Recently I noticed a post on a social media site honoring Rosa Parks for her refusal to move out of her seat on a segregated bus. Someone commented underneath, that in fact another individual deserved credit for having done the same thing first. What happened next was entirely predictable. Post after post by various people brought out the names of all kinds of forerunners of Parks, pushing the date of the first brave resister to segregated buses back further and further — many decades — into the past.
Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd’s Knotted Gun Sculpture iat the UN
What we understand as the civil rights movement was successfully started after a great many failed attempts — by organizations as well as individuals. The same goes for the suffragette movement or the labor movement or the abolition of slavery. Even the Occupy movement was the umpteenth time a lot of activists had attempted such a thing, and chances are that eventually the Occupy movement will be seen as one in a long line of failed predecessors to something more successful.
I’ve been discussing with people whom I consider key organizers of such a project the possibility of a newly energized movement to abolish war. One thing we’re looking at, of course, is failed past attempts to do the same. Some of those attempts have been quite recent. Some are ongoing. How, we must ask ourselves, can we strengthen what’s already underway, learn from what’s been tried before, and create the spark that this time, at long last, after over a century’s preliminaries, catches fire?
Momentum for the abolition of war began to grow in the late 19th century, and then again, much more strongly, after World War I, in a different manner after World War II, again after the Cold War, and — just maybe — again right now. Arguably the 1920s and 1930s have seen the strongest popular sentiment for war abolition in the United States. We’re not at that level now. But we do have the advantage of being able to study the past 80 years of struggle. Of course, anti-war efforts have had great successes as well as failures, but war remains. And it doesn’t remain on the margins, like slavery. It remains, front and center, as the United States’ principal public program. Standing armies are so well accepted that most people aren’t sure what the phrase means. Wars are so common that most Americans cannot name all the nations their own is at war with.
A proposal on “Abolishing the War System” that I’ve just been reading (from Marcus Raskin at the Institute for Policy Studies) takes us back to 1992 and provides much useful material to draw on. Raskin’s preface and Brian D’Agostino’s introduction suggest that the moment in which they were writing was a particularly opportune moment for a campaign to abolish war. I’m sure they honestly believed it was. And I’m sure that it, in fact, was — even if there’s a tendency to find such a remark comical in retrospect. Strategic-minded people want to know why 2013 is such a moment, and they can be pointed toward many indicators: opinion polls, the rejection of the proposed missile attack on Syria, increased awareness of war propaganda, the diminishment of drone attacks, the ever-so-slight reduction in military spending, the possibility of peace in Colombia, the growing success of nonviolent conflict resolution, the growing and improving use of nonviolent movements for change, the existentially urgent need for a shifting of resources from destroying the planet to protecting it, the economic need to stop wasting trillions of dollars, the arrival of technologies that allow for instant international collaboration among war resisters, etc. But just as many indicators were available in 1992, albeit different ones, and nobody has developed the means for quantifying such things. However, here’s the key question, I think: If all of those predecessors to Rosa Parks hadn’t acted, would Rosa Parks have ever been Rosa Parks? If not, then isn’t the strategic time for a moral and necessary campaign always right now?
Raskin’s “Abolishing the War System” is not an argument to persuade anyone against war, not a plan for organizing a mass movement, not a system for reaching out to new constituencies or creating economic or political pressure against war. Raskin’s book is primarily a draft treaty that should be, but never has been, enacted. The treaty aims to take the United States and the world to an important part-way step, most of the way perhaps, toward war abolition. In compliance with this treaty, nations would maintain only “nonoffensive defense,” which is to say: air defense and border and coast guard forces, but not offensive weapons aimed at attacking other nations far from one’s own. Foreign bases would be gone. Aircraft carriers would be gone. Nuclear and chemical and biological weapons would be gone. Drones over distant lands would have been gone before they appeared. Cluster bombs would be done away with.
The argument for nonoffensive defense is, I think, fairly straightforward. Many wealthy nations spend under $100 billion each year on military defense — some of which nations fit major offensive weapons systems into that budget. The United States spends $1 trillion each year on military defense and (mostly) offense. The result is a broken budget, missed opportunities, and lots of catastrophic foreign wars. So, the case for cutting $900 billion from war spending each year in the U.S. is the case for fully funding schools, parks, green energy, and actual humanitarian aid. It is not the case for completely abolishing the military. If the United States were to be attacked it could defend itself in any manner it chose, including militarily.
But, someone might protest, why is it sufficient to shoot down planes when they reach our border? Isn’t it better to blow them up in their own country just before they head our way?
The direct answer to that question is that we’ve been trying that approach for three-quarters of a century and it hasn’t been working. It’s been generating enemies, not removing them. It’s been killing innocents, not imminent threats. We’ve become so open about this that the White House has redefined “imminent” to mean eventual and theoretical.