Saturday, August 13, 2011

Overcoming Militarism: Research

Establishing Trust and Accountability: An Integrated Approach to Research on Militarism

by John Lindsay-Poland    Fellowship (Spring 2011)
When we are conscious of living in an unjust world, what more do we need to know before we act?
A lot, usually. Without risking the “paralysis of analysis,” I think we need to understand the terrain and forces around us that will shape the outcome of our efforts. If we are to demilitarize life and land, we need to know about militarism, and potential allies, and history, and what are potential obstacles, and how the money flows.
And these things are not static: they change over time, so that it’s helpful to know how and in what direction they are changing. How much is the Pentagon investing in recruiting women, immigrants, people of color, low-income whites, medical professionals? What corporations in our area benefit from the war in Afghanistan, and how much do ordinary people pay for the war in taxes? How much and what kinds of militarization have branched out from the Defense Department to Homeland Security, Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other government agencies? What is the role of non-governmental organizations in wars and militarism?
In short, we need to do research.
The Fellowship of Reconciliation is undertaking a project to increase the capacity of our movement – broadly speaking – to do research that serves activism to overcome militarism. We aim to provide tools for learning, space for exchanging skills such as webinars and “cyber-camps,” and hopefully opportunities to distribute the findings of research on militarism.
Research can both help us to make strategic choices about how and where we direct our energies, and its findings can be public tools for agitating, informing, and persuading. When we are good enough and persistent in research, journalists come to us for stories.
Research produces information, but information by itself is not necessarily of any strategic use. If I give you an Excel file with thousands of lines of raw data on Pentagon contracts being carried out in, say, Colombia, with no interpretation, that file may well remain inert on your hard drive. It will be of greater value if I connect that information to context, to other information, and observe relationships between things.
There are some qualities that facilitate activism-oriented research. Patience is useful, especially when dealing with large amounts of detail, or long waits for responses to Freedom of Information Act requests of the U.S. government. Curiosity – that propensity to ask open questions and really seek the answers – also helps a lot, but so does a sense of purpose and focus. While toodling around a large database (such as the U.S. State Department cables posted by Wikileaks) or conducting an interview with someone who has deep experience in a subject of interest, it is easy to get drawn into fascinating paths. This is one way to learn about areas we hadn’t been aware of, and to reconsider assumptions. And it can offer that understanding of context that permits us to analyze and connect what we find and give it more meaning. A lot of militarism is embedded in banal bureaucracy, for example. But this can also be, as many dissertation writers know, a way of multiplying inquiries way beyond our capacity to pursue them. Another important ingredient, but also something that many activists experience as scarce, is time. That’s something to consider in a group that wants to undertake research.
Where can we go to learn about militarism? A universe of sources lives in those who are most affected by militarism – its participants in the military, government, and private contractors, the communities where military activities take place, and most of all, its victims and survivors. These may be sources who lack “official” legitimacy, yet often contribute more to our knowledge than the official documents or spokespeople, because they have firsthand knowledge that hasn’t been written down. Often these folks have been deceived and lied to by outsiders, and they may face real risks by talking about what they know. So establishing trust – and being trustworthy – is key to the relationship.
Trust is related to accountability, especially to people who are negatively impacted by militarism (by war, human rights violations, sexual violence, usurpation of sovereignty, environmental contamination, health effects, etc.). When we do research on militarism, there is an ethical obligation to share our results with those harmed by it, in a form that is intelligible to them – not in academic obscurity, a foreign language, or technically inaccessible – so that they can be better informed agents of their liberation.
Beginning with their experience will also shape our research questions. In Vieques, Puerto Rico, the movement to stop U.S. naval bombing practice on the island took a turn when the Puerto Rico Department of Health reported that Vieques had a 27% higher incidence of cancer than the rest of Puerto Rico. At a resident’s request, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) began an environmental study of Vieques. But, instead of asking why Viequenses were getting sick at a higher rate, with no industrial activity on the island, ATSDR did a computer simulation of air particles during bombing practice, and concluded that the air was safe during bombing. In contrast, some Puerto Rican scientists concerned with why cancer was occurring measured the amount of heavy metals in islanders’ body tissue and vegetation, and found exceptionally high levels.
Of course, official documentary sources are also important. Some of these are online; for research on U.S. military activities, these include sites on federal contracts, foreign military training, and domestic and foreign military bases. An active community that uses these public sources is critical to protecting transparency and democratic debate about the country’s policies and use of funds.
Once we obtain information, sometimes we can leverage that information to obtain more, for example, by partnering with other organizations, journalists, or legislators, and by making more sophisticated Internet searches.
Whatever the findings of our research, it is critical to analyze them in order to try to understand what is occurring and articulate a narrative about it. And then to choose ways to distribute our findings, analysis, and narrative that are most likely to get to those we want to reach.
If you are interested in increasing your skills in research on militarism, to share skills you have, or be part of a collective of research on militarism, please contact John Lindsay-Poland by e-mail or phone (510-282-8983).
John Lindsay-Poland is research and advocacy director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, based in Oakland, California.
June, 2011

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