Medea Benjamin: ‘I’ve Seen so Many Wars that Just Could Have Been Avoided’

December 13th, 2022 - by Norman Stockwell / The Progressive

Anti-war activist Medea Benjamin on Ukraine,
Russia, and keeping up the resistance.

Norman Stockwell / The Progressive

(December 8, 2022) — Lifelong anti-war activist Medea Benjamin has a new book out. War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict is co-written with Nicholas J.S. Davies and includes a preface by Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher of The Nation.

In the 198-page volume, Benjamin and Davies look at the history of Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, and suggest directions for a possible peaceful resolution. I spoke with Benjamin at the end of October when she stopped in Madison, Wisconsin as part of a fifty-city tour to promote the forthcoming book. It was published on November 15 by OR Books.

Q: Let’s start with a question that someone asked at your talk last night: What can we do to help the people of Ukraine and what are the things that we’re doing that are probably not helpful?

Medea Benjamin: When Ukraine is in the midst of a war for its sovereignty and survival, it’s a very different view from the inside. And I understand that they think that getting more and more weapons is the answer. There’s also the sense that they are beating back the Russians and that victory is in sight.

But I’ve seen enough wars in my time to understand that that’s an illusion, that wars have their ups and downs and that there are no clear victories these days, especially when you’re fighting a powerful adversary like Russia.

So seeing it from the outside, with tremendous sympathy for the Ukrainian people, I see the need to stop the fighting. And as many people have said, this war will only end at the negotiating table. The question is, how long will that take? How many people will die?

I’m sure many Ukrainians think they will be at a better position at the negotiating table once they are able to claw back as much territory as possible. But there are red lines on both sides that are not going to change, and that could really lead us into a nuclear war unless there is some resolution soon. So that’s why I think the best thing for the Ukrainian people is to push proactively for negotiations and a ceasefire and let the talks begin.

Q: You talk about the war resisters, particularly the refuseniks in Russia who have avoided military service. But there’s also the nonviolent resistance that we’ve seen among Ukrainians. 

Benjamin: In Ukraine, we are friends with and great admirers of the nonviolent war resistors. Our friends who are inside Ukraine are feeling very much overwhelmed by the war mentality and feeling under siege.

Our colleagues who have refused to fight have faced prison terms, been beaten. And even the group that got the Nobel Peace Prize from Ukraine does not respect the rights and the courage of war resisters. In fact, they’re calling for more weapons and refusing to recognize the human rights abuses of the Ukrainians. We must recognize that when there’s war, both sides end up committing human rights abuses.

There was a flowering of nonviolent resistance and there could be, once again, a flowering of nonviolent resistance that was exemplified in the early uprising in 2014 Maidan [Square in Kyiv, Ukraine]. Because that was indeed a sign of people power, with many thousands of people coming out into the streets and staying there.

But whether it’s the Arab Spring or the Maidan uprising, or many examples of real rebellions, it’s people sitting in and refusing to leave. And that’s what happened. And unfortunately it turned violent and was overtaken by some extremist groups. But we have a great example of Ukrainians resisting governments they feel are corrupt and unresponsive to their desires.

In the case of Russia, where there are even greater restrictions on free press and free assembly, we have wonderful examples of what Russians have done, like the woman who stood up with a banner on a live news broadcast at the TV station she worked at. And we’ve seen people who go out in the streets. They’ve even gone out with just blank signs, holding up blank signs, because they want to show their opposition and they know whatever they put on the sign is going to get them arrested.

Q: The war in Ukraine has fueled a huge reversal in the movement towards green power in Western Europe and elsewhere. Talk about the climate impacts of the conflict and how we should be responding.

Benjamin: There are so many ways in which the climate is negatively impacted by this war. One is the war itself and all the things that are being blown up. And we know the danger at the nuclear power plants that still exist.

There’s also the increased militarization and production of weapons that’s going on not only in the United States to send to Ukraine, but all over Western Europe. The increased production of weapons in Russia, in China, has led to just an overall renewed militarization that is so devastating to the kinds of things we really need to be producing.

And you can see now that the U.S. companies and other companies around the world are trying to take advantage of the sanctions on Russian energy to push their way into what is a very big market. That has led to the increased production of oil, gas, and coal. And keeping nuclear energy plants online is really going against all of the goals that were set for Europe during the climate accords.

Q: This year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the thirteen days in October when the world was previously on the brink of a nuclear conflict between superpowers. And I was actually in Cuba for the thirtieth anniversary of that occasion. What are some similarities and differences between now and then? What lessons should we have learned from that?

Benjamin: The major difference, of course, is that there were two people in power who talked to each other. And to think back about how lucky we were at that time that [Russian Premier Nikita] Khruschev and [U.S. President John F.] Kennedy saw the possibility of the world being blown up and said, “We’re going to do something about this,” with those thirteen extremely tense days.

The American people, if they know anything about what happened back then, think that the Russians backed off and took their missiles from Cuba and went home. They don’t know there was a compromise and that the United States took its missiles from Turkey that were aimed at Russia and deactivated them.

And so it shows that talking to your adversary is not only possible, but absolutely essential. And it shows that compromise is essential.

It also shows that you can tell your own people whatever you want about how that agreement was reached. But the reality is that it takes two to tango and that it takes two to come to an agreement that is mutually acceptable. And it’s important for people to recognize what JFK said after that, which is [to paraphrase]: “You don’t back a nuclear power into a corner when the only option would be a humiliating defeat or the use of a nuclear weapon.”

And that is something that should echo in our minds today when it seems like the Biden Administration is really anxious to push Russia into a corner. Biden himself says, “Well, he needs some off ramp,” but the President is not doing anything to provide that off ramp. And well, Biden himself has talked about a possibility of a nuclear Armageddon.

Q: You’ve been involved in various peace campaigns around countless wars now going back as long as I can remember. What is it that drives you and what is it that sustains you?

Benjamin: I got into this anti-war work at the age of sixteen, when the Vietnam War was raging, and have recognized how insane people get when war starts and how it makes very good people, turns them into monsters. And I feel that killing is wrong. Whether it’s somebody stabbing someone else on the street or shooting people in a drive-by or refusing to communicate to get to the point where entire nations go to war with each other. It’s all about a lack of communication and a lack of a mediator who can facilitate that kind of communication.

I’ve seen so many wars that just could have been avoided. And I’ve seen the war machine, how it profits from these wars. We at CODEPINK have been shareholders. We get just enough shares to be able to go into their meetings. And whenever I can I go into the meetings and get up and interrupt them and look straight at the board and say, “How can you be enriching yourselves by producing death machines? You are merchants of death.”

Civilization means moving forward to where we don’t have war and where we put our resources and our energy and the know-how of our young people to work—not for the Pentagon, but to work for, how do we address the climate crisis? How do we end poverty on this planet? How do we ensure a clean, abundant supply of water for everybody on this planet? How do we make our cities more livable? How do we make our lives better in ways that are good for us and good for the planet?

And so that’s the kind of evolution we need. I’m now seventy years old. I’m a grandmother. I see my grandkids and I just marvel at the beauty that they see in the world. And as they’re growing up, I want them to have a planet to live on, and I want them to be positive about the evolution of society.

And so I want to set an example for them that you can dedicate your life to making this world a better place. When I get a chance to travel, whether it’s overseas or in this country, like I’m doing now on a fifty-city book tour, I meet the best people in the world. I am so excited in each city to meet people who are involved in their faith-based organizations or in building organizations in their schools or their communities, and all the great work that they’re doing. That is extremely inspiring for me.

So my final word to people is be active, be involved, be engaged, and get joy from this work by being with other people who have similar views about the world we want to build.

Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive.

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