(Not So Lite) Summer Reading For Activists

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic
Chalmers Johnson. Metropolitan Books, 2004.

One can hardly escape noticing the rapidly increasing frequency with which “imperialism” has appeared in the public discourse to describe the direction Mr.Bush’s policy planners are leading the nation. Johnson’s analysis, and the clarity of its presentation, leaves this reader with no doubt that “a Rubicon has been crossed.”

The Roman reference is particularly appropriate since the author devotes considerable attention to the parallels between the Roman Empire and the last century of US history. The history of the roots of US militarism, from the warnings in the farewell addresses of Washington and Eisenhower and the addictive way in which a “defense establishment” is transformed into a “militarist establishment” is clearly related to the political and economic life of the nation.

In the chapter “Toward the New Rome” Johnson notes that, “The intellectual heritage of America’s neoconservative triumphalists is a complex amalgam of the military imperialism of Theodore Roosevelt and the idealistic imperialism of Woodrow Wilson.” Documentation for these trends is amply provided in a chapter describing the growth in the use of “surrogate soldiers” and “private mercenaries.”

Recent disclosures in the news from Iraq, as well as the longer but more obscured history of intervention in Latin America, clearly illustrate the way domination and exploitation is assured. With similar detail, another chapter describes the cold war expansion to over 725 permanent US military bases spread throughout the world.

Johnson summarizes four “sorrows of empire”: 1) a state of perpetual war leading to more terrorism against US Americans everywhere, 2) a loss of democracy and constitutional rights, 3) replacement of truthfulness with systems of propaganda and disinformation, 4) bankruptcy, as we pour economic resources into grandiose military projects thereby shortchanging social programs. His suggestions as to how this dismal outlook could be changed, which comprises the final paragraph in this excellent book, should be assigned summer reading as we look forward to November 2.
Dan Sage

From Yale to Jail: The Life Story of a Moral Dissenter
David Dellinger. Rose Hill Books. 1993.

Dave Dellinger’s passing inspired me to add his memoir to my summer reading list (that’s right, I’ve only skimmed it so far). Rather than talking about the book, I’ll tell you why Dave is a great inspiration and someone you should “meet” via this autobiography.

Years ago I read Revolutionary Non-Violence (1970), Dave’s collection of compelling essays from World War II to 1970. His union of these two words, which are often seen as being contradictory, was critical to me as a young pacifist. Today, when many young activists reject nonviolence as an insufficient approach, his work is as important as ever.

Dave’s writings and, more importantly, his life’s work embody the authentic meaning of nonviolence and challenge others to live up to these high ideals. As a child he asked his father to take him to see the Massachusetts Governor (a family friend) so Dave could convince him to pardon Sacco and Vanzetti. From that auspicious beginning he went on to resist World War II by rejecting his divinity student exemption and served four years in federal prison, one of many prison/jail stints.

Dave spent years living in communes committed to egalitarian living and social transformation. He was involved in a series of radical pacifist publications, of which Liberation was the most long-lived. Dave played a key organizing role in the Viet Nam anti-war movement and is best known as the “elder” of the Chicago 7.

Dave believed that the greatest failing of nonviolence was the unwillingness of its practitioners to fully dedicate their lives to struggle.

I encourage others committed to nonviolence and revolutionary change see what we can learn by reading From Yale to Jail.
Andy Mager

No Surrender: Writings from an Anti-imperialist Political Prisoner
David Gilbert. Abraham Guillen Press, 2004

David Gilbert is internationally acknowledged as a US political prisoner. He lives with a 75 year sentence [first parole board appearance, 2056] for his role in the tragic 1981 Brink’s armored truck robbery to support the Black Liberation Army in Nyack, NY. No Surrender includes pieces written since his 1981 imprisonment. David was known as a theoretician and organizer for the 1968 Columbia University strike and an activist in Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground Organization.

David has continued writing and organizing within the NYS prison system. “It’s this way:/being captured is beside the point,/the point is not to surrender,” the closing lines of the poem by former Turkish political prisoner, Nazim Hikmet, which opens the book.

Our Politics in 17 Syllables

love for the people

means nonstop struggle against


David organized around the AIDS crisis at Auburn prison. In 1987 he proposed a peer education project, which, after too many deaths and much convincing, was accepted by the prison authorities. The project was too successful by prison administration standards. Black men, Latinos, and whites worked together to support HIV+ inmates, and those living with AIDS. The NYS prison authorities encourage prisoner segregation, one of their long-standing inmate control techniques. Thus David, the inmate administrator of the AIDS program, was transferred out. Later, in Comstock prison he wrote an influential and informative pamphlet on AIDS conspiracy theories.

No Surrender includes a number of book reviews written for the NYC Downtowner newspaper. David uses these to make points on challenging male supremacy, listening to women of color voices, fighting white supremacy and global imperialism and the popular struggles against it.

David also delights us with his haikus, both profound and comic. In his children’s stories we see him as the dad to Chesa, only 14-months old when his parents were imprisoned.

At a well-attended book launching in NYC on June 10, Chesa closed with a reading from the book’s Epilogue, “September 11: The Terrorism That Terrorism Has Wrought”:

As Che Guevara urged decades ago, ”We must stand firm but without losing our tenderness, ever.”

No one understands this better than David Gilbert.
elana levy <rachimin@hotmail.com>

For the Time Being
Anne Dillard. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

For the Time Being is an extremely literate book about the question of evil, pain and suffering in a God-created world. Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her vivid recollection Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, draws on Christian, Buddhist, Jewish and other faith traditions and, along with her own talented eye for details and loving gift for words, grapples with the big and small pictures that make up this dilemma.

She takes us on a journey where we visit the buried statuaries of Emperor Qin, the Gobi desert, the steppes of Russia, the Sea of Galilee, and genetically deformed babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She introduces us to cloud painters, Yosemite, AIDS clinics, tsunamis, Mexico City and Jerusalem. All this and much more is contained in a series of vignettes that unexpectedly twist and weave together as they pull and tug at your heart – and your spirit.

My copy’s bindings gave out long ago. I have dog-eared a dozen pages with particularly touching passages – but then, I really should just mark the entire book. For Example, Dillard writes “Los Angeles airport has twenty-five thousand parking spaces. This is about one space for every person who died in 1985 in Colombia when a volcano erupted. This is one space each for two years’ worth of accidental killings from land mines left over from recent wars....You could not fit America’s homeless there, however, even at eighteen or nineteen to a car.” And again, she writes “We are earth’s organs and limbs; we are syllables God utters from his mouth.”

Dillard determinedly maintains her belief that God lives and wrestles with the details of death, tragedy and hatred in a luminous manner. Read this book and be profoundly disturbed and inspired.
Jim Brulé


Autobiography of Malcolm X
(as told to Alex Haley). Grove Press, 1966.

Truth be told, I was hesitant to read the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I was afraid the writing would be dry and the content inapplicable to my principles of nonviolent activism. I had bought into the media’s portrayal of Malcolm as violent and filled with hate. I could not have been more wrong.

Malcolm’s childhood was unstable. His father was murdered when he was six. Shortly thereafter, his mother was taken to a mental institution and the children split up. Malcolm spent time in foster homes, a detention home and living with his half-sister. He spent seven years hustling on the streets of Boston and New York City. He sold and used drugs, pimped, sold numbers, and stole property. In 1946, 20 year-old Malcolm was convicted of robbery and sent to prison for 10 years.

In prison Malcolm educated himself and became a devoted follower of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm spent the 12 years following his release preaching the Nation’s teachings and establishing temples in over a dozen cities. In 1963 he was excommunicated from the Nation of Islam.

He spent the next two years traveling to Mecca and Africa and trying to establish first a Moslem organization and then a Black Nationalist organization in the United States. Malcolm was shot and killed on February 21, 1965.

The aspect of Malcolm’s life that really drew me was his firmly-held beliefs regarding racism in the US. Malcolm has been, and continues to be, framed as a “racist” because the white power structure refuses to acknowledge the institutional racism he addressed so forcefully. Malcolm writes, “ unless we call one white man, by name, a ‘devil’, we are not speaking of any individual white man. We are speaking of the collective white man’s historical record.”

Throughout his adult life, Malcolm fought tirelessly for Black freedom. He was driven by anger and frustration and the hope of a completely free existence.

This book is a must-read for anyone working for peace and justice, especially white people. Racism is alive and flourishing, and if we hope to effect change, we must examine all oppressive systems, including racism.
Emily Aaron


Corporate Warriors: TheRise of the Privatized Military Industry P.W. Singer Cornell University Press, 2003

Some weeks ago four US “civilian contractors” were killed and mutilated in Fallujah. Except via lynch mobs, etc, such mercenaries – for that is what they were – are subject to little oversight or accountability. Part of their value to their employer is that they can operate independent of both US law and the Geneva Conventions. Nor are such privatized soldiers included in the US troop or body count.

Somewhere in cyberspace, I recently read that the number of such US-paid mercenaries in Iraq now exceeds that of British soldiers there. Alarmed, I figured I’d better learn more.Singer’s book must have been completed before the US invasion, and so doesn’t confirm or debunk the scale of mercenary involvement in Iraq these days.

Before this book, however, I had no idea what a wide role corporations employing professional soldiers (often retired special forces commandos trained at US-taxpayer expense) played — not only in US military adventures, but also in those of other state and non-state entities, legal and illegal.

P.W. Singer has administered corporate mercenary contracts for the Pentagon. He’s a National Security Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He’s also a frequent commentator on military affairs in the mainstream print and TV media.

His book is a weighty and well-documented 330 pages. Fortunately Singer is an engaging and lucid writer. He has a financial analyst’s grasp of the industry’s dynamics. He’s a scholar steeped in military culture and history. He has the geopolitical big picture.

Singer analyzes the trend to privatize warrior functions. He also examines the disadvantages — both practical and moral — of doing so. Over a third of the book focuses on “implications.”

For this anti-war activist who wants to better understand the realities of war, the book was fascinating. Read it to better understand how the world works.
Ed Kinane