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Can we critique US militarism when we benefit from it?

U.S. Militarism Banner

This is an open letter to Brad Warner of Hardcore Zen who critiqued BPF’s banner action in front of the White House this week.

Hi Brad,

We haven’t met, so … hello fellow dharma traveller! Thanks for the opportunity to say something more about BPF’s banner action at the White House.

I wanted to respond to your provocative blog post, “I Wish I Could Agree,” where you take issue with the US Buddhist Leaders convergence at the White House, and particularly the photo with the banner “U.S. Militarism Breeds Violence, Not Safety. I Vow to Work for Peace and Freedom.”

I wanted to clarify that the banner action was not an official part of the convergence, but a side action organized by us here at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. I’m not sure if you are familiar with us – we’ve been around since the late 1970s doing peace and justice work from a foundation of Buddhist practice. These days, we’ve undergone a bit of a radical rebirth, embracing compassionate and unflinching confrontation of the out-of-control systems that cause harm, from racism to capitalism to U.S. militarism.

We’re actually in 100% agreement with you when you say, “we won’t solve those problems by pretending that merely smiling beatifically and putting daisies in soldiers’ gun barrels is a permanent solution.” That’s why our main push this year is training five communities in nonviolent direct action, linking our practice to larger social movements which are confronting racism, climate catastrophe, and militarism. In our home region of the San Francisco Bay Area, we’ve been working with local BPFers to hone our own skills at planning direct actions against racist policing, fracking, and destruction of community-built urban farmland. All these actions are in connection with broader social movements for change, because we believe that it’s going to take large numbers of people working together to transform these life destroying systems.

As a Buddhist activist, I appreciate how the dharma helps me to hold paradox and contradiction, which is necessary for challenging systemic harms while not having the luxury for stepping outside of them. There is no pure place from which we can critique. In saying, “We Buddhists only get to be nice, soft, peace-loving wimps (let’s please be honest about that) because other people are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect us,” you imply that critique is not possible from this paradoxical position. I respectfully would argue that our position within U.S. empire requires us to critique it, and also be prepared that our lives and privileges will change as it transforms.

At BPF, we also held paradox in our discussions of what to put on this banner, partly because our group isn’t the “peace-loving wimps” you seem to imagine. Some BPFers wanted to be sure we were specific about critiquing “U.S. militarism” and its problematic role in empire building, rather than making a statement about “militarism in general.” Their support for freedom movements that won independence through militarized responses, such as African resistance against European colonialism, made a simple critique of “militarism in general” feel complicated. Political banners never quite capture the full complexity of our political stances, but the best ones point to the possibility of transformation and freedom.

I’m curious (honest questions here): You say a lot about what won’t change the logic of militarism. What movements or actions are you feeling more inspired by? What are the leverage points that might help us transform the logic of violence that’s perpetuated by U.S. militarism? What do we do when the best short-term choice involves harming others to protect ourselves, even if we know it will have long-term consequences? Is it different if we’re talking about individuals, oppressed groups, or countries with enough power to start pre-emptive wars to ensure “safety”?

These would be good questions not just for you Brad, for all us of peace-loving, compassionately-confronting, justice-demanding folks to explore together.

From a fellow dharma traveller,

Dawn Haney
Co-Director
Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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Comments (18)

  • Jbkranger

    Thanks for this Dawn. It is beyond my ability to comprehend where Brad is coming from here. I will certainly not read any of his stuff again because he is just so far off base. As a former US Army Ranger and board of directors of Veterans For Peace, I can assure you that non-violence is the key. For nearly three years, I was a high-class muscle-man for US imperialism.

  • Constant Illumination

    Dawn, don’t you see the obvious logical mistake that Brad makes?
    “It’s wrong to denounce militarism while we need it for our protection”, that’s his idea.
    Is it really impossible to distinguish militarism and protection?
    That’s the question that I would like you all to contemplate.

    Well, guys, tell that to 3.5 millions of Vietnamese killed by US forces.
    You Americans needed that to defend themselves.
    Yes, your State Secretaries and Presidents and other politicians and media gurus already said that.
    Now say that as Buddhists: American militarism should not be denounced, because it protects poor little American boys and girls from horrible Koreans, Vietnamese, Yugoslavians, Lybians, Syrians, Iraquis, Afghanis etc etc, so you must support killing people in all these countries, only for the protection of Buddhism.

    Jbkranger, give a hand, bro!

  • Belinda G

    First off, big thanks to Dawn for a measured, beautiful, thoughtful response to an absurd premise. Second, honor and gratitude to JBKranger for his leadership and insight. Third, let’s all pull together to overcome the dated ideas of Dharma as a privileged lily pad of the pacified, and instead show the power of our many centuries of engaged, radical Buddhist engagement with ending empire and moving toward Earth Community. Everything depends on it.

  • Justin

    This is great, Dawn. It’s great to see the sheer fact of the complexity of the situation addressed, and I agree that it’s impossible to do that in the short message you could put on a banner. But I think you did great to use the word “militarism” instead of “military”; focusing on an attitude or disposition behind so much destructive US foreign policy and driving so much spending domestically as well as an attitude of impunity and excessive force among police.

    I’m glad “Constant Illumination” pointed out the importance of that distinction, too, between militarism and protection (via the military and police).

  • Amy Hutto

    I remember reading something Thich Nhat Hahn wrote about the difficulty in deciding how to respond when Viet Nam was being attacked by the US. The question was whether to stay in the monastery and carry on with practice, or go out and get involved. In the end they decided to do both. They got involved in helping people escape in boats, a dangerous and apparently emotionally disturbing occupation. I also remember that Thich Naht Hahn made a visit to the US and implored US citizens to get involved in denouncing their country’s war.

    I think the pith of Dawns response is this:

    I respectfully would argue that our position within U.S. empire requires us to critique it, and also be prepared that our lives and privileges will change as it transforms.

    Enough said.

  • Katie Loncke

    So much love to your brilliance, Dawn, and the incredibly smart and heartful dialogue it’s prompting. The Facebook thread alone testifies to the way a thoughtfully written piece, even in lively debate, can help bring out the thoughtfulness in others.

    Also hella feeling this:

    As a Buddhist activist, I appreciate how the dharma helps me to hold paradox and contradiction, which is necessary for challenging systemic harms while not having the luxury for stepping outside of them. There is no pure place from which we can critique.

    Yes yes yes.

    Lucky to be doing this work with you, and just spending time with you in this life.

  • John F Eden

    Thanks for your cogent answer, Dawn! I was feeling frustrated because I wanted to respond to Warner and had no platform… so this is exactly what needed to be said. Along with the note that none of what the US has done in the world militarily, in the past 5 or so decades at the very least, has really been to protect us. It’s all been in the service of Empire. So he’s just solid wrong to say that military action is what gives us the privilege of advocating for peace. A good argument can be made, as alluded to by my friend Constant Illumination, and has been made by many, that the world would be a good bit more peaceful had the US not engaged in centuries of war-mongering and aggression.

  • Bob

    I don’t believe that US military policy has much to do with safety or “security” in the way those words are commonly used. Rather the policies hinge upon control and domination of economic, political and social structures within a capitalist global economy. Military policies may be considered rational or irrational depending on ones point of view and desired outcome.

    A rational argument in favor of US domination in the Middle East would be to say that we don’t want China, Iran and Russia gaining greater influence in the region. Someone saying that would at least be making an honest argument. But fighting proxy wars against rival powers on the other side of the planet while propping up dictatorships and arming Jihadists in order to profit from the death spasms of the terminal carbon economy; Well my friend that is just a LONG ways away from anything that can be justified through Buddhism.

    Sometimes metaphors clarify and other times they mystify. I think issues pertaining to Americas wars, covert operations, and shadowy allegiances, I think that Zen metaphor is a poor tool for elucidating that stuff and we probably need to be more explicit.

    For example I’d like Brad Warner Hardcore Zen to explain how pumping billions of dollars in high tech weaponry into the middle-east over a forty year period, arming both sides of conflicts, arming dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, the Pakistani secret service and supporting non-state Islamic terror groups as we’re currently doing in Syria and Iraq – I’d like Brad to explain how that makes me more secure without using water and wave analogies. I don’t believe that any of things I mentioned in this paragraph have made me any safer, I’d say that protecting the safety of US citizens is not a primary goal of those policies.

    So to bring it back around to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship banner in front of the White house, the Truthometer points to “mostly true”. US military actions largely serve to destabilize, harm and endanger civilian populations abroad while poisoning democracy at home. The secrecy the brutality and the shroud of lies that engulfs US military history is a strong indication of the overall health of that institution. Enough said

  • John F Eden

    Thanks Bob. You are pretty much 100% right there yourself! That last paragraph should be emblazoned on the walls of the Pentagon.

  • tyson

    Does anyone here remember pacifism and isolationism practiced during the ’30s? Where did that get the world when the US withdrew from it? Should we withdraw from the Middle East and let ISIS kill innocents and sell the women into slavery? Talk to ISIS about non-violence. And US militarism did not cause ISIS. High unemployment and crooked governments did.

  • tyson

    Also, on a separate issue–there is a group to join for each of the issues you listed on your agenda. No reason to bring Buddhism into it. As a Buddhist, I don’t agree with everything on your agenda and would prefer you not lump me in with you.

  • Lisa

    As a Buddhist, I prefer to not be lumped in with those who are murdering Muslims in Burma. But life is lumpy. I am not reading any of this as a call for isolationism. In fact, isolationism and militarism reflect two sides of a clinging: to control, to the accrual of wealth, to “power-over”. They both reflect a delusion of separateness.

    Rewriting history is futile, but a fun game nonetheless. What if, after the defeat of Germany in WWI, we had committed to a Marshall plan, as we did after WWII? The U.S. knew about the genocide in Germany very early on, but we did nothing until Pearl Harbor. Worse, our toxic anti-Semitism prompted us to prevent Jewish immigration. Separateness. Us and them.

    There is quite a bit of territory between ignoring suffering and armed conquest. Many “somethings” that can be done, only a fraction of which involve killing. I would favor those options whose intent and outcomes acknowledge our common humanity. While soldiers as individuals can be humane, I can’t think of any war (overt or covert) that wasn’t about maintaining US power, capital and hegemony. Not a humane system and one guaranteed to multiply suffering.

    Sitting in relative affluence and safety, I don’t pretend to know when armed struggle might be necessary. I am also well aware of how my privilege was bought by the suffering of others. But i can judge, as a Buddhist, when the delusion of separateness leads to suffering. I believe the BPF banners skillfully expressed this.

  • Todd Townsend

    Tyson, reach back a little further. Unemployment and crooked governments in the Middle East were in large part the result of US policy in the region and our military and economic adventures there.

  • Dawn Haney

    Thank you all for extending the discussion! I wanted to also add this response from Taigen Dan Leighton, a long time BPFer from the Chicago area who participated in the action. We received it via email, and it was also posted over at Hardcore Zen (generating another 43 comments to date): https://hardcorezen.info/response-from-taigen-leighton/3560

    Here’s the comment in its entirety:

    Hey Brad,

    As one of the people holding the banner you object to, I want to respond, and clarify some of the misapprehensions in your article. You missed the point. First, the three banners pictured outside the White House were not endorsed by all the conference attendees, but were created by Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and carried after the conference by some of us who agreed with them. Second, and most important to your article, the banner does Not say “The U.S. Military breeds violence . . .” It refers to U.S. Militarism, admittedly a loaded term. But I for one, like you, am not an unconditional pacifist. I am glad we have a sturdy U.S. Military, and I very much respect and support the professional soldiers who serve on our behalf. Of course in this world for the foreseeable future we need some kind of military. However, by “Militarism” here I understand this to refer to the tendency of our political, corporate, and occasionally military leaders, supported by weapons manufacturers, to shoot first and “impose” diplomacy later. The unnecessary 2003 invasion of Iraq is just one prime example of excessive use of military, which has destabilized the whole Mideast region and probably led to decades more of American Warfare. President Eisenhower presciently warned against the military-industrial-congressional complex. And this week a young college student (I understand she is from a conservative Republican family) chided Jeb Bush because his brother created ISIS.

    But this was not central to the conference as a whole, which focused on response to the Climate Damage crisis, and Racial Justice. The two other BPF banners displayed outside after the conference read “The Whole Earth is My True Body: I Vow to Work for Climate Justice” and “The Karma of Slavery is Heavy: I Vow to Work for Racial Justice.” Inside the White House we were able to comment on Climate and Racial Justice, and many attendees signed the documents we presented to the administration: “A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change” (see: http://www.ancientdragon.org/dharma/articles/buddhist_declaration_climate_change) and the “Buddhist Statement on Racial Justice” (see: http://www.ancientdragon.org/dharma/articles/buddhist_stmt_racial_injustice). Most impressive and useful are the comprehensive presentations by the Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, “A Buddhist Diagnosis of the Climate Crisis” based on the Four Noble Truths (see: http://www.ancientdragon.org/dharma/articles/WH_BB_Bud_Diag_Clim_Ch_Long_Handout_5-9-15.pdf) and his briefer version “Keeping it Simple and Practical” (see: http://www.ancientdragon.org/dharma/articles/keeping_it_simple_and_practical). I would encourage you and your readers to study Bhikkhu Bodhi’s articles.

    As to the context of those assembled at this conference, I had no part in selecting the supposed “leaders,” and have long been watching the parking meters myself. But the majority of attendees were from a wide range of Asian-American communities, allowing we “converts” to connect more deeply. There was a fairly sparse Zen representation. But key organizer Bill Aiken and the others on the planning committee did an excellent job of bringing together an unusually diverse group, and arranging a good program at the White House. A couple of the Administration spokespersons were extremely impressive, sincere and receptive. If nothing else, this indicates that some government policy makers are open to including, alongside other influential religious groups, consideration of Buddhist values of compassion, inner transformation, and longer temporal perspectives. While I do no imagine that there will be any immediate noticeable effects of our visit, I am glad for this beginning of a process, and hope we all as Buddhists might engage and respond more fully in many ways with the urgent societal issues we face.

    Peace,
    Taigen Leighton

  • tyson

    LIsa,

    I agree with the theme of your reply, that the illusion of separateness causes suffering. However, until everyone in the world converts to Buddhism–and strictly adheres to its philosophy–there will be suffering. Even after there will be suffering.

    What about our intervention in Yugoslavia? Was that a “good intervention” because it was started by a Democratic President instead of an evil Republican one?

    I too can’t wait for the day until all humans are enlightened or have evolved past our DNA encoded need to discriminate, strive for power, etc. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like it is going to happen in my lifetime.

    Todd,

    Go back even further. Before we discovered oil there were evil governments/monarchies and high unemployment.

    Al Qaeda was the pre-cursor to ISIS. Al Qaeda came to prominence under Clinton. Once Al Qaeda was practically defeated, they changed to ISIS.

  • Jbkranger

    Todd, the intervention in Yugoslavia was awful. Noam Chomsky and Christopher Hedges have written extensively about how bad it was. Hedges did it again a few days ago on an NPR interview (www.onpointradio.org I think). I urge you to look deeper. The Yuogslavian intervention was no better than the rest.

    Joey B King
    BPF
    Member Veterans For Peace National Board of Directors

  • Todd Townsend

    I did not bring up Yugoslavia.

    I think that most of the geopolitical problems we have today, or have had in recent memory, stem from our previous imperialistic meddling in the world. We shit the bed we are now trying to sleep in.

    It doesn’t matter Democrat or Republican, Whig or Green, the US has always been a blood thirsty imperial power.

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