Obama, the Pensive War Criminal
(Remarks delivered at the Veterans for Peace Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, August 9.)
It’s always an honor to share a podium with Kathy Kelly.
You know, if the Nobel Prize committee had any self-respect, it would revoke the peace prize it gave to Barack Obama and hand it over to Kathy Kelly.
She certainly deserves it much more than he does. She goes to the points of conflict. And she puts herself on the line, whether that’s in Iraq or Afghanistan or Palestine.
And I’d also like to thank my friend Will Williams, who has been a stalwart in our peace movement here for many years. I’m thrilled that you’ve given Will an award for his peacekeeping. He’s really earned it.
I remember being up north in Wausau, Wisconsin, on February 15, 2003, right before Bush dragged this nation into war on a leash of lies. It’s not smart to go further north in Wisconsin in the winter, and it was about 14 degrees up there, and windy. It was really cold. And there was Will, on stage, telling it like it was, and warning us all about what was about to happen.
And Will’s still at it. He’s been arrested over at the capitol here in Madison recently for the crime of holding a sign and singing songs about our rights without a permit. If the cops think that’ll stop him, they arrested the wrong guy.
I’d also like to thank all of you from Vets for Peace who visited the capitol the past few days and joined in the fun.
I was there when Walker’s thugs hauled out your national treasurer, Mike Harrington, who was holding your Vets for Peace flag up high.
What a shameful day for Scott Walker.
But what a proud day for Vets for Peace.
You’ve all shown real solidarity this week, and we here in Madison, we here in Wisconsin, really appreciate it.
I’d like to dedicate my talk today to Howard Zinn, the great historian and activist and author of A People’s History of the United States. Howard wrote a column for The Progressive in the last dozen years of his life, and I came to know him as a sweet and funny but resolutely principled man.
He was, as he wrote in his autobiography, an “eager bombardier” in World War II and dropped a kind of napalm on southern France right before that war ended.
But he came to reconsider and renounce his participation in what he refused to call “the good war.”
Because he knew, just as you know, much more than I do, what war is like.
“War is terrorism, magnified a hundred times,” he wrote.
And he had this to say, as Bush was cooking up his lies.
“As we contemplate an American attack on Iraq, should we not go beyond the agendas of the politicians and the experts. Should we not imagine what war will do to human beings whose faces will not be known to us, whose names will not appear except on some future war memorial?”
And I’m sure he’d be equally critical of what Barack Obama has done. Because, to an alarming degree, Obama has continued the policies of the Bush and Cheney administration.
Yes, Obama has brought the troops back from Iraq. But Bush had already started that process in motion.
And it was Obama who tripled the number of troops in Afghanistan, not Bush, not McCain, not Sarah Palin, not Mitt Romney, or Paul Ryan, or John Boehner.
And Obama has continued the policy of kidnapping and illegally whisking people off to far off dungeons.
I don’t call it “extraordinary rendition”—that’s like something the judges would say on American Idol.
I call it a war crime.
Permit me to speak plainly here.
Like Bush, Obama is a war criminal. A smarter, cooler, more polished, and more pensive war criminal, but a war criminal, nonetheless.
Take Libya. He’s made a mockery of the War Powers Act by not even formally consulting Congress over the war in Libya. The President just decided on his own that he wanted to do this war—the military wasn’t even in favor of it—and so he did it.
That’s a violation of our Constitution, which, under Article 1, Section 8, gives Congress the sole power to declare war.
And the War Powers Act requires him to notify Congress and get retroactive approval but he refused to do that because he said that the Libya war “did not amount to hostilities.”
And you know why he said that? Because we didn’t have ground troops there, and because the U.S. had demolished Libya’s air force and anti-aircraft weapons such that our bombers were totally free to do their dirty work.
It was, in that sense, a perfect war, an antiseptic war, at least on our end. But it didn’t turn out so well, as we saw in Benghazi.
Then there’s Obama’s outrageous claim that he can, as President of the United States, go bump off anyone he wants to anywhere in the world even if that person is an American citizen.
And he’s done it.
Not only with Anwar al-Awlaki.
But with al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was killed by a drone a couple weeks after his father. Born in Denver, Abdulrahman was hardly a senior Al Qaeda official, one of the rationales the Obama Administration gives for their assassination policy.
No, there was not even a good rationale for murdering the sixteen year old.
All Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former press secretary, said was that Abdulrahman “should have had a far more responsible father.”
Obama has turned the White House into the Corleone compound. And they meet every Tuesday to go over their hit list.
This is obscene!
Like Bush, but worse, Obama has escalated drone warfare, using drones eight times as often as Bush did.
This drone warfare, even as some generals have acknowledged, is making enemies faster than Obama is killing them.
Check out Medea Benjamin’s great book on Drone Warfare. (Medea, by the way, was sitting in at the capitol at noon today and yesterday. And she’s right here with us. She deserves a Nobel Peace Prize, too. She goes to where the conflict is.)
You know, three weeks from now, Obama is going to speak at the 50th anniversary celebration of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington.
And as my friend, the writer and activist Kevin Alexander Gray puts it, we’ve gone from “I have a dream” to “I have a drone.”
And here we are today, on the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, one of the greatest war crimes in all of human history, and we need to remember that we’ve still got thousands of nuclear weapons, and so does Russia.
And many of those weapons are still pointed at each other.
And even worse, they remain on hair-trigger alert, which means that either side has only 15 minutes to decide whether to launch a retaliatory strike if it mistakenly believes the other side has already lobbed their weapons at them.
We’ve almost had accidental nuclear war several times.
During the Cuban missile crisis, a Russian nuclear submarine commander thought the U.S. had already attacked and was preparing to launch his weapons when, fortunately, he was informed of his mistake.
During the Carter Administration, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser, got a call in the wee hours of the morning that Russia had launched 20 nuclear missiles, and then another call came to say that it was actually 200.
He didn’t even bother to wake his wife because he thought they’d all be dead by dawn.
Turned out, it was a computer malfunction, and he—and we—heard about it just in time.
And in 1995, when Yeltsin was head of Russia, and it might have been one of those nights when he was in his suds, he thought the U.S. had already launched nukes against Moscow and was preparing to counterattack when one of his advisers informed him that it was just a joint U.S.-Norwegian exploratory rocket.
That’s how close we’ve come.
Don’t you think that maybe, just maybe, we should make sure that our leaders at least sleep on it before they decide to blow the world up?
We’ve got to get these weapons off of hair-trigger alert.
And we’ve got to rid the entire planet of nuclear weapons because as my old friend and vet, Sam Day, used to say, sooner or later, some country or group is going to use these weapons and we’ll have hell to pay.
A literal hell, a nuclear hell.
For instance, a nuclear war not between the superpowers but between India and Pakistan would end up bringing on global nuclear winter and could extinguish life on Earth, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility.
So we’ve got our work cut out for us as peace activists.
We need to push for nuclear disarmament.
We need to push for a real end to the Afghan War, and not the leaving of thousands of U.S. troops there.
We need to push for an immediate end to the drone warfare.
We must rescind the assassination doctrine of President Obama.
And we, here in the U.S., must stop being an empire, for as Howard Zinn warned us, that’s what our soldiers are dying for, not democracy, not freedom, not the American way, whatever that is.
They’re dying for the corporations and banks that run the world, for whom the Pentagon and its troops are the mere advance men.
For the fact is, you can’t have an empire without war.
And you can’t have an empire with a democracy, because ultimately people will demand an end to war, as you have.
So we have a choice: war and empire on one side, or peace and democracy on the other.
That choice ought to be an easy one.
Just the other day, I received a beautiful chapbook of poetry from an Iraq War vet named Nathan Lewis, who works with a group called the Veterans’ Sanctuary in Trumansburg, New York.
This book is literally made out of soldiers’ uniforms.
Isn’t that beautiful?
So let us make poetry out of war.
And art out of madness.
And joy out of neo-fascism, as we do every day at the Solidarity Sing Alongs.
And above all, peace out of all the work we do, together.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story Bezos, the Washington Post, and the Future of Journalism.
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter
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