Do our words march in step with Empire? or, Nuclear Weapons are not “assets”

A reflection by Susan Crane on words and how they work for power.

Philip Berrigan, reflecting on the struggle against high-ranking masterminds of mass murder wrote; “We were trying to argue with the Mad Hatter; we were attempting to reform Big Brother. Words had lost all meaning. Euphemisms and bureaucratese abounded: ‘We must destroy the village in order to save it.’ ‘We must prolong the war in order to bring about peace.’ ‘We must support dictators if we wish to promote democracy.’ ” (Dispatches from the Lamb’s War)

And here in Washington State, talking with Tom Karlin, I was reminded of these words of Phil. Tom and I were building a flip-over ladder in preparation for the MLK Day celebration at the  Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action. We thought someone might want to go inside Naval Base Kitsap which holds the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the US.

Tom Karlin had been in the US Navy in 1958, during the Formosa Crisis. He was telling me about being on the aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington, in the South China Sea in the Luzon Strait off the Formosa shore.

As my understanding about this topic was more than a little weak, Tom explained: “Following the Chinese Japanese war in 1894, Formosa was ceded to Japan. At the end of WW II, Formosa was given back to China. Then in 1949 when Mao Zedong came to power, the nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Formosa. The nationalists made an agreement with the US for protection, and for that reason, the USS Lexington was in the waters off the shore of Formosa.

“In the middle of the night, the ‘general quarters’ alarm went off that called everyone to their battle stations,” Tom was telling me. “I was assigned to the weapon handling crew loading fighter aircraft with air-to-air missiles and other munitions on the carrier flight deck. When I went to the flight deck, I saw, for the first time, an aluminum container that carried the special weapon. It was guarded by marines. It was huge: must have been 12-15 feet long, and 6 feet in diameter or more. It was ready to be loaded on a large Skywarrior bomber. These bombers, and other bombers on the carrier, were launched from a steam catapult. We remained at our battle stations from 2 am to 6 am, in readiness, waiting for the special weapon to be loaded. Then, at 6 a.m. the launch was called off.

“There was a conspiracy of silence, and so even though we knew it was an atomic weapon, we never said it out loud and we didn’t talk about it. The summer before the Formosa crisis I was stationed at Naval Air Facility Atsugi on a three month assignment, and I had gone to Nagasaki where I visited the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum. I saw the effects of the bomb on human flesh. I was young, and we were trained to believe that there was necessary evil and that the bomb had saved American lives. But still, I was shocked to see the “special weapon;” I didn’t even know we were carrying it. That morning, on the deck of the USS Lexington, seeing that we were ready to do that same horrendous destruction, this time to Chinese people, something happened to me. It was my call to conscience. Tom reflected, “I later found out that the “special weapon” was an atomic bomb that was going to be used to bomb Manchuria.”

A “special weapon.” that would be able to indiscriminately kill whole towns of people, and leave every child there with skin falling off, burned, destined to get cancer, and pass on mutated genes to their children.

A “special weapon” that was some kind of nuclear weapon: atomic bomb, plutonium bomb, or hydrogen bomb.

And today, when navy personnel talk about nuclear weapons, they continue to use words that obscure the reality of these illegal and immoral weapons by calling them “items” and “assets”.

So what does it mean to talk clearly so that our words work for us, instead of working for power? How do we  stop  our words from concealing  and protecting the domination system? How can we free up these words that have been captured by empire? Only by calling things what they are. Only by having the courage to speak the truth, by refusing to use euphemistic words and expressions and instead using the hard words that others don’t want to hear. And this is challenge is in our personal lives as well as our political lives.

Nuclear weapons are not ‘special weapons” or “items” or “assets”, but are indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction.

“Prisoners of war” are not “enemy combatants” but people who are supposed to be treated with dignity and have certain rights under the Geneva Conventions.

People and nations who use or threaten to use nuclear weapons are “terrorists.” not benign “superpowers.”

What’s called for is a change in perspective. We are all swimming in a river of violence and lies, fog is all around us and it’s  hard to figure out what is really happening. If we don’t take the time to use the right words, we won’t see what is going on around us.    We can choose to be tools of the empire and use language that conceals and protects  it,  or we can choose to stand apart, jump out of the river, and call illegal and immoral nuclear weapons exactly what they are, and begin to disarm, dismantle and abolish them.

Did Dr. Martin Luther King talk about nuclear weapons?

Dr. King Warns About Nuclear Annihilation

On the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, one of the greatest followers of the nonviolence of Jesus and Gandhi in our culture, we must listen to his articulation of nonviolence that comes from his own lived experience.  He warned us that if we stay on the path we are on, that nuclear co-annihilation would be inevitable.  The elimination of nuclear weapons is at the basis of his hope for universal justice and peace.
Rev Bill Bichsel, S.J.

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence.  It is either nonviolence or nonexistence, and the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.
“On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question–is it politic?
Vanity asks the question–is it popular? Conscience asks the question–is it right?
There comes a time when one must take the position that it is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.  I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t goin’ study war no more.”

(Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, Passion Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, on March 31, 1968)

“In a world facing the revolt of ragged and hungry masses of God’s children; in a world torn between the tensions of East and West, white and colored, individualists and collectivists; in a world whose cultural and spiritual power lags so far behind her technological capabilities that we live each day on the verge of nuclear co-annihilation; in this world, nonviolence is no longer an option of intellectual analysis, it is an imperative for action.”

(The Trumpet of Conscience, 1967)

Doomsday Clock to be Moved

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will make a major announcement tomorrow, Thursday, January 14th at 7:00am Pacific time. They will reposition the hands of the DOOMSDAY CLOCK!!!  The minute hand has not moved since 2007, when it was moved two minutes closer to midnight (to 5 minutes to midnight).  Which way will the hands go???  You can catch it live on the internet via streaming video coverage of the event that will be broadcast live from the New York Academy of Sciences:

The Price of Peacemaking by Daniel Berrigan

Often when we are meeting with people and telling them about our Disarm Now Plowshares witness,  we are asked: “What can we do to support and help you?”  Everyone who asks is sincere, thoughtful and compassionate.  When I look around the room, I see that they have careers,  jobs, family, school, plans for doing this project and that project–and where is there room for peacemaking?  We have to expect peacemaking to disrupt our lives. What comes to mind is this short reflection of Daniel Berrigan: The Price of Peacemaking.
Susan Crane

The Price of Peacemaking by Daniel Berrigan

We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwillingly to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues. War, by its nature, is total-but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. So a whole will and a whole heart and a whole national life bent toward war prevail over the verities of peace.

In every national war since the founding of the republic we have taken for granted that war shall exact the most rigorous cost, and that the cost shall be paid with cheerful hearts. We take it for granted that in wartime, families will be separated for long periods, that people will be imprisoned, wounded, driven insane, killed on foreign shores. In favor of such wars, we declare a moratorium on normal human hope-for marriage, for community, for friendship, for moral conduct toward strangers and the innocent. We are instructed that deprivation and discipline, private grief and public obedience are to be our lot. And we obey. And we bear with it-because bear we must-because war is war, and good war or bad, we are stuck with it and its cost.

But what of the price of peace? I think of the good, decent, peace-loving people I have known by the thousands and I wonder. How many of them are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy that, even as they declare for  peace, their hands reach out with an instinctive spasm in the direction of their loved ones, in the direction of their comforts, their homes, their security, their incomes, their futures, their plans—that five-year plan of studies, that ten-year plan of professional status, that twenty-year plan of family growth and unity, that fifty-year plan of decent life and honorable natural demise.

“Of course, let us have the peace,” we cry, “but at the same time let us have our normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of lives.”

And because we must encompass this and protect that, and because at all costs-at all costs- our hopes must march on schedule, and because it is unheard of that in the name of peace a sword should fall, disjoining that fine and cunning web that our lives have woven, because it is unheard of that good men and women should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost-because of this we cry peace and cry peace, and there is no peace.

There is no peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war–at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.

Letter to Young Activists from Lydia Wylie-Kellermann

January 4, 2010

Dear young activist,

I’ve been spending some time thinking about nuclear weapons. I will be honest and say that of all the injustices to fight against, nuclear weapons are not where I find my energy or my passion. In my mind, it seems like there are more imminent threats to human beings and the world.

I do not know the reality of the Cold War. I have no memories of hiding under my desk during bomb drills. The words Mutual Assured Destruction do not stir up fear or memory. In fact, nuclear weapons have seemed to disappear from the public eye almost entirely. Do they really still exist? Is their use possible and imminent? What threat do they really have today?

However, the fact that they have become invisible to my eye is what makes them even more powerful and violent and real today. Their power lies beneath and within all the justice issues that I and we care about. Their existence is deeply interwoven with all forms of domination and oppression. Continue reading

Misdemeanors Morph Into Felonies?

On Thursday, December 31, Plowshares activists received a cover letter and Order for Dismissal  from Jenny A. Durkan, United States Attorney, and Barbara J. Sievers, Assistant United States Attorney.  The letter was addressed to Magistrate Judge Karen L. Strombom, in the US District Court in Tacoma Washington.

The cover letter stated:  “Attached hereto is an Order for Dismissal in the above-entitled case.  Our office is working with the relevant law enforcement agencies to determine whether felony charges should be filed as to the underlying conduct in this case. As a result, we do not intend to proceed as to these misdemeanor charges at this time. ” Continue reading

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