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On Getting Arrested at Bath Iron Works

A couple of weeks ago I chose to get arrested at a demonstration at Bath Iron Works (BIW) in Bath, Maine. The day was cold, windy, and wet. A huge new battleship, the USS Lyndon Baines Johnson, was being launched. BIW is one of two shipyards in the U.S. capable of building these mammoth, deadly ships. Maine’s Congresspeople and Senators were there along with the top executives of BIW and General Dynamics, the parent company of BIW – as well as hundreds of other guests – to extol our military might. These launchings are a big deal. Such ships take years to build and are high tech marvels of stealth, surveillance and destruction. This one cost around $7 billion. Bath is a modest coastal Maine community dominated by the enormous shipyard, Maine’s biggest employer.

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The 75 of us who chose to protest the launching lined up along the sidewalks of Washington St. at one of the entrances to the yard. We wore hats and gloves and raincoats. We carried signs that said “Convert.” The casual passerby, seeing signs like those, might have been taken us for a religious cult calling on the warmongers to get right with God before the end times. The conversion we demanded was secular, though – more about economics, environment and militarism’s connection with climate change. The impending doom in the acceleration of climate change, however, did lend our demand an aspect of threat: Act now on climate change, or else! And any passerby would also notice that most of us were, as we say, of an age – a cheerful, motley assortment of activists who cut their yellowing teeth protesting the Vietnam War and marching for Civil Rights in the 1960s.

The U.S. military, with its nearly 1,000 bases worldwide and insatiable reliance on fossil fuel to keep all of its ships, planes, tanks, trucks, and jeeps running, is the single largest source of carbon dioxide emissions (the gases causing climate change) in the world. At the outset of the Iraq war in March 2003, the Army estimated it would need more than 40 million gallons of gasoline for three weeks of combat, exceeding the total quantity used by all Allied forces in the four years of World War I. In 2006, the U.S. Air Force consumed as much fuel as U.S. planes did during the Second World War (1941-1945) — an astounding 2.6 billion gallons. Our military uses more oil than 175 countries. The U.S. Navy’s firepower outmatches the next 20 countries combined. We spend more on our military than the next 7 countries; that includes China and Russia.

Those statistics are meant to identify a problem. The problem is that if we are serious about reversing the climate course we are on, we are not going to succeed by changing light bulbs. Nor will electric cars and local organic farms do it. Even legions of solar panels and wind turbines won’t cut it. We’ve got to cut the military, too. That’s why 25 people chose to get arrested on April 27th, protesting the launch of this incredibly expensive and militarily redundant ship.

A person doesn’t oppose the military in this country to win a popularity contest. The Pentagon has spent billions over the years successfully propagandizing about the greatest country in the world defended by the greatest army in the world – that our “way of life” is secured by our vast and far-flung weaponry. Even politicians, who lament that we can’t seem to find enough money for education, health care, repairing infrastructure, fighting poverty, and protecting the environment, are afraid to mention that nearly 60% of our discretionary funds goes to the military. And they are certainly afraid to point out the obvious: U.S. militarism is more about business, about profit for the defense contractors, than defense. Moreover, a large portion of that profit is recycled into donations to politicians to keep the game going. The continuation of ongoing insecurity creates vast fortunes. It has been said that for the $6 trillion the U.S. has spent on war-making since 2001, the entire planet could have been converted to clean energy. That $6 trillion didn’t explode in the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan. It rained like gold dust into the pockets of General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Halliburton, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, etc. – a taxpayer subsidy for the contractors. Can anyone tell me what good has come of all that war and suffering unless you happen to share in the war profits?

It would be very hard for anyone to claim any good results for the U.S. after nearly 30 years (dating from the first Gulf War in 1990) of criminal war making; one might assume that the people making decisions about our wars are very, very stupid – that is, unless you are a defense contractor and now very, very rich. On second thought, you might wonder if the people making the decision to go to war didn’t turn out to be the same people reaping the profits.

But I wasn’t there to be arrested because I have a gripe with the humongous size of the U.S. military. I was there because the humongous size of the U.S. military is endangering the survival of all plant and animal species on this planet. Defenders of the military claim that the risks of terrorism are greater than the risks of climate change. Such a claim is not merely absurd; it’s insane. Extinction is secondary to U.S. military domination? In fact, proliferating militarism is one of the inexorable drivers toward extinction.

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I also wasn’t there to shut down Bath Iron Works. Those signs we carried that said CONVERT! were demanding that BIW start making green infrastructure: wind turbines, solar panels, high speed rail cars, electric cars, fossil free cargo ships. All those things that create sustainable jobs – in fact, better paying jobs than building weapons. Someone will point out that I said a few paragraphs earlier that all that green stuff isn’t enough to stop climate change. That’s right, except it does work if we stop making warships and shrink the bloated military. That’s what conversion is.

We had hoped to block the limousines carrying the corporate and political dignitaries into the LBJ’s “christening.” But those privileged folks used a secret entrance to the yard. Instead, we blocked a bus and a few cars carrying guests. We lay down peacefully on the wet road.

No one likes to get arrested. Handcuffs can be uncomfortable, and the hours of processing are tedious. The Bath police, though, were respectful and courteous to us. They didn’t want to give us something else to complain about. Our goal was not to get arrested. Our goal was to use the arrest to get a soapbox in the media to talk about the link between militarism and climate change. The real risk in getting arrested, most often, is not the danger or ignominy of arrest. The real risk is that you may not get a chance to tell the world why.

Everywhere I go now I hear people – old people, young people, all people – despairing over what’s happening with the climate, with animal and plant extinctions, with powerful people at the top of our government ignoring this crisis. What are the powerful thinking? And very few people are connecting the dots between our gigantic military and climate. If we love our children, if we love the miracle of life and all our fellow species, we should say, as Mario Savio did in the 1960s:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

As kids we laughed at the notion that early mariners feared the world was flat and that they might sail over the edge into the black abyss of the dark, cold cosmos. The politicians, the fossil fuel execs, and the war profiteers have indeed made the world flat and sailed us to the brink. The kids aren’t laughing.

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