Japan Peace Conference 2007
Executive Director, Peace Action of Washington
Thank you for inviting me. I am deeply honored.
The peace movement in the United States, and even in my home region of Washington state, is large, vibrant, and speaks with many voices. I cannot hope to represent them all. What I can do is to give one person's subjective overview of the priorities, strengths, and weaknesses of the U.S. peace movement, and how these fit in with international solidarity efforts,
Opposition in the United States to the U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq has for a couple of years been shown by public opinion polls to be consistently in the range of 70 percent. This has left the U.S. peace movement, in its efforts to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq, with several challenges unique in our recent history.
First is that a great majority of Americans opposed to the war are doing so for rather narrow domestic reasons, and not out of any broader critique of the U.S. military or U.S foreign policy at all. For example, many are opposed because of the cost, or the level of U.S. casualties - which, while tragic, pales next to the suffering inflicted on Iraqi civilians. Or they believe that the war has been bad for the respect in which the United States is (or isn't) held internationally, or that it has placed an unacceptable strain on the U.S. military's ability to defend the country, or that it has been waged corruptly and incompetently, and so on.
All of these things are true. But for peace activists such considerations are overshadowed by the enormous toll of death and destruction the U.S. has caused in Iraq itself; the fact that the war was launched illegally and sold to Americans and the world through a web of relatively easily discerned lies; and the unavoidable truth that each day, while politicians continue to debate and dither, people continue to die. I'm sad to report that even with the war's tremendous domestic unpopularity, few Americans care much about these aspects of the war in Iraq. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan goes virtually unnoticed. And thanks to a parochial media that gives little international news and ignores most public dissent, many Americans don't even know these are serious issues.
What this has meant for peace activists in the U.S. is that if we are to gather the political strength necessary to make a difference in Washington D.C., our message must also appeal to the majority of Americans who oppose this war, but are not broadly critical of the U.S. military. We want to not just bear witness to the monstrous crime that is this war, but work politically to end it. This has meant working with military families, for example, and directly supporting military resisters. It has been a very tricky balance between, on the one hand, critiquing U.S. foreign policy, the false frame of the so-called "War on Terror," and the war in Iraq's place in larger U.S. military efforts at global domination, and on the other hand, being supportive of the needs of soldiers who after all are volunteering to serve in the U.S. armed forces at this time.
We are also finding another unusual situation. Because so much of the public is against the war -- even if it's not always for the reasons we would prefer -- we do not need to expend much energy convincing people we're right. Historically, this is unusual. What we do need to do is convince people that by taking action to express their desire to see the warmaking end, they can make a difference in political decisions on the war. This has been a much harder task. Among Americans there is tremendous disillusionment and cynicism that our government cares about public opinion. Part of this is specific to the Bush administration, with its contempt for dissent, and especially its cavalier dismissal of the enormous domestic and worldwide anti-war demonstrations before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But part of it is generational. Not since Vietnam has public opinion in the U.S. stopped a war, and for most American activists, myself included, Vietnam is ancient history. It's irrelevant.
People can make a difference -- there have been numerous cases in relatively recent history of mass public opposition in different countries toppling bad policies and even oppressive governments. But these stories are rarely told in the United States. It's a form of democracy that's apparently not very popular among our politicians, media outlets, or cultural icons. And peace activism in the U.S. has had many successes since Vietnam, including recently -- but we don't tell those stories very well, either. Public opposition almost certainly stopped direct U.S. military invasions in Central America in the 1980's and in Haiti in 1994. It may well have also helped avoid nuclear war in the Reagan era. More recently, public opposition is one of the major reasons the U.S. hasn't already launched, either directly or through Israel, a military strike on Iran.
Locally we have also had some victories. Some of you may be familiar with the case of Lieutenant Ehran Watada, the first officer in the U.S. Army to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq based on the legal argument that because the war itself was illegal, any order to wage it was also illegal. His courageous stance has led to international attention, and a massive support movement developed on his behalf, especially locally, as he was court-martialed by the Army and detained at Fort Lewis, about 40 miles from where I live in Seattle. A military court declared a mistrial early this year on the charges against him, and about two weeks ago, a federal court ruled that the Army's attempt to try him again for his disobedience was illegal. Lieutenant Watada won his case, setting an important precedent for officer resistance in the U.S. military and the illegality of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and he almost certainly would not have prevailed without his large amount of public support.
Another example: For the last two weeks, scores of activists have been arrested at the Port of Olympia, south of Seattle, as part of an ongoing campaign of direct nonviolent action to interrupt shipments of arms and equipment for the war in Iraq. During the last year, the Army has been forced to use three different ports from Fort Lewis, because the resistance to their use of public facilities for the war has been so intense in our state. Young people, especially, have been putting their bodies in the way to stop these shipments. This has not only delayed the shipments, but led to much public discussion of the appropriateness of using civilian infrastructure for the war.
We have also seen a concerted youth movement develop that challenges armed forces recruiters in the high schools and colleges. Because the U.S. armed forces are now all-volunteer, and they are engaged in a highly unpopular war, recruiters have even more than usual been using deceptive techniques and especially targeting the economically disadvantaged to lure more vulnerable young people into the military. Students themselves have taken the lead in challenging this, and just last Friday I spoke before a city-wide rally of students walking out from high school and college classes across the city of Seattle, an area of four million people. Such protests have become fairly common. And these types of protest and resistance have been blossoming despite the notable lack of successful large-scale national groups coordinating them. Although there have been large national protests, most resistance to this war has been grass roots, local, and unfunded. It has occurred because people care so deeply about this issue that they have taken time out of their lives to act.
Despite these encouraging signs, however, leading American politicians of both parties seem committed at various levels to defying public opinion and continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Virtually none are calling or working for what the U.S. public is demanding: an end to the U.S. occupations, now. And many of them are also defying the public in their apparent willingness to at least go along with a Bush administration military strike on Iran, a prospect that at the moment is the focus of much of our public education and activism, in an effort to prevent an even more disastrous region-wide Middle East war.
With such emergencies upon us, broader considerations of U.S. military and foreign policy are receiving relatively little attention from even the U.S. peace movement. Few of us spend much time nowadays working on issues like extracting the U.S. from its colonialist energy and trade policies; challenging the projection of U.S. military power around the world -- including in bases like Okinawa's and the one in Diego Garcia, recently expanded to accommodate air strikes against Iran. Most Americans can't even find the Indian Ocean on a map, let alone Diego Garcia. Almost nobody in the U.S. knows that our country "rents" Diego Garcia from the British, who pushed the indigenous people off the island to accommodate us.
And the examples go on. We ignore the huge amounts of public money we pour into militarism, the destructive arms trade we dominate, the continuing global scourge of nuclear weapons we are largely responsible for, and so on ad nauseam. The U.S. peace movement is often just as insular, and just as isolated from its international allies, as the culture it comes from. We in the U.S. peace movement have a tremendous amount of creativity, energy, and dedication, but there is much we still need to address.
To this end, we are aware of our responsibility to the world, as being uniquely positioned to challenge policies made in Washington D.C. that affect the lives of people all over the world. We know that you need our help on issues that are important to you but that don't always get much attention in the United States. But we also need your help. We need to learn from you, learn how we can best help you, learn what strategies and tactics have been successful, learn how to organize in new and exciting ways, learn how to take advantage of new technologies, and, most of all, we need to learn how to listen to you and learn from you.
In our various peace movements around the world, we are all working towards similar goals, and I, for one, have been doing this long enough that I am no longer interested in reinventing the wheel. What I am interested in is drawing upon the knowledge of people who have already learned such things, and sharing what little I know, and together finding ways to create a more peaceable and just world. As our world shrinks, I think the U.S. peace movement as a whole needs to invest far more time and effort in international solidarity and in learning -- just like our compatriots in elected office -- how to take direction and leadership from other parts of the world. One reason I'm here is to contribute what I can in that direction. And, again, I thank you very much for this opportunity.