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Andrew Lichterman, Program Director, Western States Legal Foundation
Rally Address, Speak Out at StratCom, Omaha, Nebraska, August 2, 2003

A great novel about war from the past century– Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow-- said, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.”

        In the shadow of the Iraq war, an extremely violent war initially justified as an effort to eliminate a “weapons of mass destruction” threat, it is worthwhile to ask a few questions about weapons of mass destruction.

What kind are the most dangerous?

        The answer is clear: Nuclear weapons– the true weapons of mass destruction, with enough still in the world’s arsenals to destroy human civilization in a day.

Who do we know for certain has nuclear weapons?

        The United States and Russia, each still with thousands on hair trigger alert, and thousands more in reserve.

        The United Kingdom, France and China, the other three original weapons states.

        All of these countries promised the world decades ago, when they signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, that they would negotiate to get rid of their nuclear arsenals.

Who else do we know has nuclear weapons?

        India and Pakistan, locked in a new nuclear arms race in a region that may grow even more unstable in the wake of the Iraq war. The Indian foreign minister recently stated that “[India has] a much better case to go for pre-emptive action against Pakistan than the United States has in Iraq.”

And Israel, the only country in the Middle East with nuclear weapons.

        It is worth recalling that in 1991 The Security Council stated that its requirements for the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction “represent steps towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery ...”

What country is looking for ways to make nuclear weapons more useable in ordinary warfare?

        The United States. The U.S. is modifying nuclear weapons to give them new capabilities, making them more accurate, and upgrading the computer systems used to plan and execute nuclear strikes.

Nuclear weapons continue to present one of the greatest threats to humankind and the natural world.

        Nuclear war, the foremost nightmare of several generations, seemed to disappear for a decade. But the weapons never went away, and the enormously powerful military and technological institutions that were the most lasting creations of the nuclear age now are resurgent, their allies and representatives now dominant in U.S. politics.

        And the existence of nuclear weapons in the world causes ecological devastation, even if they never are used in warfare. A half century of nuclear weapons research, testing, and production has contaminated vast reaches of the planet, and has causing millions of premature deaths by causing birth defects, cancer, and other diseases.

        Nuclear testing took place for the most part on indigenous lands, in Nevada, in the Russian Arctic, in the deserts of Kazakhstan and China, and on islands in the Pacific. Fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests resulted in nuclear pollution world-wide, but military nuclearism also has resulted in enormous amounts of radioactive waste from weapons production, much of it buried or stored in underground tanks and waste ponds that are leaching into groundwater or, in some cases, may result in catastrophic releases into rivers and oceans. These concentrations of waste are present in every nuclear weapons state, at locations from Hanford in Washington where they threaten the Columbia river, to Russian facilities next to rivers that drain into the oceans of the Arctic.

        The economic cost of cleaning up these atrocities, should it even prove possible, exceed what anyone has been willing to pay, and budgets for cleanup are going down, not up. The human and ecological cost is incalculable.

        And all of this damage has been done without a nuclear war, beyond the bombing of two Japanese cities at the end of World War II.

        Another question we should be asking is, how is it that the United States moves so quickly to war?

        In part, its because it can– The United States has existed for half a century in a state of permanent mobilization for war. The military has developed a wide range of weapons that allow it to wreak terrible destruction at a distance. These include Cruise missiles and long-range aircraft armed with stand off missiles and precision bombs, and a large and varied nuclear arsenal, deployed on submarines, aircraft, and long range missiles, with efforts ongoing to make nuclear weapons more useable.

        And the U.S. also is researching new types of weapons that operate through or from space. These too would become part of the arsenal that Strategic Command deploys and coordinates, part of the accelerating quest by the United States for global military domination.

        So from the starting point of today’s hugely destructive nuclear arsenals, we will not move towards disarmament, towards a world where complex and dangerous military competition is reduced. Instead, we may drift towards a new arms race where several countries still have nuclear arsenals large enough to annihilate any country in an afternoon. Added to this we will have the complexities of missile defenses, more types of weapons that can strike halfway across the planet in hours or minutes, more dependence on electronic systems that operate at speeds beyond human comprehension and that themselves will be the targets of new forms of deception and attack, more useable nuclear weapons, and more nations building armaments rather than the infrastructure and institutions necessary for true human security.

        It is important not to see the current administration as the instigator of some sudden shift in military policy. Most of the programs and polices supporting nuclear weapons with new capabilities and the steadily increasing military use of space were well underway during the 1990's, and the basic world view they reflect– that the United States both needs and has the right to deploy overwhelming force anywhere on earth– has strong support in both major parties.

        And now, those in power in the United States have embarked the world on a new era of war without limits. These new wars are unconstrained by space, by time, and even by past notions of why wars are fought. The goals are intentionally abstract, the enemy omnipresent, the presence or absence of “threats” necessitating military action verifiable only with information controlled by secret organizations answerable to the Executive, with no meaningful political oversight from a Congress that largely accepts the new paradigm of war without end.

        Both the ascendance of the Bush Administration and the September 11 attacks are widely perceived as defining causal events that drastically changed the course we were on. But against a broader backdrop, they appear only to have removed the few remaining constraints on powerful elements in U.S. society long bent on the elimination of all state-imposed obstacles to the unfettered accumulation of wealth, and on the enlistment of the world’s most powerful state to assure “open markets” and “access to resources,” on the most profitable terms, at the point of a cruise missile if necessary.

        The March 2003 Iraq campaign was, in reality, the climactic engagement of a decade-long war featuring thousands of air strikes, a major assault in 1998 with hundreds of cruise missiles and powerful bombs dropped on major cities in a few days, and a sanctions regime that crippled the Iraqi economy and decimated its population.

        The enormous high-tech military that deployed to the other side of the world to destroy regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq was sustained and modernized, despite the end of the Cold War that was its supposed raison d’etre, under eight years of a Democratic Party presidency. “Mainstream” debate on matters of “national security” has since the mid-1990's (well before the September 11, 2001 attacks) been shifting steadily in the direction of more reliance on military force, more military spending, and more high-tech weapons, including more useable nuclear weapons. The policies of the Bush administration do not represent some radical discontinuity, but rather the culmination of this larger trend. It represents the triumph of strong forces in U.S. society-- elements in the military, their contractors, the set of corporations served by an aggressive foreign policy, and their allies in political elites.

        I’d like to move on to some thoughts about the kind of social movement we will need in the U.S., and the kinds of actions we need to take.

        First, we need to learn more together both about the military industrial complex, and about its relationship to the other concentrated economic interests served by aggressive U.S. military policies. This doesn’t mean that we need endless, high-level abstract theorizing, but rather that the peace movements and the emerging movements connecting issues of ecological balance to those of global social and economic justice need to be better integrated at all levels, but especially at the regional and local level. This means identifying key issues and working together on them in sustained ways, not just having a lot of meetings. The conversations that emerge from these efforts, over the long run, give us a far better and more concrete understanding of both obstacles we face and opportunities for change than any abstract theoretical framework.

        Where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, in the 1980's, a coalition that brought together labor, environmentalists, anti-nuclear activists and anti-intervention activists, and progressive political leaders stopped the homeporting of a fleet of nuclear armed ships in San Francisco Bay. The relationships among the groups formed then, and the years long conversation that emerged from their common engagement on a regional issue that affected all their concerns, resulted in pioneering work on peace issues and on the environmental impact of the military, and broadened and transformed the perspectives of many of the organizations involved.

        And with the Iraq war transforming into what may be a years-long , violent occupation, and other possible wars on the horizon, we must also step back and think about the nuts and bolts of organizing for the long term.

        I believe there is an unaddressed audience in this country for a politics that is nonviolent, democratic with a small d, and that is unafraid to talk about the need for fundamental changes in our economy, the distribution of wealth the technologies we rely on, and the way we resolve global problems. There are enormous numbers of people– tens of millions– who feel that we are in serious trouble in this country, who don’t want war, who fear the loss of their civil liberties, and who also see little hope for a better life for their children as tax cuts for the rich and endless military spending increases result in the decline of all public goods, from schools to parks to transportation to health care.

        Most of the anti-war activity of the past two years has fallen roughly into two categories. The first has been classic mainstream politics, which starts from the assumption that most people want as little to change as possible. I think this assumption is obsolete, and misreads the profound fears of many Americans. These efforts generally have only been against a particular war at a particular time, and have avoided discussion of its causes, or of the long-term, difficult work that will be required to return this country to the path of peace. They also generally are top-down and short-term, asking people to take individual, relatively passive actions like calling or writing a decision maker with a simple message.

        On the other hand, you have the activities of the traditional progressive alliances, which do make an effort to address the connections among the issues, and that are willing to talk about fundamental social change. These have over the last year focused the greater part of their energies in the run up to the Iraq war on large rallies, on the one hand, and direct action, on the other.

        But we need to put more thought and energy into organizing those who might be receptive, but are currently not part of our movements.

        In every community, even those you might think of as already “progressive,” too little effort is put into face to face, human scale organizing: outreach through church groups, into classrooms in high schools and community colleges, in workplaces and county professional groups, the opportunities are endless. In the coalitions I work with in California, this is what we have a shortage of people to do– there are plenty who want to organize big rallies and other mediagenic moments.

        Some questions we might ask ourselves in choosing our actions to build a movement which is sustainable for the long term are:

  • Does the action increase our understanding of the issues we are working on in a way which also will be understandable to others? Does the action help us to understand and explain the connections between our issues and other concerns that people care deeply about and that affect their everyday lives?

  • Does the action build skills in activists (and especially volunteers and new activists), and provide activists with a way they can become and remain engaged with the issue?

  • Does the action help to build community among the people involved? Once again, in current organizing, one way this has come up is in questions of scale– is crisis-driven organization of large events in a few big areas the right focus, or should we be thinking about events and organizing techniques that start small in many communities, building new groups, organizations, and coalitions for the long term?

  • Does the action build organizational structures which can be sustained? In particular, does it create or help to sustain new organizing “nodes” around which further activity can coalesce, particularly in geographic regions or sectors of society where there currently is little activism on this issue?

  • Does the action build coalitions which will last?

  • Does the action help to shift the boundaries of debate in a positive way?

  • And finally, because no one really has a definitive answer for these difficult questions, do our campaigns and organizational structures foster and sustain a variety of approaches, and are they designed to help us learn from our experiences and from each other about what works and what doesn’t?

            In 1930, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Robert Millikan wrote that “One may sleep in peace with the consciousness that the Creator has put some foolproof elements into his handiwork, and that man is powerless to do it any titanic damage.” Robert Millikan (Nobel 1923), “Alleged Sins of Science,” in Scribner’s Magazine,” 87(2), 1930, pp. 119-30, quoted in Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, 534.
            This has been proven false not only by nuclear weapons, but by devastating ecological effects of endless accumulation of wealth for its own sake, and today by the growing ability of human beings to manipulate the most basic building blocks of the natural world itself.

            Decisions of war and peace are too important to be left to the soldiers– and also to the experts. So are decisions about what kinds of foods we should eat, and decisions about who should eat, and how much, are too important to be left ot the economists.

    All of these issues are manifestations of a global society in which most resources and most of the earth itself is controlled by a tiny minority, with the choices which affect us all dressed up as inevitable and necessary by experts who work in their service.

            A common theme in all of these issues is that the key decisions are made at a great remove, both socially and geographically, from the places where the human and ecological impacts are felt. Ironically, in a society where science is looked to for solutions to most of our problems, we are suffering from a separation of cause and effect. And this separation of cause and effect intensifies a phenomenon which is central to modern life– the way people who work in large organizations to split their consciousness, focusing only on the task at hand, and on the use of their technical or professional skills, leaving at the door all other pieces of their humanity, the fact that they are mothers or fathers or sons or daughters or creatures with living bodies in a living world.

            This fact always has been for me a central focus of nonviolent though and political action. We need to find creative ways to bring this splitting to light, and make it difficult to sustain.

            Our challenge is how to give a real voice and real decision making power to those who are affected by the decisions of huge organizations, justified by experts, and by doing so to democratize the economy, and with it decisions about technology choice. We need to build a social movement that brings these themes together, starting with people in face to face contact where they live, from the bottom up. The unprecedented global protests against the Iraq war suggest that such a movement is possible.