What had seemed to be a benefit of the job, the novel way that the crews could fly Predator and Reaper drones via satellite links while living safely in the United States with their families, has created new types of stresses as they constantly shift back and forth between war and family activities and become, in effect, perpetually deployed.
I mention this toward the end of my review of The Burglary, the story of the 1971 antiwar activists, and it’s something I’ve been trying to pull from potential authors as we’ve put together an August Friends Journal issue on war. Much of the day-to-day mechanics of war has changed drastically in the past 40 years — at least for American soldiers.
We have stories like this one from the NYTimes: drone operators in suburban U.S. campuses killing people on the other side of the planet. But soldiers in Baghdad have good cell phone coverage, watch Netflix, and live in air conditioned barracks. The rise of contractors means that most of the grunt work of war — fixing trucks, peeling potatoes — is done by nearly invisible non-soldiers who are living in these war zones. It must be nice to have creature comforts but I’d imagine it could make for new problems psychologically integrating a war zone with normalcy.
One of the coolest activists of her (or any) generation is gone. Juanita Nelson’s obituary is up on the national war tax coalition’s site. My favorite Juanita story was when some agents came to arrest her at home and found her dressed only in a bathrobe. They told her it was okay to go into her bedroom to change but she refused. She told them that any shame was theirs. She forced them to carry her out as her clothes fell off. Talk about radical non-coöperation!
Seven law enforcement officers had stalked in. I sat on the stool beneath the telephone, my back literally to the wall, the seven hemming me about in a semicircle. All of them appeared over six feet tall, and all of them were annoyed.
“Look,” said one, “you’re gonna go anyway. You might as well come peaceful.”
There they stood, ready and able to take me at any moment. But no move was made. The reason was obvious.
“Why don’t you put your clothes on, Mrs. Nelson?” This was a soft spoken plea from the more benign deputy. “You’re not hurting anybody but yourself.” His pained expression belied the assertion.
Ten years ago today, U.S. forces began the “shock and awe” bombardment on Baghdad, the first shots of the second Iraq War. President Bush said troops needed to go in to disable Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program, but as we now know that program did not exist. Many of us suspected as much at the time. The flimsy pieces of evidence held up by the Bush Administration didn’t pass the smell test but a lot of mainstream reporters went for it and supported the war.
Now those journalists are looking back. One is Andrew Sullivan, most widely known as the former editor of New Republic and now the publisher of the independent online magazine The Dish. I find his recent “Never Forget That They Were All Wrong” thread profoundly frustrating. I’m glad he’s taking the time to double-guess himself, but the whole premise of the thread continues the dismissive attitude toward activists. Starting in 1995 I ran a website that acted as a publishing platform for much of the established peace movement. Yes, we were a collection of antiwar activists, but that doesn’t mean we were unable to use logic and apply critical thinking when the official assurances didn’t add up. I wrote weekly posts challenging New York Times reporter Judith Miller and the smoke-and-mirror shows of two administrations over a ten-year period. My essays were occasionally picked up by the national media — when they needed a counterpoint to pro-war editorials — but in general my pieces and those of the pacifist groups I published were dismissed.
When U.S. troops finally did invade Iraq in 2003, they encountered an Iraqi military that was almost completely incapacitated by years of U.N. sanctions. The much-hyped Republican Guard had tanks that had too many broken parts to run. Iraq’s nuclear, chemical and biological programs had been shut down over a decade earlier. The real lesson that we should take from the Iraq War was that the nonviolent methods of United Nations sanctions had worked. This isn’t a surprise for what we might call pragmatic pacifists. There’s a growing body of research arguing that nonviolent methods are often more effective than armed interventions (see for example, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, reviewed in the March Friends Journal (subscription required).
What if the U.S. had acknowledge there was no compelling evidence of WMDs and had simply ratcheted up the sanctions and let Iraq stew for another couple of years? Eventually a coup or Arab Spring would probably have rolled around. Imagine it. No insurgency. No Abu Ghraib. Maybe we’d even have an ally in Baghdad. The situations in places like Tehran, Damascus, Islamabad, and Ramallah would probably be fundamentally different right now. Antiwar activists were right in 2003. Why should journalists like Andrew Sullivan assume that this was an anomaly?
I don’t know enough of the details of their lives to write the obituary (a Wikipedia page was started this morning) but I will say they always seemed to me like the Forrest Gump’s of peace activism – at the center of every cool peace witness since 1950. You squint to look at the photos at there’s George and Lil, always there. Or maybe pop music would give us the better analogy: you know how there are entire b-rate bands that carve an entire career around endlessly rehashing a particular Beatles song? Well, there are whole activist organizations that are built around particular campaigns that the Willoughby’s championed. Like: in 1958 George was a crew member of the Golden Rule (profiled a bit here), a boatload of crazy activists who sailed into a Pacific nuclear bomb test to disrupt it. Twelve years later some Vancouver activists stage a copycat boat sailing which became Greenpeace. Lillian was concerned about rising violence against women and started one of the first Take Back the Nightmarches. If you’ve ever sat in an activist meeting where everyone’s using consensus, then you’ve been influenced by the Willoughby’s!
For many years I lived deeply embedded in communities co-founded by the Willoughbys. There’s a recent interview with George Lakey about the founding of Movement for a New Society that he and they helped create. In the 1990s I liked to say how I lived “in its ruins,” working at the publishing house, living in a coop house and getting my food from the coop that all grew out of MNS. I got to know the Willoughbys through Central Philadelphia meeting but also as friends. It was a treat to visit their house in Deptford, NJ — it adjoined a wildlife sanctuary they helped protect against the strip-mall sprawl that is the rest of that town. I last saw George a few months ago, and while he had a bit of trouble remembering who I was, that irrepressible smile and spirit were very strong!
When news of George’s passing started buzzing around the net I got a nice email from Howard Clark, who’s been very involved with War Resisters International for many years. It was a real blast-from-the-past and reminded me how little I’m involved with all this these days. The Philadelphia office of New Society Publishers went under in 1995 and a few years ago I finally dropped the Nonviolence.org project that I had started to keep the organizing going.
I’ve written before that one of the closest modern-day successor to the Movement for a New Society is the so-called New Monastic movement – explicitly Christian but focused on love and charity and often very Quaker’ish. Our culture of secular Quakerism has kept Friends from getting involved and sharing our decades of experience. Now that Shane Claiborne is being invited to seemingly every liberal Quaker venue, maybe it’s a good opportunity to look back on our own legacy. Friends like George and Lillian helped invent this form.
I miss the strong sense of community I once felt. Is there a way we can combine MNS & the “New Monastic” movement into something explicitly religious and public that might help spread the good news of the Inward Christ and inspire a new wave of lefty peacenik activism more in line with Jesus’ teachings than the xenophobic crap that gets spewed by so many “Christian” activists? With that, another plug for the workshop Wess Daniels and I are doing in May at Pendle Hill: “New Monastics and Covergent Friends.” If money’s a problem there’s still time to ask your meeting to help get you there. If that doesn’t work or distance is a problem, I’m sure we’ll be talking about it more here in the comments and blogs.
I originally titled this entry “Why the peace movement is doomed,” but maybe that’s too strong a charge. Still, it’s hard to see how the coterie of small mainstream groups (and the older activists in charge) expect to attract new people when they keep recycling old campaigns that are ridiculous and borderline-irrelevant. A small coalition is calling for a new “campaign of anti-war phone tax resistance”:www.hanguponwar.org. A lot of U.S. war tax resisters have loved protesting the “phone war tax” over the years. Some history, from the new site: a tax on phone use was first used to fund the Spanish-American war back in 1898 and special war-related phone taxes came and went for forty years. The only problem is that it was a good funding stream, a tax the U.S. Congress didn’t want to give up. So the phone tax has been “authorized and reauthorized the Second World War”:http://www.hanguponwar.org/history.htm. If I’m reading the site’s history right, there’s been a continuous phone tax since 1932(!) and it’s all gone into the general budget. Like all taxes, a good chunk of it has funded military action, but it’s no different percentage than any other tax. Like all taxes, we’ve needed this many taxes because the U.S. is a very militarized country and it has gone up and down in relation to military spending. But even Congress hasn’t bothered to think of it as war-related for many years now. I’d be embarrased to try to tell some eighteen year old born in 1985 that this tax has some special war significance just because did during the Vietnam War. Back in the sixties, a bunch of radical pacifists jumped on the phone tax resistance and haven’t been able to let go in all this time. So why this clinging to phone taxes as a way of protesting war? I assume everyone likes it is because it’s safe. For those reasons it’s also entirely symbolic and almost completely meaningless. Can’t we come up with new tactics? When will we be able to leave the Vietnam War to the historians and just move on? Many people think the old-line peace movement is a bunch of aging hippies; with campaigns like this, we kinda prove them right. “Let’s brainstorm some new actions!”:http://www.nonviolence.org/comment/index.php?c=10
Burning up the blogosphere is a post and discussion on Michael J Totten’s site about the “Workers World Party and International ANSWeR”:http://www.michaeltotten.com/archives/000131.html. He calls them “the new skinheads” (huh?), but his critique of these organizations and the “unconditional support” they give to anti-U.S. fascists the world over is valid. As a pacifist it’s often a tough balancing act to try to remain a steady voice for peace: this spring we were trying to simultaneously critiquing both Saddam Hussein and U.S. war plans against iraq. Both left and right denounce pacifists for this insistence on consistency, but that’s okay: it is these times when nonviolent activists have the most to contribute to the larger societal debate. But hard-left groups like International ANSWeR refuse to draw the line and refuse to condemn the very real evil that exists in the world. International ANSWeR has sponsored big anti-war rallies over the last year, but anti-war is not necessarily pro-nonviolence. Many of the participants at the rallies would never support International ANSWeR’s larger agenda, but go because it’s a peace rally, shrugging off the politics of the sponsoring group. I suspect that International ANSWeR’s support base would disappear pretty quickly if they started rallying on other issues. International ANSWeR just had another rally last weekend but you didn’t see it listed here on Nonviolence.org. Other peace groups co-sponsored it, echoing the All-caps/exclamation style of organizing. It’s very strange to go the site of “United for peace,” a coalition of peace groups, and look down the list of its next three events: “Stop the Wall!,” “Stop the FTAA!, “Shut Down the School of the Americas” When did pacifism become shouting for attention alongside the Workers World Party? Why are we all about stopping this and shutting down that?