Active Duty: My Dedication to Liberty, Justice, and an End to Wars

Photo by Lexey Swall

Medea Benjamin has been an advocate for social justice for more than forty years. As an economist and nutritionist with the United Nations and World Health Organization in the 1970s and early ’80s, she brought attention to overseas sweatshops, Nestlé’s anti-breastfeeding campaign, and poor labor practices at Dole and Nike. In 1988 she cofounded the human rights group Global Exchange and in 2002 she cofounded the women-led peace group CODEPINK.

Benjamin’s work for justice in Israel-Palestine includes taking numerous delegations to Gaza after the 2008 Israeli invasion, organizing the Gaza Freedom March in 2010, participating in the Freedom Flotillas, and opposing the policies of the Israel lobby group AIPAC. In 2011 she was in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian uprising and in 2012 she was part of a human rights delegation to Bahrain in support of democracy activists.

Benjamin is the author or coauthor of nine books, including Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (2012) and her latest, Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection. She is the recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize from the Fellowship of Reconciliation; the Peace Prize from the US Peace Memorial; the Gandhi Peace Award; and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation Award. This year Benjamin was named the Humanist Heroine by the Feminist Caucus of the American Humanist Association. The following is adapted from her May 28, 2016, speech in acceptance of the award at the AHA’s annual conference in Chicago.

THANK YOU SO MUCH for this wonderful honor. I must say I didn’t know a lot about the American Humanist Association until I got here yesterday. But I’ve been attending amazing panels, sessions, learning so much, and feeling right at home.

On this Memorial Day weekend, I think it’s important that we look at some of the warnings  we’ve had over the course of our history, like back in 1821 when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams said that the United States should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy because in doing so, we would destroy our own spirit. Or like in 1961, when President Dwight Eisenhower talked about the grave dangers of the military-industrial complex.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what we have today. Instead of a military that’s focused on defending us here at home, we have a military, a CIA, and private contractors searching the world for monsters to destroy and, in the process, creating more enemies. It’s not just the wars we wage; it’s also the weapons we sell. We have become addicted to the lucrative business of war—creating great profit for one of the only remaining manufacturing centers in our hollowed-out manufacturing base, and that is the weapons industry.

Last year when Pope Francis spoke before Congress, he asked a profound question: “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals in society? Sadly, the answer… is simply for money,” Francis said. “Money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence,” he added, “it is our duty to confront the problem and stop the arms trade.”

To my astonishment, I saw members of the US Congress jumping up to their feet and applauding. I say to my astonishment because these are the very leaders who then go back into their cubicles and hotels nearby and start dialing for dollars from that very weapons industry and then turn around to award billion-dollar contracts to those same weapon industries that give to their campaigns.

Do you know which country is the number-one buyer of US weapons? Saudi Arabia. Just under the Obama administration alone we’ve sold $115 billion dollars’ worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia—the country where atheism is punishable by death; where it’s prohibited to build a synagogue or a church; where bloggers who question the government are jailed for ten years and given a thousand lashes; where nonviolent protesters are beheaded in public squares; where women aren’t even allowed to drive. And for the past year the Saudis have been using US weapons, including banned cluster bombs, to bomb neighboring Yemen, turning it into a humanitarian disaster.

Talking about weapon sales, President Obama recently visited Vietnam. And as a way to solidify the friendship between that country and ours (after we slaughtered two million of their people), he announced that we would now agree to sell weapons to Vietnam. This is how we express our friendship these days. And from there Obama went to Japan. It was wonderful that he went to Hiroshima and he gave a very moving talk there. But it would have been even more wonderful if he’d announced that his administration was dropping its plan to put $1 trillion into upgrading our nuclear weapons in the next thirty years.

Look at our national budget and you can see the death grip of the military: $600 billion. That’s way over $1 billion every single day. That’s 54 percent of our discretionary funds going to the military, almost as much as  the rest of the entire world combined. It’s no wonder we don’t have money for a decent public transportation system in this country, money for a Medicare-for-all public healthcare system, money for green energy, or money for free college education. And you know what? All this money isn’t helping us win wars.

Photo by Carissa Snedeker

Photo by Carissa Snedeker

We’ve had a few great gains for diplomacy in the last few years. Those were the nuclear deal with Iran and the opening up of diplomatic relations with Cuba. These will be the signature foreign policy achievements of the Obama administration. I’m very proud to have been involved intimately in both of those, but unfortunately most of the foreign policies of the Obama Administration have followed in the steps of the Bush Administration. We are still in Afghanistan after fifteen years, the longest war in the history of the United States, and the Taliban remains strong. We’re still in Iraq, where our horrendous invasion opened up the floodgates of hatred and sectarian violence that has led to ISIS today. Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, has bombed seven countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria. He still hasn’t closed Guantanamo as he said he would, and he could have done it in the first two years when there was a Democratic congress. But then he knew it would look hypocritical to capture people and put them in Guantanamo when he said he was going to close it. So what did his administration do? They decided that instead of capturing prisoners, they would just kill them. That’s where drone warfare came in.

As I did the research for my book on drones, I travelled to Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan, and I saw the blowback—the hatred—caused by the use of these weapons. On a trip to Yemen I met a very proud tribal leader, Mohammed Al-Ghawi. He said his brother was a taxi driver who one day picked up some strangers. Five minutes later the taxi was a smoldering heap of metal. Left behind was his brother’s young wife and two young children.  Mohammed, angry, said the American people don’t seem to mind killing poor, often innocent Muslim people thousands of miles away, but that these deaths would come back to haunt them when people take revenge. He also said that in his tribal system, if you commit a crime or a terrible mistake, you have to acknowledge that mistake, apologize for it, and compensate the family. He said he couldn’t even get the United States to acknowledge that they had killed his innocent brother. Could it be, he asked, that the justice system of his tribe was more advanced than the justice system of the United States of America?

And so our drone assassinations simply breed more enemies, killing “suspects” by remote control inside comfortable, air-conditioned bases here in the United States. All humanists should be outraged by drone warfare. As Army Chaplain and Unitarian Minister Christopher Anton said when he recently resigned from the military:

The executive branch continues to claim the right to kill anyone, anywhere on earth, at any time for secret reasons based on secret evidence and secret processes undertaken by unidentified individuals. I refuse to support this policy of unaccountable killing.

Another issue that humanists should address is the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I’ve heard it’s a difficult subject for some of you in this group. Believe me, it’s been a difficult subject for me as a secular Jew who had close ties to Israel from the time I was sixteen working in a kibbutz. But I forced myself to learn more. I forced myself to read. I forced myself to travel to the region under the most difficult of times, like right after the 2008 twenty-two-day military assault on Gaza that killed over 1,400 Palestinians; many of them civilians and many of them children. I was shocked and horrified by what I saw and was determined to get more involved in protesting the US support for the Israeli military by joining the nonviolent movement of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, also known as BDS. I, and the others I know, don’t do this out of any hatred for Israel. In fact, I do it out of love for Israel. Thanks to Bernie Sanders, it’s now okay for a mainstream politician to express sympathy for Palestinians. The BDS movement is growing within faith-based communities, including the Jewish community, and on college campuses around the country. It should be supported by the American Humanist Association.

Whether working for peace in Israel-Palestine or trying to stop the Islamic State—not by sending more troops or bombs but by an arms embargo to the region—we need nonviolent tactics because the violent ones don’t work.

In my book Drone Warfare I talk about a study by the RAND Corporation looking at 268 groups that, at some point over the last forty years, were considered terrorist groups and how they came to their demise. Forty-three percent ended by getting involved in the political process. Forty percent were brought down by effective policing, and only 7 percent through military force. Adding to this scientific body of evidence is the wisdom of the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, who said it’s only when you see a mosquito landing on your testicles that you realize there’s always a way to solve problems without using violence.

Let’s look at the prospects for nonviolent solutions in the next administration. If Donald Trump is in the White House, I shudder to think of the kind of wars he might get us in. But the same is true of Hillary Clinton, who supported the war in Iraq, the surge in Afghanistan, the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, the drone wars, and the military coups in Egypt and Honduras. She also talked about obliterating Iran. No matter who is in the White House, we need to build a peace movement that will put pressure on both Congress and the president.

As we mark this Memorial Day and pay tribute to those who died in the military, let us recognize two critical things we can do for our vets. One is to take better care of them here at home—the homeless vets, the jobless vets, the vets suffering from the mental wounds that haunt them and contribute to a heart-wrenching suicide rate of twenty-two a day. The second thing we can do is stop sending our young men and women off to die in unwinnable wars of choice that will only make more enemies. Stop squandering our precious resources, including the lives of poor youth, to fight for rich men’s military contracts.

To this end, I invite you to look into the organization I am party to, CODEPINK ( And I invite you to join with me in our own Memorial Day pledge. This is not a pledge to a flag. It’s not a pledge to a nation state. It is a pledge to a holistic, humanist worldview. So repeat after me, if you’d like to:

I pledge allegiance to the global human family,
to defend the web of life that is our home.
One world, one love, one family,
interconnected, interdependent, indivisible,
with liberty, justice, and peace for all.

Excerpts from the Q&A

Q: Few people in the world perhaps really understand how many people are being killed [by drones]. What can we do about this?

A: When I first started this work, our government wouldn’t even admit that it was using drones. I wrote the book, and then I went around to two hundred cities. I did all kinds of talks. We built up a movement and people started protesting outside the air force bases where the drones were being piloted. We brought drone victim’s families to the United States to testify for the first time ever before Congress.

The result is that opinion is shifting. When I started this work, 82 percent of American people said it was fine to use drones to kill anybody we thought was a suspect. Now it’s down to just over 50 percent. And we are working to make sure that it becomes a majority who are against the use of drone warfare.

Q: Memorial Day is generally considered to be a time to remember and honor those who have fallen in military service. I think it’s kind of sad that there’s not any recognition of the civilians who have also died by the millions as a result of wars. What’s your take on that?

A: Look at what happened with the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Our own soldiers who were sent there, their children, and the Vietnamese people continue to suffer decades later—just as the use of depleted uranium in Iraq will go on to affect people for generations to come; just as cluster bombs that lie on the ground will be picked up by children and explode. So war, more and more, is affecting not just the fighters but the civilians, and, yes, I think it’s important that we remember the civilians who die in wars.

Q: That was a terrific speech. I agreed with every single thing that you said, but CODEPINK’s tactic of interrupting speakers at Congress and in other places and trying to distract the audience from the subject that they’re talking about has really turned me off in the past.

A: I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve done very profound things like bringing people from war zones to the National Press Club in Washington, DC. And who is there to cover it? Russia TV, Iran TV, Japanese TV. Nobody from the United States comes to cover those things. Our mainstream media doesn’t do its job. So one of the only ways that we can get attention to causes that we so dearly care about is to go where the media is, and oftentimes it’s at places like presidential talks where, for example, I got up and interrupted President Obama to talk about the drone victims that I had just met with. President Obama, unlike Donald Trump who says to beat up the protesters, said, “that woman’s voice is worth listening to.”

Q: Regarding members of Congress who take a lot of money from the armaments industry, what do you tell their constituents who reliably vote for them because they are told and believe stories about how dangerous the world is?

A: Fear has always been used to whip people up to justify war. I think after fifteen years of war the polls are showing that people in this country are not in favor of US troops getting involved overseas. Some people call it war-weary. I call it war-wise. The problem is the people in Congress are much more gung-ho than the American people, and you know what? They’re much more gung-ho for war than the military is. I see them when I go to these hearings pushing the military to send more troops, send more weapons, get more involved. So, I think what we have to do is reign in our members of Congress. There’s a new group called A Whole New Congress. I am very much in favor of a whole new Congress.

Q: I wanted to thank you first for all of your efforts and for coming to the AHA conference to speak. How would you like to see youth in America more involved with your peace efforts?

A: One of the problems the peace movement faces is that it really has been grounded by people who came out of the Vietnam anti-war movement. Because there was a draft, so many young people got involved in protesting. When my sister’s boyfriend went off to war in Vietnam and sent her the ear of a Vietcong—that was a defining moment when I realized that war is terrible and that I would dedicate my life to trying to stop wars. Most young people today don’t have that kind of direct involvement with war, so it’s been hard to get them involved. I think that’s changing now, in part thanks to Bernie Sanders.

I saw a headline in the Washington Post that said people between the ages of eighteen and thirty have a more favorable view of socialism than they do of capitalism. This is quite astounding. We have millions of young people who are looking for alternatives, who have been turned on by the talk of a new kind of system. We have exciting energy in the Black Lives Matter movement. We have exciting passion in the Immigrant Rights movement. We have exciting movements to stop mass incarceration. We have exciting campaigns to get money out of politics. All of these groups are now recognizing that when we are in our individual silos, we won’t make the kind of movement change that we need. That we need to come together as a mass of people with all of these issues brought to the fore. So, I have great hope that young people are not only going to get involved, but young people are going to lead the way to a much better United States of America. Thank you.