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In the Shadow of Warships and the Climate Emergency: On Getting Arrested at Bath Iron Works

Too few people are connecting the dots between our gigantic military and the climate crisis. But if we love our children, if we love the miracle of life, and all our fellow species—we must make this connection clear.

Artist, writer, and activist Robert Shetterly placed under arrest during a direct action at Bath Iron Works in Maine on April 27, 2019. (Photo: Roger Leisner)

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 US 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.

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 endtimes. The conversion we demanded, however, was secular—more about economics, war-making, 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 the1960s.

"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."

The US military—with its nearly 1000 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. The Pentagon’s carbon footprint is 70% of total US emissions. Our military uses more oil than 175 smaller countries combined. The US 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 protesting the launch of this incredibly expensive and militarily redundant ship on April 27th.

A person doesn’t oppose the US 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 go to the military. And they are certainly afraid to point out the obvious: US militarism is more about business, about profit for the defense contractors, than defense. And 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 US 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?

Since it would be very hard  for anyone to claim any good results for the US 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 were a defense contractor and now very, very rich. And then you might wonder if the people making decision to  go to war didn’t turn out to be the same people reaping the profits.

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But I wasn’t there to be arrested because I have a gripe with the humongous size of the US military. I was there because the humongous size of the US military is endangering the survival of all plant and animal species on this planet. I wasn’t there to dispute whether maintaining this immense military was an acceptable risk considering how dangerous the world is no matter what the scientists say about climate change. I can’t imagine a more absurd—and why not say it, insane—proposition: that the imminent extinction of much of the earth’s life, including us, is secondary to US military domination. Hello?

"I wasn’t there to be arrested because I have a gripe with the humongous size of the US military. I was there because the humongous size of the US military is endangering the survival of all plant and animal species on this planet."

I also wasn't there to shut down Bath Iron Works. Those signs we carried that said "Covert!" 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 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 peacefully lay down 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 most often in getting arrested is not the danger or ignominy of arrest. The real risk is if you will 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, shouldn't we 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 a 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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Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Please visit the Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available. Send Rob an email here.

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