David Swanson’s War Is A Lie (Charlottesville, VA, 2010) may be the most comprehensive antiwar statement available in the English language.
The book systematically refutes all the major arguments typically used to justify wars, with a special focus on the United States. Learning the history of unjustified US wars and criminality—which began long before George W. Bush—can not only help us to see through official rhetoric about current wars, but is essential to preventing future ones. The best way to prevent many diseases is through inoculation, which often involves confronting the body with a preview of a virus so that it may better fend off the real thing. Similarly, David Swanson argues, “our goal should be war preparedness in a particular sense: we should be prepared to reject lies that might launch or prolong a war” in the future. With that goal in mind, Swanson breaks down “the main categories of war lies” (pp. 11-12). Those lies have stayed remarkably consistent throughout modern history, whether the aggressor has been the United States or other powerful nations.
Most of the thirteen chapters focus on refuting a specific “category” of lies, drawing on applicable historical examples for each. A sampling includes:
- Wars are not unavoidable. Alternative options for peace or negotiations almost always exist, but are often rejected, as the US government did with Japan prior to WWII and in summer 1945, in Korea in 1950, and in Afghanistan in 2001 (and since). Specific lies are usually fabricated to launch wars (e.g., the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, or Iraqi WMDs), and once wars begin, further lies are constructed to justify their continuation (e.g., that Vietnamese or Iraqis will slaughter each other without US supervision).
- Wars are not fought for democracy and human rights. All warmaking governments claim noble intentions, but there is never much evidence to support it. In chapter 4 Swanson even takes aim at the sacred cow of US wars—World War II—and shows that the plight of the Jews figured little in the calculations of US policymakers. The pattern holds for other “good” wars as well.
- War brings neither security nor economic prosperity. War and arms build-ups, including nuclear proliferation, almost invariably promote further violence and militarization. Economically, spending on war and the military is far less efficient than spending on human needs and social infrastructure.
- War kills mostly non-combatants, and the percentages have jumped over the past century as humanity has enhanced the means of mass slaughter.
- War does not reflect a natural human impulse. In World War II, fewer than 20 percent of Allied soldiers are estimated to have fired their weapons. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder probably stems more from the trauma of being forced to harm other human beings than from the fear of being killed. As Swanson notes, “It is only through intense and well-designed conditioning that most people can be brought to kill” (156).
Swanson does not write off ordinary people who support war as simple dupes. Instead, as he makes clear throughout the book, public support for US wars must be manufactured through very dedicated propaganda campaigns: for example, the WWI-era Committee on Public Information, the US media’s racist depictions of the Japanese during WWII, and the same media’s constant implication that the current US presence in Afghanistan is protecting women’s rights (the enthusiastic complicity of the corporate press in US warmaking receives its own detailed indictment in chapter 10). Central to such propaganda campaigns are not only lies, but also the cooptation of people’s generosity and good intentions. “War brings out the best for the worst,” mobilizing “the noblest traits of character to serve the vilest ends” (138-39).
Deceit and cooptation are especially important for ensuring discipline in the military. Swanson is not afraid to confront the sometimes-thorny issue of US soldiers and their role in US wars (chapters 5, 7). He demonstrates through clear logic and evidence just how Orwellian mainstream commentary has become when war opponents are labeled “anti-soldier” while those who send them to their deaths are their biggest supporters. Swanson, appropriately in my view, neither praises nor vilifies US soldiers, recognizing that in many cases they are simply victims of elite greed and ambition: “The solution…is not to praise or punish veterans, but to show them kindness while speaking the truth required to stop producing more of them” (161). What I found most helpful about his discussion on soldiers was the distinction between bravery and heroism. He acknowledges the bravery of anyone who would sacrifice his or her life for a cause, but observes that
mindless bravery is useless or worse, and certainly not heroic. What we need is something more like honor. Our model and ideal person should be someone who is willing to take risks when required for what he or she has carefully determined to be a good means to a good end. (138)
Building a successful antiwar movement, and a durable anti-militarist culture, requires that we foster an alternative conception of heroism. Swanson quotes John F. Kennedy’s private remark that “war will exist until the distant day when the [opponent of war] enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today” (p. 133). JFK was terrified of such a possibility, but our task is to make it a reality.
One minor concern that I had prior to reading the book was that its focus on government lies was too narrow. Many propaganda mechanisms are not necessarily “lies,” strictly speaking. More importantly, a shallow preoccupation with government lies and political scandal sometimes obscures underlying structural relationships and impedes a systemic critique of government policy. A focus on the lies of individual politicians or of government in general has been characteristic of the conspiratorial psychologies behind many right-wing populist movements, which, if they reflect some healthy impulses, often neglect corporate power, structural inequalities, and the suffering of foreign peoples while reinforcing US nationalism and opposition to world legal bodies like the UN and World Court. As Jerry Lembcke has warned, there is a danger of the Left playing into this tendency and neglecting larger issues of structural causation, human rights, and international law: for example, overemphasis on the Bush administration’s false pretenses for invading Iraq runs the risk of obscuring deeper causes and effects, and also of implying that if Iraq had possessed WMDs then a US invasion would somehow have been justified.
But David Swanson avoids all these pitfalls. In the text itself, the label “lies” is shorthand for a wide range of propaganda: omissions, distortions, glorifications, xenophobic ideologies, and concealment of motives, in addition to outright falsehoods. And Swanson devotes chapter 6 to a discussion of warmakers’ motives (largely in their own words), in which he does analyze some of the structural underpinnings of US wars and militarism. Economic motives behind US wars have included the corporate elite’s desire for overseas resources and markets and domestic military contractors’ interest in building a gargantuan US military. Geopolitical motives have included the consolidation of control over strategic areas like the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. Swanson also provides some remarkable examples of the way that the chauvinist political culture in Washington has led to incredible human suffering, as politicians eager to assert their own hyper-masculinity and the virility of the United States on the global stage have casually condemned hundreds of thousands of innocent people to death and suffering. That machismo—specifically, the desire to avoid "humiliation" at all costs—was crucial to the continuation of the Vietnam War, and, although Swanson doesn’t make the link, is probably part of the reason behind Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan.
This book is a remarkable contribution and deserves to be read by the widest possible audience. Though few of the book’s observations are technically new, the text is a well-written synthesis of antiwar arguments that is firmly rooted in historical experience. Like the writings of public intellectuals like Howard Zinn or Noam Chomsky, this book is not intended for scholars, but for ordinary people. It will be most valuable as an easy-to-read historical primer for those members of the public who, courtesy of schools and the media, have only had access to the official doctrine on the US role in the world. It is difficult to see how any open-minded person who doesn’t directly profit from US wars could support those wars after reading this book.
The book will also be valuable for liberal-minded readers who, good intentions notwithstanding, lack the strong historical grounding and logical coherence that would compel them to develop a more systematic critique of US wars and militarism. Finally, the book should serve as a set of detailed talking points for antiwar organizers and the “already-converted,” a model of effective argumentation and framing of the issues.
War Is A Lie combines righteous moral outrage with sharp wit and clear, impeccable logic. Read it, discuss it, cite it, photocopy it, give it as a gift, donate it to schools and libraries, and apply its arguments and historical examples in discussions with friends, family, strangers, and opponents. See www.WarIsALie.org for information on how to place bulk orders.