Archive for the ‘Nonviolence’ Category

One cheer for Trump?

We can all feel a bit safer now that John Bolton has been fired. Trump did the right thing in getting rid of the belligerent war monger, but of course one has to ask why he hired such a maniac in the first place. It’s not like Bolton’s extreme views were a secret. Just a few months before his appointment last year he had published an op ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for the overthrow of the Iran government and had urged action to end the regime in North Korea.

The firing of Bolton was probably Trump’s way of diverting attention from his latest high pro-life diplomatic disaster, the collapse of negotiations with the Taliban. After months of talks to reach an initial agreement, the deal collapsed when the White House proposed to bring Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani together at Camp David. Trump’s gambit for a dramatic high-level photo op at the famous presidential retreat failed miserably.

Not that the deal being negotiated was much to cheer about. From what is known about the draft text, it was certainly not a ‘peace agreement’. The deal was merely an understanding between the U.S. military and the Taliban for American troops to start withdrawing, in exchange for unspecified Taliban assurances that Afghan territory would not be used to launch terror attacks against the U.S. It reportedly included “localized truces” but no cease fire, and had no clear pathway for engaging the Kabul government or assuring the involvement of civil society.

But the talks with the Taliban were at least a beginning, and could serve as a future foundation for broader and deeper dialogue to end the killing and negotiate an eventual power-sharing formula. Trump said the talks are dead, but hopefully the dialogue can resume in the months ahead and evolve into a genuine peace process. That may be easier now that Bolton is out of the picture.

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Why did Trump pull back recently from military attacks against Iran, and what lessons can we learn from the incident?

It’s alarming how close the United States came during the third week of June to stumbling into a shooting match that could have become a military disaster. On the basis of flimsy claims about Iranian responsibility for attacks against ships in the Gulf and the shooting down of a surveillance drone, the war bureaucracy in Washington quickly geared up for action. John Bolton’s National Security Council presented a package of proposed military strikes. The President reportedly gave the order to start bombing, but then at the last minute, when told the attack could cost 150 Iranian lives, halted the operation.

It was “not proportionate,” the President tweeted, to kill so many people over the destruction of an unmanned machine. True enough. Under ethical principles for the use of force, the harm inflicted must be proportionate to the harm suffered. Killing 150 people in retaliation for an uncertain and slight offense in which no one was harmed obviously would be unjust.

But since when is Trump interested in ethical principles? Why didn’t he think of moral issues and the human cost before approving the order?

It’s difficult to know what were the real motivations. Certainly political considerations were at play. Pressure against a strike was building from antiwar Democrats and some Republicans in Congress, and from civil society groups. A few conservative commentators and military strategists spoke out against striking Iran. Many in Washington have warned that war with Iran would be a disaster worse than the debacle in Iraq.

Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon said this to the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen:

I don’t think any Trump supporters support further military engagement in the Middle East right now. His default position is not to be an interventionist. I never thought he’d be this far down this path, and I’m not loving the trend line. For the Trump base, war would hurt.

The expressed concern about civilian casualties may have been cover for avoiding what would have been a serious self-inflicted political wound.

Even so, it’s noteworthy that starting a war was considered bad politics. This suggests that war weariness and opposition to military intervention have become factors in domestic politics. For Trump, cancelling the plans of his trigger happy National Security Adviser was politically astute, a way of avoiding a costly mistake.

But let’s not lose sight of that concern about civilian casualties. Whether sincere or not, it was the expression of an important humanitarian impulse. The moral concern for civilian immunity and the prevention of human suffering can be a powerful argument for countering impulsive militarism.

There are lessons here for those who seek to avoid war. Focusing on the human costs of war is an effective strategy for cutting through the geopolitical justifications for military intervention, and can help to ensure that war is indeed bad politics.



Headquarters of the Red Crescent Society in Tehran, which I visited in late December 2007 as part of a delegation from the Mennonite Central Committee. Credit: Richard A. Kauffman.

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Cheers for Model UN

Last week I had the privilege of speaking to more than 3,000 eager high school students in Chicago’s Model Union conference at the Hyatt Regency hotel.

It was an enthusiastic and responsive crowd.

I told the students that their interest in global affairs is refreshing and urgently needed in the world today; especially when our political leaders are spouting nationalism and slogans like “America first,” and are turning away from negotiated agreements and UN diplomacy.

Our world needs the UN now more than ever, I emphasized. If the UN did not exist, we would have to invent it.

The world is becoming ever more globalized, whether we like it or not, and nations face challenges that no state can solve on its own, no matter how powerful it may be.

Our security depends upon cooperation with others. Our very survival depends on our ability to cooperate – nowhere is this more evident than in the global ecological crisis. The atmosphere knows no boundaries. The oceans have no borders. They belong to all and affect all. Both are being changed and threatened now as never before and must be protected.

The UN is leading the way by hosting global climate conferences, and helped to negotiate the landmark UN Paris Climate Agreement of 2016.

Despite its limitations, the Paris agreement is an important step forward and signifies global recognition of the need for lowering emissions.

It is shameful that the United States has withdrawn from the agreement, I told the students. “The United States should rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, and become the world leader in saving the planet!”

That line got loud applause, which made me smile.

I also talked about UN efforts to curb nuclear proliferation and promote disarmament, recalling the UN Special Session on Disarmament in 1982 and the accompanying giant rally to freeze and reverse the nuclear arms race that brought a million people to New York’s Central Park on June 12 of that year.

We need renewed attention to disarmament now, I argued. The U.S. should work with Russia to fix the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, not walk away from it.

“This business of shredding nuclear agreements has got to stop,” I said. “We need more agreements not less, and we need to uphold the ones that we have.”

More applause.

It was a wonderful event. To see so many idealistic young people studying global affairs and supporting calls for cooperative solutions to the world’s problems gave me hope for the future.IMG_0665

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On Patriotism

Two cheers for French President Emanuel Macron for denouncing nationalism and differentiating it from patriotism.

At the recent Paris ceremonies marking the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, Macron reminded us of the virulent nationalism that led to World War I and the senseless slaughter of millions. He warned against resurgent nationalism in our time and “the selfishness of nations only looking after their own interests.” The message was intended for President Trump and other right wing leaders in attendance, but it has meaning for people everywhere who want to protect peace.

Macron called nationalism a “betrayal of patriotism,” distinguishing between nationalism as a force for war and patriotism as a preference for peace and cooperation.

This is an important point that I have tried to emphasize over the years. Peace is patriotic. Patriotism implies sacrifice, duty, honor, selflessness, and generosity toward others. Nationalism means domination, militarism and xenophobia.

Macron did not go far enough in defining a positive vision for patriotism, but for that we can turn to others.

Howard Zinn said that it is necessary to redefine patriotism as “loyalty to the principles of democracy,” to “expand beyond that narrow nationalism that has caused so much death and suffering.”

Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. said, “The real patriots … are those who carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country.” They are not complacent in the face of injustice, but seek to expand the frontiers of opportunity.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that his public dissent against the Vietnam War was an act of patriotism. “I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America,” he famously said. “I speak out against this war because I am disappointed with America. There can be no great disappointment where there is no great love.” He wanted the United States to live up to its noble principles and stand as an example to the world for peace and democracy.

Let us uphold this bright vision of a generous and welcoming patriotism and reject the narrow and exclusionary nationalism that could plunge the world again into darkness.

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Recently I had the privilege of being asked to speak in San Francisco at the event, Presidio 27: “Mutiny” at the Stockade. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the peaceful sit-down by 27 Army prisoners at the stockade there on October 14, 1968.

The so-called mutiny involved 27 prisoners stepping away from formation that morning and sitting in a circle in the nearby grass to sing “We Shall Overcome.” The soldiers read a statement condemning the overcrowded and brutal conditions in the stockade, and protesting the killing two days earlier of an emotionally disturbed fellow prisoner, Richard Bunch, shot in the back by a trigger-happy guard as he walked away from a cleanup detail. Several of the soldiers in the Presidio group were AWOL at the time and had recently participated in antiwar protests in the Bay Area, including an October 12 antiwar march in San Francisco led by antiwar GIs and veterans.

For their nonviolent action in seeking redress the soldiers were charged by Army commanders with the capital offense of mutiny, which carries the death penalty. Some were sentenced with up to 16 years of hard labor at Ft. Leavenworth.

Here is the iconic photo of the soldiers sitting in protest and reading their grievances.


The incident sparked an outcry locally and nationally, including appeals from several members of Congress, and led to a spirited legal defense on behalf of the soldiers. The Army later reduced the charges and the convictions were overturned on appeal. For the full story read Fred Gardner’s The Unlawful Concert: An Account of the Presidio Mutiny Case.

The so-called mutiny had a catalytic effect on the emerging antiwar movement within the military. I remember hearing about it as an antiwar protester at Fort Hamilton, New York. Throughout the military from 1968 through 1972, enlisted troops and junior officers spoke out against the war and military injustices. Antiwar groups and GI “underground” newspapers appeared on nearly every major military base and aboard ships throughout the military. I tell the story of that movement in my book Soldiers in Revolt.

It was because of my role as historian and former participant of the movement that I was asked to participate in the Presidio panel discussion. Also on the panel were former Navy Lieutenant Susan Schnall, organizer of that GI antiwar march 50 years ago; Randy Rowland, one of the Presidio protesters; Brendon Sullivan, who served on the Presidio solders’ legal defense team; and former Marine Jeff Patterson, who refused to fight in Iraq.

In my remarks I talked about the importance of memory and the struggle not only to make history but to tell the story of that history and teach its lessons for the future.

It is important to honor our heroes, to remember and celebrate the courage of those young low-ranking working-class soldiers who risked everything that morning. By sitting down for peace they were standing up for justice and dignity.

Here is a YouTube video of some of the panel discussion.

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One of our greatest political leaders for peace has passed away. The highlights of Ron Dellums’ extraordinary career in Congress and his lifelong commitment to the pursuit of justice and peace are nicely captured in the New York Times obituary.

I can add a few points not mentioned by the Times.

Dellums was a member of the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of SANE during the years I was Executive Director of the organization. He spoke at a number of our events over the years, and he assigned his very able assistant Carlottia Scott to be his representative at organizational meetings. Scott was a constant, supportive, brilliant source of political guidance and support throughout the 1980s when SANE and the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign were at the peak of their influence.

Dellums and I spoke together at a number of rallies and conferences during those years. He was an eloquent speaker with a gift for words. He spoke of the need to connect disarmament and the struggle for racial and social justice by reminding audiences that the bomb is “an equal opportunity destroyer.” No one is safe from the indiscriminate mass annihilation of nuclear weapons, he would emphasize.

He linked the quest for greater domestic social spending to antimilitarism by quoting Dr. King’s famous indictment of the Vietnam War: the bombs being dropped over Hanoi were exploding in the streets of Harlem. The unconscionable sums of money wasted on war and weapons are diverting funds from programs to create economic opportunity and social uplift here at home.

I had occasion to reach out to Dellums again a few years ago when we invited him to deliver an opening keynote at the “Vietnam: Power of Protest” conference in Washington DC commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first antiwar protests. It was inspiring to see him, and to hear again that clear clarion voice calling us once more to the cause of peace.


Dellums speaking at “Vietnam: The Power of Protest” Conference. Credit: Brewster Rhoades.

Here is a link to the video of that May 2015 speech from Amy Goodman and Democracy Now.

Dellums recalled that evening how his life was changed when he heard Dr. King’s 1967 speech at Berkeley against the Vietnam War. Dellums realized then, he said, that “the peace movement is the ultimate movement, peace is the superior idea … Peace is not just the absence of war, it is the absence of conditions that give rise to war.”

Amen, brother Dellums. You will be missed, but we stand on your shoulders and will carry on the movement for justice and peace.


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Last week I had the extraordinary opportunity to witness and participate in a reenactment of one of the highlights of my life and a significant event in antiwar history, the 1970 court suit against the Army, Cortright v. Resor. The reenactment took place on May 8 in a courtroom of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in New York.

The program was sponsored by the Federal Bar Council Inn of Court before an audience of more than 100 jurists, attorneys, and legal professionals. Participants were able to earn Continuing Legal Education credits for attending.

The past President of the Federal Bar Council Inn of Court, Honorable Denny Chin, recently contacted me about the reenactment. A sitting member of the Second Circuit, Judge Chin explained that he and his teams at the Inn of Court create reenactments of major constitutional law cases that have come before the court, and they were planning to present my case as a test of the First Amendment rights of soldiers to dissent against the war. He interviewed me about the case and asked if I wanted to attend. Of course, I said yes.

In the court case many years ago, I joined with other members of the 26th Army band at Ft. Hamilton New York to file a suit against the Army for denying our First Amendment right to speak out against the Vietnam War. We argued that the punitive transfers and work assignments that had been imposed against our unit were an unconstitutional attempt to silence our dissent. We had signed a public petition against the war that appeared as a full-page ad in the November 9, 1969 issue of the New York Times, and we were involved in a second petition that our commanders suppressed.

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Also at issue in the case was an incident in which several band member wives and my fiancée at the time protested against the war during a Fourth of July parade at which the band was performing. The Army claimed that the transfers and onerous work duties imposed against us were for military necessity, but we had evidence and argued in court that these actions were specifically intended to suppress our right to speak out and get rid of me as an antiwar “troublemaker.”

We filed our case in Eastern District Federal Court in New York in July 1970. The presiding Judge Jack Weinstein ruled in our favor in March 1971 holding that my transfer was an improper attempt to deny constitutional rights and ordering that I was to be transferred back to Ft. Hamilton from Ft. Bliss Texas where I had been sent. The Army appealed the case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where Chief Judge Henry Friendly led a three-judge panel. A few months later the appellate judges ruled two-to-one to overturn the decision of the District Court, expressing judicial reluctance to interfere in the internal decisions of the Army. We then appealed to the Supreme Court but were denied review in the spring of 1972.

For the reenactment last week Judge Chin and his team prepared a tight 55-minute script of the case based mostly on transcripts of federal court proceedings and rulings. The script included excerpts from oral testimony in the District Court hearing; portions of Weinstein’s decision in our favor; oral arguments in the Second Circuit hearing; excerpts from internal voting memos of the three Second Circuit judges; and excerpts from the final decision of the Second Circuit to overturn our case. The script concluded with vignettes about the careers of those involved, especially Judge Weinstein, who became a legend at the bench.

It was an amazing and almost surreal experience to relive the case and see our words and actions dramatized. The reenactment brought that experience to life and deftly presented the core arguments and judgments at stake. Members of Judge Chin’s team played the roles of those involved: me, my fiancée, some of the other members of the band who testified in court, the attorneys for our side and the Army, the military commanders who were ordered to testify in court, and the judges who presided. It was fascinating to hear the arguments and written reflections of Judge Weinstein and the appellate jurists as they pondered the issues in the case and made their decisions. The reenactment even included a short vignette in which three women picked up antiwar posters and paraded around the courtroom shouting “Nix on War” and “Kill Poverty Not People” (the actual slogans the women used back in the day).

Accompanying the reenactment was a slide show presenting images of the New York Times petition, scenes of antiwar soldiers marching in Vietnam peace rallies, photos of judges Weinstein and Friendly, and the iconic Richard Avedon photo from 1969 in which I appeared with a dove above the slogan, “who has a better right to oppose the war.”

Judge Chin’s reenactment not only captured the emotion and drama of that experience but also brilliantly articulated the legal issues at stake. Federal judges do not normally interfere in the operations of the Army, as decided in Orloff v. Willoughby, but in this case, senior military officers admitted in court that I was transferred because of my antiwar activities. The Army tried to argue that the transfer was a normal administrative procedure, but our side proved that the generals singled me out for a transfer because of my role in organizing the petition. The Army argued that the band was a public relations unit and should not present antiwar views, but we never protested while performing for the Army.

The case also hinged on the Army contention that we should have controlled our wives and prevented the protest at the Fourth of July parade. The Army argued that we were responsible for the actions of the women, a view which our senior attorney Fred Cohn called “a most chauvinistic attitude.” I testified in court that we knew of the women’s plan to protest, but we did not initiate or organize the action. I didn’t think a demonstration at the parade was a great idea and worried that it could cause trouble, but I did not feel I could tell my fiancée and the other women what to do. The protest of the women did indeed cause a disturbance among people watching the parade, requiring police intervention and resulting in newspaper stories about the incident the next day. That was the precipitating event that convinced the Army to crack down on us and transfer me out. In effect, we were being punished because of the actions of our wives and my fiancée.

At the end of the reenactment, I was introduced and stood to read a few lines from the script about the purpose of our action. In response to a question, I explained that the experience of opposing the war and suing the Army changed my life and gave me a sense of purpose. I committed myself to working for peace and I am still at it nearly 50 years later. Were you scared back then, another young lawyer asked. “Terrified,” I replied. We were operating in uncharted territory and were afraid of what might happen, but we felt a moral obligation to speak out against an unjust war.

Judge Chin came up to thank me and the audience rose in a standing ovation. I thought their enthusiasm was for the presentation, which was truly excellent, but the judge wrote the next day that the applause was for me. Many people came up to me afterwards to thank us for standing up for what we believed. I felt proud to have brought the lawsuit and thrilled to be part of an event that preserves a key piece of the history of antiwar dissent in the Army during the Vietnam War.


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