I got called by a military recruiter when I was a senior in high school. This was ’86 or ’87, and I wasn’t surprised; other guys I knew had been contacted too, but even so, I hadn’t put any thought into how to respond ahead of time. Nonetheless, when the moment came I was unequivocal. I told the man I had no interest whatsoever in going overseas to kill people, no matter what. He was a bit taken aback–this was Nebraska, after all–but he pushed on.
“What if we were being invaded?” he insisted, and painted a picture of foreign soldiers in my own town, threatening my family.
“Well, I might think about picking up a rifle, then,” I said, “but otherwise no.” I told him to never call again and the conversation ended. So, non-violence with the possible exception of self-defense: a well-established and principled stand, actually.
I tell this story to illustrate how far back my anti-war sentiments go.
The first election I could vote in was 1988. I was going to college in Minnesota and I caucused in my small town for the Reverend Jesse Jackson. I was inspired by his platform, which called for both peace and justice. I was disappointed that he didn’t win the nomination and voted for Dukakis because I’d been raised a Democrat and that’s what I was supposed to do. I wasn’t paying enough attention to know that with Dukakis, the party had started down a new path, towards increasing conservatism.
In 1992, in Nebraska, I voted for Clinton, and not just out of a sense of partisan duty. There was a palpable excitement in the air about him, especially after 12 years of Reagan and Bush. “The Man from Hope” was very slickly promoted. But it didn’t take long for me to sour on Bill. It felt like he was breaking all his promises and by 1996, in Massachusetts, I was disillusioned enough to cast my ballot for Nader.
2000 was the peak of my interest in presidential politics. I was active with the Nader campaign that year in Minneapolis. I could really get behind the Green Party platform because it was pro-peace in a very up-front way. With the raucous energy of the Seattle uprising still fresh and active, the Nader campaign didn’t feel like a quixotic effort. Another world felt possible then.
Then there was 9/11, and both big parties have been war parties ever since. Third parties have been more vilified than ever, especially by the Democrats with their anti-Nader smears. I ignored the elections of 2004, 2008 and 2012, and instead focused on activism and organic farming.
In 2016, no less a source than the New York Times declared that Hillary Clinton was the biggest “hawk” in the race. I sure as hell wasn’t going to pull the lever for her, and I cast my vote for Jill Stein in Oregon and felt good about it. I shared photos of my completed ballot on social media to annoy the Hill-bots.
Now here we are in 2020 and once again there’s no viable anti-war candidate running for president.
“But what about Bernie?” I can hear people saying.
If a politician is in favor of capital punishment for murder but not for other offenses, we don’t describe that person as being anti-death penalty. We recognize that they are pro-death penalty. Perhaps, compared to another politician who also favors capital punishment for child abuse, kidnapping and treason, our example could be described as less pro-death penalty, but they still wouldn’t be anti-death penalty. They remain in favor of the state having the power to kill people legally, which is a significant stance to take (and one that I strongly disagree with).
And that’s the situation with Sanders on the topic of war. His voting record and his public commentary on US militarism and foreign policy are decidedly mixed. He cannot accurately be described as “anti-war.” Jeffrey St. Clair called him “the least pro-war” of the Democratic candidates, and that hits the mark.
Sorry to say it, but Sanders is not a dedicated person on this issue. His opposition to militarism are far more common when a Republican is president than when a Democrat is. That’s partisanship, not principle. It might be less pro-war, but it’s not anti-war.
The 17 year old me didn’t tell the recruiter to call back when a Democrat was elected president. The 50 year old me is in no mood to vote for someone who supported (among other things):
- Clinton’s sanctions against Iraq that killed half a million children
- the bombing of Yugoslavia and Kosovo, and the use of uranium-tipped munitions there
- the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force in 2001, which enabled the “War on Terror”
- the F-35 program
- Obama & Hillary’s raping and pillaging of Libya and their coup in Honduras
- the confirmation as Secretary of Defense of General Mattis, the monster who led the brutal attack on Fallujah
Of course, this whole essay is just academic because my vote for president won’t make a difference. Neither will yours unless you live in a swing state. And your voter registration hasn’t been purged. And the voting machines at your polling place aren’t broken. And the machine tallies aren’t hacked. And the votes from your district don’t go uncounted. And you’re not black. And no other supression happens.
We don’t actually live in a democracy with free and fair elections, so all our talk about issues and candidates and polls is moot. This is a truth we refuse to face, and the delusion is not healthy for us.
US militarism will not be defeated at the ballot box.
What we really need is a mass movement engaged in non-violent civil disobedience. With enough people on the streets, any policy can be changed.
I’ve been wishing for that since before I was 17 and I hope I don’t die without seeing it.