Executive Director Michael McPhearson at World Without War Conference

September 30, 2016

Executive Director Michael McPhearson recently gave remarks at the World Without War Conference.  #NoWar2016

Below are his remarks in text:

Changing War Culture to Peace Culture

by Michael McPhearson

During the past decade I have been told on more occasions than I can count that my Veterans For Peace t-shirt or the idea of Veterans For Peace is a great idea, “but” - the person goes on to explain to me why peace is not possible. I have never met anyone who does not want peace or an end to war, but I have met countless people who do not believe we can achieve it.  So that has led me to believe that the most entrenched obstacle we face is not the Pentagon, corporations or the military industrial complex.  Our greatest challenge is to help enough people believe peace is possible so that we have the political and social will to achieve it.  It is impossible for us to achieve our goals without  a critical mass of people who also share a vision of a peaceful world. Most people simply will not work to achieve something that is not possible. Further, humans tend to create what they believe is possible and acceptable.  If people believe peace is impossible and war is acceptable, they will not demand real and lasting peace but will expect and accept war. For some this may not seem relevant, however I believe it is extremely important because there is clearly not enough of us to bring about the changes we seek, which increasingly are changes we need for humanity to survive. 

Equally important is for us who claim to be peacemakers and justice seekers to believe for ourselves that peace is possible. We must feel this in our hearts and know it in our minds or we will not be the most effective advocates for peace. I do not say this to imply that if you do not believe peace is possible you cannot work for peace. But I do know that most of us see ourselves as truth tellers who do not seek to manipulate people.  Rather it is our hope that truth will lead to action to walk a peaceful path.  So I submit to you that if you don't believe or are not sure peace is possible, you cannot be your authentic self as an advocate for peace.  And it will be harder for you to see social and political connections in the same light as you would if you believed peace is possible.  So, if you don't believe or are not sure peace is possible, I suggest you work on preparing yourself to be the most impactful and effective peace advocate you can be by gaining the knowledge that will help you understand that peace is possible.  Just as I had to train and prepare for war, we must prepare and train to be peacemakers and justice seekers. Just as a soldier must believe in her cause, we must believe in our cause to win. Especially when there are so many voices telling us daily that we are wrong.

At this point you may think I’m going to give you reasons why peace is possible.  No I'm not. I will tell you to read the section in the World Beyond War book in your packet titled, Why We Think A Peace System is Possible. Also listen to a lecture by Peace Leadership Director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Iraq War veteran and West Point graduate Paul K. Chappell about why peace is possible on YouTube. Also see VFP’s Peace is Possible handout.

My next point is to explain the strategic imperative to think and talk about peace in the framework of peace at home, peace abroad. That phrase is a way VFP talks about our work. Here is handout about PAPAH. You don’t have to use those terms, but it is important to use the concept. Why?

First I hope we all understand that if we are going to change U.S. foreign policy we cannot do it alone. There simply are not enough of us. We do not have the money like corporations and the 1% to control legislators. Moral arguments will not persuade change. We must use people power, numbers to create the change we seek. If you understand that, the question is how do we manifest that power. Peace must be made relevant to people in their lives. Right now it is not, or at least in the context the peace movement usually talks about.

I am sure all of you have seen the terrible destruction in Aleppo. I am also sure all of you know what and where I am talking about. More than likely you also know that Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson when asked a question about Aleppo he responded, “What is Aleppo.” Either he really did not know or the name simply did not immediately ring as familiar to him. Certainly Gary Johnson is not a dummy. But for him, Aleppo did not carry enough significance to remember. He illustrates the reality of most people in this country. Especially people who are dealing with the reality of finding a job, making ends meet, concerned with police violence or general violence in their community.

Let me give you some examples. According to USA Today, Fourth of July weekend in Chicago 64 people were shot and 4 killed. In 2015 police reported 10 killed and 55 wounded; and in 2014, 16 were killed and 66 wounded. Right now in Charlotte we have a rebellion in response to a police killing of Keith Lamont Scott. I was personally involved in the rebellion in response to the police killing of Michael Brown Jr. Right now police are searching for a man who shot and killed 5 people in a mall not far from Seattle. So what do you think people woke up thinking about in Chicago on Monday after the 4th weekend? What do you think people are thinking about in Charlotte and Burlington WA today or Ferguson in 2014? Of course death is the most extreme example of why people may not pay attention or take action about U.S. foreign policy, but there are a host of survival issues that will grab people’s attention and drain their energy so that they have no choice but to resist what is to them of highest priority.

So for pragmatic reasons the peace movement must find ways to enlist more people to see peace as relevant to their lives. But that is not all. Peace at Home, Peace Abroad is the correct framing because there are inextricable links between U.S. foreign and domestic policies. It reflects a positive proactive answer to a reality of war at home, war abroad. And while we have been trained to talk about foreign and domestic policies as if they are separate, I assure you the powers that be do not. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. outlined for us the intertwined relationship between poverty or greed, war and racism. I would add patriarchy and climate change although climate change may be the direct result of patriarchy and greed. When King addressed the April 15, 1967 Mobilization to end the Vietnam War in NYC saying, “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home, they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America,” he illustrated the waste of resources on war and opportunity cost for our nation and the world.

King was killed after he spoke out against the Vietnam War and attempted to unite poor White and Black people in the Poor People’s campaign. King was confronting our depraved system at its roots and attempting to transform it. That is exactly what we are trying to do.

So how do we do that. We must be build a national culture of peace where people have an expectation that peaceful means of conflict resolution are the norm and violence is the exception if ever used. This can only happen if people see means to achieve peace in their own communities so that peace has meaning in their lives. White activists in the peace movement must understand with their minds and hearts that my struggle as a Black man seeking justice for my community is all of our struggles. Especially since White privilege is a manifestation of White supremacy and helps hold in place U.S. imperialism and  is central to U.S. global aggression and the oppression faced by people of color around the globe. I must understand as a heterosexual Christian that the struggles faced by the Muslim and LGBTQ communities are my struggles. Only then will we clearly see the connections that are already there in these struggles. Seeing these connections and learning from each other will breakdown structures of dehumanization and the creation of the other. We will increase our understanding of how these struggles are connected which in turn will allow us to be more imaginative and creative as to how to confront oppression and work for peace. We will more clearly see the difficult path to building peace making structures between groups and individual people here at home and increase solidarity and power so that we can have the full spectrum justice movement we need to create the change we seek.  

Over the past 21 years, since I became what I call an open activist, many movements have ebbed, flowed and continue today. I am sure I will miss a few, but the Million Man March in 1995 was my first street action after getting out of the military. The movement against the neoliberal version of globalization as epitomized by the 1999 protest in Seattle. The March for Women’s Lives in the summer of 2001. The peace movement in reaction to U.S. military response to the September 11th horrors brought out the largest global demonstration on February 15 2003. In 2006 and 2007 millions of immigrants hit the streets demanding recognition as human beings and equality. That movement is alive and moving today.  The 2011 Occupy movement which helped frame much of the Left political discourse today and radicalized – along with the peace movement, many activists working in a spectrum of movements today. Vibrant movements of today include the Movement for Black Lives which cuts at the core of our failed system. The Climate change movement which has grown in power and influence. Palestinians are increasingly finding a stronger voice. Indigenous peoples’ movement is on the rise. The Bernie Saunders and Trump movements which are both reactions to the concentration of wealth and greed that ignores human needs and treats people as commodities whose labor is to be bought as cheaply as possible, never mind if the workers can make ends meet or maintain a viable home. The anger and intensity felt by both movements are appropriate. The difference in these two movements is that one has turned to U.S. America’s tradition of scapegoating and hate to address the failures of our system. The other has turned to U.S. America’s tradition of inclusion and pursuit of justice. Peace at Home, Peace Abroad is in line with what is happening today. The movements I mentioned are really on the move and many leaders in these movements see the intersectionality of issues.

When we think about where to go from here, I think in part we must look to the past. Today we find ourselves at war and in domestic turmoil. It could be 1966 with more relative freedoms, IPads and Android phones. All the issues of the 60’s plus a few confront us today. We should learn from the successes and failures of the movements of that time. One of the lessons we seem to be learning is that all the challenges before us are intertwined and that we must have a strategy that keeps this understanding in the forefront. Unfortunately, the movements of the 60’s did not find a way to leverage all the energy and people they had. The peace movement is in a unique position to provide a narrative that gives a vision of how all these struggles are connected and what a new world of peace and justice will look like.

When I told my son, an Iraq war veteran, about the amount of push back I was receiving from people within Veterans For Peace about my VFP participation in the Movement for Black Lives he said to me, I thought you all are veterans for peace. He got it. People understand that there is a global system perpetuating war, violence and economic exploitation in our communities and around the world. People get it. We have to get it and show people we do by supporting their struggles and where we can bring the anti-war and global peace perspective. We have to show up with our minds and bodies. We have to make peace relevant.

I close with peace is justice in action. The peace movement needs to help confront injustice and bring about justice so that we can achieve the change we seek. None of the movements can do it alone. We must do it together. No justice, no peace!


Make sure to check out the other great speeches from the conference!