Resisting the logic of wartime national unity

In the cover story of the March 29 edition of BusinessWeek, Bruce Nussbaum’s opening comment proclaimed, “There is no closer tie than the one forged by blood shed at the hands of a common enemy.” Two noted activists appeared in the Twin Cities last week to counter the arrogance and errors of that argument, as well as the assertions of Nussbaum and his two co-authors that the United States and Europe need to combine forces to initiate a global, unrestrained, “enduring campaign” of war.

Vandana Shiva, author of “Biopiracy,” “Stolen Harvest” and “Water Wars,” presented her lecture, “From Corporate Globalization to Earth Democracy,” at Macalester College. In addition, painter, singer/songwriter and speaker Magdalen Hsu-Li, took the stage at the Asian-American Student Union dinner and cultural show at the University.

In her lecture, Shiva said war is not the only way to bond, nor is it the strongest bond. She argued for global compassion, concern and caring. Those are the ties – not war – on which to build and foster “earth democracy,” as she put it. She wants the United States to express its humanity. Central to the resistance movement, she pointed out, are global solidarity struggles based on earth democracy that reverse, among other things, the hierarchy that places humans at the top of the food chain.

Hsu-Li spoke about how she travels around the United States and, despite the people who have “United We Stand” bumper stickers on their cars, noticed that the United States is still a divided and segregated society. In her thought-provoking song, “Divided States,” Hsu-Li crooned, “I like the idea of unity, but I also like to face reality, which is that we live in divided states.” She noted that it is the very people who claim that we are united, who want nothing to do with the rest of society. Given the most recent outcry against the gay community, her comments are telling.

The message from both Shiva and Hsu-Li is clear: war never forges “ties” of unity. War, by its nature, is a divisive activity. War, by its definition, is fought against enemies. We know from history that war has never united the U.S. population.

Even World War II, often regarded as a war that brought Americans together, helped divide the U.S. population. The deployment of a segregated army during the war and the events that followed further divided our nation. Among other things, World War II made socialism unacceptable, helped bring forth the House Un-American Activities Committee, perpetuated racism and allowed for the establishment of more segregated communities – all of which are conflict-ridden realities ushered in by war.

Certainly, the ways in which Americans use the word “united” have changed. While most Americans oppose killing civilians or the use of chemical and biological weapons, we are deeply divided on other issues.

Look at the various responses to increased military spending. Some elected leaders and citizens of this society have tried to hook other things onto “unity.” The notion that because Americans are united, the entire society should agree with what the elected leaders want is absurd. It is not a fair assessment and masks the reality that Americans might not be as united as many people think. Nevertheless, what U.S. citizens, journalists and policymakers, among others, often fail to realize is that dissent not only enables a democracy to function but also allows it to flourish.

There are dangers of using war and aggressive militarism to achieve unity. The United States needs to confront the dangers inherent in imagining and building a new society on desires for war and bonds of bloodshed.

Perhaps we should turn to the wisdom and thought of Shiva and Hsu-Li. They are imagining and building a new society based on principles of earth and social democracy. Taken together, their thoughts and suggestions point us toward possibilities for the realization of a united, peaceful, people-centered society based on democracy.

Joel T. Helfrich welcomes comments at [email protected]