Remarks at Physicians for Social Responsibility annual event in Baltimore, Md., April 18, 2015.
It is an honor to be asked to speak to a group of people doing as much strategic and principled good as you, not to mention the good that those of you who are doctors do as doctors and health advocates in your day jobs. The closest I ever came to a respectable profession was when I studied architecture prior to dropping out. I later got a master’s degree in philosophy which, combined with a couple of dollars, will get you a bus ride. Anyway, architecture students always read this novel by Ayn Rand called The Fountainhead because the protagonist is an architect. But architecture doesn’t really come into it, as the book focuses more on the fact that the guy is also something of a sociopath. But around the time I read that book I also read The Plague by Albert Camus in which the protagonist dedicated himself to cheerfully making the world a better place against overwhelming odds, without any real concern for the likelihood of success, and without any particular mythologizing of the good supposedly accomplished by being a superior bastard. Camus’ protagonist has stuck with me, though I haven’t reread the book. He’s always somewhere in the back of my head. And of course he was a doctor.
I’ve rather given up on every other profession in our society. NYU has hired Harold Koh, legal architect of the drone wars and legal defender of the 2011 war on Libya and of presidential war powers, to teach human rights law. After students circulated a petition protesting, liberal law professors this week created a counter petition defending Koh’s record. Our hope right now does not seem to lie with lawyers. I know there are exceptions, thank goodness.
Teaching in U.S. academia now are John Yoo, David Petraeus, and all variety of killers and torturers. Erik Prince, the creator of the mercenary company Blackwater came on a book tour to the University of Virginia this week and was treated like any good academic. After all, the people his company kills aren’t usually Americans or Christians or English speakers. A couple of years back professors at the University of Virginia organized a teach-in in favor of war on Syria. The students have not organized an event for, against, or indifferent to war. I don’t turn to academia for inspiration at the moment. I know there are rare exceptions.
Do I even have to mention the shortcomings of the hacks we used to call statesmen and women? The Congressional Progressive Caucus produced its progressive budget this month. It stood no chance of passing. It was a rhetorical statement. Yet it made no mention of an item that takes up a majority of the budget, namely militarism. If you hunted through the numbers you could find that they were proposing to cut military spending, which has doubled during the so-called war on terror — they were proposing to cut it by 1%. I don’t look to politicians for salvation. I would say, in this case as well, that I know there are rare exceptions, except that there really aren’t, not in the federal government. There are, at best, people who try to mitigate the damage a bit or who plagiarize that parental (or is it medical?) attitude of “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” as they sorrowfully destroy the planet.
So I don’t really mean to put the weight of humanity on your shoulders, but maybe physicians, or at least some significant number of physicians are a group we can look to with respect and appreciation rather than contempt or sadness.
When I was in philosophy school at the University of Virginia near the home of the guy who wrote that we were endowed by a creator with certain inalienable rights, I came across the idea of how ludicrous that might sound to a doctor. You have to picture the scene of a doctor cutting open a human body and trying to locate the right to free speech, for example. Do people really believe political rights are somehow inherent in us anymore, as opposed to being things we create and struggle to defend? I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what a lot of people believe. They believe that war is inherent in the human body. Now I ask you, as doctors, have you ever looked into a human brain or any other organ and discovered there a massive cultural institution that requires huge organization, planning, preparations, and investment, and has been completely unknown to most humans who have ever lived? Of course you haven’t. If there’s anything meant by calling a behavior “natural,” war is the furthest thing from it. Raise your hand if you’ve encountered any epidemics of post traumatic stress from war deprivation. The United States would have to cut its military spending by 95% to match the average of the other 95% of humanity, if the spending is taken per-capita, 99.5% if taken per nation. So if you could find war in a human body, would you find it prominent in U.S. bodies? And in U.S. infants? Of course not. That seems pretty easy to figure out even without medical school, but I’m not sure most Americans would go along with it. War, they believe, is built into us somehow.
- Here’s an even easier question. War has been evolving technologically and in other ways. Who can tell me the number one way in which war kills people today? Just shout it out.
You know, war used to kill more people than it injured, and it used to kill them first and foremost by spreading deadly diseases. Deadly diseases remain the top cause of death in the poor countries of the earth, but the way war contributes to them is primarily through the diversion of resources into war. While tens of billions of dollars per year could provide the earth with clean drinking water and all sorts of hygienic and medical aid, not to mention ending starvation, two TRILLION dollars every year, half of it from the United States alone, is dumped into war. If military spending were redirected into a global marshall plan and a domestic marshall plan and a massive crash investment in green energy aimed at protecting the planet’s climate, imagine the lives that could be saved. As already noted, this very idea is basically absent from discussions of the U.S. government’s budget.
Of course, war advances disease and starvation through its active destruction, its generation of refugee crises, and the injuries and trauma it inflicts, so drawing a line between deaths caused by war and those caused by other sicknesses seems difficult. Wars have rendered large areas of the earth uninhabitable and generated tens of millions of refugees. War has slowed the eradication of polio, and may have spread HIV/AIDS. Land mines make farmland unusable. Et cetera. War “rivals infectious disease as a global cause of morbidity and mortality,” according to Jennifer Leaning of Harvard Medical School. Leaning divides war’s environmental impact into four areas: “production and testing of nuclear weapons, aerial and naval bombardment of terrain, dispersal and persistence of land mines and buried ordnance, and use or storage of military despoliants, toxins, and waste.”
According to the World Health Organization, “between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.” Of course that prediction could be wildly off in either direction, possibly depending on what we do in the next 15 years. War is not only our top producer of superfund sites and destroyer of islands used as bombing ranges, but it’s our top consumer of petroleum. The U.S. military burns more oil and gas than does each of the majority of nations on earth. The military obsession with oil began as a way to fuel the British Navy. The British Navy wasn’t created to fight over the oil. The idea that keeping the wars far away, where they only kill people who don’t look like us, the idea that that will keep us safe — well that idea falls apart if you even glance at it from all different angles, but one story that might stick with people and make the point is the story of John Wayne’s death. Raise your hand if you know how John Wayne died.
He died filming pro-war movies and avoiding war himself. He filmed a movie down-wind from a nuclear test site, and an unusually high percentage of the cast and crew died of cancer, including him. You can run but you cannot hide. The Koch brothers’ beach houses will go underwater. There’s only one little planet and no planet B.
Here’s another question. Does the United States spend more money fighting wars or preparing to fight wars?
That’s right. We hear loud lamentations over war spending. We read comparisons of war spending and what we could have purchased instead. But war preparations spending, normalized routine “base” military spending is ten times greater. It would stun President Eisenhower in its size, in its profitability, in its privatized nature, and in the degree to which chunks of it are recycled back into the system through bribes we call campaign contributions, just as the people involved spin through a revolving door between public and private sector employment. Opposing a war in order to save money and keep the military prepared for supposedly better wars is a self-defeating argument. It is the preparation for wars that spends most of the money, and that generates the wars.
So, militarism by the greatest purveyor of violence kills first by sucking up all the money, and most of it is for maintaining the military. Actually using the military becomes an excuse for extra funding. But there’s another major problem with militarism before even arriving at actual U.S. wars, and that is weapons sales. The United States is far and away the leading seller and donor of military weaponry to the rest of the earth. A good patriotic weapons factory job is a job producing weapons for dictatorships and so-called democracies around the globe. We’re trained to think of Western Asia, the Middle East, as inherently violent. But the vast majority of the weapons are from the United States. The U.S. backed dictatorship in Saudi Arabia uses U.S. weapons to support the U.S. backed dictatorships in Bahrain and Yemen, and is currently bombing U.S. weapons in Yemen using other U.S. weapons, which the U.S. is rushing to replenish.
Imagine a prison experiment like the famous one at Stanford where you give some students power over others and wait for cruelty to begin. Only imagine that whenever you use Muslim students you provide each guard and prisoner with tasers, grenades, and automatic assault rifles. A conclusion that Muslims are more violent would be ridiculous. But if you watch a political talk show tomorrow morning, that’s what they’ll tell you.
Coming finally to war itself, an article in the June 2014 issue of the American Journal of Public Health said, “Since the end of World War II, there have been 248 armed conflicts in 153 locations around the world. The United States launched 201 overseas military operations between the end of World War II and 2001, and since then, others, including Afghanistan and Iraq. During the 20th century, 190 million deaths could be directly and indirectly related to war — more than in the previous 4 centuries.”
Despite population growth, this sounds like it might be at odds with the Western academic pretense that war is going away. In fact, that pretense is based largely on the fact that some other forms of violence have declined, combined with a Western view of war that miscounts the dead, attributes many of the dead to other causes, and weighs the dead in places wars occur against the population of the globe or of the distant war power that attacked a poorer country.
The same article goes on to say that “civilian war deaths constitute 85% to 90% of casualties caused by war,” including delayed casualties. For example, “seventy percent to 90% of the victims of the 110 million landmines planted since 1960 in 70 countries were civilians.” Of course these numbers also indicate something else about war victims: most of them are on one side. When the U.S. attacks Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan and most of the deaths are civilian, those include very few if any U.S. civilians. The civilians killed are all in the place where the war is. And to them can be added most of the non-civilians, as also being residents of the country under attack. When we hear about U.S. war dead, and the suffering of U.S. military families, the suffering can be absolutely heartbreaking. But it is hardly a drop in the bucket of all the damage done. And when U.S. newspapers tell us that the deadliest U.S. war was . . . What? What do they say was the deadliest U.S. war?
Right, the U.S. Civil War, which killed perhaps 750,000 people, compared to a million and a half out of a population of 6 or 7 million in the Philippines, or perhaps 2 million in Korea, 4 million in Vietnam, or something over a million in Iraq. When the U.S. media says that the U.S. Civil War was the deadliest U.S. war without specifying that it is only considering U.S. lives, it keeps the U.S. public misinformed about its largest public investment.
Some of the worst wars in recent years have been in places like the Congo and Sudan that we hear less about, but that our government plays a part in. The United States backed an invasion of Rwanda on October 1, 1990, by a Ugandan army led by U.S.-trained killers, and supported their attack on Rwanda for three-and-a-half years. People fled the invaders, creating a huge refugee crisis, ruined agriculture, wrecked economy, and shattered society. The United States and the West armed the warmakers and applied additional pressure through the World Bank, IMF, and USAID. And among the results of the war was increased hostility between Hutus and Tutsis. Eventually the government would topple. First would come the mass slaughter known as the Rwandan Genocide. And before that would come the murder of two presidents. At that point, in April 1994, Rwanda was in chaos almost on the level of post-liberation Iraq or Libya. The assassination of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was likely done by the U.S.-backed and U.S.-trained war-maker Paul Kagame, now president of Rwanda. The West did not send in peaceworkers or negotiators, but allowed the crisis to develop. The killing of civilians in Rwanda has continued ever since, although the killing has been much more heavy in neighboring Congo, where Kagame’s government took the war — with U.S. aid and weapons and troops — and bombed refugee camps killing some million people. The excuse for going into the Congo has been the hunt for Rwandan war criminals. A real motivation has been Western control and profits from resources, including materials used in the NSA tracking devices we call smart phones. War in the Congo has continued to this day, leaving as many as 6 million dead.
But the worst major war led by U.S. troops in recent years has of course been Iraq, a true sociocide, the killing of a society. I’ve seen polling suggesting that Americans believe their nation suffered and Iraq benefitted from that war, with a plurality in the U.S. believing Iraqis are grateful. It is on these sorts of lies that arguments for future humanitarian wars rest. In March, Physicians for Social Responsibility co-authored a report called “Body Count” that looks at deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan over a 12-year period, finding 1.3 million people killed by U.S.-led warmaking, of whom 1 million were Iraqi. Some have placed the figures much higher, especially in the case of Afghanistan. Others have looked at Iraq from 1991 forward and found a total of 3 million Iraqis killed by U.S.-led wars and sanctions over that longer period. The deaths in recent U.S. wars in Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and elsewhere add to the total, as do the death and suffering of refugees abroad following wars of so-called liberation. One estimate finds 4 million people in Muslim countries killed by U.S.-led wars since 1990.
How does the war on Iraq compare to historical horrors? Well, let’s see. The worst single, relatively short event in world history, the worst thing we’ve done to ourselves, was World War II. One can ignore the decades of decisions that led up to it, from the Treaty of Versailles to the Wall Street funding of Nazis to the rejection of Jewish refugees to the antagonization of Japan. One can ignore the vicious brutality of its conduct including the completely unjustifiable development and use of nuclear weapons. One can claim it was a good war, but one can hardly dispute the vast extent of the death and misery.
The impact of World War II on particular nations varied dramatically, ranging from 16% of the population of Poland killed, all the way down to 0.01% of the population of Iraq killed. That compares to 5% of Iraq’s population killed by Operation Iraqi Liberation (the original name in 2003 with the acronym OIL). (That’s 1.4 million killed out of 27 million.) Or 11% of the Iraqi population killed by U.S. militarism since 1991. (That’s 3 million killed out of 27 million.) In World War II, Poland, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union suffered a higher percentage of deaths than Iraq has from its recent U.S.-led wars. Most nations did not. Japan lost 3% to 4%. France and Italy lost 1% each. The U.K. lost less than 1%. The United States lost 0.3%. Nine nations in World War II lost a million or more lives. Five or six lost over 3 million. Of course the Soviet Union and China lost a LOT more. But among those that did not lose a million were France, Italy, the U.K., and the United States.
So the United States imposed a level of killing on Iraq that it has not experienced, not even in the U.S. Civil War in which it may have lost 2% of its population. And the damage continues to spread. A group like ISIS has a long ways to go to reach total U.S. murders, or even total Saudi beheadings, but ISIS would not exist without the U.S. attack of 2003. A comprehensive calculation of U.S. killing in Iraq might include some share of ISIS’s killings. Of course in saying that, I am aware of the necessity to add the obvious disclaimer that contrary to popular conception blame is not a finite quantity. When you blame someone for something you don’t unblame anybody else. ISIS remains 100% guilty of its killings even though it would not have come into existence without the U.S. war machine that is now trying to fix the problem with yet more war.
The second-strangest thing about war is that, unlike other evils that hardly compare to it in evilness, we aren’t by and large trying to get rid of it. Instead rules are constantly being devised to distinguish good wars from the bad small wars known as terrorism. The strangest thing about war is that the efforts to devise good wars are making it much easier to start more wars. Drones are still only killing half as many people as U.S. police officers kill, but they are serving to stir up much greater violence. A report by the United Nations special rapporteur, also known as Tony Blair’s wife’s law partner (remember what I said about lawyers, with apologies to the good ones), maintains that drones have now made war the norm. This is an institution, the U.N., supposedly established to abolish war, albeit by using war to abolish war, that is now declaring war the normal state of affairs. How is such a development, directly related to our biggest public program, not news? A law professor named Rosa Brooks, whose mother I consider something of a genius and a hero who speaks at War Resisters League and other peace events, has herself now advocated for legally establishing permanent war time, doing away with any distinction between peace and war, in order to apply the same laws everywhere all the time.
In her defense there was something unsustainable about the U.S. liberal lawyerly notion that murdering someone with a drone is either murder if not part of a war, or just fine if part of a war, with the determination as to whether or not its part of a war being left up to the people firing the missile, and the answer as to what makes the war legal being left unanswered. But the solution is not to throw in the towel on civilization and declare war eternal and limitless. The solution is to ban weaponized drones, which even by the standards of the civilizers of war, should be no more acceptable, because no more targeted and discriminate, than poison gas. Of the thousands of men, women, and children murdered by drones (and “murder” is the charge brought against the CIA station chief by courts in Pakistan, “murder” is in fact the term used by the U.S. government in its own memo justifying drone murders) — of the thousands killed, most have been so-called collateral damage, and most of the rest have been profiled, with living-while-Muslim serving as the equivalent of driving-while-black. Many of those actually targeted could easily have been arrested if charged with any crime. And the vast majority of the drone victims are not the dead, and not the wounded, but the traumatized — the children who dare not go out of doors and who spend days and weeks wondering at what moment everything will be pulverized. Banning fully automated drones but keeping other armed drones legal — and selling them to dozens of nations — grossly overestimates the distinction between a drone pilot and a machine. By the accounts of a former drone pilot, there is very little thought involved in the following of illegal orders that constitutes the job of piloting drones.
Unless we end drone wars, the next president will walk into the power to murder at whim, as well as greater war powers and secrecy powers and spying powers than ever before held by anyone on earth. The idea that it matters which individual walks into those powers, choosing between two war mongers, is ridiculous. But let me come back to that.
The damage of all types of war has to include the injuries and the trauma as well as the deaths. It also has to include war’s status as top cause of homelessness. Forty-three million people have been driven out of their homes and remain in a precarious state as internally displaced persons (24 million), refugees (12 million), and those struggling to return to their homes. The U.N.’s figures for the end of 2013 list Syria as the origin of 9 million such exiles. Colombia comes in second place following years of war, Congo third, Afghanistan fourth. Also in the top of the list: Iraq, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, and Palestine. Humanitarian wars have a homelessness problem. Honduran children aren’t bringing Ebola-infected Korans. They’re fleeing a U.S.-backed coup and Fort Benning-trained torturers.
The case that we’re trying to make at World Beyond War for the ending of all war is that war has no upside. It makes us less safe. It robs us of resources. It kills, injures, and harms like nothing else. It drains an economy. It erodes civil liberties. It perverts morality. It damages the natural environment. And it increasingly risks nuclear holocaust. Increasingly — because of the proliferation of nuclear weaponry and nuclear energy, and because of the lack of interest in preventing disaster.
The Soviet and U.S. occupations of Afghanistan have destroyed or damaged thousands of villages and sources of water. The Taliban has illegally traded timber to Pakistan, resulting in significant deforestation. U.S. bombs and refugees in need of firewood have added to the damage. Afghanistan’s forests are almost gone. Most of the migratory birds that used to pass through Afghanistan no longer do so. Its air and water have been poisoned with explosives and rocket propellants.
The movements resisting U.S. base construction and presence in South Korea, Okinawa, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Sicily, Sardinia, Italy, England, the Marianas, and even in the United States are focused on preventing environmental damage as well as on preventing war.
Despite the huge catalog of health impacts from war and militarism, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health provide zero grants for work on war prevention. And war prevention is not taught in most schools of public health. The NRA is trying to stop doctors from advising kids on the dangers of guns. What about the dangers of enlistment? I’ve never seen a good argument that we can survive continuing to make war like this, and yet there is just a universal assumption that we will continue it — just as there was the assumption that plantation slavery would always continue up until just before it ended.
On fossil fuel consumption there is a growing assumption that we will end it, with most people assuming that we will end it at a pace that is probably too slow. And yet somehow this seems to cheer them up.
This week on TomDispatch.com, Michael Klare wrote that a shift to renewable energy is underway and that “perhaps the most impressive indication of this shift can be found in the carbon-reduction plans major nations are now submitting to U.N. authorities in preparation for a global climate summit to be held this December in Paris. . . . These plans, for the most part, have proven to be impressively tough and ambitious. More important yet, the numbers being offered when it comes to carbon reduction would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. The U.S. plan, for example, promises that national carbon emissions will drop 26%-28% below 2005 levels by 2025, which represents a substantial reduction. . . . No one can predict the outcome of the December climate summit, but few observers expect the measures it may endorse to be tough enough to keep future increases in global temperatures below two degrees Celsius, the maximum amount most scientists believe the planet can absorb without incurring climate disasters far beyond anything seen to date. Nevertheless, implementation of the [plans], or even a significant portion of them, would at least produce a significant reduction in fossil fuel consumption and point the way to a different future.”
Think about that a minute. The author is predicting a future of disasters far beyond what we’ve known, and yet a somehow encouraging future because we will have slowed the pace at which we are worsening those disasters for the still more distant future — even though the new low U.S. consumption in 2025 will still be much higher than current European (or anywhere else) consumption in 2015. This is something like how many Americans think of war. It’s become the norm, it’s become the main thing we do, we have an economy built around it, we’ve empowered the president and secret agencies to engage in it no questions asked, polls of the world find the United States overwhelmingly seen as the greatest threat to peace on earth, and yet Steven Pinker and some other imperialist professors say war is going away, so it must be. And that’s nice, because we’re all for peace, especially the Pentagon. Erik Prince said he was in favor of peace when he spoke at UVA this week.
Today is a day of action everywhere against the Terrible Plutocratic Plan, also known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the TPP, also known as NAFTA on steroids, and as the bestowing of nationhood on corporations. That they’ve packed everything bad on every issue into a single law and are trying to pass it in secret — even though we know from leaks much of what’s in it, ought to be taken as an opportunity to launch a massive popular movement for change, for shifting our priorities from war profiteers and other oligarchs to human needs. That the next presidential election, already underway, is going to put up one incredibly corrupt corporate warmonger against another, both of them possibly from presidential dynasties, ought to be taken as an opportunity. What if we were to withhold a bit of the resources, the money and time, that we usually invest in an election and invest it instead in policy-based activism for peace, the environment, and election reform that would allow us to elect and unelect who we want? The results could be dramatic.
I’m not against elections. I think we should start having elections. In 2016 we will not have a legitimate election with any chance of doing anyone any good in its choice of president. Here’s what I think we need:
- No private election spending.
- Free media air time on our air waves for candidates qualified by signature gathering.
- Public financing, ballot access, and debate access for candidates qualified by signature gathering.
- No gerrymandering.
- Hand-counted paper ballots publicly counted in every polling place.
- Election day holiday.
- Limited campaign season.
- Automatic voter registration.
- Full representation for Washington, D.C., and all of the U.S. colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific.
- Voting rights regardless of criminal conviction.
- National popular vote with no electoral college.
- Mandatory voting with an option for “none of the above.”
- Abolition of the Senate.
- A larger House of Representatives.
- Direct public vote on important matters (national initiative).
- Ban on war profiteering.
- Ban on secret budgets and agencies.
- Ban on executive power use by vice presidents.
Here’s how we could get it: Declare the current system so broken that you will invest not a minute and not a dime in trying to elect anyone president of the United States. Instead, put all that effort and money into a policy-driven nonviolent activist campaign for these reforms and other urgent policy changes (peace, the environment, etc.) at the local, state, and federal levels.
It’s a well kept secret that the primary propaganda goal of the government is not to sell us on wars or convince us they care but to persuade us that we are powerless. Why did the government invest such enormous resources in opposing Occupy? Why is the Pentagon working with Facebook to study how emotions can be manipulated and movements stifled? Not because we are powerless! In 2013 the war mongers wanted to bomb Syria. But you had members of Congress reportedly expressing concern that they not become seen as the guy who voted for “another Iraq.” Why is Hillary Clinton not already president? Because unlike President Obama she was in the Senate in time to vote for and advocate for and propagandize for the 2003 Iraq invasion. Who made that a badge of shame rather than honor? In large part the peace movement (or I should say the anti-Republican-war movement, which is different from a peace movement).
There are some startling signs that people are ready for actions that require sacrifice. There’s a great media outlet here in Baltimore called The Real News Dot Com, and one of their reporters pointed out to me that in the past week, a man has landed his little bicycle-helicopter on the U.S. Capitol Grounds in an attempt to deliver 535 demands to clean the money out of politics, and a man has apparently shot himself to death at the U.S. Capitol after holding up a sign that reportedly said “Tax the 1%.” Does that sound like people not ready to organize for action?
We are held back primarily by our accepting and repeating of the propaganda that we have no power. And of course we have a moral duty to try even if there’s only the slimmest chance that we have any power. And of course doing so is enjoyable and fulfilling. Read The Plague by Albert Camus. This comes at the end of it:
“It was in the midst of shouts rolling against the terrace wall in massive waves that waxed in volume and duration, while cataracts of fire fell thicker through the darkness, that Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”