American Friends Service Committee
Sara Burke, Managing Editor
Sam Diener, Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
The Temptations of Power
Judith McDaniel lives in Tucson and is the former Director of the American Friends Service Committee's Peace Building Unit.
I have been writing a biography of the twentieth century activist and writer, Barbara Deming. Last month, reading a 1967 essay she wrote on the war in Vietnam, I came across the following reflection on that war and on the characteristics and implications of the "American personality." She wrote:
"I am frightened that we Americans are on our way to becoming the world's bullies, all the while the majority of us confident in our hearts that we are a well intentioned people and therefore incapable of atrocities. And I find this unwillingness to look at what we are doing particularly frightening because I find it again and again in conjunction with another mental block. That is the refusal to believe that we could possibly withdraw from this war. ("The Temptations of Power" in Revolution and Equilibrium, Grossman 1971)"
North Americans are generally a "well-intentioned" people. We believe whole-heartedly in our own goodness, and learning about the atrocities committed in Vietnam by US soldiers was not only hard for us, at first it was impossible. For some, the horrible massacre Lieutenant Calley and his troops committed at My Lai was a turning point in our response to the war, after which we could not assume the goodness of everything American.
For others, there was the firm conviction that this act was a justified response to an evil opponent: American intentions were clear and honorable. Our troops were fighting communism and it did not matter that they were fighting it in someone else's country, that the policy of "destroying the sea the fish swim in" was destroying people's homes in their own villages in their own country. We could not see ourselves as the invaders; we were the liberators. How could we not be welcome?
Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not be the first American president to preside over a US defeat in a war. He saw withdrawal as defeat and in this he was not alone. Today, public officials lament Vietnam, the "only" war the US ever lost, and proclaim of each successive war that it will not be "another Vietnam."
George W. Bush displays the same mentality. The President and the Congress and those who supported a "preventive war" policy that allowed the invasion of Iraq were secure that God was on their side and that their intentions were righteous. We are Americans. How could it be otherwise?
I don't know how else to say it, but our intentions don't matter. Not at the beginning of the Iraq invasion, not now, not at all. It doesn't matter to an Iraqi civilian, to the hundreds or thousands of Iraqi noncombatants who have died, whether we bombed their country to steal their oil or to liberate them from a ruthless dictator or to establish a noble democracy. They and their children are dead. This was the inevitable result and it was not changed by good intentions.
Barbara Deming explained:
The policy of "preventive war" has this potential power-to destroy all life on this planet. It is not a policy of mutual support nor of confrontation and contain-ment.Whatever we thought of them, their designers contended that they were doing what was best for the world community. Those who designed and advocate the policy of preemption speak primarily of what is best for one nation, the United States.
In a September 2002 address to the nation, President Bush articulated his perception of why this policy is necessary. To go back to the old policies, he maintained, is to find "false comfort in a dangerous world. We have learned that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness."
In Bush's terms, if we engage the international community as an equal partner, if we consider the opinions and needs of other nations, if we even think of ourselves as somehow connected to the common good, we are perceived as "weak" and this invites terrorist attacks. This is the justification of a self-serving bully, not a leader.
Barbara Deming poses it this way:
Our current leaders have not resisted the temptations of power. I believe we must resist it for them. What would that look like?
We need not to believe that US citizens are the best, the only, or the most well-intentioned people in the world. We need to believe that we are neighbors, citizens of a world we share with millions of others. We need to articulate that connection in spite of being labeled unpatriotic. To say that those of us who live in the US are part of a greater whole is not self-hatred or self-denigration; it is a way of expressing our belief in a shared future.
We also need to struggle with leaders who abuse power. There are
as many ways to join the struggle as we can imagine - campaigning
politically, demonstrating in the streets, writing articles, engaging
in conversation with co-workers and neighbors, refusing to pay
war taxes, striving to model nonviolent conflict resolution in
our own lives. It will take a complex and broadly based effort.
But we must struggle nonviolently and politically, each and every
one of us. Now.