Discover more from Activist Explorer Newsletter, by Juliana Barnet
What Gives a Few Powerful People the Right to Wage War?
The Activist Emotional Landscape section of Activist Explorer is where I reflect on the emotional ups and downs of being an activist. Sometimes it’s a personal emotional airing.
I remember the Cuban missile crisis. I was a little kid, but I remember how nervous the adults around me were. A prospective nuclear confrontation. Horrific, apocalyptic. They had us do drills in elementary school, hiding under our desks—as if that would protect us from nuclear destruction.
In the socio-political-economic system that dominates the world, small groups of people make the big decisions. In the case of world powers, their decisions affect not only their own people but the entire planet. The people who rise to the top in this system nearly always favor domination over cooperation, and war over diplomacy. They see the world as a battleground, and it is their right and duty to get as much as possible for their side (corporation, country, organization).
This approach—which none of the folks at the top in any of these entities ever seem to question—justifies spending the people’s resources on destruction and domination rather than on making people’s lives better.
I recall, as a young person during the Cold War, much talk of Détente as the solution. I understood it to mean that the enemies would decide to talk not fight. It was not about getting opposing worldviews to agree; it was about coexistence without mutual destruction. Made sense to me!
The world did not blow up back then, but invasions and wars proliferated in the name of those interests mentioned above, championed by the tiny segment of humanity that gets to make these fateful decisions, convincing the rest of us that war is necessary, even though everyone knows it is the worst thing imaginable. True, the outcry was generally not quite as loud, because the millions slaughtered were generally Black and Brown, and it did not seem that the entire world hung in the balance—only the lives, lands, and livelihoods of those marginalized millions.
Now we are back to a point where the literal entire world is at stake. And, as usual, tiny groups on both sides are the ones who get to make these catastrophic decisions, or put us all on a destructive path which might appear inevitable but is in fact the result of real choices.
When you think of it, the idea of solving any problem of any kind by mass murder is insane. And yet, it is taken as a matter of course, sad but unavoidable. People who oppose it—particular wars and/or war itself—are considered crazy, traitorous, at best unrealistic.
What can justify wiping out countless lives? And yet such decisions are made all the time, by men who almost never risk their own lives and families (though even if they did that would not constitute justification).
Neither you, nor I, our children, neighbors, friends, nor pretty much anyone else on the planet, is allowed the least say in such decisions, even when they inevitably drastically worsen many lives, and lead us closer to planetary destruction.
Just try to voice your opinion, or your organization’s opinion, or your entire people’s opinion, if you’re among the vast majority of the world sitting on the sidelines holding its breath. That is, try to speak up and be heard, given we have no place at the table where the system is run. The only way to express antiwar opinions is in alternative media and out in the street.
How can we support a system where we have no say in life or death decisions? Not even most elected representatives do, as far as I can tell.
You might say, in the case of the Ukraine conflict, that Putin is the aggressor. But, as among squabbling children, one can always point the finger and say “he started it!” But experience tells us this is useless, whether on the playground or the world stage. My country, the U.S.A., is an aggressor much of the time, without my having any more say in that than I do in Putin’s decisions.
As I heard a Ukrainian peace activist say, that kind of patriarchal, macho thinking leads only to ruin. We need a whole new way of thinking and acting together, not based on domination.
What would my life, your life, be like if the rich and powerful weren’t hellbent on dominating the world? For that matter, what would our lives be like if they weren’t run by those groups of rich and powerful at all? If we could actually be the ones to make the decisions and together, but without domination, run our lives, homes, schools, workplaces, and relations with other peoples?
Some of us might still want to reach for weapons, but most of us would not. Especially if we developed more sensible ways to communicate and plan, and knew that we would be taken seriously, that our voices mattered.
People who respectfully think together are much more likely to come up with life-enhancing rather than death-dealing solutions—if only because ordinary people want to keep living their ordinary lives, just like I do. But when a few potentates sit in rooms, removed from ordinary people, surrounded by those who profit from playing with immense destructive power, it seems easy for them to believe they have every right to deploy it to get their way.
People demonize individual rulers, but we all are part of a system that bestows wealth and power on a few, promoting the greediest, the most destructive, the ones who most normalize violence as the way to solve problems.
This should not be normal! Yet those of us who oppose it are the ones condemned, sidelined, silenced.
My hope is that we can wrest this destructive power from the hands of the few. Not to transfer it to a new iteration of the few, but dissolve its very existence, put life-giving power, shared and limited by common sense—stressing common—into the hands of the many, so we can develop sensible ways, enjoyable, and accessible ways to participate in the decisions, both tiny and momentous, that affect our lives.
As the many, we already have this power. But we can only wield it if we all insist, together and each in our own countries: NO WAR. No aggression, no imperialist bullying, no invasions, no nukes or other weapons of mass murder—by or within any country. What we want and need no war, aggression, or bullying can provide: equal rights, resources, care, and justice for all.
That’s the ideal. For now, however, why can’t our so-called leaders practice what every schoolchild is always urged to do: “use your words.” Discussion, negotiation, non-aggression. Détente.
Or we can try hiding under our desks.