hell, the deaths of loved ones, the burning and destruction of their property, and the uncompensated emancipation that followed, not to mention the century and a half of bitter resentment that followed that.  And not only the slave owners would have preferred the way of peace; it’s not as if they did the killing and dying.  What does being right get you? Forgotten.  Who’s ever heard of Elihu Burritt?

But the victories are as forgotten as the failures, and that’s probably what hurts us the most.  The Outlawry Movement of the 1920s—the movement to outlaw war—sought to replace war with arbitration, by first banning war and then developing a code of international law and a court with the authority to settle disputes.  The first step was taken in 1928 with the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which banned all war.  Today 81 nations are party to that treaty, including ours, and many of them comply with it.  I’d like to see additional nations, poorer nations that were left out of the treaty, join it (which they can do simply by stating that intention) and then urge the greatest purveyor of violence in the world to comply.

I wrote a book about the movement that created that treaty, not just because we need to continue its work, but also because we can learn from its methods.  Here was a movement that united people across the political spectrum, those for and against alcohol, those for and against the League of Nations, with a proposal to criminalize war.  It was an uncomfortably large coalition.  There were negotiations and peace pacts between rival factions of the peace movement.  There was a moral case made that expected the best of people.  War wasn’t opposed merely on economic grounds or because it might kill people from our own country.  It was opposed as mass murder, as no less barbaric than duelling as a means of settling individuals’ disputes.  Here was a movement with a long-term vision based on educating and organizing.  There was an endless hurricane of lobbying, but no endorsing of politicians, no aligning of a movement behind a party.  On the contrary, all four — yes, four — major parties were compelled to line up behind the movement.  Instead of Clint Eastwood talking to a chair, the Republican National Convention of 1924 saw President Coolidge promising to outlaw war if reelected.

And on August 27, 1928, in Paris, France, that scene happened that made it into a 1950s folk song as a mighty room filled with men, and the papers they were signing said they’d never fight again.  And it was men, women were outside protesting.  And it was a pact among wealthy nations that nonetheless would continue making war on and colonizing the poor.  But it was a pact for peace that ended wars and ended the acceptance of territorial gains made through wars, except in Palestine.  It was a treaty that still required a body of law and an international court that we still do not have.  But it was a treaty that in 85 years those wealthy nations would, in relation to each other, violate only once.  Following World War II, the Kellogg-Briand Pact was used to prosecute victor’s justice.  And the big armed nations never went to war with each other again, yet.  And so, the pact is generally considered to have failed.  Imagine if we banned bribery, and the next year threw Sheldon Adelson in prison, and nobody ever bribed again.  Would we declare the law a failure, throw it out, and declare bribery henceforth legal as a matter of natural inevitability?  Why should war be different?  We can, and must, be rid of war, and therefore, incidentally, we can, must, be rid of bribery, or — excuse me — campaign contributions.

Activists in St. Paul, where Secretary of State Kellogg was from, and Chicago, where Salmon Levinson who led the movement for Outlawry was from, are working on getting their cities to make August 27th a holiday for peace.  In the meantime, we need to reclaim Armistice Day and Mother’s Day and Martin Luther King day, as well as the International Day of Peace, because we’re up against Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Yellow Ribbon Day, Patriots Day, Independence Day, Flag Day, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, Military Spouses Appreciation Day, the Iraq Afghanistan Wars Holiday, and dozens of others for every day of the year — and this time I didn’t make any of those up.

World War II changed everything, has never ended, and needs to be ended by us before we are ended by it.  The horror and costs of World War II make World War I look like child’s play.  And yet the response of the nation has not been to radically expand the campaign to abolish war.  Instead we’ve allowed war to become so much our new “normalcy” that we can’t distinguish between war time and peace time anymore, and abuses justified by war time are justified for all time now.

On August 14, 1941, the military brought before the Senate plans to build a permanent building that would be the largest office building in the world and would be called the Pentagon.  Senator Arthur Vandenberg asked for an explanation: “Unless the war is to be permanent, why must we have permanent accommodations for war facilities of such size?” Then he began to catch on: “Or is the war to be permanent?” he asked.

We weren’t supposed to have standing armies, much less armies standing in everyone else’s countries, much less armies fighting wars over the control of fuels that destroy the planet and armies that themselves consume the greatest quantity of those fuels, even though the armies lose all the wars.  Before the Nobel Peace Prize was handed out to war makers, it was intended for those who had done the best work of removing standing armies from the world.  World War II changed everything.

We never went back to pre-WWII taxes or pre-WWII military or pre-WWII restraint in foreign empire or pre-WWII respect for civil liberties or pre-WWII notions of who deserved a Nobel Peace Prize.  We saw advances in civil rights for minorities, including the right to vote, but we saw the virtual elimination of any way to elect anti-war candidates.

We never saw another declaration of war from Congress, but we never stopped using those of 1941, never left Germany, never left Japan, never dismantled the Pentagon.  Instead, as William Blum documents in his remarkable new book, America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy, since the supposed end of WWII, the United States has tried to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments, most of them democratically elected; interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries; attempted to assassinate over 50 foreign leaders; dropped bombs on people in over 30 countries; and attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 nations.

Oh, but we meant well, and we mean well.  Absolutely not so.  There’s no “we” involved here.  The U.S. government meant and means global domination, nothing else.  And yet, even foreigners buy the U.S. snake oil.  Gaddafi thought he could please Washington and be spared.  So did the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein.  When Hugo Chavez heard about the coup planned against him in 2002, he sent a representative to Washington to plead his case.  The coup went ahead just the same.  Subcomandante Marcos believed Washington would support the Zapatistas once it understood who they were.  Ho Chi Minh had seen behind the curtain when Woodrow Wilson was president; World War II didn’t change quite everything.  Maurice Bishop of Grenada, Cheddi Jagan of British Guyana, and the foreign minister of Guatemala appealed to Washington for peace before the Pentagon overthrew their governments.  “We” don’t mean well when we threaten war on Iran any more than we meant well when “we” overthrew Iran’s government in 1953.  The U.S. government has the very same agenda it had in 1953 because it is still engaged in the very same war, the war without end.

At the very moment of supreme moral pretense in 1946, as the United States was leading the prosecution of Nazi war crimes including the crime of war, and killing the Nazis found guilty, at the very moment when Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson was declaring that those who sat in judgment at Nuremberg would be subject to the same standard of law, the United States was giving Guatemalans syphilis to see what would happen to them, and importing Nazi scientists by the dozen to work for the Pentagon.  The war to save 6 million Jews that in reality condemned them and 60 million others to death, the war of innocence that followed the arming of the Chinese and the British, and before that the arming of the Nazis and Japanese, the war against empire that in reality spread the largest empire the earth has known, the war against inhumanity that in reality developed and used the greatest weapons ever directed against humans: that war wasn’t a triumph; it IS a triumph.  It has never ended.  We’ve never stopped making our children pledge allegiance like little fascists.  We’ve never stopped dumping our money into the complex that Dwight Eisenhower warned us would exert total influence over our society.  We’ve never stopped to consider whether attacks on a finite planet must end someday.  Truman showed Stalin a couple of bombs, and the flags haven’t stopped waving yet.

The Marshall Plan was a plan for domination—smarter and more skillful domination than some other attempts—but still domination.  U.S. capitalist control was the highest purpose.  Sabotage of leftist political gains was the primary approach.  It’s never changed.  Dictators that play along have “our” full support.  Don’t go looking for “humanitarian” attacks by NATO in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or Jordan or UAE or Qatar or Kuwait or Yemen, any more than Obama was willing to turn against Ben Ali or Mubarak or Gadaffi or Assad until doing so appeared strategic for the pursuit of global domination.  The United States does not intervene.  It never intervenes.  It is incapable of intervening.  This is because it is already intervened everywhere.  What it calls intervening is actually switching sides.

The branches are blurring.  The military, CIA, State Department, and Drug Enforcement Agency are becoming a team that operates in secret at the behest of the President.  The Pentagon now has its own “intelligence” agency, while the State Department has its own office of proxy war making.  U.S. Special Forces are active in 70 nations on any given day, on behalf of the President, without the authorization of Congress, and in the name of the uninformed people of the United States.  The “special” forces, operating under the acronyms SOCOM and JSOC, are no longer special for being smaller.  They’re special for having the power to operate in greater secrecy and without the apparent limitation of any laws whatsoever.

Remember that raid that killed Osama bin Laden?  Yay! Hurray! Whooo Hooo! Murder is sooooooo cool.  But did you know that soldiers working for you do at least a dozen such raids somewhere in the world on any given night?  Are you confident that everyone killed in a dozen raids a night deserves execution without charge or trial?  Are you certain that this practice sets a good example?  Would you support other nations adopting its use?  “Our” “special” forces are now larger than most nations’ militaries, and we don’t have the slightest idea what those forces are doing.  “Our access [to foreign countries],” says Eric Olson, former chief of Special Operations Command, “depends on our ability to not talk about it.”

The U.S. military has set up dozens of bases all over the world from which to fly killer robots known as drones.  And there are dozens of bases all over the United States involved in the drone wars.  At Fort Benning in Georgia, where the annual protest of the School of the Americas torture school is coming up soon, they’re testing drones that can shoot to kill without human input.  What could go wrong?

Not only has the blowback begun, but it’s how we learn where some of the drone bases are.  In 2009, a suicide attack killed CIA officers and mercenaries at Forward Operating Base Chapman in the Khost province of Afghanistan, and only then did we learn that the base was used for targeting drone murders in Pakistan.

This is, of course, apart from the usual blowback of greatly heightened hostility which is being produced by the U.S. military in nations all over the world.  The 2010 attack on Libya, for example, resulted in well-armed Tuareg mercenaries, who had backed Gadaffi, heading back to Mali, destabilizing that country, and producing a military coup by a U.S.-trained officer, as well as parts of the country being seized by the latest al Qaeda affiliate.  And that’s in Mali.  Never mind what a paradise Libya has become post liberation!

Many of the bases the U.S. military uses abroad are in nations less heavily occupied than Afghanistan.  They are permitted to operate where they do by the nasty governments of those nations, thanks to U.S. support for dictatorship.  This explains why the Arab Spring produced so much footage of U.S.-made armored personnel carriers, tanks, helicopters, and tear gas.  The Obama administration is eagerly increasing supplies of U.S.-made weaponry to the very regimes beating, jailing, and killing pro-democracy activists.  Repeat after me: “But it’s a jobs program.”

In fact, it’s a major jobs program.  The Pentagon/State Department markets U.S. weapons abroad, and the U.S. tripled its sales of weapons abroad last year, now accounting for 85% of international weapons sales.

But the weapons sales are the least of it.  The United States now maintains its own troops in most nations on the earth and engages in joint training exercises with the local militaries.  The biggest areas for base construction today are probably Afghanistan and Africa.  Despite the supposed “winding down” of the war on Afghanistan over the next 2 or 12 years, base construction is moving ahead full steam, including new “secret” bases for “special” forces, new “secret” drone bases, and new prisons.  The thinking—and I use the term generously—in Afghanistan and around the globe is that the United States should let the locals do more of the killing and dying.  Of course, this hasn’t worked in Afghanistan or Iraq, any more than it worked in Vietnam.  In Afghanistan, a proxy war in the 1980s produced notable blowback that can only be appreciated by fanatics for continued war, not by residents of New York or Washington.

The hurricanes and the rising ocean are our own creation.  If we want to turn this trend around we will have to shut down the Department of so-called Defense and create a new department aimed at defending us from dangers that actually exist.

We are up against a military industrial complex that barely existed before World War II and now dominates our government.  Over half of federal discretionary spending is dumped into it every year.  It funds campaigns and it creates jobs that can easily be eliminated.  It creates fewer jobs than any other use of the same dollars, but any other use would be socialism because it wouldn’t kill anyone.  The jobs are as permanent as the spending.  We don’t even pretend the wars will end all war anymore.  Our Nobel laureates proclaim the permanence of war in their peace prize acceptance speeches.

We can take on the military industrial complex, but it will mean forming a very large coalition of interested but fearful parties.  There’s a group co-founded by a friend of mine in this area called Environmentalists Against War.  But most big environmental groups won’t take on our biggest environmental destroyer.  In fact, they won’t even mention climate change if the president asks them not to, as he did in 2009.  The war preparation spending is what drives the torture and imprisonment and assassinations, but the ACLU won’t recognize its existence.  Wars drive immigrants out of their countries and then exploit them when they get here, but immigrants rights groups won’t touch war.  If we were to cut war preparations by 80%, leaving the United States with still the biggest military in the world, we could have a green energy program that might just save us, not to mention the best quality housing, transportation, education, health care, and retirements to be had.  We could invent a dozen important human rights merely by reducing what we spend on the worst crime yet conceived.  But where are the anti-poverty groups, the education groups, the housing groups when it comes to opposing the Pentagon.  They’re cowering.  Not all together, but all separately.  Together we could turn this thing around.

We’ve now voted down the racists and yet our government’s primary function remains killing dark people.  Do we object to racism only in domestic policy?

We are supposedly standing beside something called a fiscal cliff.  You know what this makes me think of?  I picture a person standing near the top of a cliff, and tied to the person’s legs are two chains.  Each chain runs over the edge of the cliff and supports a massive weight.  The person is struggling to remain standing as these two enormous weights pull downward.  One of the weights is war preparations spending.  The other is tax cuts for the super rich that we are apparently required to name for Bush no matter how long Obama is around.  Now the person is falling and being dragged backwards, face-down toward the edge.  But then I picture an endless number of other people in exactly the same situation, and very close to each other.  And we are able to take the chains off each other’s ankles.  This is what we now need: massive cuts to war spending, and massive increases in taxation of plutocrats — plus massive spending on green energy and all things good and decent.  Demanding that cuts to Social Security be a little smaller than they might be is not going to save us.

We should remember at a time like this that when the slightly less funded of two corporate funded candidates wins, we don’t win.  President Obama publicly and illegally instructed the Attorney General not to prosecute the CIA for torture.  We accepted that.  Obama told unions not to say “single payer” and they didn’t.  The peace movement spent the first Obama year muttering about how it was too early, the second worrying about the mid-term elections, the third trying to focus the Occupy Movement on our collective antagonists, and the fourth being scared of Mitt Romney.  Now we’re being told we must not demand military spending cuts or the prosecution of war crimes or the immediate withdrawal of forces abroad.  Progressive groups want to pretend to take a stand on Social Security and Medicare before caving.  Their opening pretense doesn’t even touch military spending.  It’s our job to add that to the conversation.

So, I don’t want any more emails telling me to help Obama succeed at progressive efforts he is working hard against.  I want Billionaires for Bush brought back as Oligarchs for Obama.  I want the Bush Crimes Commission revived as the Obama Crimes Commission.  I want John Conyers’s threat to push for the impeachment of Bush if he attacks Iran applied to Obama.  And I want the peace movement back!

I propose that we pledge right now to protest and vote against anyone in Congress or the White House who gives an inch on protecting Social Security and Medicare, who votes for current levels of military spending or anything above 75% of current levels, or who fails to oppose wars or to act against climate change.  No more honeymoons.  No more veal pens in which the public servants tell the public organizations how to serve them.  And no more promises to vote for someone no matter what they do to us or to our brothers and sisters around the world. We need to use nonviolent action not only to end war but also to provide an alternative path for our young people who might otherwise sign up to kill and die.  Nonviolence requires more bravery, more commitment, more morality, and is far more satisfying than joining the Marines, no matter how benevolent the TV advertisements look.

The Declaration of Independence says we have the right to institute new government.  It’s getting to be about that time.

David Swanson is an anti-war activist and blogger at War Is a Crime. Read other articles by David.