Confronting Militarism with Gravity, Humor and Joy

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

Medea Benjamin's speech upon accepting the Aachen Peace Prize on behalf of CODEPINK

First let me thank the Aachen Peace Prize Committee for the great honor of receiving this prestigious award. We at CODEPINK are delighted to be awarded along with with musical phenomenon Lebenslaute. What a joyful and classy way to work for justice!

CODEPINK also believes in bringing joy to our protests. We love to sprinkle our rallies and actions with music, dance, song, art and theater. When tensions with our adversaries start to boil, we dance. When police threaten to arrest us, or after they arrest us, we sing.  When we want to educate the public, we use humorous street theater. We showed our disgust with military hardware in our streets by burying a tank and turning it into a giant flower pot. Last week we had a hula-hooping party at the White House under the banner: Hoops Not Bombs.

We do, of course, have a serious side. We traveled to tribal areas in Pakistan to meet with victims of US drone strikes; we met in Yemen with family members of Guantanamo detainees; we built playgrounds in Gaza. Often in harm’s way,  we’ve been teargassed in Bahrain, deported from Israel, beaten up by government thugs in Egypt, held up at gunpoint in Pakistan.

At home, we’ve become famous for bold interventions at Congressional hearings, Presidential talks, press conferences, business summits and political party conventions. We speak out against war, torture, human rights abuses. We harass war criminals such as Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice and support whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. We just raised money to save the home of John Kiriakou, a CIA agent who blew the whistle on torture and is now in prison (while the torturers go free).

I must admit that sometimes it feels like we’re amateur firefighters struggling against professional arsonists. We run from one disaster to another—Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Gaza, Libya, Ukraine, Iran, domestic flare-ups—desperately trying to put out the flames.

Who would have thought that after a decade of a disastrous occupation in Iraq, we’d be struggling again, today, to stop our government from a new round of military intervention in Iraq! If only George Bush had only listened to the global peace community in February 2003 when we poured out into the streets in 600 cities worldwide, millions strong, to try to stop the invasion of Iraq. Unleashing a tsunami of sectarianism, the US invasion opened the Gates of Hell to the brutal forces of ISIS. And the kinder, gentler President Barack Obama really thinks that the US can once again bomb Iraq into peace? As our singer/songwriter friend Michael Franti says, “You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb it into peace.” (I’m sorry if that’s a hard line to translate.)

The triumphalist rhetoric we hear about US airstrikes to defeat ISIS in Iraq today are echoes of the assessments of the 2011 U.S./NATO bombings in Libya, which was sold to the public as a humanitarian mission to liberate the people from the autocrat Muammar Gaddafi. But Libya is now a failed state, riven by competing militias, largely ungovernable, with Gaddafi’s looted weapons in the hands of jihadist extremists who are spreading out from the Sinai Peninsula to Mali, from Northern Africa to northern Nigeria.

What about Afghanistan? After over 12 years of US/NATO intervention, it remains one of the poorest countries on earth, with a weak, corrupt central government, where women are still terribly repressed and where farmers are still planting record opium crops.

Almost 13 years after the 9/11 attacks, there are more al-Qaeda-like groups around the world; they have become more organized and have more members. Today, al-Qaeda, ISIS and jihadist groups are in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, Nigeria, and the list goes on.

Oblivious to its disastrous mistakes, the military and CIA have turned to drone warfare as a way to target militants without having to put US troops in danger. The drone wars, where people are obliterated by Hellfire missiles on the basis of suspicious behavior with no attempt to capture them or try them in a court of law, has been the focus of CODEPINK’s attention for the past five years. We have written a book on Drone Warfare and traveled to 200 cities to educate the public. We protest at the US Air Force bases where the pilots are stationed, at the White House, the CIA, the Pentagon, the factories and homes of drone manufacturers, the homes of government officials, congressional offices. We have helped turn public opinion against drone warfare, forced the government to talk about its covert program, and shamed them into reducing the number of drone strikes. With the help of our European allies, particularly Germans, we have created a global network against drones used for killing, spying and repression, and we are planning our first global day of action on October 4.

During a December 2013 visit to Germany, I tried to speak with Chancellor Merkel about German complicity in the drone wars. The previous day 15 civilians, including several children, were tragically killed by a US drone strike on a wedding party in Yemen. The pilot who pushed the button, sitting at a computer in the US, transmitted a signal to Ramstein Air Base in Germany—a signal that was then relayed to a US drone deployed at a base near Yemen. The US Air Force's Air Operations Center at Ramstein, with its satellite relay station and staff of 650 people, played a key role in killing these innocent Yemenis, as it does in all the US drones strikes in the Mideast, Pakistan, and Africa.Ex-US drone pilots have testified that every US drone strike begins with a phone call to Ramstein.

I wanted to make Chancellor Merkel aware that by allowing the United States to use Ramstein for drone wars, the German government shares the guilt for thousands of murders, including in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia where neither the US nor Germany nor NATO are officially at war.

Chancellor Merkel and her government claim to have no knowledge of the role of Ramstein in the US drone wars, even though many respected German media outlets have published reports about this. Chancellor Merkel and the German government also deny any knowledge about the role of AFRICOM, the United States Africa Command in Stuttgart. But AFRICOM is in charge of all US Department of Defense operations on the African continent and surrounding waters.

When AFRICOM was founded in 2007, more than a dozen African countries refused to host it. The German government finally agreed to host it, but without the knowledge or consent of the German people or the Parliament. US defense officials at that time said that AFRICOM would coordinate relationships with friendly African militaries and work with agencies like USAID to bring humanitarian aid to Africa.

Now, about 1500 people work at AFRICOM's Stuttgart headquarters, among other things directing about 5,000 US troops in Africa. Following the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a US military pivot to Africa that is perhaps even more important than the pivot to Asia. There are now twice as many missions in Africa as six years ago and new drone bases throughout the continent.  In the new Global War on Terror in Africa, US personnel in Stuttgart are directing more than a mission a day in almost every African country, from Libya to the Central African Republic, from Somalia to South Sudan, including selecting targets for drone strikes.

The heightened visibility of the US military in Africa has led to increased recruitment and activity by jihadist groups, accelerating the spiral of violence.

While Chancellor Merkel did not meet with me, I did meet many conscientious elected officials, including Andrej Hunko of Aachen, and activists from civil society who strongly oppose the German government’s complicity with US militarism.

Germans have every right to insist on respect for international law and the German constitution, which forbids the preparation of war of aggression from German soil. Since the US military facilities in Germany are of such critical importance for US war-making, the German people could and should firmly demand that the German government require the US to adhere to the law, especially when operating on German soil. Instead of colluding in extra-judicial killings and spying on each other, our nations should be working together to strengthen the rule of law.

One of the few positive trends in the last decade is that in the United States, the American people have become not only war-weary but war-wise, understanding that US overseas military adventures have not made us safer, have not benefited the countries we invaded and have siphoned off trillions of dollars that would have been better spent shoring up our crumbling infrastructure, schools and healthcare system.

Obama’s plan in August 2013 for US military involvement in Syria generated an extraordinary outpouring of opposition in communities across the United States, forcing him to step back from a bombing campaign, and instead negotiate a deal to destroy Syria's chemical weapons. Americans support diplomatic talks with Iran to find a non-military solution to their nuclear program. And by a 2-to-1 margin, they say the US should not get “too involved” in the conflict in the Ukraine.

There is one other silver lining. The August 7 grotesque police murder of the young black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri unleashed an uproar across the nation and opened people’s eyes, in shock, to the way our military has pushed its weapons of war on police departments.  Tanks, assault weapons, camouflage uniforms, tear gas—little did Americans know that these have become commonplace in local law enforcement agencies. There are now nationwide calls to demilitarize the police forces and dismantle federal programs that dump surplus military supplies on our cities and towns.

It is time to think boldly about how to seize this moment to roll back the militarization of our communities, our nations, our planet. It is time to explore genuine nonviolent alternatives and new models—people-to-people diplomacy, international peacemaking teams, weapons embargoes, citizen summits, people’s tribunals, global boycotts, cross-border caravans and flotillas to show solidarity with people in need.

It is time to debate what it will take to move to a world beyond war, where we stop glorifying warriors and failed wars, where we stop funding murder and instead free up our vast resources to address our most critical common adversaries, like the global climate crisis that threatens future life on the planet.

At CODEPINK, we are ready for the challenge and this award gives us added strength and motivation for the hard work ahead, work we will continue to infuse with our trademark creativity and sense of humor and joy. Thank you again for this beautiful honor.

Medea Benjamin is the co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights group Global Exchange. She is the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

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