On RAI with Paul Jay, David Swanson, author of “War is a Lie”, talks about becoming a full time activist for peace

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to Reality Asserts Itself.

Our guest is David Swanson, a man who’s made his mission making an end to war. He now joins us in the studio in Baltimore.

David’s the author of many books, including War Is a Lie, When the World Outlawed War, War No More. Swanson hosts the weekly syndicated radio show Talk Nation Radio. He ran Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org and works as a campaign coordinator for the online activist organization RootsAction.org. And he’s secretary of peace for the Green Party Shadow Cabinet.

Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So, as most of you know, usually–not always, but usually we start our interviews with a bit of a personal back story of a person, a little bit more of why they think what they think, and then we get to what they think. So, David, tell us a little bit about the household you grew up in in terms of was it a political household. Did you–you live and breathe war, peace, politics. Did you grow up in that kind of house?

SWANSON: No. I didn’t grow up in a military family or an anti-military family or a particularly activist family. My parents usually voted for liberal Democrats. I can remember them supporting Jesse Jackson. I grew up in a very militarized area, as, of course, the entire nation is.

JAY: Your American identity, it’s all about pride and how powerful the United States and bombs bursting in air and all that. I mean, that’s supposed to be who you are.

SWANSON: Well, that’s Baltimore, the bombs bursting in air. The rest of us, you know, have to live through that at baseball games.

JAY: Well, you go–. Come on. You go to school. You put your hand–I pledge allegiance to the flag. So if you weren’t that, why not?

SWANSON: ‘Cause I–from very young, if you told me to put my hand and pledge something, I would not put my hand and I would not pledge that thing. And to this day I’m to a fault doing the opposite of what someone instructs me to do, but also because I wasn’t raised in an environment where I was told about the glories of war and the benefits of being powerful and so forth. I was raised, like every child the world around, to think that you should use words rather than fists, that violence is backward and barbaric, that you should talk with your friends, not punch them, not kick them.

JAY: But the American culture and schooling is that’s true on one-to-one relations, but when it comes to America’s role in the world, you go off fighting for freedom and the American way.

SWANSON: Right, but it’s schizophrenic unless you’ve put that contradiction in the back of your head and learned to live with it. You’re told not to kill–.

JAY: Have not most people done that?

SWANSON: Many people to varying degrees have done–.

JAY: So I’m asking: why not you? Like, don’t you go to school and get taught all this?

SWANSON: Not so much. I mean, to some extent, yes. And I look back even at history books that I had in elementary school, and they’re horrible. They’re awful. You know, these are not the history books that I would want my kids to have in their schools. But I did not grow up celebrating war. I did not grow up thinking that it was good to kill people. And I didn’t grow up convinced that the Soviet Union was evil and we needed a military machine to push back against it.

JAY: And when do you start to get that? How old are you? I’m trying to just get the era you grow up in.

SWANSON: I was born in December of ’69. And so I graduated high school in ’87. And I’d say it was about ’85 or ’86 when Oliver North’s daughter, one of my classmates, brought her daddy to school, and he told us that Nicaragua was very close, and if our teachers weren’t telling us how close the Commies were and how scared we should be, they weren’t doing their job. And I didn’t rebel and protest. I didn’t have any–I was interested in football games and cars. You know.

But when I did become politically active later, after high school, I became politically active around progressive issues, and I’ve always thought of those as including peace and opposition to war. So I protested the first Gulf War. I protested the next Iraq war.

JAY: And what–is it the first Gulf War that galvanizes you? Or if not, what?

SWANSON: I think, you know, I ended up–after I got a masters degree in philosophy, which–you know, that and a dollar can get you a bus ride–and I had to do something with my life finally, I ended up working at ACORN and working on domestic issues. And then I left to go work for Congressman Kucinich, whose presidential campaign–.

JAY: Alright. Well, if you go to ACORN and go to Kucinich, you’re already fairly politicized in a pretty left direction.

SWANSON: But not around peace. I’m–the point I’m trying to get to is that it was with the Kucinich campaign that my work focused on opposing war. And, you know, if there had been recruiting posters for professional jobs as a peace activist when I was a kid or a young adult, I would have probably jumped to that, but I never heard of such a thing. You know, now I make money as an activist and an author working as a full-time peace activist, which most people have to do on the side. But I had no idea there was such a thing–and to a great extent there isn’t. You know, the jobs are in the military.

JAY: But you’re saying it’s mostly cars and–did you say football? And so you’re not very political through your teenage years. When do you start to be? And why?

SWANSON: Well, after high school, having not a clue what I wanted to do, I went–.

JAY: You can’t just go right to ACORN. You’ve got to have some political social consciousness to want to work at ACORN and for them to want you. I assume everybody knows what ACORN is. Maybe not. So why don’t you give us a real fast two sentences on ACORN.

SWANSON: ACORN was the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now that lasted from 1970 up until a few years after I left it, when it was destroyed by a Republican and Fox news stunt as punishment for registering poor people to vote. And it was a community organization that–low-income members in low-income neighborhoods that worked on local, state, and national issues. And it was quite effective.

JAY: So for you to want to work at ACORN and for them to want you, you already have to be fairly socially conscious. So if you’re–what happens between sports and cars and that?

SWANSON: So in between high school and ACORN, I go as an exchange student to live in Italy for a year through the Rotary Club, which has a long, long tradition of promoting peace and promoting cultural exchange, and I see the world from outside the United States for a year, which is absolutely essential. Everyone has to do that. And I come back and study architecture, having seen architecture in Italy. And I drop out, and I never finish the degree, because I’m reading philosophy and literature and politics and I’m reading books, which I never did when I was into sports and the cars.

JAY: And is there anything specific you read that kind of opened your eyes?

SWANSON: Not one book, but philosophy and history. And then I end up in a masters program in philosophy at the University of Virginia, where they were nice enough to let me in not having a bachelors or anything. And I got involved in living wage campaign on campus, I got involved with learning about the labor movement and various incidents and people I knew. I learned about injustice in our criminal justice system in Virginia.

And, you know, I had always wanted to do something to make the world a better place. And wherever I had a job that didn’t do that, where I was, you know, working at a newspaper in Virginia and being edited ’cause I wasn’t corporate enough or whatever, I didn’t last long, as well as whenever I’ve had a boss who told me what to do, I haven’t lasted long. But I had to have a job where I was working to better the world, and it was at ACORN where I finally got that.

JAY: And why did you? ‘Cause, again, if you take up the American identity, at least normally as it is expressed in most culture, you’re supposed to talk about wanting to do good in the world, but in reality you’re supposed to pursue your career.

SWANSON: Well, hypocrisy gets to me. You know. And I went to Washington, D.C., to work at a place called the Bureau of National Affairs, writing these newsletters for labor unions and for what we so disgustingly call human resource managers. And so when there would be a decision made by the National Labor Relations Board or various rulings and judgments or something to say to the labor movement, I would have to write a story, and I would have to spin it two ways. I would have to spin it on what this means to the labor movement and humanity, and how can this help you screw your workers. And I had told them when I took the job that I wouldn’t do that second part. And I had to, and I had to do it to be fair and objective and balanced. And that disgusted me, and I left, and I left without any prospects for employment.

And I went and found a job at ACORN because I wanted a job where they weren’t going to tell me, you have to rewrite it and spin it for people who are trying to screw their workers. You know, I’d had enough of that.

JAY: Right. So Kucinich, the campaign, is where you decide the opposition to war becomes your passion, your mission.

SWANSON: Yeah. I mean, when I worked at ACORN, it’s not that we were pro-war; it’s that we were working on living wage and predatory lending and other issues primarily. And I was going to the big antiwar marches during the buildup to the war in Iraq, and we had a big one that went right down 8th Street Southeast in Washington to the Navy Yard right in front of the windows of the ACORN office, as well as the huge one in New York, and so forth. I was antiwar, but I wasn’t working on it day and night, and I didn’t have a conception that there was a way I could. But when I worked on the Kucinich campaign–where I was the press secretary, actually, not the campaign manager–we worked on health care and trade and war, and 90 percent war. I mean, this is what we talked about. We’re going to end this war and we’re going to end war as an institution.

JAY: You mean the Iraq War.

SWANSON: The Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan, the current war-making of the United States, and the war preparations, the expectation of the next war (as it’s always so casually talked about in the U.S. media), the next war, how are we preparing, what will it look like, as if it must be–we’re going to end that. That was actually how we talked in the Kucinich campaign.

JAY: So after Kucinich, you kind of go on your own, in a sense. You start writing. And the books you take up have more or less the same thing, although I should back up one step in your evolution before all these books is that you’re in on creating a website called After Downing Street and the Downing Street Memo, and this is obviously also a big part of your antiwar campaign. What was that as a point in your life, and why did that become so important?

SWANSON: This was in May 2005, and I had been working for better part of a year for the AFL-CIO, and I was out looking for what I could work on. And a few friends had an idea that we would work on trying to impeach George W. Bush. And I had actually proposed working on trying to end the war in Iraq. And these buddies of mine had said, no, no, no, let’s be realistic, let’s try to impeach the president; that’s more achievable. Okay. I’m not against it.

JAY: What year is this?

SWANSON: May 1, 2005, the Downing Street Memo, this official British record of a meeting that had taken place at Number 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence and office of his top cabinet, including his top intelligence officer just back from a lengthy meeting with George Tenet at the CIA, reporting to Tony Blair and gang on what the U.S.’s actual unstated secret position is on Iraq, and that it is that they are going to have the war and they are going to lie to get it. And this was–you know, a lot of us knew this, many suspected this, but this was sort of an authoritative official document and it was huge news.

JAY: In the United Kingdom.

SWANSON: It was huge news everywhere, except in the United States, as tends to happen, initially in the United United Kingdom, but just spread. I mean, it was a big front page story around Europe and Asia and everywhere. And we wanted it in the U.S. media.

And so we created this campaign, this populist campaign of mass emailing, phone calling, radio show calling, letter to the editor writing, protests, dramatizing, staging reenactments of the Downing Street meeting in the lobbies of media outlets, you know, until, after weeks of this harassment, they started talking about it.

And their first ever mentions of the thing were always of the “famous” Downing Street Memo, which was not famous to their viewers. And there were lengthy editorials in USA Today and the other big papers explaining why they were so late to cover it, because everybody knew they lied us into this war. That’s not news. And at the same time, and contradictorally, this can’t be real. This guy just picked this up at a cocktail party. He didn’t necessarily get it from George Tenet. Come on. You know. And so it then was forced into the media for a while, and you had these media analysts pointing out that this was sort of a supreme court overruling the media, that this was–people could force something into the media.

But that pressure that made that happen came from the fact that the Democrats were in the minority and pretending to give a damn and talking as if they would actually try to end the wars and impeach the president if they were handed the majority, if John Conyers was made chair of the Judiciary Committee. And of course that was a pile of nonsense.

And then, once they got the majority, the war was escalated. And so, as additional pieces of information came out over the months and years, many of them stronger than the Downing Street Memo, they got progressively less attention, to the point where we couldn’t force them into the U.S. media anymore.

JAY: And it was remarkable. I remember watching Sunday morning talk shows on the main networks, and Cheney and gang would go on and keep repeating this phrase over and over again, which was: all our allies believe there were weapons as well, all the intelligence agencies believe there were weapons in Iraq as well. And all someone had to do as a host: say, well, what about the Downing Street memo? Which was a real thing. It wasn’t, like, some marginal theory that someone had dreamed up. It was all over the British press. And they would never say it. None of those hosts on any of the shows would ever call them on this question.

SWANSON: And you didn’t even have to mention a piece of evidence. I mean, it was not disputed that most of the nations of the world said this is wrong. I mean, we had–Congress had to name french fries “freedom fries” because the French at that point were much more antiwar–more than they seem to be in recent weeks. And, in fact, the nations of the world were moved by the biggest popular demonstration in the history of the world, on February 15, 2003, to force the United Nations to reject the war, and if they were going to have this war, it was going to be illegally.

That was a significant accomplishment, and it helped build an antiwar culture that in fact grew under the radar to the point where earlier this year, 2013, the people of the United States said no to missiles into Syria and were heard. And you had in the summer of 2013 Congress members on both parties, both houses, saying this is the issue we’ve heard from more people than anything ever before in history, more passionately than ever before, and more one-sided than ever before. I mean, this outdid opposition to the bank bailouts or anything. And they listened, and they were forced to say no. Raytheon’s stock were through the roof, the missiles were ready to go, and they didn’t go. And that was built up over all that decade of educating people about the lies about wars.

JAY: Okay. In the next segment of our interview with David, we’re going to talk about his book War No More. Please join us for the continuation of this series of Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

David Swanson

David Swanson's books include: War Is A Lie (2010), When the World Outlawed War (2011), and The Military Industrial Complex at 50 (2012).  He is the host of  Talk Nation Radio. He has been a journalist, activist, organizer, educator, and agitator.  Swanson helped plan the nonviolent occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington DC in 2011.  Swanson holds a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Virginia. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including press secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign, media coordinator for the International Labor Communications Association, and three years as communications coordinator for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. He blogs at http://davidswanson.org and http://warisacrime.org and works as Campaign Coordinator for the online activist organization http://rootsaction.org Swanson also works on the communications committee of Veterans For Peace, of which he is an associate (non-veteran) member. Swanson is Secretary of Peace in the Green Shadow Cabinet.