My keynote intro at the LASC conference last week

On behalf of the American University Anthropology department, I am deeply honored to welcome you all to AU, and to the Latin American Solidarity Coalition’s “Conference to Build a Stronger Movement to End US Militarism and the Militarization of Latin America”. It’s exciting personally to be involved in such an important event—after all, demilitarization of the Americas is now more important than ever—and I sincerely hope that we can continue this relationship and work to increase AU’s involvement with the event in the years to come- not only because it would save us money on the facility fees, but more importantly, because there is a deep thirst among AU students to become more engaged in this kind of solidarity work and because, I believe, the AU community can contribute to it in important ways. This conference is a perfect fit with all of the best aspects of this university, and those aspects—the dedication to community involvement, to social action and public intellectualism—always need reinforcing.

It is now more important than ever to study militarization, not through a false academic neutrality, but rather with the express purpose of ending it. Randolph Bourne emphasized this in his 1917 essay “The War and the Intellectuals”:

[T]he intellectuals whom the crisis has crystallized into an acceptance of war have put themselves into a terrifying strategic position. It is only on the craft, in the stream, they say, that one has any chance of controlling the current forces for liberal purposes. If we obstruct, we surrender all power for influence. If we responsibly approve, we then retain our power for guiding. We will be listened to as responsible thinkers, while those who obstructed the coming of war have committed intellectual suicide and shall be cast into outer darkness. Criticism by the ruling powers will only be accepted from those intellectuals who are in sympathy with the general tendency of the war. Well, it is true that they may guide, but if their stream leads to disaster and the frustration of national life, is their guiding any more than a preference whether they shall go over the right-hand or the left-hand side of the precipice? Meanwhile, however, there is comfort on board. Be with us, they call, or be negligible, irrelevant. Dissenters are already excommunicated. Irreconcilable radicals, wringing their hands among the debris, become the most despicable and impotent of men. There seems no choice for the intellectual but to join the mass of acceptance. But again the terrible dilemma arises, - either support what is going on, in which case you count for nothing because you are swallowed in the mass and great incalculable forces bear you on; or remain aloof, passively resistant, in which case you count for nothing because you are outside the machinery of reality.

To follow Sartre, a true intellectual is not one who makes apologies for the war machine—he refers to such academics as technicians of practical knowledge. In today’s parlance we might call them tools of empire. A true intellectual, according to Sartre, is a radicalized companion of the masses. We should be all using the academy not because of its inherent, removed or abstract value, but rather as a strategic tool that gives us symbolic legitimacy than can enable us be more effective in this radicalized companionship. Randolph Bourne rightly noted in the above quote that obstruction often disqualifies academics as legitimate critics. And yet it is our duty as intellectuals—and I consider all of us here in this room intellectuals in the best Gramscian sense of the term- to accompany our compañeras y compañeros throughout the hemisphere by obstructing—obstructing the State Department, obstructing the U.S. Military Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), obstructing the “civil society” groups funded and orchestrated by USAID and other shadowy governmental and non-governmental actors with the aim of usurping democracy throughout the Americas, and obstructing all the other actors who work constantly and diligently to prevent us all from having the choice to live without the war machine.

Earlier I mentioned that this conference represents the best of American University. I am proud to work at this university, and especially in a department whose mission centers around a deep commitment to social justice. That said, American University receives ample funding from the Department of Defense; I have colleagues who have served on the board of the School of the Americas; we run a Masters program for the Inter-American Defense College; we offered Paul Bremer a visiting professorship after he was done destroying Iraq and sponsored Roberto Flores Bermudez as a “diplomat-in-residence” in Fall 2009 while he was illegally acting as an unregistered foreign agent on behalf of the Micheletti dictatorship. As I speak, a reception for “experts” on the extractive industries in Latin America, industries that bear much of the responsibility for the militarization of the region, is winding up at the Washington College of Law. And none of this is new; American University’s “Special Operations Research Office” was the home of the infamous Project Camelot of the early 1960s, a U.S.-army-funded initiative to use social science to develop strategies for counterinsurgency and psychological warfare in Latin American countries with the aim of preventing another Cuban-style revolution among campesinos, indigenous groups and others struggling for access to land and democracy. In 1964, obstruction by U.S. and Chilean academics acting in solidarity against this program successfully destroyed it.

Given the importance of the academy in legitimating and strengthening the mission of SOUTHCOM to increasingly militarize the hemisphere, which we can see in sharp focus at places like Florida International University, where SOUTHCOM has set up its own university center to create "strategic culture" reports for every country in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is vital that we join together in strategy and action: activists, intellectuals, intellectual activists, activist intellectuals, to OBSTRUCT the militarization of the hemisphere and of our daily lives, and where necessary, to obstruct the academy. I look forward to continuing this struggle with all of you.


I think it's important to remember historical and social context

The fear of being too anti-war dates back to World War II. After the defeat of France and Pearl Harbor, both left and right were tagged as isolationists, and blamed for letting the Axis get as far as they did. There was merit to the accusation. Following the war, the Soviet blockade of Berlin and involvement in the Korean civil war, as well as the atom spy hysteria, served to cement the reputation of pacifists as unrealistic and potentially dangerous.

People born after, say, 1960, were raised in a world in which the US was the dominant military power. Wars were almost invariably American-instigated. Even the Chinese invasion of Cambodia and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were collusion with (Cambodia) or responses to (Afghanistan) American meddling. So, for this generation, war is almost synonymous with American aggression. Those on the right see the aggression as a desirable response to hostile forces (communism, terrorism). Those in the center see it as well-intentioned, though sometimes misdirected. Within the left, there are those who see it as invariably destructive, but there are those who believe that some interventions accomplish considerable good. Many moderate congressional Democrats, notably John Kerry, saw their vote against the first Gulf War as an error.

I think I hit exactly the right note prior to the invasion of Afghanistan. I told people that there was a need to see justice done for the 9/11 attack, but that if we went in to do vengeance rather than justice, it would backfire: "The defeat that the terrorists cannot endure is a defeat in the court of Muslim public opinion. Terrorists should be treated as criminals, albeit criminals with massive firepower. If possible, they should be captured and tried for crimes against humanity. The United States should take steps to redress massive injustices in Muslim lands, including the slaughter in Indonesia, which we facilitated. To reprise Raymond Close's penetrating words: '[T]he most effective defenses we will have against the terrorist threat [are] a commitment to the rule of law, dedication to fairness and evenhandedness in settling international disputes and a reputation as the most humanitarian nation in the world.'"

And it is on this point that I think the pacifist position flounders. It does not focus on the need to do justice, and provide practical means for it to be done. The situations in 1940 and in 2001, of course, were not in any way comparable. In 1940, talking about bringing the aggressors to justice was impossible. War was inevitable. Now we are in a far stronger position to win conflicts. Yet we manage to lose them because we rely on military might and not justice. Our might produces casualties, the casualties generate expanding resistance, and expanding resistance overwhelms raw power. If the pacifist position argued from the standpoint of winning conflicts, it would resonate better with the public.