Why do we seem to be trapped in an endless cycle of war, with each new military adventure promised to be different than the last? David Swanson’s War Is a Lie takes apart and thoroughly refutes every major argument that has been used to justify wars, especially those wars most widely trumpeted as just and good. Order the new edition of this vital antiwar handbook by making a donation to Truthout today!
In this interview, David Swanson, author of War Is a Lie, counters the theory that war is an inevitable part of human nature, says the antiwar movement is larger than the dominant media suggest and shares the view that wars are fought primarily for money and markets.
Mark Karlin: How do you respond to people who say that war is due to human hard-wiring that goes back to battling clans of cave people over territory and resources?
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David Swanson: Thanks for the terrific questions. At least 90 percent of humanity is represented by governments that wage war much less than the US government. Over 99 percent of people in the United States are not in the military. There is not a single case of PTSD from war deprivation. The largest cause of death in members of the US military is suicide. So you can try to claim that hunter-gatherers waged wars despite the lack of evidence, or that chimpanzees wage wars despite the lack of either evidence or relevance. But the very claim that humans all wage war is ridiculous on its face. The notion that it comes naturally to them is a horrible joke, given the damage it inflicts even on drastically better-armed aggressors who kill even from the safety of a drone base thousands of miles from their victims. If someone thinks war comes naturally, I would suggest, respectfully, that they should try sexual abstinence, starvation or eating feces.
“No candidate has been asked whether 54 percent of discretionary spending on militarism is too much, too little or just right.”
There have been human cultures like the current United States in which people have been taught to accept war as inevitable. There have been many others that have not known war at all and have considered killing utterly unacceptable — meaning they would in fact never ever do it, not meaning they would kill anyone who threatened to kill someone. Eliminating war does not involve eliminating anger or conflict; it involves disassembling a complex industrial institution that goes to great lengths to create wars and far greater lengths to arm others so that when they become involved in conflicts much more damage is done. The majority of the weapons in the Middle East are made in and shipped from the United States. Taking away those weapons would not require discovering the mysterious seat of “human nature” in West Asian brains and operating on it. It would just require a popular movement that saw profiting from death as shameful and put an end to it, as a congressional committee proposed 80 years ago and the pope suggested to applause from a joint session just recently.
As a follow-up, your book incorporates the principle that reason can overcome the emotional factors — even if based on lies as you frequently detail in your book — that perpetuate war. Yet, your epilogue provides a glimpse into the ongoing conflicts of the last five years and provides little hope that reason is making any progress in prevailing against the forces that lead to war (with the exception of the agreement with Iran). You conclude that “belief in the inevitability of war can end.” How so, given its grim endurance?
I’m not in the business of giving hope or despair. I don’t feel either one or see the relevance of trying to feel either one. We have moral obligations to try to improve things, so we must do our best — and the fact that such work is enjoyable and fulfilling is a bonus. But to do our best we have to understand, as well as we can, what has been working. In that epilogue I focused first and primarily on the 2013 public resistance that stopped a massive bombing campaign of Syria by the United States (without stopping the arming of proxies, investing seriously in aid etc.). And after touching also on the upholding of the Iran agreement, I noted that Syria should be our model, because we took on the leadership of both big political parties in Washington, DC, not just one of them.
“The lies that launch wars are usually so weak that they require urgency.”
President Obama admitted in a recent article based on a series of interviews that public pressure had been key in his reversing a decision he had formally committed to. That included public pressure through Congress and through Parliament in the UK. This was an admission, not an excuse. The very last thing our politicians ever want to reveal is that the public influenced them. They avoid it so skillfully that the public has internalized the process, so that when it appears to have an impact it reminds itself that such a thing can’t possibly be true. This of course reduces activism dramatically.
I’m not sure success will come through a cold reasoning process divorced from emotions, if such a thing exists. I think love for those targeted is critical, combined with courage to resist those targeting them. But a bit of humility is needed. People in the United States who believe war is inevitable should ask some people outside the United States who believe in greater numbers that war is perfectly capable of being abolished. If they can believe it, humans can believe it. And if we can recognize them as humans, two things follow: They might be correct, and we damn well ought to stop killing them.
Nations as formal constructs are relatively new in the history of our species, but empires are not. How do financial and military interests in the US use national identity to sell wars that perpetuate and expand the US empire?
The corporate media, movies, advertisements, the speeches of politicians, public monuments, toys, history books, sports — our whole culture saturates us with identification with nation and military. Peace activists who protested and went to jail trying to prevent a war will say things like, “We just bombed some houses in Yemen.” We who? The response that one must take responsibility for what one pays taxes for doesn’t cut it, because (1) even those avoiding paying taxes speak this way, and (2) nobody speaks this way about many other things the government does. Nobody says, “We built a highway through my backyard,” or “We seized his property for a pipeline,” or “We took half of her income in taxes.” There are at least some cases in which we refer to the US government doing things as the US government doing them. In addition, (3), people rarely use the first person to describe what their local or state governments (or the United Nations or the human species) has done.
We’ve been trained to identify with a particular level of government, and above all with that government in opposition to the rest of the world. Belief in the United States that the culture is telling the truth when it endlessly proclaims the United States the best country on earth is shrinking. Whether that will be accompanied by any growing respect for the rest of humanity, to the point of refraining from bombing it, remains to be seen.
Amidst the many positive resistance movements that have arisen in the past few years, the antiwar movement, as you acknowledge, has been relatively modest. Any thoughts about why?
The biggest day of protest in world history, February 15, 2003, was followed by a very significant movement that educated and agitated for years and deserves most of the credit for the 2013 reversal on bombing Syria. In 2006, Republicans believed they’d have to end the wars, and Democrats were elected to congressional majorities with that mandate. Rahm Emanuel then openly told The Washington Post that the Democrats would keep the wars going for two more years in order to run “against” them again in 2008. The Democrats took the chairs of committees and proceeded to do nothing with them. And people who identified with the Democratic Party in 2007 began obsessing with the 2008 presidential election, at the expense of ending the slaughter in 2007 or 2008.
Endless, lawless war at massive expense was clearly established as a bipartisan norm. Entire presidential debates in 2016 have passed by without a single mention of the world outside the United States. No candidate has been asked whether 54 percent of discretionary spending on militarism is too much, too little or just right. Young people have grown up in this climate and accepted in some cases — just like most old people — all the propaganda or at least the part that maintains that we are powerless to stop wars. Corruption by war profiteers and general cultural taboos contribute: The big environmental groups won’t take on the biggest destroyer of the environment, the big civil liberties groups won’t touch the biggest cause of rights violations etc. But the fact is that a massive movement against war is extremely active and broad in comparison to what the media suggests.
Movements against drone murders and in defense of Palestinians and for the abolition of nuclear weapons are alive and well and covered by good media outlets like Truthout. While much, much more is desperately needed, we should continue working on appreciating the coverage by good media outlets of things whited out in corporate ones as nonetheless legitimate coverage of things that are really happening.
What impact is the website that you founded a few years back, WorldBeyondWar.org, having on the movement to end war?
It’s helping to create such a movement, as distinct from a movement to end a particular war (sometimes with the argument that this one bad war prevents proper preparedness for other good ones), or to end [the use of] particular weapons (sometimes with the argument that this one bad weapon doesn’t work well or the military doesn’t even want it, as if weapons that kill better would be preferable). Results are hard to measure, but World Beyond War is nudging others in the direction of speaking about antiwar and pro-peace measures as steps in the direction of total abolition. We’re also growing rapidly and planning big events and constantly looking for more volunteers. Get involved please at WorldBeyondWar.org.
How do you react to the concept when we live in an age when governments and the plutocracy in the world advocate for globalization, but fight wars on the basis of national interest (or more specifically, the individuals and interests that profit or benefit from war within a country such as the US)?
Well, I suppose they do advocate for the globalization of accumulating and hoarding and hiding wealth, but they certainly don’t advocate for the globalization of the rule of law or of the provision of human needs or the sharing of resources or collaboration in protecting the environment or the rights of workers or the creation of peace. Still, it’s an interesting question because one has to doubt that every war profiteer shares the jingoism that drives much war support.
A global mercenary like Erik Prince is clearly not interested in killing for a nation, but in profiting as an individual. The question is whether non-war-centered plutocrats will recognize peace as in their interests. Other struggles, like internet neutrality, LGBTQ rights and even environmentalism sometimes, have a segment of corporate power on their side. Peace would in fact be profitable for most, and the benefits would more than pay for the transition, so that no worker need suffer and only a particular subset of non-workers would lose out. But to get there, we have to create a culture in which a corporation doesn’t suffer for saying, “Stop bombing Muslims!” the way some corporations no longer suffer if they say, “Support equal marriage rights!”
Can you talk a bit about your chapter, “Wars Are Not Waged Out of Generosity”?
[Former Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi] wasn’t really trying to massacre civilians in Benghazi. The US wasn’t really interested in protecting people on a mountaintop from ISIS [also known as Daesh] — some of whom were rescued by Kurds and some of whom had no interest in being rescued. Sure, many war supporters, even within the US government, believe in humanitarian wars, but never has such a motivation actually driven those who decide on the wars. If the United States wanted to disempower brutal governments, it would begin by ceasing to prop up and arm so many of them. It wouldn’t have to put all of its effort into toppling the ones that had fallen out of its favor.
In terms of wars being fought for money and markets, can you talk a bit about who Smedley Butler was and what he had to say about this charge?
Most decorated general of his day, prohibition warrior in Philadelphia, locked up in Quantico for repeating something unpleasant about Benito Mussolini with whom the US government wanted friendly relations, hero who refused a request from Wall Street to lead a coup against FDR, leader of World War I vets demanding their bonuses and facing a chemical weapons attack by the US military in Washington, DC, Butler most importantly was a former war maker who denounced what he had done. Most famously, he wrote:
I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903. In China in 1927 I helped see to it that Standard Oil went on its way unmolested. Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.
But I find this warning of his from 1935 equally valuable:
At each session of Congress the question of further naval appropriations comes up. The swivel-chair admirals … don’t shout that “We need lots of battleships to war on this nation or that nation.” Oh, no. First of all, they let it be known that America is menaced by a great naval power. Almost any day, these admirals will tell you, the great fleet of this supposed enemy will strike suddenly and annihilate our 125,000,000 people. Just like that. Then they begin to cry for a larger navy. For what? To fight the enemy? Oh my, no. Oh, no. For defense purposes only. Then, incidentally, they announce maneuvers in the Pacific. For defense. Uh, huh. The Pacific is a great big ocean. We have a tremendous coastline in the Pacific. Will the maneuvers be off the coast, two or three hundred miles? Oh, no. The maneuvers will be two thousand, yes, perhaps even thirty-five hundred miles, off the coast. The Japanese, a proud people, of course will be pleased beyond expression to see the United States fleet so close to Nippon’s shores. Even as pleased as would be the residents of California were they to dimly discern, through the morning mist, the Japanese fleet playing at war games off Los Angeles.
Butler proposed restricting the US military to within 200 miles of the United States. That would still work wonders if done today.
Explain how “war news does not come from disinterested observers.”
I begin that chapter thus:
Virtually all of the war lies described in this book have been facilitated, if not created, by the news media. The CIA and other agencies have generated phony news. The US military has killed unfriendly reporters. But for the most part government control of information is a much more subtle collaboration between propagandists and those who pass themselves off, even to themselves, as journalists.
How does the recent agreement with Iran illustrate a means of avoiding war?
Again, I think the recent prevention of bombing Syria is the best model. With Iran we had one of the big two political parties largely on the right side. But preventing a war on Iran has been the work of decades, with flashpoints in 2007, 2015 and at other times. Remember [former Vice President Dick] Cheney wanting to disguise US ships as Iranian and have them shoot at other US ships? This is a project that loses strength the more both sides push lies about Iranian nukes and hostility. But it is a project that gains strength nonetheless with each passing moment, day, week, year, decade. The lies that launch wars are usually so weak that they require urgency. How can a war on Iran be urgent when we’ve gone on saying no thank you to that one year after year after year? Now the lesson to be applied is this: If talking is better than fighting with Iran, why not with everywhere else?