Will the Antiwar Movement Strangle the State?

This is the text of a talk given at the sixth annual Pigstock, held at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, Wisconsin and sponsored by Veterans For Peace, Chapter 115 in Red Wing, Minnesota on July 12, 2008.

I want to start out today with something written by an early American revolutionary. This man was key to the armed revolution we fought against the King of England beginning in 1776, and more than that, was key to the revolution of ideas that had begun to grip the American colonies for several generations. This man was born poor, remained poor throughout his life, and he died in a tenement house. Yet, he was also a key American statesmen, publisher, orator, and held a number of government positions. He was a friend of Thomas Jefferson, and he was throughout his life, a self-educated person who valued liberty and justice. He opposed the concentrated power of the hereditary elites, and he believed that imperial wars were immoral.

His name was Thomas Paine. During the winter of the first year of revolution, in what would be the second of a series of pamphlets called The American Crisis, he described what we were fighting. It’s a long quote, but I want you to hear what he had to say:

If ever a nation was mad and foolish, blind to its own interest and bent on its own destruction, it is Britain. There are such things as national sins, and though the punishment of individuals may be reserved to another world, national punishment can only be inflicted in this world. Britain, as a nation, is, in my inmost belief, the greatest and most ungrateful offender against God on the face of the whole earth. Blessed with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished, by a vast extension of dominion, with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no other use of both than proudly to idolize her own “thunder,” and rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get. Like Alexander, she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodigality’s sake. The blood of India is not yet repaid, nor the wretchedness of Africa yet requited. Of late she has enlarged her list of national cruelties by her butcherly destruction of the Caribbs of St. Vincent’s, and returning an answer by the sword to the meek prayer for “Peace, liberty and safety.” These are serious things, and whatever a foolish tyrant, a debauched court, a trafficking legislature, or a blinded people may think, the national account with heaven must some day or other be settled: all countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck; and Britain, like an individual penitent, must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better.

Tom Paine was observing the imperial stance of Great Britain, circa 1777. His audience was an army of ragtag revolutionaries who were faced with limited funding, a series of military losses against a great imperial army, and diffidence and doubt of a majority of their friends and neighbors. The revolutionary war depended on the leadership and ideas of the landed and wealthy class in the American colony — yet many of this class were opposed to both independence and to republicanism, seeing it as a threat to their own property and position.

In describing Great Britain — arguably near the height of her glory — Paine told the truth. A nation blessed with great wealth, and great commerce, had proudly idolized her own “thunder,” ripping up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get — this country would and should receive its due in this world, not in the next one.

This, of course, happens to be the legacy of our current president, George W. Bush. Paine describes another George, George the III, who had been levying new taxes to raise government funds to pay previous British war debt — as a foolish tyrant, unconstrained by a debauched court, mollified and motivated by a "trafficking legislature" and lastly, tolerated by a blinded people.

One wonders what Thomas Paine would say about the United States today. On reading his words, I was certainly struck by how well it describes America’s government today, how well it describes our courts, our legislatures, and sadly, many of our people.

We have a judiciary that generally does not understand the Constitution, as originally written with its first ten amendments. Some would argue that the Supreme Court recently got it right on the Heller case, a Second Amendment case. In the sense that five of nine judges think that the right to bear arms is an individual right, they did. But in determining that a wide variety of government restrictions and constraints on private ownership of weapons is constitutional, the door is open for no change in the status quo at all. As with England of the 1700s, no change in the status quo is what Washington wants, at home and abroad.

I bring up the second amendment because my talk today is on how we can prevent and end wars, and the waste, corruption, tragedy and wholesale destruction of lives and livelihoods it entails. Most who protest war valiantly work to exercise their rights of assembly and speech, their rights to due process, to have a speedy and public day in court, to never be forced into self-incrimination, or to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. Yet many who oppose war for all the right reasons also have some ambiguity about the idea of weapons in the hands of average people.

Fewer people who oppose the wars of the state demand to see the second amendment exercised broadly and openly here at home, and fewer still really take the third amendment seriously. Remember the third amendment? The third amendment prohibits the quartering of soldiers in private homes, which in the 1700s meant that soldiers might come through your home or farm, slaughter some of your sheep or cattle, take a horse, and have you make their beds, and feed them out of your pantry for a day or a week or a month. In the list of grievances contained in the declaration of independence, these offenses were described as follows:

[The king] has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance. He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the consent of our legislatures. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power. …For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us: For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

We like to think the third amendment is passé, old-school. Last year, in 2007, the federal government alone collected $2.6 trillion in taxes, making its take nearly 20% of US Gross Domestic Product. With a significant proportion of this money, the government wages war around the globe, and increases the size of what the founders referred to as a standing army. Furthermore, to finance the wars and the empire, the government produces paper money — causing inflation, which is just another tax, another theft of the people’s wealth and property.

The crux of the third amendment is that we the people own our property and our earnings — they are not to be consumed at will by a government, stolen from us without a proper bill of sale or reimbursement, on behalf of the wars of unaccountable governments and kings.

There is no doubt that we owe reparations to Iraq, for the wanton damage done there. That price will go unpaid, of course, as it generally does. But what about what is owed to Americans for the expense of Iraq? The war’s cost is now running at nearly $5000 for every household in America — and those are using the Pentagons numbers that show the invasion and occupation of Iraq consuming half a trillion dollars so far. Nobel laureate in economics Joe Stiglitz and his team calculated a few years ago that this was a two trillion dollar expense on the people of this country, and they are now projecting a three trillion dollar neo-colonialization in Iraq. His latest book, with Linda Bilmes, is entitled The Three Trillion Dollar War. That’s 30 thousand bucks for each household in America. The third amendment IS relevant, and using tax receipts for unlawful and unjust war, or worse, borrowed money our children and grandchildren must pay, is a clear violation of the third amendment of the Constitution in our 21st century world.

A quick reminder on the bill of rights — it does not delineate rights granted by government to us — but unalienable rights we have by virtue of our existence as human beings. Welcome to the enlightenment, circa 1776. We have these rights not because we vote, or pay our taxes, or keep our front yards mowed properly, not because we wear a flag pin or have a support the troops sticker on our car or are legal citizens — we have the rights simply and wholly because we exist as human beings, endowed thusly by our Creator. Government — king, president or congress — has no business interfering with, redefining, or constraining these rights. That’s what these first ten amendments are saying to the federal level — they say, quite clearly, back off. Don’t tread on me.

Why should anyone be paying for the Iraq War, anyway? The fact that we can’t even describe why we are there with a straight face epitomizes the gross immorality of the whole venture. I’ve long held that those who wish to liberate Iraqis, or secure greater Israel, or colonize Iraq for its strategic location and resources ought to be free to suit up and take it on. Strangely, the ideologues, particularly neoconservatives and warmongering Christian preachers in big churches across this country seem the least likely to venture beyond the sound bites into a real, bloody, soul-ripping battlefield.

But I digress. If we wish to stop a war, any particular war — we have to stand against all wars. Wars are created, designed, implemented and lost by the state, by governments. War is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne wrote. By definition, the state is a centralized re-allocator of wealth and justice — like a parasite and contrary to popular opinion, it produces neither wealth nor justice. The state uses war primarily to increase and to exercise its own nature. When there is a war on — whether a war on drugs, a war on terrorism, a war against the Japanese, the Vietnamese, the Iraqis, the Iranians, the Venezuelans, the Cubans, the insurgents, you name it — citizens are no longer completely free to move within and travel beyond the country. Citizens are now subject to unwarranted detention, restriction, surveillance, and all without government accountability — because there’s a war on. In a state of war, government openly breaks the law, and tells us we are "safer" for it.

When the state is at war — the government apparatus seems more justified, more needed, and we the people — if we are frightened and uneducated in history and economics and common sense — tend to make excuses for government stupidity and overreach. That is, until we begin to feel angry over a reduced standard of living, high gas and food prices, and we actually start to notice how incredibly banal and inane our politicians really are.

There is no good war — and I think conservative politico Pat Buchanan has done a great job in his new book examining that so-called good war, World War II. But why does it take so many years after the fact to come to that conclusion? Vietnam is a good case in point — Daniel Ellsworth and many of his peers in the Pentagon, uniformed officers, understood the war must end in 1967. Yet we did not leave Vietnam until 1975, after nearly 50,000 more young Americans had died there. For what? Why does it take so long?

Today, Iraq and Afghanistan are still active wars. Five years running, and if you ask the Congress or the people, they will all say, yes, we ought to come home, the sooner the better. But Congress votes more money to sustain Iraq operations, and we the people continue to consent to it, silently. No wonder the antiwar movement is frustrated. Many hope a different president will make a difference, you know, like that different congress did a few years ago. But Obama and McCain are political peas in a pod — both will illegally continue the Iraq fiasco until we are departing from our monster embassy roof under heavy fire.

It is time for a revolution, not dissimilar from that whereby Englishmen living in America asserted their own self-rule. Asserting self-rule — this is not unlike the recent Ron Paul campaign within the GOP establishment. And the word "revolution" has certainly been popularized by the Ron Paul campaign, which broke new ground and tapped into a strain of independence that has been percolating in this country for a long time. The Ron Paul revolution is peaceful, a war of ideas, of education and of principle. It works through communication, discussion, and raising the historical and economic understanding of enough Americans so that real change happens, as the whole transforms. I hope that the revolution will be peaceful, but I suspect that to win this war against our own warmongering state, we need to, at a very minimum, strengthen the obstinacy of our passive resistance, our civil disobedience.

A real strength of the greater antiwar movement is in raising awareness of the costs of war, the immorality of it, clarifying to the many taxpayers and families who generally support the government that the Iraq invasion and planned occupation was — as most wars have been — the result of crimes and misdemeanors — not in a foreign country, but in Washington.

However — where a revolution is needed, we have a problem in the antiwar movement, a problem that has crippled its effectiveness.

Who are we? Intellectuals and disillusioned soldiers. Mothers and grandmothers and fathers of soldiers, people who have paid some price, who have some keen awareness that war is waste, destruction, and wrong-headed.

But who are Americans — the "we the people" who truly have the power to bring down whole governments? These people are busy and hard-working, and many don’t have time to watch five minutes of the mainstream media between picking up kids, the second part-time job, or taking care of grandkids and aging parents. Many are consciously anti-intellectual! Headline news, neoconservative talk radio, and fast food takeout have all capitalized on the fact that people in American don’t have time to think a single reflective thought.

Of those who do have time on their hands, the preteens, teenagers, underemployed younger and older people, many have been so impacted by a cultural disrespect for learning that they cannot be reached by traditional top-down educational approaches. Yet — these same people do understand — they do get that there is something very wrong in this country. They get that a good country is about rule of law and justice, but they see a reality that is lawless and unjust. They understand that our political leadership is clownish at best, and evil at worst. They have contempt for political parties, and no time for political foolishness posing as serious debate. Many of them watch the Colbert Report and link up to The Onion to get their news — and it works for them. They have already stepped outside of the political mainstream, and both pro-government and anti-government forces complain that "the people" have become self-absorbed, focusing only on what matters in their own personal life and ignoring the larger picture.

And how is the antiwar movement selling the message to the people out there who must be on board if you want to end American wars, and become a prosperous country again? We are telling the 60% in the country who are disengaged — and they are disengaged for good reason — that they should vote!? We are telling them that in the future, they should support a state that will give them health care and funded social security, instead of one that is wasting incredible resources today in a distant war for hegemony in the Middle East. Think about it — if antiwar voices love the state, its taxation and financial schemes, and value the state’s ability to take care of all our needs — it’s just the wars of the state we don’t like — that message is way too complicated to be picked up quickly and to motivate more thinking of the kind that citizens must do. That message is also about as true as those first budget estimates for the war in Iraq when the White House told us that it wouldn’t exceed $50 billion and Iraqi oil would pay for it.

The state needs war, it craves war, and it will have war. If you love the state, you necessarily love war. If you respect the state, you embrace war. And some, perhaps many, in the antiwar movement, really believe that the state, that national level government, is or can be a real source of solutions for community and for the country.

This is the first problem that the antiwar movement faces — and that is its hypocrisy. Much of it still loves the state. And for the 60% of the people out there who are disengaged but sense that something is very wrong in this country — they sense that what is wrong is indeed the state — the government. The judicial and incarceration system here (including the war on drugs, three-strikes mandates that disallow common sense in sentencing, incredible focus on victimless crimes that has caused this country to incarcerate at some time 1 in every 99 Americans) — this system is a self-perpetuating juggernaut, consuming lives and creating make-work jobs that produce no security, no rehabilitation, no innovation and no value. And we — average Americans — have to pay for it. The social security system — sure it’s great — but when average and especially younger Americans see that for every older person living on a fixed income and barely making ends meet, there are two or more others who are collecting social security for vacations, golf club memberships, and going to Vegas six times a year. Here’s a fact that we don’t talk about — but much of America senses. The median income for singles and couples over age 65 has nearly doubled since the 1960s — even after adjusting for inflation.

We defend the government taking care of us in our old age — yet in hard times, this argument doesn’t fly for the 60% of disengaged Americans — many of whom are under age 65 — and who are financially responsible for these current insolvent government programs, and who don’t expect to see the favors reciprocated in their own old age.

I have attacked the penal and justice system, the expensive and counterproductive government war on drugs, social security — what about the government education system? That is a hugely expensive service, albeit mostly funded by the states and local governments — and are we getting readers, informed young people, thinkers and entrepreneurs from that system? You know the answer to that. If antiwar activists want to activate the rest of the uninvolved and underinformed country to resist the state on its overseas wars — we can’t have it both ways.

Chances of someone knowing a soldier who has died in Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, and Vietnam or as a result of poisoning on the battlefield, suicide, and other war-related deaths — we are talking maybe two million people out of 300 million. But the chances of being personally exposed to the state justice system — well that’s 1 in 100. Knowing a social security recipient who is better off than the young taxpayer who is paying that bill — probably one in 20. Having processed through a particularly idiotic and authority-obsessed public school education — make that just about everyone. Being aware of corruption in the political system, be it local, state or federal? Well, I suspect even tiny babies have heard of this.

My point is — we must understand that war is the federal government’s lifeblood — and to end war we really have to starve, disable, restrict, constrain that state. We ask that Washington take the money it is spending on war — those trillions of dollars — and instead rebuild the country’s infrastructure, solve the education, health care, and aging-population crisis. But what do we get? Always, more spending, and always more war. It is easy to understand — this country is economically oriented around offensive and security related industry. So when government gets a buck, it is beholden to the security, offensive and war-related lobbyists, industrial and political. It really can’t help itself.

I believe that most Americans at some level understand this. A July 3rd Rasmussen poll on the constitution revealed that "only 14% of voters think the Constitution places too many restrictions on what government can do, while 39% say it is not restrictive enough and 38% say it’s about right as is. Fifty-nine percent (59%) say the bigger danger in the world today is a government that is too powerful. Only 23% worry more about a government that is not powerful enough."

Because this is how they feel, frankly — they are not convinced when antiwar activists promise that war moneys can be diverted or altered by a big government to do actual good things for people. I mean, isn’t that the lesson the average people got from Katrina? My God, we had federal agencies and the army down there — and yet the only rebuilding, the only productive work is being done by individuals and entrepreneurs, local people and their sweat equity.

Americans already understand that the state loves war — what they need to get more consistently from antiwar activists is that our enemy is this very same state.

This is a hard pill to swallow. But constitutional constraints on federal powers were designed by people we still admire today — who believed that to keep tyranny and war at bay, you need to keep the federal government small, perpetually underfunded, and of course, the antifederalists opposed any form of central government bank that could print money to get out from under this chronic underfunding situation. It is no coincidence that the 20th century was an era of state murder, setting fantastic global records of human slaughter by governments, and it was also the century of national and state banks, whereby government could fund wars without actually asking the people if they wanted these wars.

Now — if you buy this argument that to end war we must strangle the state, send it to its room for some long deserved time-out, how do we do that short of armed revolution?

We can vote, but that’s mainly symbolic. Remember, urging people to vote in many ways, undermines credibility of the movement, especially after the 2004 elections, where many antiwar candidates were brought to Washington. Common sense evidence tells us that voting at the federal level is about as effective as it was for the soviets in the old Soviet Union. They voted religiously for the establishment’s candidates, and had near 100% turnout for elections. But nothing changed until the people and the elites together got the message that the stupidity wasn’t working.

The ludicrosity and humor of voting, by the way, seems to be accurately portrayed in the new movie, Swing Vote. In an imaginary world, one man’s vote changes a national election — a wonderfully entertaining concept. Of course, what changes government is awakening the national imagination. A very different thing than voting.

We can keep educating people about what is happening in our overseas wars, but most people don’t have time for the ugly reality, unless it directly affects them.

We can boycott government agencies and politicians and media that are pro-war, point out their inconsistencies, their crimes, their sellouts to defense industries and prowar lobbies.

We can boycott the primary offensive industries. Do not allow one red cent of yours to support or patronize companies who get a large proportion of their income on the state’s business of misnamed defensive security. And let the company execs know what you are doing. Or — take an alternative approach — become a stockholder and try to create havoc in the company that way. This takes some effort, but it’s something some people will be able to do.

We can boycott agencies and entities that advertise in support of the state. Unfortunately — this means no more mainstream news, mainstream newspapers and magazines, and turning off much of the radio. How many of you have heard Boeing and Lockheed Martin advertising on the radio and TV, patriotic, prowar advertisements? Or seen the big print ads in newspapers and magazines? What, we are going to buy a C-5 next week? These ads aren’t for us as much as they are to ensure positive press — these big ads signify who really owns the media. We say the corporate media — well — it is the military-industrial complex corporations who ensure that CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX, and New York Times, and Washington Post dutifully reprint and rebroadcast the White House talking points on the goodness of this war or that. We demonize our idiot president and vice president. But they aren’t paying for all this prowar bull — Dick Cheney hasn’t touched his $50 million stash to buy a single ad on one of the major news outlets. He doesn’t have to.

What else can we do? We might be able to end our employment in the warfare state, and the military industrial complex. This might be hard to do, but if we have to devote our talents and energies to a government- or offense-oriented job to survive and feed our families, we might do so with our eyes open. Without a loyalty to the perpetual warfare mission that is often rationalized as patriotism. If we need to work for the warfare state or its enabler, the military-industrial establishment, then we should be aware of our larger responsibility to the country — to keep it honest. To blow the whistle when it needs to be blown, and certainly to support whistleblowers when they do what they have to do.

If we attend church or support a charity — we ought to be sure that church and charity isn’t taking state funds under the auspices of doing good works. We do not tend to bite the hand that feeds us — and yet, that hand must be bitten if we want to end the American empire, and bring the troops home.

We can keep our friends and acquaintances out of the warfare state meat grinder. This means talking about hard issues like the meaning of citizenship, the ideals of the constitution, the meaning of patriotism — and for those who attend a church that confuses the state with a higher power, educating your pastor and your congregations — or leaving that church.

We can encourage and enable our kids and grandkids to stay away from the state-funded education system, and to learn to think for themselves.

We can work to reduce the income of the federal government. Pay less taxes. Earn less, earn in cash, pay in cash, donate as much as you can, maybe set up a scholarship for a college kid so he doesn’t have to take a student loan and be beholden to the state, do whatever you can to pay fewer taxes to the state. Millions of people are doing this voluntarily and due to the recession, because they have to. But if it constrains the state — it is a good thing.

If we send less human and capital booty to the state — it follows that we should demand less of it as well. Make the Congress both poor, and irrelevant to our lives. If we do that, the lobbyists will evaporate. We demand campaign and lobbying reform — but organizations and companies purchase votes in congress because it is a cheap deal for those who want to use the government to gain a political or more likely business advantage. Make it not only a cheap deal, but a worthless deal, because the congress has so little largesse to redistribute. Problem solved.

To be opposed to political war is the moral and correct position. We know this from our history, and we know this from our ethical and religious upbringing. On this, we are on the right side. If we do nothing at all in limiting and opposing war, we will still win, because imperial wars especially go bankrupt, and decline, and finally end. Imperial and indebted governments, unaccountable to the people that pay for them, collapse and are destroyed. We don’t need to hasten this if we don’t want to, because the sins of the nation must and will be paid in full. As Thomas Paine said, "the national account with heaven must some day or other be settled: all countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck."

In that lengthy quote I used at the beginning of this talk, I left off a final sentence. Tom Paine continued, very kindly, "like an individual penitent, [Britain] must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better. As I wish it over, I wish it to come, but withal wish that it may be as light as possible."

We are on the right side, at least if America is to someday be a peaceful, constitutional republic, prosperous and free, happy and again a model for the rest of the world. We need do nothing at all and we will still be correct in our antiwar position, and our antiwar beliefs. But if we love our country, and believe in her, we do need to step up the revolution, and we need to fully understand that the health of the state is war. To excise war from the state, we will indeed need to excise a large portion of the state with it. If we act, we may be able to save our country, and help her weather the major shift from a war-based existence to one based on peace and liberty.

Tom Paine was libertarian, but he was not an anarchist, nor was he a pacifist. When you read his writings on democracy and his writings on the proper role of government, he epitomizes many of the concerns on social and economic justice, as well as peace, that recall the Democratic Party of the late 1960s. Most libertarians and members of the old-right — devoted as they are to small government and strong communities — are antiwar. Ron Paul ran a remarkable campaign that tapped into this underground river of American political thought. But many so-called libertarians reflexively support the state when it comes to war, seeing it as either useful or patriotic. The larger body of antiwar sentiment in this country is found in those traditional democrats who naturally feel a connection to Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson’s great friend and fellow idealist Tom Paine, and to the antiwar sentiments of Eugene McCarthy and of Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel.

For the antiwar movement to succeed in the near-term, and to bring real peace, we need to do what we can to connect with that majority — to mobilize the minds of those people — and we need to do so through, as Thomas Paine saw it, common sense, not by blowing smoke up the collective skirt of the country. To end wars and sustain peace, the state — epitomized by the great gilded castles, tyrants and war traffickers of Washington, DC — must be strangled, and the antiwar movement must lead this charge, in thought and in deed.