Anti-War Activists Are Facing a Moral Dilemma

Anti-War Activists Are Facing a Moral Dilemma

Anti-War Activists Are Facing a Moral Dilemma

In the face of war’s atrocities, the tyranny of the immediate can be overwhelming—even for those committed to peace.


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I’ve been watching this country at war for many years now and, after 9/11, began spending time with American veterans who came to disdain and actively oppose the very conflicts they were sent to fight. The paths they followed to get there and the courage it took to turn their backs on all they had once embraced intrigued and impressed me, so I wrote a book about them. While doing so, I was often struck by a strange reality in that era of American war-making: In a land where there was no longer a draft, most Americans were paying remarkably little attention to our ongoing wars thousands of miles away. I find it even stranger today—and please note that this takes nothing away from the misery of the Ukrainian people or the ruthlessness of Vladimir Putin’s invasion—that the public seems vastly more engaged in a war its country is not officially fighting than in the ones we did fight so brutally and unsuccessfully over the past two decades.

Here, for instance, are just a few notes I took recently while listening to NPR: A woman calls one of its talk shows, feeling guilty about celebrating her daughter’s birthday in style when Ukrainians are suffering so horribly. A panel on a different NPR show discusses why Americans feel so involved and its members consider all-too-uncomfortably the rationale that the Ukrainians “look like us.” The show’s host does note that they don’t actually look like all of us, but no one suggests that decrying atrocities is easier when they’re committed by another country, especially one we never much liked to begin with.

Need more? Scott Simon, a popular NPR host, concludes an opinion piece about a 91-year-old Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust and died during the siege of Mariupol this way: “Whether in Bosnia, Rwanda, Xinjiang, Bucha, Kharkiv, or Mariupol, ‘Never Again’ seems to happen again and again.” Note the absence from that list of Afghanistan, Iraq, or Yemen.

And what about that people-like-us biz? “We are all Americans,” Le Monde declared after the 9/11 attacks. Are we all Ukrainians now? And does that explain the amnesia and whitewashing of American war policy in this century—or the implicit racism of it all? There’s something odiously revealing about our tendency to divide people caught in this planet’s wars into worthy and unworthy victims, the first deserving our sympathy (of course!), the second evidently deserving their fate.

So What’s Our Problem?

I don’t mean to dump on NPR. It hasn’t been beating the drums of war any more rhythmically than most other US news outlets in these last weeks. It’s also true that, despite the inherent dangers, journalists have greater access to the conflict in Ukraine than they ever did to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Thanks to Ukraine’s proximity to established news bureaus, its communication infrastructure, and the flow of refugees to neighboring countries, the coverage there has been more like the US war in Vietnam of the previous century than like the coverage of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That connection wasn’t lost on Pat Scanlon who worked in military intelligence in Vietnam. As he followed reports of Russia’s indiscriminate bombing and missiling of civilian targets in Ukraine, his post-traumatic stress disorder flared up badly. “I’ve seen what bombs do,” he told me. A member of Veterans for Peace (VFP), Scanlon is a long-standing anti-war and environmental activist. “This feels very different,” he said and, in response, he joined a local demonstration supporting Ukraine, even getting funding from his VFP chapter to contribute to humanitarian organizations there.

I, too, find myself appalled and saddened by the situation and frightened by the looming dangers. I, too, want to meet the needs of those more than 6 million refugees. And I, too, am susceptible to the way both Washington and the media are playing on my sympathies: the child with contact information written on her back in case she gets lost as her family flees Kyiv, President Zelensky in that hoodie resolutely staying put, and besieged Ukrainian soldiers flipping off Russian demands to surrender.

After all, this mix of horror and heroism catches what war is, not the gauzy all-American version with supposedly super-accurate, super-bloodless drones and those celebratory homecomings Americans were fed for 20 years. The extensive and vivid reporting on the nightmarish nature of the war in Ukraine has certainly helped bolster NATO’s sense of purpose and common cause, even as it’s drawn our fractured country closer together on at least one issue.

So why am I complaining?

I just wish our compassion had been more capacious and had kicked in for the Afghans and Iraqis when our military invaded their countries, bombed their cities, and terrorized their people. I wanted Americans to pay attention then because I held out hope that public pressure could end those wars much sooner. I wanted American feelings of empathy for the terrorized to translate into the gift of peace, and now, I want some of our resources to be made available to rebuild the places and lives we destroyed in those countries over so many years.

Instead, just as in the previous two decades, America’s involvement in war, this time with Russia, is above all a bonanza for war profiteers and our military-industrial-congressional complex.

Spoils of war

A shrewd and inspiring communicator, Zelensky has made it clear that any American commitment to Ukraine must include military equipment and lots of it. The United States has obliged: It pledged close to $5 billion in such assistance in the first 10 weeks of the war and President Biden asked Congress for another $20.4 billion for weapons and security measures on April 28. (The House then upped that to a $40 billion package of humanitarian and military aid and the Senate is soon likely to follow suit.) That same day, Congress voted to resurrect the World War II–era Lend-Lease program, the Senate unanimously, the House 417 to 10. On signing the original Lend-Lease legislation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “And so our country is going to be what our people have proclaimed it must be—the arsenal of democracy.” Indeed.

Between the Ukraine war and the demand it’s created to replenish the weapons supply at home— $8.7 billion of the new package—it looks like a good year for those defense contractors and their many benefactors in Congress. The investigative news outlet Sludge counted a dozen members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, who, in 2019, reported holding at least $50,000 worth of investments in top arms manufacturers (and I doubt it’s gotten better since).

One of the problems with lavishing weapons on Ukraine is that the arms and ammunition meant for that battlefield won’t necessarily stay on it or in the hands they’re meant for. The Global Organized Crime Index reports, “While [Ukraine] has long been a key link in the global arms trade, its role has only intensified since the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

So it’s hardly mystifying that, for example, Ukrainian forces have cluster bombs, banned internationally but used by the Russian army, and probably wielded them while trying to retake the village of Husarivka.

Ukraine may even have used Western-supplied weapons to attack fuel and research sites inside Russia itself. (Ukrainian officials are cagey on the subject.) As we know from leaks in Washington, their forces also used US intelligence to target and kill a striking number of Russian generals and sink the most formidable ship in that country’s Black Sea fleet. Those attacks may indicate a strategic shift from a defensive war to one aimed at debilitating Russia’s military. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said as much when he visited Ukraine in late April, declaring, “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

Mission creep? Slippery slope? Those, of course, aren’t the preferred terms here, although they’re beginning to sound like accurate descriptions of what’s happening.

What Can Be Done?

OK, so arming the world up the wazoo, as the United States, long the world’s greatest weapons merchant, has been doing for years, isn’t the best response. Then what should this country be doing as Russia destroys Ukraine’s buildings, infrastructure, and environment, while endlessly brutalizing people there? Of the many tropes being applied to the situation—David versus Goliath, standing up to bullies, Europe on the precipice, freedom versus tyranny—the dominant one is good against evil. What a relief to finally have a war situation be so clear-cut.

Except, of course, it isn’t.

When the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan on the flimsiest of pretexts—and, in the case of Iraq, outright lies (about Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction)—it was clear, at least to me, that the right response was Don’t Do It! and, once it was done, Get the Hell Out Now!

My country was the one acting criminally and I believed it to be not just my right but my obligation to protest vociferously and make those in power take heed. They didn’t, of course, but in my heart of hearts, I still believed that they should have.

In contrast, protest over Ukraine feels empty, performative. I can doff my cap to Marina Ovsyannikova, the valiant Russian TV editor who burst onto a news set with her anti-war sign. I can mourn the seven journalists who have died doing what the world needs them to do. I can send money for humanitarian aid and love to the librarians who are backing up Ukraine’s digital archives. I can support the 35 or so young men from both Russia and Ukraine who, according to Jeff Paterson, the founder of Courage to Resist, have called a resisters’ hotline in Germany to get accurate information about how to refuse to fight in this war. I can even recognize the impulse that moves veterans of America’s recent morally murky wars to volunteer to fight in Ukraine because it feels like a kind of redemption.

I could do that and more, but still, 300 civilians were slaughtered while sheltering in a theater in the city of Mariupol, although the Russian word for “children” was painted in giant letters on the ground nearby in the hope that the bombers would spare them. Still, 50 or more civilians were blown up in Kramatorsk while awaiting a train to take them to safety. Still, investigators found evidence of torture and rape, along with mass graves, in Bucha.

I don’t believe any war is a good war, but I recognize the need for self-preservation.

Such war crimes and brutality have put many anti-war activists, including those with military ties, in the disquieting position of struggling with their stance on this war. Veterans For Peace and Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), for instance, issued statements early on condemning the invasion and calling for a commitment of both sides to sincere negotiations. They also expressed concern over the weaponry pouring into Ukraine and the environmental consequences of such a war at this moment. VFP rejected punitive sanctions as not targeting those responsible for the war and used its military expertise to argue against establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. MFSO also demanded that the thousands of additional American troops the Biden administration had dispatched to Europe be withdrawn.

But in the face of war’s atrocities, the tyranny of the immediate can be overwhelming and, for groups that have long opposed America’s wars (and sometimes war in general), confusing indeed. Intra-group discussions in such organizations have reflected this and led to a marked lack of unanimity on how to respond. Positions have ranged from blaming the United States and NATO for provoking Russia’s invasion to charging Washington with not negotiating in good faith, to worrying about provoking Russian President Putin further—the Biden administration seems to be worrying about this, too—to calling out defense industries and their supporters for making hay while the sun shines, to hailing the Ukrainians for their resistance and affirming that people indeed do have the right to defend themselves.

Jovanni Reyes, who served as a staff sergeant in the US Army from 1993 until he resigned in 2005 because of his strong opposition to the Iraq War, acknowledges such internal conflicts in peace groups right now, including About Face, of which he’s a member. He believes that sending arms to Ukraine will only fuel the conflict further and that our government doesn’t want to end the war but to fight the Russians. “There is no military solution,” he says, “so you have to come to the table and stop flooding [Ukraine] with arms.”

In contrast, Celeste Zappala, an early member of Military Families Speak Out and the mother of a National Guardsman killed in Iraq in 2004 (who once described herself to me as “everybody’s bleeding-heart liberal”), disagrees. She doesn’t think the US should back off. As she put it, “I feel like if we don’t somehow face this down, what happens?” And if she had a son in the military now? “I’d be super worried, but I would reluctantly support [his deploying to Europe] because I don’t see any other way.”

Any Other Way?

Since NATO was launched in 1949 as a defense alliance of 12 Western countries aligned against the Soviet Union—it has 30 members now—much has transpired, including actions that were provocative or poorly timed. Nothing NATO has done, however, justifies Vladimir Putin’s invasion and destruction of Ukraine. Of course, the odds of his listening to American peace activists are nonexistent. He has, after all, ignored more than 1.5 million of his own citizens, the 4,000-plus Russian scientists and science journalists, the 20,000 artists and other culture workers, and the 44 top chess players in his own country who have signed petitions and letters stating their opposition to his war. He seems no less capable of ignoring the deaths of anywhere from 7,000 to 24,200 Russian troops, not to mention probably tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians.

What Putin wants and what he’s still planning to do are the subject of much speculation, especially if he’s given no face-saving way out. I hope that there’s more diplomacy going on behind the scenes than is now being reported and that realistic compromises on all sides, even hard-to-swallow ones, which will satisfy nobody, are being considered. But maybe Putin is just plain crazy, in which case, we’re all screwed.

The significance of Ukraine’s struggle certainly doesn’t lie in educating Americans, but perhaps it is finally making us reckon with the costs of war, as we’ve needed to do for so long. As the blood and dread and filth of war are made vivid to Americans through relentless reporting and imagery, is it possible that we will become at least somewhat more mindful of going to war? Might it even lead us—and yes, I know it’s unlikely—to reexamine this country’s militarism in this century and its role in other wars in places we’ve done our best never to see from the inside?

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