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Beating Swords Into Plowshares: A Review of “Killing Is Not a Way of Life“

War is a decision that can be made unacceptable, David Swanson writes in his book.

(Photo: Jayel Aheram)

Killing Is Not a Way of Life: Essays by David Swanson, 2014, Self-published in Charlottesville, Virginia, $20, 428 pages.

David Swanson, director of, starts his latest collection of essays, Killing Is Not a Way of Life, with the assertion that armed conflict is neither necessary nor inevitable.

The 92 articles in the anthology – many of them first delivered as speeches at conferences, meetings and rallies or onTalk Nation Radio – relentlessly emphasize this point, referencing the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928. That agreement, signed by 62 countries including the United States, was one of many post-World War I efforts to prevent more carnage by outlawing wars of aggression.

While military acts of self-defense are not covered by the pact, Swanson urges the people of the world to press their political leaders to abide by the little-known, and likely long-forgotten, document.

It would certainly be an amazing and wonderful step toward a new era of peace and prosperity if the pact were heeded. What’s more, the earth itself would benefit.

For example, Swanson notes that in 2006, the US military burned through approximately 340,000 barrels of oil a day. Ending this, he writes, and cutting off the $1.9 trillion a year that the world currently spends on war, could not only help solve the climate crisis, but would free up funding for a wide array of needed human services.

“War kills primarily through taking spending away from where it’s needed,” Swanson reports, whether it’s the provision of health care, decent schools, or programs that enhance community and build neighborhood cohesion. “For a small fraction of war preparations spending, college could be free here and provided free in some other parts of the world too,” he writes. “Imagine how many more environmental activists we could have if college graduates didn’t owe tens of thousands of dollars.”

Yes, imagine.

The treatment of youthful offenders is similarly odious to Swanson, and he sees the American approach to criminal “justice” as another area of wasteful government spending. In several essays, he rails that, “We spend $88,000 on average per year to lock a child up, compared to $10,652 to educate a child. We have over 66,000 children locked up, 87 percent of them boys.” Calling juvenile jails “factories for crime,” Swanson writes that kids who are jailed tend to be incarcerated as adults at far higher rates than kids who enter alternative-to-incarceration programs, where they can get help with literacy, treatment for substance abuse, and psychological support and counseling.

“The US locks kids up at a higher rate than any other nation,” he writes, a practice that is predicated on the belief that imprisonment is needed to protect public safety. It’s a myth, he continues, that runs parallel to arguments that cutting the military – or, gasp, disbanding it completely – would leave us in harm’s way. The evidence overwhelming disproves these enduring lies, he adds. “If our rural communities went back to farming food instead of prisoners, we would all be better off.”

But therein lays the hurdle: How best to counter the well-oiled yarn that no one loses freedom without doing something to deserve it, either by committing a crime or by demonstrating disloyalty to the “homeland.”

“How do you get someone who wants desperately to believe that torture has in fact saved lives to look at the facts? How do you get someone who believes that anyone who is tortured deserves it to reconsider the evidence and face the possibility that torture is used in part to make us see certain people as evil? Swanson asks. “How do you get Republicans loyal to Bush and Democrats loyal to Obama to put human rights above their loyalty?”

They’re great questions, essential considerations for everyone interested in promoting progressive social change.

As a start, Swanson writes, the United States should admit that incarcerating kids is counterproductive and close every juvenile prison. He then zeroes in on adult imprisonment and argues in favor of a nonpunitive restorative justice approach to punishment that holds offenders accountable to those they’ve harmed – an argument he then extends to international conflicts and, ultimately, to war.

Ending war and closing jails, of course, sounds pretty pie-in-the-sky, but Swanson is not deterred by improbability. Instead, he insistently demands better, including a transfer of monies earmarked for conflict and the building and maintenance of jails, to programs geared to ending homelessness, hunger and poverty.

“The money spent on prisons could pay for drug treatment, childcare, education and restorative justice programs,” he writes. At the same time, by turning swords into plowshares and funding development, the US could help turn its many adversaries into potential allies, if not friends.

“A war-making nation could make itself loved for far less expense that what it takes to make itself hated,” he quips.

In addition, Swanson believes that any war can be stopped, whether in Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Pakistan, Russia or Ukraine. “Nobody thinks well when they’re scared,” he continues. “That’s why the government likes to scare you . . . The more the US keeps bombing people, the more some of those people will want to fight back. Did you ever wonder why nations that spend 2 percent of what the US does on its military feel so much safer than you do? Part of it is the reality that war generates enemies rather than removing them.”

Swanson contends that diplomacy – talking – is the one and only answer to the world’s most vexing problems. In concert with a serious commitment to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, Killing Is Not a Way of Life convincingly argues that the US peace movement needs to demand that the United States remove its troops from the 175 nations where they are presently stationed, stop militarizing local police forces and stop allowing the US to present wars as necessary for women’s liberation and/or the promotion of democracy.

Contesting the fallacy that “wars promote peace” is also key. “You cannot have war without dishonesty,” Swanson writes. “Wars justify secrecy and the erosion of liberties: warrantless surveillance, lawless imprisonment, torture and assassination.”

We have a choice, he concludes. It would cost approximately $50 billion a year to end starvation and provide clean water to human beings in every nook-and-cranny of the world. Compare this to the $1.9 trillion spent annually on militarism – $1 trillion of it expended by the United States alone.

“War is a decision made by people,” Swanson writes, “and one that we can make utterly unacceptable.”

Doesn’t saving the planet demand that we at least try?

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