“Opposing the horrible madness of war is not anti-European, its not anti-Ukrainian, its not pro-Russian. It’s common sense… I oppose all war. I want it stopped. I make no apology for that. And I’m not going to be scapegoated and labelled for it either.”
~Clare Daly, member of European Parliament (video)
We are living in a very dangerous moment. Tensions between the US and Russia are high. Lines of communication between the two countries are more frayed than during the Cold War. Militant rhetoric is steadily ratcheting up on both sides. In such a strained atmosphere, the risk of setting off a deadly nuclear exchange is all too real, even just by accident in a heat-of-the-moment misunderstanding.
If the situation goes nuclear, it won’t matter who started it. It will only matter that it wasn’t stopped before it got there.
We really need all hands on deck to pull humanity back from the brink. Arguably, nothing is more important right now. All other concerns—the environment, social justice, economic inequality—will be moot. Certainly, our insipid partisan bickering will be irrelevant if we’re bleeding out of every orifice, our hair is falling out, our skin is sloughing off, and we’re dying agonizing deaths from severe burns and radiation sickness, while rotting corpses pile up around us.
The stakes could hardly be higher.
We need an active antiwar movement, global in scale and diverse in tactics, to apply significant pressure on every decision-maker with a part in current conflicts. The fundamental goal is clear: the war must stop. All parties with disagreements must declare an immediate ceasefire and get to the negotiating table. There, if we follow the long-established principles of diplomacy, it will be recognized that all parties have legitimate interests, and that compromise is sought from there. This is the only way. Yes, this can be a fraught and challenging process to say the least, but all wars eventually end at such a table. We must get there as soon as possible.
Yet the antiwar movement in the US is at its lowest ebb in generations, maybe ever. On the right, principled antiwar libertarians are keeping it real at places like antiwar.com, where they are sticking to their anti-interventionist ethic, which includes not arming belligerents. They’re ardent capitalists, yes, but they draw the line there.
On the left, we have a smattering of different groups including socialists, Black leftists, Greens, proponents of non-violence, and various peace groups led by veterans or sects of Christianity. All good people—some of my favorite people in the world, personally—but not enough. Liberals—by which I mean Democrats and Progressives—are the biggest cheerleaders of the burgeoning strife between nuclear-armed powers, and not one federal office holder is antiwar. (No, Bernie’s not antiwar.)
So it was disappointing to recently find out that this subset is even smaller than I suspected. I’m referring to the recent release of a statement by the Ukraine Solidarity Network (USN).
The statement has already been well-criticized by Richard Moser (“It Comes Down to Political Practice, It Comes Down to Weapons”), Ajamu Baraka (“The Ukrainian Solidarity Network: The Highest Stage of White Western Social Imperialism”) and Ron Jacobs (“Meditations on the Conflict in Europe”), and I encourage people to read their pieces, as each one contributes something important. For me, it’s not about agreeing with any one person 100% of the time; it’s about taking in different perspectives to try to see the big picture.
For my part, I will call attention to just three specific statements, and then move on to make general remarks about war and our current position.
1) The USN says: “Calling for “peace” in the abstract is meaningless in these circumstances.”
First, when war fever is as hot as it is now, just uttering the word, “peace,” makes you the target of slurs and vitriol. If it’s “meaningless” then why is it so viciously attacked? I totally understand if someone chooses to keep their mouth shut. I actually hold myself back much of the time. But we really need to be shouting it.
Secondly, the calls for peace that I’ve read or heard have not been “in the abstract.” They’ve generally been some version of what I laid out above, taking into account background and the current stances of officials on either side. Rather than “abstract,” they’ve been quite concrete. Code Pink has been especially good in this area. See the just published “What Steps Can the US Take to Foster Peace Talks in Ukraine?” (1/25/22) by Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J.S. Davies.
2) The USN says it “supports Ukraine’s war of resistance, its right to determine the means and objectives of its own struggle – and we support its right to obtain the weapons it needs from any available source.”
The right of Ukraine to self-determination includes not just fighting but also negotiating, and that right was infringed upon by the UK in April 2022. The Ukrainian press reported that “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson used his surprise visit to Kyiv last month to pressure President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to cut off peace negotiations with Russia, even after the two sides appeared to have made tenuous progress toward a settlement to end the war.”
How many Ukrainians have died since April? How many Russians? How much money has the US spent on the conflict since then that is sorely needed here? Johnson’s meddling is quite possibly the second worst event of 2022, second only to the Russian invasion itself. If the USN were truly concerned about Ukraine’s self-determination, they would also call this out.
As for the “right to obtain weapons,” nobody needs to encourage anybody to “obtain weapons.” Everybody already knows they can do that. Everybody who wants to obtain weapons is already doing so, or trying. There is no shortage of weapons in the world. The only reason to make the statement is to stress that the signatories support the arming of Ukraine by the United States and its NATO allies. Who else would Ukraine “obtain weapons” from?
Disturbingly, the USN is echoing US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said he believed “the right equipment” and the “right support” could help Ukraine win. (See the BBC: “Ukraine war: US wants to see a weakened Russia.”) Being on the same page as the US Secretary of Defense is not a good sign.
3) The USN says: “We seek to build connections to progressive organizations and movements in Ukraine” but they avoid mentioning that their own stance—explicit support of military engagement with Russia—is only one among several stances, and that—as in every country—”progressive” politics in Ukraine is a mix of parties, politicians, and interests that are not in consensus about everything, even the invasion. Have they forgotten that Zelenskyy was elected on a platform to end the war on the eastern provinces? Will they be reaching out to the leftist political parties that Zelenskyy banned, the largest of which was calling for negotiations with Russia after the invasion rather than fighting? I will believe USN is sincere if they actively try to build a connection to the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, whose organization’s executive secretary, Yurii Sheliazhenko, “calls for an end to US and NATO weapons to Ukraine. Arming Ukraine undermined past peace agreements and discouraged negotiations to end the current crisis, he says.” (See “Ukrainian Pacifist Movement: An Interview with Yurii Sheliazhenko.”)
Gerald Horne characterized the USN as a “pro-war formation.” They are certainly not antiwar.
Being antiwar is never about pushing to arm either side in a war.
I’ll repeat that with emphasis: Being antiwar is never about pushing to arm either side in a war.
Once you’re pushing to arm either side, you’re pro-war. Once you’re pro-war, you’re supporting many other evils: the arms industry, economic sanctions, conscription, censorship, imprisonment of dissidents, environmental damage, the consolidation of power by the ruling class. And of course death. The deaths of civilians are rightly held up first, but many soldiers are forced into their role by pressure of poverty or culture or a draft and even if they volunteered they are also victims. There are no heroes in war, except those who try to stop war.
As Chris Hedges writes, in “War is the Greatest Evil”:
“The primary lesson in war is that we as distinct individuals do not matter. We become numbers. Fodder. Objects. Life, once precious and sacred, becomes meaningless, sacrificed to the insatiable appetite of Mars. No one in wartime is exempt.”
Chris Hedges is not being theoretical. He spent two decades as a war correspondent and saw with his own eyes the horrors of the battlefield and the bombed city:
“I know what wounds look like. Legs blown off. Heads imploded into a bloody, pulpy mass. Gaping holes in stomachs. Pools of blood. Cries of the dying, sometimes for their mothers. And the smell. The smell of death. The supreme sacrifice made for flies and maggots.”
Once somebody “obtains weapons,” this is what they do with them. All the people urging the continuance of the conflict in Ukraine should picture their spouse with their legs blown off. Their mother’s head imploded into a bloody, pulpy mass. Gaping holes in their best friend’s stomach. Pools of blood under their neighbors. The cries of their own children as they die. These are the brutal things they are urging on other people. War is not game pieces on a Risk board.
Hedges warns us that war has its own inertia, and at some point can become unstoppable:
“Once war begins, no one, even those nominally in charge of waging war, can guess what will happen, how the war will develop, how it can drive armies and nations towards suicidal folly. There are no good wars. None.” [my emphasis]
Have we already passed that point with Russia? Will historians looking back consider that World War Three was already underway right now? Will there be historians to look back?
With so much hanging in such a perilous balance, anyone who does anything that reduces the chance of escalation, no matter how small, is doing something right in that moment, regardless of what else they might believe or do. Conversely, anyone who does anything that increases the chances of escalation, no matter how small, is doing something wrong in that moment, regardless of what else they might believe or do. Everyone makes mistakes. Also, we are social creatures and we get caught up in what everyone around us is doing, or—as is more likely these days—what the media is saying what everyone around us is doing, whether or not they are or not.
Maybe we need a new version of 1983’s made-for-TV movie, “The Day After,” a fictional account of the aftermath of a nuclear war between the US and the USSR. A hundred million people watched it (including me). President Reagan himself was moved by it, and it might well have played a role in his pursuit of nuclear disarmament with Gorbachev.
What “The Day After” did was remind people that when it comes to nuclear war, everybody has skin in the game. It’s one thing to be an armchair warrior taking sides in Syria or Iraq or Somalia (lest we forget, the US is still at war there) because what happens over there pretty much stays over there. You might as well be talking about a football game for all it’s going to affect you.
Not so when the missiles start flying. Not a single human being on earth will escape the consequences of even a limited exchange. A 2020 study estimated that the detonation of just 100 nuclear bombs would throw enough soot into the air to reduce world food supplies for a decade. Besides those killed in direct attacks, millions more would starve to death in the years that followed.
The study did not cover other effects, like how the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from a bomb blown up high in the atmosphere over a country can knock out its electronics and power grid. Think breakdown of the internet, communications, electricity, transportation, food distribution, the hospital system and non-cash transactions. Suddenly you’re cut off from everyone except the people in your immediate vicinity, with whatever you happen to have on hand in terms of necessities like food and water, and no way of getting more except by braving the panicked crowds that would soon form. Both the US and Russia are well aware of the power of EMPs and both developed plans for how to hit the other. Even if the US was struck only with a few well-placed EMPs, and no cities were blown up, the subsequent chaos and suffering would be incredibly miserable. Millions would die this way too. The country would never fully recover.
Then there’s the nightmare scenario of a full-on exchange of thousands of warheads, which would extinguish most life on the planet, not just humans.
Again, the stakes could hardly be higher. Doing anything other than trying to de-escalate our current situation is incredibly irresponsible. Hopefully this is the last you’ll hear about the USN because they end up sinking into obscurity. Or maybe, in the grand scheme of life, they just happen to end up being the one-more-little-thing that was needed to eventually tip the balance into absolute horror. Whatever the case, if the bombs do end up falling, may everyone who signed the “Solidarity with Ukraine!” statement be overwhelmed with sickening regret when they see the flash, feel the shock wave, or watch the mushroom cloud rise in the sky. Will it seem worth it then to have prattled on about the “right to obtain weapons”?
I am saddened and frustrated beyond words by the bellicose, dick-swinging political climate in the United States. So many people have hard-ons for their own hatred. It feels like we have a collective death wish and are slouching towards oblivion. I wish we had a more active antiwar movement. I am haunted by forebodings about the future, and I hope more than anything that my fears end up being unfounded. But I don’t know. Neither does anyone else. Which is why no one is justified in pushing for anything other than peace right now. There’s nothing “abstract” about survival vs. extinction.