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November 2001
Conscientious Objections

The Satya Interview with Joanne Sheehan


Joanne Sheehan is a long-time peace activist and the Chair of War Resisters International, and runs the New England branch of the War Resisters League (WRL). She lectures throughout the world on nonviolence and social empowerment, and has been a nonviolence trainer/workshop facilitator since the 1970s. To help support her regional WRL office, she also runs a vegetarian catering business called “Pacifeast Catering.” In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, she discussed with Angela Starks some lessons that we can learn from similar situations and her thoughts on where we can go from here.

You have been a peace activist since the days of the Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights. How do you see the current situation in the context of past struggles like these? And what differences or similarities do you see between them?
When there’s a call for war, similar things happen. For example, at this early stage we see a lot of support for war in the polls. However, we saw the same at the beginning of the Vietnam War; it took people years to really get an understanding of that war and to oppose it as more and more Americans came home in body bags. People start to think things through, look at other options and wonder if we can ever reach our goals through military use.

The other thing is that, there’s a lot of patriotism. I’ve already been told to leave the country by a caller during a talk radio show. Likewise, during Vietnam it was “love it or leave it.” When peace activists exercise their right to free speech—something America was founded on and prides itself on—we are told we’re unpatriotic, told we’re un-American! I think it’s a serious contradiction and a scary one because it’s so common.

Because of our current state of emergency, our civil rights are also being challenged by the government—more and more people are being picked up and we can expect more wiretaps and things like that. During the Vietnam War, activists found that some people who were going to meetings with them were FBI agents, not fellow protesters. That’s how organized it is.

Another similarity is the growing rhetoric—the “us versus them,” the demonizing of the other. We have to dehumanize people in order to be able to mobilize against them and commit violence against them. That’s happened in every war in history. We saw that in the way Saddam Hussein was demonized or the way the Vietnamese were referred to as “Gooks.” And now, because there is an Arab American population and Muslims in this country, we’re not only demonizing the terrorists abroad, we are also demonizing people of color here. This is affecting a lot of people in this country.

From your perspective as a seasoned activist, what lessons did we—or should we—have learned from those previous situations, or from ongoing struggles from Iraq to Northern Ireland?
The main lesson is that violence hasn’t produced justice. Nor has it produced a real sense of security or peace for us. Vietnam is an example: We killed millions of Vietnamese and 57,000 Americans came home in body bags, so who won that war? Enormous amounts of Americans came home suffering from diseases and psychological trauma and we have large numbers of veterans who are homeless as a result. That war is still with us. Then there’s Gulf War Syndrome. Why did these men and women come home so sick? The government keeps lying, saying We don’t have any proof that those toxins you were exposed to are what’s causing you to be sick and die.

They say that the first casualty of war is truth. We look back and we see that the story that Iraqis came into Kuwaiti hospitals and threw babies out of incubators was a lie. Many Congress people said they voted to go after Iraq because they thought it was true. And so now we have to ask: What is the government lying to us about this time?

Why do you think all the polls are saying people support war?
It could simply be the fact that we’ve been attacked and we want to do something, but people do not understand that we have options. This country has built its strength on weapons. We are by far the most armed nation in the world—both civilians and the military. However, on a lot of levels we’re fighting guerilla warfare, or terrorists, therefore a national missile defense or “Star Wars” shield will not protect us from airplanes or whatever kinds of attacks that terrorists come up with. Carpet bombing Afghanistan will probably create more terrorists—it certainly won’t wipe them out—so that’s not an answer either. Violence creates more instability and more anger towards us.

It’s interesting that one of the nations of the world that took a day off to mourn September 11th was Northern Ireland. The majority of the population there has come to the understanding that the violence is not getting them anywhere.
I have a T-shirt that says “We Arm the World.” It’s pictured as a line from Reagan in the middle of a lot of dictators, all singing during the time when that song “We Are the World” came out. I wore it when I was visiting my dad in a nursing home. One of the residents said “What does your T-shirt say, honey?” and I said “ ‘We Arm the World.’ We’re the biggest exporter of weapons to the world.” So she turned around—I thought she was going to give it to me—and said, “And now we’re getting it back aren’t we?” She understood, this old woman.

Do you think the media is accurately portraying what the public wants?
The role the mass media is playing is to kind of whip up a frenzy. Many TV and radio stations are airing these little segments that play patriotic songs or have quotes from Bush. They’re not giving a voice to people who are analyzing the situation, though we do find that more on public radio stations and the like. Again, we talk about being in a country where we have free speech and not having government control of radio stations, but they’re still corporately controlled. There is a censorship. That’s the first thing we have to say about the media—that they are not objective.

There are many peace organizations with large memberships that are increasing—we’ve had people joining WRL in the past few weeks. A number of prominent spiritual leaders, like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hahn have come out with messages of peace and compassion. Is it really only five percent of us who oppose war, all combined? I don’t think so. It’s just that it’s hard for individuals to find a voice because all around you your neighbors have flags. There’s that feeling anyway, that the whole U.S., 110 percent, wants war. That’s why we gain strength when we come together in groups.

There’s a sticker on the WRL web site that says “Our Grief is Not a Cry for War.” That says it all.
There have been a number of people whose children or partners or other family members were killed, who have spoken out for nonviolence, who have spoken out for more restraint. These people have written to the American people saying “Do not go to war in my husband’s name or in my son’s name.” There has been the fear among activists that if we speak out we’ll be thought of as insensitive, and I think that’s where the voices of the families of the victims have given us some strength.

Does the WRL have a message for people in the armed forces?
We’re one of the groups that supports the GI Rights Hotline that people in the military can call if they’re beginning to look at their conscience and say Whoa! I never really thought about whether I could go to war, whether I could kill people. Maybe they feel as if they’re being led into something that will kill innocent civilians and want to find out how to register as a conscientious objector. You shouldn’t have to give up all of your rights and your conscience too in the military, although that is what they ask you to do. You’re meant to do what the commander says, not think for yourself.

Also, I do counter-recruitment work. I go into high schools and talk about what the military is all about and I provide alternatives. The recruiters are trying to sell you a college education, job training, excitement around the world. They’re not trying to sell you the opportunity to go to war because that doesn’t sell. In Vietnam, we had to have a draft in order to get enough people to go to war.

Is the WRL 100 percent committed to nonviolence, in that you believe no military action whatsoever should be taken?
Yes. WRL has a declaration that we share with groups throughout the world—not just throughout the country—that war is a crime against humanity. We don’t believe that military action is ever the way. We go further and say, however, that we will work nonviolently to remove the causes of war.

So “nonviolently” means not bombing buildings, as well as people?
That’s right. We have been asking ourselves: Can property destruction ever be justified as being nonviolent? Within the broader nonviolent movement there’s a lot of disagreement; people have their own ideas, including myself. I would say that raiding a draft board and destroying the files of those who are about to get drafted would be justified property destruction. Tearing down the Berlin Wall was justified property destruction. But anything else is not. I personally think that any property destruction has to be looked at within a context and would have to be something that in no way would harm a human being. Blowing up a building would be out of the question—a night watchman might be in there, and I couldn’t justify that loss of life.

Do you envision any specific solutions to the current situation?
This situation has made us ask Why? Why would people hate us? There are short- and long-term solutions here. But this has been a long-term problem with no quick answers. You don’t get rid of terrorism by getting rid of the terrorists that exist now, you have to look at what fosters this. We have to look at the people who did this as extremists, way out there on the end of the spectrum, while realizing there are a lot of other people at various points on the spectrum who hate, dislike, or oppose the U.S. because of our foreign and economic policies. For example, we think we have a right to the oil in the Middle East and that we can drive with it as much as we want, so we get the military to safeguard that by propping up the governments there that allow that to happen. Even Europeans were having massive demonstrations against the U.S. for these very reasons!

As a super-power we continue to do what we want. Bush has become a mouthpiece for that more than ever. There’s a kind of arrogance about his style that has really angered people. So that’s the climate we’re in which gave rise to this. Even people of the Islamic faith who wouldn’t necessarily support these bombings still feel that they are targeted by the U.S. in so many ways.

Let’s look at our inconsistencies. We claim that one of the problems we have with Saddam Hussein is the way he treats the Kurds. Yet Turkey has the same exact history against the Kurds and they are our ally, and we have military bases there. Our foreign policy is totally inconsistent and is totally based on our own interests. And when anyone else sees that, it gives rise to anger because of the injustice they feel that they or others suffer. For a variety of strategic reasons the U.S. just closes its eyes. So we’re not a humanitarian nation. We support governments that violate human rights around the world. We give China “most favored nation” status yet we try to starve out Cuba.

One of the other problems is that we’re an isolated nation. I have a friend from England who was travelling in the U.S. about 12 years ago on his motorcycle through Oklahoma. This was when self-service gas pumps were coming in and he’d never seen them before. He went up to the guy at the gas station and said, “Excuse me I don’t know how to use this because I’m in a foreign country,” and this guy jumped up and started screaming at him, “Don’t you ever call the United States a foreign country.” Isn’t that hilarious? We think that ‘foreign’ means ‘bad guys,’ not that it simply means another country. Most Americans don’t understand how the world sees us and we don’t understand the rest of the world.

People I know who are otherwise very open minded will nonetheless say “…but we are the greatest country in the world,” so I feel as if I’m hearing brainwashing going on amongst my own friends.
One of the things WRL asks is “How do we foster a discussion to get people to look deeper at these issues?” So when we say “We’re the greatest country” does that mean we have more stuff? How did we get it? Whose was it to begin with? Today’s young people were raised to be consumers with TV ads directed at them. It has become our purpose in life, this is what “meaning” is supposed to be. And Giuliani or Bush tell us to “Go out and buy.” That’s it: Patriotism means go out and buy, buy, buy and support the American way of life. Bill Clinton said, “They said to go out and shop so I did.”

And so we continue causing the problems that are making people resent us in the first place?

Exactly. It’s a vicious circle. We’re not being reflective.

Where does peace activism go from here?
Pacifist groups, religious groups and others that have a commitment to peace began to circulate statements in the first few days. The Internet has helped this tremendously by providing an alternative forum for discussion and passing on information which has helped people to sort this out and think this through.

I think we need to build a movement, but we need to do it in a way that doesn’t polarize—not go after those people who are pro-war, but figure out how to expand the dialogue, to go deeper, asking questions. How do we get real justice? How do we really get rid of terrorism? How do we provide real security for ourselves and the rest of the world? How do we support human rights? That’s where peace activism has to go, and I think it will grow and be a movement. I have seen it grow since September 11th.

What do you think might be the most positive possible outcome from all this, if anything?
One unfortunate lesson we’ve had to learn is that now we know what it’s like to be victims, so let’s not make any more victims. Maybe we can gain in sensitivity. We’re horrified by this, and it is horrible, but people in Northern Ireland, in the Basque country, and in many parts of the world, live with violence every day. We should look at this issue of justice in the world, look at our foreign policy, look at our economic policy. I hope that brings us to asking deeper questions and then really asking for some sort of change. We had the war to end all wars at the beginning of the last century, didn’t we? What does it take to get people to wake up?

What can individuals do on a daily basis to help create a nonviolent world?
There’s something each and every one of us can do. We make personal choices and then we join with others to try to stop something that we think is wrong. We need to figure out: Is this where we want our tax dollars to go? Do we really want our sons and daughters to go off to the military to be fed into this machine? Do we intervene in our own communities when people say hateful things about other people?

I define myself as someone trying to practice nonviolence. For me that means in my daily life: I am a war tax resister, I have raised two children without war toys and have always given them nonviolent options, and I became a vegetarian in the mid-1970s. We live on a small income and try to live as environmentally sensitively as we can. We aim to be aware of the world we live in: Treating everyone and everything nonviolently.

To learn more about the War Resisters League, visit


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