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Recently I had the privilege of attending the Vatican-sponsored symposium, “Prospects for a World Free of Nuclear Weapons and for Integral Disarmament.” It was a transformative and inspiring experience that included an audience with Pope Francis. The Vatican invited Notre Dame’s Office of the President and Kroc Institute to collaborate in the event, and five faculty members and a dozen current and recent students made the trip to Rome. Among the more than 300 participants were Nobel laureates, ambassadors and governmental representatives, Church leaders, civil society leaders and nuclear experts from dozens of countries.

The highlight of the event was the audience with the Holy Father, which took place in the Vatican’s magnificent Clementine Palace. The Pope delivered an important address that broke new ground in strengthening the Church’s commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons. Noting the grave risk these weapons pose to humankind, the pontiff declared “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.” This was the first time a pope rejected the very possession of nuclear weapons.

After the address, all of us at the conference were invited to greet the Pope. As I stood in line inching closer to the Holy Father my knees were shaking. I kept thinking of my long departed mom, who was so devout in the faith, and how proud she would be of her sometimes wayward son finding his way to the Vatican. I took deep breaths to compose myself and tried to focus on the moment as I stood now in front of the Holy Father. He reached out and smiled warmly, and I stepped forth and clasped his hand. I can’t remember what I said to him. Time seemed to stand still and for a moment I had no idea where I was. Then I turned and walked slowly back to my seat, floating on air, overwhelmed with a deep feeling of gratitude and joy, aglow with the spirit of this most blessed of popes. I noticed similar deep smiles of wonderment on the faces of many conference participants as they returned to their seats.

The symposium was historic not only in expressing the Church’s condemnation of nuclear weapons but in articulating the concept of “integral disarmament,” which can be understood as a companion to the Church’s doctrine of integral human development. Denuclearization is an imperative not only for humanitarian reasons to save innocent lives, but to redirect public resources toward programs that address the needs of the poor and enhance human flourishing. As with integral human development, the goal of integral disarmament is to protect life in all its dimensions and to support inclusive approaches to economic and social opportunity. Integral disarmament also encompasses Pope Francis’s concern for protecting the environment and respecting God’s creation, as expressed in Laudato si’. All of this is woven into a capacious conception of disarmament that seeks not only to prevent nuclear holocaust but refocus public priorities toward serving human and ecological needs.

Attending the historic symposium and greeting the pope was a privilege, but with that honor comes the responsibility to heed the pontiff’s words and redouble our efforts for peace and integral disarmament.

With Pope Francis

Recently more than a hundred veterans of the Vietnam antiwar movement and peace scholars and activists gathered in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the October 1967 March on the Pentagon, arguably one of the most significant and iconic demonstrations of the peace movement, also the subject of Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Armies of the Night.

The commemorative event included a vigil at the Pentagon near the site of the original protest, a conference with analyses of the antiwar movement and recollections from the March by those who participated, and a walk to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Washington Mall.

At the Memorial, aka “the Wall,” we gathered to lay a wreath in honor of those who suffered from the war. We noted that if the Memorial were extended to include the names of the millions of victims of the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, it would stretch more than two miles to beyond the Capitol building and across the Potomac past the Pentagon.

I was asked to offer some words on behalf of the soldiers memorialized at the Wall and those who served during the war. My comments are below:

 

We approach the Wall with a deep sense of reverence.

This is sacred ground for many of us, a hallowed place in which we remember and pay respects to the more than 58,000 American soldiers who lost their lives, to the hundreds of thousands who suffered severe injuries, to the millions who experienced post-traumatic stress and continue to suffer to this day, and to their families, friends, and colleagues who suffered with them.

This is a place of sadness and mourning, which is always the case when we remember the losses of war, but in this case, the sadness and mourning are particularly poignant and tragic, for a war that we know was unjust and unwinnable. A war of imperial ambition. A war that was profoundly immoral and a violation of international law. A war that was unnecessary and in vain.

And so this must also be a place of recommitment and rededication to working for peace, to struggling for justice and human rights to prevent war. To opposing and stopping the unnecessary and futile wars our country is pursuing today in Afghanistan and half a dozen other countries.

We hereby devote ourselves in the years we have remaining to carry on the struggle for justice and peace, to pass along our ideals to the children and grandchildren and young people everywhere who come after us, to carry on the movement against war.

And if we are successful, if we can turn America away from militarism and wars of intervention, if we can build a culture and politics of peace, then perhaps those we remember here today will not have died in vain, and we can create a future with no more victims of unjust war.

 

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Rick Hind, a veteran of the Vietnam antiwar movement and longtime legislative director of Greenpeace, lays a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on behalf of the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee, October 21, 2017.

The Nobel Peace Prize for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a wonderful tribute to the many millions of people around the world who have struggled over the years against the insanity of nuclear weapons.

Congratulations to the courageous and far-sighted organizers who founded the campaign! And Congratulations to all who are or have been part of the worldwide movement for nuclear disarmament!

The Nobel Prize is an affirmation not only of the goal of nuclear abolition but of the essential role of civil society activism in helping to achieve that goal.

The Nobel Committee similarly honored the role of citizen activism in 1985 when it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The physicians’ movement played a central role in mobilizing public opinion against nuclear weapons at the time of the nuclear freeze movement in the U.S. and the disarmament campaigns of Europe. The Nobel Committee praised the role of the physicians for increasing public pressure against nuclear proliferation.

In its statement this week the Nobel Committee honors ICAN for drawing attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for ground-breaking efforts to build support for the recently adopted UN Treaty to Ban Nuclear Weapons.

The humanitarian issue has been crucial to the ICAN strategy and has helped to broaden the framework for addressing nuclear weapons issues. It shifts the focus from arcane conceptions of national security to the urgency of saving lives and preventing human suffering. ICAN’s emphasis on humanitarian issues follows the model of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997.

Leaders of the nuclear weapons states will ignore or scoff at this awarding of the Nobel Prize, but we will not be misled or deterred from continuing the struggle for nuclear abolition.

President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.” With this latest Nobel Peace Prize perhaps we have moved a step closer to that day.

Viewing Vietnam

Watching The Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick has been difficult. Witnessing the horrors of the fighting and the bombing, hearing again the lies and propaganda that sustained the insanity, reliving the agonizing choices our generation faced in being forced to confront an unjust war. It’s a painful experience.

It is made worse by Burns and Novick falling prey to the core deceptions of the war. From the outset, they claim it was a struggle fought with good intentions. They accept the logic of militarism and anti-communism that led to the war. They omit or distort many important historical facts. Throughout the film they cloak those who served in the war in a mantle of honor and patriotism, falsely implying that those of us who were part of the war machine at the time were somehow helping our country, as if anything good could come of such wanton destruction and deception.

Despite the many flaws, however, I see two important and valuable insights in the documentary.

It is unmistakably clear that the presidents, policy advisers, and military leaders who initiated the war grossly misread history and consciously deceived themselves and the American people. Kennedy, Johnson, and McNamara knew the war was unwinnable but they kept it going out of political self-interest and moral cowardice. Nixon and Kissinger cynically engineered the gradual end of the ground war, propelled by the antiwar opposition and the collapse of the military, but they unleashed a monstrous air war that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam and Cambodia. Responsibility for the debacle of Vietnam rests squarely on the shoulders of our country’s political and military leaders.

The other key point for me is that we were right to protest and resist the war. Peace movement voices are few in the 18 hours of footage from Burns and Novick, but they speak with clarity and moral conviction. The most sympathetic treatment is reserved for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which emerged as a significant political force especially in 1971. There is too much focus on extremist tendencies within the movement and not enough attention to the overwhelming majority of nonviolent protesters, but it is clear that political opposition to the war profoundly influenced decision-making at the White House and was a decisive factor in constraining escalation and driving the withdrawal of American troops.

Burns and Novick do not address the moral and political lessons of the war and their relevance for today. Militarism is a disease that infects and warps American politics. It led to disaster and defeat in Vietnam and continues today in the endless and unwinnable wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond.

Will we ever learn?

Nuclear Insanity

Many doubts have been raised recently about Trump’s sanity, but few have mentioned the insanity and certifiable madness of his policy to spend ‘vast sums’ in building up nuclear weapons and launching a new arms race.

The Trump administration is forging ahead with building a new long-range stealth nuclear cruise missile. This deadly weapon is highly provocative, able to deliver nuclear firepower with pinpoint accuracy without warning against any target in the world. Critics contend it is intended to fight a nuclear war and could start one. It is likely to provoke counter-moves from Russia and other countries and will increase global nuclear tensions.

Plans are also proceeding to rebuild the entire U.S. land-based nuclear missile force, guaranteeing that these obsolete relics of the Cold War will be with us for decades to come, making it ever more unlikely that the commitment to arms reduction that began with the Reagan administration will be resumed.

The Trump nuclear buildup will greatly increase the U.S. ability to launch nuclear strikes. Perhaps this is what the President had in mind when he threatened North Korea recently with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

When Trump threatened a new arms race in his nuclear tweets in December, many at the time dismissed his rantings as mere bluster. Now we see they are becoming reality.

This is the true insanity of Trump. We are entering an era of madness and increased danger, stumbling along under the helm of a delusional President toward a new nuclear precipice.

I once directed an organization called SANE, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. It is time for a similar public effort today. We dearly need a new policy of nuclear sanity: a halt to further nuclear weapons development and a return to arms reduction.

Trump and Afghanistan

A recent report in the Wall Street Journal states that the Trump administration is considering the withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan. No official word on this from the President, but there are indications that the White House so far has not approved a Pentagon request to send nearly four thousand more troops to the war. Some in the administration apparently are looking at the option of getting out altogether. Military withdrawal is the right choice for Afghanistan, but it needs to be combined with a diplomatic strategy for achieving a negotiated peace.

After 16 years of frustration in a war we are “not winning,” to quote Secretary of Defense Mattis, it is clear that no military victory will be possible in Afghanistan. If the United States and its allies could not defeat the Taliban in earlier years with more than 150,000 troops on the ground, trying to fight on now with a much smaller force is folly.

Military disengagement by itself is not a solution, however. Heading for the exits without a political and diplomatic plan for transition could make matters worse. In the absence of U.S. support, the Kabul regime would likely collapse, leading to a violent struggle for power and a potential repeat of the bloody civil war of the 1990s.

If Afghanistan is to be saved from further violence and chaos, the United States must join with other countries in a concerted diplomatic effort to end the conflict and negotiate an end to hostilities and an open political process leading to a power sharing agreement among the Kabul government, the Taliban and regional leaders.

The Wall Street Journal article reports that the Trump administration is planning to engage China, India and Pakistan in a regional peace plan. Russia, China and Pakistan have started trilateral talks. These are potential steps in the right direction, but an effective diplomatic strategy will require a much broader and more inclusive process under UN mandate.

Pakistan certainly must be involved, and Iran as well. India’s interests are also heavily at stake.

The goal of a political and diplomatic process would be to guarantee that Afghanistan is not used as a base for terrorist attacks against the United States or other states. This has always been and remains the primary U.S. and international strategic objective.

The negotiation process could also attempt to facilitate an Afghan-led political process for creating a new more inclusive and accountable system of governance in the country. A parallel diplomatic process will be needed among neighboring states to support the peace process and refrain from external interference.

As part of the bargaining process, Washington must be prepared to withdraw its forces and halt military operations. This is both incentive to the insurgents to accept a ceasefire and a message to Kabul that it must be prepared to restructure the government and share power. In this sense, the administration’s consideration of military withdrawal could suggest flexibility on a critically important and delicate issue.

Many in Washington have been skeptical of military withdrawal because it could spark further violence and instability and reduce U.S. political leverage. That might be true if Trump simply withdraws troops without seeking political and diplomatic agreements in the process. The better approach would be to link troop withdrawals to Taliban and Afghan government support for a ceasefire, security assurances against terrorism and a more open political process within the county. If this were to work, U.S. and international political objectives in Afghanistan would be met.

Admittedly the odds against such a strategy succeeding are enormous, but a concerted attempt to seek a negotiated solution at least should be attempted. Unlike the war option, a ceasefire and diplomatic process would lower the level of violence and reduce civilian casualties, which have increased to record levels.

A negotiated agreement for Afghanistan will need large-scale international support and third party security assurances. The record of other peace processes indicates that comprehensive UN missions help to enhance implementation success. Also necessary are third party security assurances to monitor and support ceasefire arrangements and protect those who engage in the political process. Taliban leaders have said in the past they would support a Muslim peacekeeping mission, which if authorized through the UN could include forces from Indonesia, Malaysia, and other countries.

The willingness to withdraw US troops could be key to setting a peace process in motion, but only if it is linked to a major diplomatic initiative. If Trump is serious about trying to end America’s longest war, he should keep the idea of withdrawal in play and use it along with the promise of continued American political and economic support to bargain for a diplomatic solution.

I had a powerful emotional experience the other night as I visited the new memorial in downtown South Bend commemorating the moment in June 1964 when Notre Dame’s President, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, joined hands with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the historic rally for civil rights in Chicago’s Soldier Field. That moment was captured in a famous photo that now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington and is displayed ubiquitously at Notre Dame and beyond.

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Courtesy of Notre Dame Archives

The memorial is a striking sculpture by local artist Tuck Langland that presents the two great civil rights icons crossing hands as they sing “We Shall Overcome.” The City of South Bend and our progressive Mayor Pete Buttigieg unveiled the statue at a public event last week.

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South Bend Tribune Photo / BECKY MALEWITZ

Unable to attend the ceremony during the week, I walked over to the memorial Saturday evening on my way to a local restaurant. The fading light of dusk gave a special luster to the bronze. I stepped slowly toward the statue, feeling the spiritual power of the image and its historical meaning. As I stood there alone on the sidewalk, holding back tears of joy and admiration, a car slowly pulled up and stopped in front of the statue.

A distinguished looking older African American gentleman in a suit stepped out of his elegant new car and walked up to the statue. We stood there for a few moments in silence. Then he turned to me and said “if they hadn’t assassinated Dr. King and the Kennedy’s think of how much more progress there would be than what we have now.” I nodded and shared the story of Fr. Hesburgh receiving a call that June day so long ago, Dr. King asking him to come to Soldier Field. Hesburgh did not equivocate. He asked, ‘what time do you need me?’ and got into his car and drove to Chicago. “That’s the kind of commitment to justice we need today,” I uttered. He nodded, and we shook hands.

As I strolled away, the tears poured down. The visit to the memorial had felt like a religious experience, a moment of redemption and inspiration. I especially sensed the spiritual presence of Fr. Hesburgh, whom I had the privilege of knowing and who founded the Kroc Institute where I proudly serve.

The sculpture has the hands of Hesburgh and King reaching out, inviting all of us to grasp our hands with theirs in the continuing struggle for justice and human rights.