A Multifaceted Movement to Outlaw War: as Outlined in David Swanson’s “War No More: the Case for Abolition”

By  Robert Anschuetz, September 24, 2017, OpEdNews  .

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From April to June of 2017, I participated in what was for me an eye-opening eight-week online classroom course conducted by the growing and increasingly influential U.S.-based global anti-war activist organization, World Beyond War (WBW). Through a number of teaching vehicles, including published writings and video interviews and presentations, the course offered information and insights that pressed three major themes: 1) “War is an outrage that must be abolished in humanity’s own self-interest”; 2) Non-violent civil resistance is inherently more effective than armed insurgency for achieving lasting political and social change; and 3) “War can in fact be abolished and replaced by an alternative Global Security System empowered to arbitrate and enforce peaceful solutions to international conflicts.” After absorbing the course content offered in each of eight week-long segments, students responded with comments and an assigned essay that were in turn read and commented on by other students and course instructors.Background reading for the final week of the course included a lengthy segment from the book War No More: the Case for Abolition (2013), written by WBW’s director, David Swanson. In his roles as anti-war activist, journalist, radio host, and prolific author, as well as a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Swanson has become one of the world’s best-known anti-war advocates.

My purpose here is to summarize and comment on Part IV of Swanson’s War No More: the Case for Abolition, which is headed “We Have To End War.” This segment of the book offers a broad overview of World Beyond War’s multifaceted, and continually developing, anti-war mission. In Swanson’s words, that mission stands for something new: “not a movement to oppose particular wars or new offensive weapons, but a movement to eliminate war in its entirety.” Doing that, he says, will require efforts of “education, organization, and activism, as well as structural [i.e. institutional] changes.”

Swanson makes clear that these efforts will be long and hard, since they will involve converting deep-seated American cultural views from a broadly uncritical acceptance of wars authorized by the country’s leaders, to a willingness to fight for the abolition of all war. He notes that America’s military-industrial complex helps keep the public in thrall to “a permanent state of war in search of enemies.” It does so through “the skills of propagandists, the corruption of our politics, and the perversion and impoverishment of our education, entertainment and civic-engagement systems.” The same institutional complex, he says, also weakens the resilience of our culture by “making us less safe, draining our economy, stripping away our rights, degrading our environment, distributing our income ever upward, debasing our morality, and bestowing on the wealthiest nation on earth miserably low rankings in life-expectancy, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness.”

Despite the high mountain we need to climb, Swanson emphasizes that we have no alternative but to try to end war. Both war itself and the ongoing preparation for it are destroying the environment and diverting resources from a needed effort to preserve a habitable climate. Moreover, once wars begin, they are notoriously hard to control–and, given the availability of nuclear weapons that can fall into the wrong hands, that condition carries the risk of apocalypse.

Organizing and Education Are Priorities

To help sway public opinion from an acceptance of war to opposition, Swanson sees activist organizing and education as a priority. He points out that there is already much evidence such efforts can work. In 2013, for instance, activist rallies and demonstrations helped prevent a U.S. military assault on Syria following a gas attack, reportedly authorized by the Syrian government, on a rebel stronghold that killed many civilians. The demonstrations opposing war were supported by opinions expressed in public polling, within the military and government, and among elected officials.

In War No More: the Case for Abolition, Swanson references many activist and education initiatives that could help shift American cultural attitudes from an acceptance of war to opposition. Among them are creation of a Department of Peace to balance the existing so-called “Defense” department; closing prisons; development of independent media; student and cultural exchanges; and programs to counter false beliefs, racist thinking, xenophobia, and nationalism. Swanson insists, however, that, in doing these things, we must always keep our eyes on the ultimate prize. He states that “these efforts will only succeed in combination with a direct nonviolent assault on the acceptance of war.”

Swanson also offers a number of recommendations for building a more effective war-abolition movement. We should bring into it, he says, all of the professional types–moralists, ethicists, psychologists, economists, environmentalists, etc.–who are, or should be, natural opponents of the military-industrial (or “military-industrial-government”) complex. He notes too that some civil institutions–for example, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has pushed for a reduction in military spending, and labor unions that back converting war industries to peace industries–have already been allies in the anti-war cause. But he argues that such organizations must move beyond merely treating the symptoms of militarism to efforts to remove it by its roots.

Still another of Swanson’s ideas for raising society’s awareness that war can in fact be ended strikes me as especially creative. He encourages the building of true democratic governments at the local, state, and regional levels, in order to instill in the people directly impacted by them a sense of their own power to help create the social conditions that will play a role in shaping their lives. Though unexpressed, his obvious implication is that the awakening of this sense can carry over to similar expectations in matters of war and peace at the national and international levels.

Reaching Government Itself with the “End-To-War” Message

 While I found compelling Swanson’s ideas for turning public opinion and civil institutions away from an acceptance of war to opposition, I failed to find in the assigned classroom reading from his book an obviously important follow-up idea. That is a proposed strategy for bridging changed attitudes in civil society with efforts to achieve a similar result with the president and congress. It is with these pillars of government, of course, that the Constitutional authority rests to actually make decisions–though strongly influenced since Eisenhower by the military-industrial complex–regarding the scope of military preparedness and whether and how to go to war.

Based on what I learned in the online WBW course, a strategy that appears workable to me for expanding a movement aimed at a popular repudiation of war to also embrace government itself is essentially to pursue two purposes simultaneously: on the one hand, to try by every effective way known to free as many Americans as possible from an apathetic acceptance of war and militarism, making them instead committed supporters of war abolition; and, on the other hand, to team with any individuals and allied activist groups who share, or have come to share, this vision in a wide range of campaigns and actions designed to pressure the American government to take steps toward ending war as an institution of national security–perhaps beginning with nuclear disarmament. Such pressuring of government can in fact now be undertaken with the inspiration of mounting evidence that popular movements based on strategic non-violent resistance to government actions or policies believed to be unjust or irrational have a good chance of success. With the core support of as little as 3.5 percent of the population, such movements can in time grow to a point of critical mass and commitment at which the popular will can no longer be resisted.

On a less sanguine note, it should of course also be mentioned that it might well take years to build up the core support for an end-to-war movement to the critical mass needed to have even a chance to convince the American government to accept the outright abolition of war as a goal. And, at that point, as Swanson himself points out, it will take many more years to complete the process of verified global disarmament that is a necessary antecedent to any binding international agreement to end not only war-making but continual preparation for war.

During such an extended draw-down period, the possibility of still more wars would of course persist–perhaps even one that poses the risk of an atomic attack on the American homeland. It can be hoped that, in such a circumstance, the end-of-war movement will have progressed sufficiently to help pressure the government to at least forgo waging a particular war. Even if that result is achieved, however, activists in the movement must not forget that stopping a war at hand is not the same as a willingness and commitment to abolish all war as a matter of principle. That end, championed by World Beyond War, should be the goal of everyone who detests war, since, until it is achieved, the military state will persist and the potential for more wars will remain.

Four Activist Campaigns To Help Break Down Militarism and the Ready Recourse to War

In the “We Have To End War” segment of War No More: the Case for Abolition, Swanson makes clear that it will take more than rallies, demonstrations, and teach-ins to move the American government from its ready acceptance of war to a willing commitment to its abolition. With an eye to that end, he proposes four strategies that could make the government’s recourse to war considerably less easy and defensible.

1) Redirect War-Related Prosecutions from War Criminals to War Makers

Swanson argues that, if we continue to pursue prosecution only of war criminals, and not of the government officials who lead us illegally into war, the successors of those officials will simply continue with business as usual, even in the face of a demonstrably growing public disaffection with war. Unfortunately, Swanson points out, prosecuting U.S. officials for illegal war-making is made extremely difficult by the fact that most Americans still accept uncritically the government’s decision to make war on any nation or group it defines as an “enemy.” In consequence, no member of Congress who wants to retain public favor will vote to impeach the American “Commander in Chief” for criminal war-making, even though the very act of taking the country to war without the consent of Congress is already a breach of Constitutional law.

In hindsight, Swanson concedes that the failure of Congress to impeach President George W. Bush for his criminal invasion of Iraq has for now pretty much precluded impeachment of his successors. He nevertheless defends the view that impeachment should be rehabilitated as a deterrent to illegal war-making, since he believes the president is inevitably so corrupted by his now unchallenged power to make war that any reasoned appeal to desist is bound to fall on deaf ears. Moreover, he says, it can be expected that once any president is impeached for taking the country illegally into war, his successors will be far less inclined to take a similar chance.

2) We Need to Outlaw War, Not Simply “Ban” It

In Swanson’s view, simply “banning” bad actions by people in power has proved ineffectual throughout history. For example, we don’t need any new laws to “ban” torture, since it is already illegal under a number of statutes. What we do need are enforceable laws to prosecute torturers. We also need to get beyond attempts to “ban” war. The U.N. nominally does that already, but exceptions for “defensive” or “U.N.-authorized” wars are continually exploited to justify aggressive wars.

What the world needs, Swanson believes, is a reformed or new United Nations that prohibits all wars absolutely, whether blatantly aggressive, purely defensive, or considered a “just war” by its perpetrators. He stresses the point, however, that the capacity of the U.N. or any similar institution to enforce an outright abolition of war can only be accomplished if internal bodies like the present Security Council are excluded. The right to enforce the outlawing of war might well be endangered by the presence of an executive body in which any of a handful of powerful states can in its own imagined self-interest veto demands by the rest of the world to support such enforcement.

3) Should We Reconsider the Kellogg-Briand Pact?

Besides the U.N., Swanson apparently also sees the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact as a possible existing foundation on which to base and implement a finished international agreement to abolish war. The Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw war, signed onto by 80 countries, remains in legal force to this day, but has been totally ignored since the Franklin Roosevelt administration. The pact condemns recourse to war for the solution of international controversies and binds the signatories to renounce war as an instrument of policy in their relations with one another. It also requires that the signatories agree to settle all disputes or conflicts that may arise among them–of whatever nature or origin–by peaceful means only. The pact was to be fully implemented in three steps: 1) to ban war and stigmatize it; 2) to establish accepted laws for international relations; and 3) to create courts with the power to settle international disputes. Regrettably, only the first of the three steps was ever taken, in 1928, with the treaty taking effect in 1929. With the creation of the pact, some wars were avoided and ended, but armament and hostility broadly continued. Since the Kellogg-Briand Pact remains statutorily in effect, it might be said that the present U.N. charter provision banning war in effect simply “seconds” it.

4) We Need a Global Rescue Plan, Not War, To Combat Terrorism

Today, at least for the United States, going to war largely means conducting bombing and drone strikes to destroy terrorist fighters, encampments, and facilities. But, as Swanson sees it, stopping hydra-headed terrorism and its continued growth around the world means doing a number of “big things” that address its root causes.

In Swanson’s view, a “Global Marshall Plan” would provide a primary platform both for ending world poverty and diminishing the appeal of terrorism, which serves as a recourse for many young men afflicted by the despair bred by poverty and the denial of normal self-development. Moreover, Swanson notes, America has more than enough money to fund such a plan. It lies in the current annual expenditure of $1.2 trillion on preparation for war, and the $1 trillion in taxes we are not now, but should be, collecting from billionaires and corporations.

Recognizing that the Global Marshall Plan is a “big thing” in the World Beyond War agenda, Swanson puts the case for it in these simple terms: Would you rather help end child hunger in the world or continue the now 16-year-old war in Afghanistan? It would cost $30 billion a year to end hunger around the world, but over a $100 billion to fund U.S. troops for another year in Afghanistan. It would cost only an additional $11 billion a year to provide the world with clean water. But today, by contrast, we’re spending $20 billion a year on one useless weapons system that the military doesn’t even want.

Overall, Swanson points out, with the money America now spends on war, we could provide a host of workable programs to meet real human needs from education to the elimination of poverty and major diseases–both in the U.S. and around the world. He concedes that Americans don’t now have the political will to overturn our present system dedicated to the special interests of the few for one that meets the real human needs of the many. Yet, he emphasizes, implementing a Global Marshall Plan is entirely within our reach, and its towering moral superiority over what we do with the same money now should continue to motivate us to pursue and demand it.

Some Concluding Thoughts of My Own

In the context of David Swanson’s overview of an activist program to outlaw war, I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own about why the successful outcome of that project is important.

First, given the characteristics of our modern technological age, war is unlikely to be entered into by any major power for the reason that must be publicly proclaimed: that it is necessary as a last resort to defend the country’s vital interests. For the U.S., especially, war is instead the end point of a system of interlinked power centers whose aim is to maintain the country’s economic and strategic pre-eminence throughout the world. To carry out that purpose, America annually spends more on the military than do the next eight nations combined. It also maintains military bases in 175 countries; stages provocative displays of armed might close to rival nations; constantly demonizes unfriendly or desperate national leaders; maintains a relentless stockpiling of weapons, including new nuclear weapons; keeps an army of war planners constantly seeking new applications for those weapons; and makes billons and billions of dollars as by far the world’s leading arms merchant. The U.S. is now also undertaking at immense expense a modernization of its nuclear arsenal, despite the fact that that project will encourage additional nations to develop their own nuclear weapons but will have no deterrent effect on non-state terrorist groups that represent the only realistic military threat to America.

Doing all these things to prepare for war is undoubtedly effective in cowing such major state competitors, or adversaries, as China, Russia and Iran, but it does little to help defeat the only enemies with which the U.S. is actually engaged in armed conflict–principally, terrorist groups in the Middle East. In that arena, a good offense doesn’t necessarily translate to a good defense. Instead, it generates resentment, blowback, and hatred, which have served as recruitment tools for expanding and augmenting the terrorist threat against America and its allies throughout the world. Interestingly, the U.S. use of drones is the greatest provocation to hatred. This display of America’s superior technology, which allows its operators to kill by stealth with no danger to themselves, strips the war-making of any hint of a heroic fight. And, by the inevitable collateral killing of innocent civilians, along with rank-and-file terrorist fighters and their leaders, the drone attacks must seem an extreme act of disrespect for the dignity of the humans living under their assault–those in Pakistan being perhaps the prime example.

As is evident from this sketch, the actual waging of war by the U.S. is at best a futile undertaking and, in a nuclear world, at worst potentially fatal. The only benefit the country derives from its war-making capabilities is the intimidation of potential adversaries who might stand in the way of its overriding interest in maintaining and expanding global hegemony. That benefit comes, however, not only at a moral cost, but at the cost of government discretionary funds that could be used instead for the constructive purpose of building a better America and helping to build a better world.

I agree with David Swanson and World Beyond War that war, and the preparation for war, should be outlawed as instruments of security by all nations of the world. But to do that, I think at least two fundamental changes in the mindset of world leaders are essential. The first is a recognition by all national governments that, in today’s nuclear world, war itself is far more dangerous to the state and its society than the failure to defeat or intimidate any putative adversary. The second is a concomitant willingness by those governments to suspend the scope of their national sovereignty to the extent needed to accept binding arbitration by a sanctioned international body of any intractable international or intra-national conflicts in which they might become involved. Such a sacrifice would not be easy, since the right of unqualified sovereignty has been the defining attribute of nation-states throughout history. On the other hand, a rational curb on sovereignty is not out of the question, since a devotion to peace, which requires such a curb, is a central value in the belief systems of all developed cultures. Given the stakes involved–a choice between, on the one hand, peace and a decent life for all, and, on the other, a world threatened by nuclear or environmental destruction–we can only hope the leaders of nations will soon choose to reconcile their differences by reason rather than violence.


In retirement, Bob Anschuetz has applied his long career experience as an industrial writer and copy editor to helping authors meet publishing standards for both online articles and full-length books. In work as a volunteer editor for OpEdNews, (more…)


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