'Either We Destroy War or It Will Destroy Us': Happy Birthday, Philip Berrigan

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'Either We Destroy War or It Will Destroy Us': Happy Birthday, Philip Berrigan

The Plowshares Movement during the 1997 action at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. From left to right: Susan Crane, Steve Kelley, Philip Berrigan, Mark Colville, Steve Baggarly, and Tom Lewis-Borbely. (Photo via nuclear-news)

In 1997, at the age of 73, Philip Berrigan, accompanied by five others, arrived at the shipyard of Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. It was early — just past four in the morning — and there was much work to do.

Berrigan had, by this point, long been a prominent figure within America's anti-war movement, which peaked in the midst of the Vietnam War. His actions, along with those of his brother, Daniel, also a Catholic priest and a prominent activist, helped spark intense but nonviolent protests throughout the nation in opposition to the American government's crimes overseas.

And though the national movement dwindled in the years following the end of the war, the Berrigan brothers didn't stop.

"I'd like to die with my boots on," Philip said. "I'd like to die being of use to other people, writing or speaking some truth, or maybe even during the course of an action. Not on the beach."

So Philip and his fellow activists, after a drive beset by snowfall, confronted the shipyard's security apparatus. "Like other similar hellholes," he would later recall, "the yard's security is absurd." Bolt cutters, he noted, were sufficient to break through the main gate.

Soon they were clambering up the tail-end of an Aegis destroyer, only to be confronted by Navy officials who insisted that they identify themselves.

"We tried bluffing, mumbling that General Dynamics, which now owns Bath Iron Works, had sent us to check security," Berrigan wrote. "But the distortion didn't wash, and the M.P.'s again demanded ID." Taking advantage of the confusion, "Susan Crane and Steve Baggarly," two of Berrigan's companions, "crossed the stern, mounted to a fore-deck, and began to hammer on Tomahawk Cruise Missile Hatches and label them with their blood." 

For Berrigan, such acts were not mere civil disobedience; they were religious rituals, profuse with spiritual significance and grounded in a sense of moral duty. Armaments, conventional and nuclear, Berrigan felt, were the holy objects of empire; defiling them, even in ways that were more symbolic than material, was thus a way to register dissent.

"So why do what we did?" Berrigan wrote, echoing the inquiries of both dear friends and opponents. "Our answers come from both faith and sanity. Because God forbid us (persons and governments) to kill."


Philip Berrigan was born on this day in 1923. In a just world, his birthday, along with that of his brother, would be celebrated nationally.

"He is a moral giant, the conscience of a generation," said Judge Joseph Field at Berrigan's arraignment after his actions at the Bath Iron Works shipyard. 

But the world is not just. Philip spent most of his life fighting with this fact in mind.

Having served in the Second World War, and having worked as a priest in New Orleans and Baltimore in the age of segregation, Philip understood — as Martin Luther King Jr. did — that racism, capitalism, and imperialism are deeply interconnected, each aspects of a far-reaching system of injustice that must be confronted as a whole if it is to be dismantled.

As the Berrigan brothers' biographers Murray Polner and Jim O'Grady note, these early experiences provided the groundwork for Philip's life of action. He "spoke out early against segregation in the South from pulpits in Washington, D.C., and Louisiana, protested the Vietnam War before many could find that country on a map."

But Philip quickly realized that speaking out from the pulpit would not be sufficient — it would not, he felt, draw the eyes of the masses or those of the powerful.

"I feel at this time, that eventually I will have to expose myself to the public eye through the press, and perhaps go into civil disobedience and perhaps fastings, preferably in jail," Philip wrote in a letter to Daniel in 1965.

Just two years later, Philip's name appeared in newspapers throughout the nation; the headline in the New York Times read, "Blood Poured on Baltimore Draft Files."

Philip and three others — a group that would later be known as the Baltimore Four — broke into the Selective Service office of Baltimore's Customs House and poured blood into filing cabinets containing, as the Times reported, "draft records of men registered in 17 of 26 of the city's local draft boards."

Asked about the blood, Philip responded, "Some of it was taken from ourselves, but most of it was duck's blood bought from a Polish market."

Of the act itself, he said, "We shed our blood willingly and gratefully...We pour it upon these files to illustrate that with them and with these offices begins the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood, 10,000 miles away."

Just months later, out on bail after being arrested for his actions in Baltimore, Philip, this time joined by Daniel (who was in jail for protesting at the Pentagon during the events in Baltimore) and seven others, broke into a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland, and, using homemade napalm, set draft files on fire; it was all caught on camera.

During their trial, Daniel spoke for all of the Catonsville Nine, as they would come to be known.

"We say: killing is disorder, life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize. For the sake of that order, we risk our liberty, our good name. The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense," he said. "How many must die before our voices are heard, how many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened? How long must the world's resources be raped in the service of legalized murder? When, at what point, will you say no to this war?"

From this point forward, Philip and Daniel spent significant time in prison for acts of civil disobedience and destruction of government property. Their actions made them the enemies of both the state and much of the religious establishment, which they accused of "silence and cowardice in the face of our country's crimes."

The work never stopped.

After the Vietnam War ended, the brothers started what came to be known as the Plowshares Movement, whose first act was to break into a General Electric facility in Pennsylvania. The court documents provide an adequate summary of the event: "Appellees admitted entering the plant, destroying missile components with hammers, pouring human blood on the premises, and causing some $28,000.00 in property damage."

"As you get older, it gets harder," Philip said when he was 74 years old — just three years laterhe went to prison again "on charges of interference with a weapons system."

Philip and his brother were not perfect, of course, and their actions often seemed, as Philip himself once put it, like "a Theatre of the Absurd." But given the severity of the crimes committed in the name of God, in the name of patriotism, in the name of empire, and given the threat posed by war — particularly nuclear war — they could not remain silent, and they did everything they could to stand in opposition.

If, looking back, we are made uncomfortable by their persistence or by the intensity of their actions, it can only be because they give rise to an uncomfortable question: Why aren't we following in their footsteps?

In December of 2002, Philip displayed his courage once more, this time in the face of death.

"I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself," he said in his final statement. "Because of myopic leadership, of greed for possessions, a public chained to corporate media, there has been virtually no response to these realities..."

Philip died soon after he dictated these final words, but his calls for peace and justice remain. It's our job to listen, and to carry them forward.

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is an independent writer. Follow him on Twitter: @wordsofdissent

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