Speaking at NYU about Capitalism, Imperialism, and Militarism

Last week, I spoke to a small group of students at New York University about my military experience, my transition from U.S. Army Paratrooper to antiwar activist and anti-imperialist, and the current reality of the U.S. empire. I cherish every talk I give to students because they are the future and it is our responsibility, those who have walked this earth previously, to share those experiences, and in this case, warn the younger generations of what is to come.

This particular group of students were unique, at least in my experience of speaking with students. They were part of a course that focused on the radical traditions of East Asia. These students were radicals themselves and rightly so. Some were looking into anarchism, others socialism or some type of radical environmentalism. This is a growing aspect of society I’ve noticed in the past few years, especially since the 2016 presidential election.

A 21 year old person in the states, student or not, has seen some dramatic changes in the U.S. within their life time. They saw the first black president, who promised hope to the world and failed tremendously. At a very young age, they saw the U.S. and global economy plunge within an instant with the 2008 great recession. We still haven’t recovered to pre-2008 levels. Then, Donald Trump gets elected to office while everyone knows Bernie Sanders would’ve won. Now in 2019, half of their lives have been under a rotten economic system that puts great pressure on the working class while the ruling class continues to profit and live out their lives in decadence. I wouldn’t believe in this system if I were them.

Will Griffin speaking to students at NYU. April 2019. Photo: Dr. Annmaria Shimabuku (with permission from students)

In the mean time and under the covers, the U.S. empire has been expanded their wars, extending their octopus arms to every inch of this planet possible, and increasing the military budget. Of course, just like most people in the U.S., this isn’t talked about because people just simply don’t know. Mainstream media doesn’t talk about it, there’s only a few small antiwar/peace organizations, and most people are working 50-70 hours a week. Who has time to learn about this stuff? And if you’re a student, you’re struggling too. But again, young people are very worried about the future and rightly so.

Noam Chomsky said in the documentary, Requiem for the American Dream:

“During the Great Depression… there was an expectation that things were going to get better. There isn’t today.”

Noam Chomsky

We are living in the 1930’s but there is a big difference. In the 1930’s, Americans believed in reviving the system to make it work again. Today, people know this system is rigged in favor of the rich while the toiling masses continue to be exploited. In today’s world, people don’t have hope in this system, and rightly so.

I spoke to the students about my experience from being born into a military family, joining the U.S. Army and deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan (each under the major political parties, Bush/Iraq and Obama/Afghanistan), questioning the wars and eventually becoming an antiwar activist and anti-imperialist organizer. I would like to believe they saw inspiration in this. Such a transition is most likely necessary for us (the working class of the world) to unite and change this rotten system that benefits the rich and ruling class.

I also spoke on how I found anarchism and then socialism, and the differing theories of change or ideologies. Part of this is realizing that no antiwar movement has ever ended a war, something all of us peace-lovers must acknowledge. In addition, I made the connections between our economic and political systems with imperialism. Most folks in the antiwar movement are fearful to speak out against capitalism, mostly because they are older white folks who benefited slightly under this system and lived under the original New Deal policies, or at least benefited slightly from the after-effects of these policies. Millennial’s, which is my generation, as well as the students, iGen (or Generation Z), have no idea about the conditions our parents or grandparents lived under. We have every right to question the whole damn system.

One other reason the antiwar/peace organizations don’t speak out against capitalism is because they want to attract members and they believe that speaking out against capitalism, which is sometimes tied to being anti-American, will damage their reputation. The impacts of this would be less membership and lower or no grants. In the non-profit industrial complex, money and members matter first and foremost. The issues that these non-profit organizations deal with is always secondary. In their perspective, no money and no members equal no organization. I will not argue for or against this perspective, but this is my explanation of why these antiwar/peace organizations, which are ALL non-profits, behave the way they do.

In my discussion on anarchist, socialist, and communist theories I could see how extremely interested they were. Many had questions which they were struggling with. In the leading imperialist nation of the world, it can be difficult to navigate through all the propaganda we are fed. It is also a complex history and these theories can be difficult to learn. Socialism, Communism, Democratic Socialism, Social Democracy, Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, Juche, Anarcho-Communism, Anarcho-syndicalism, Anarcho-pacificism, Anarcho-mutualism… where does one begin?! Don’t even get me started on naming organizations.

In response to this complex history and in attempt to find the “correct” path, I told them how I struggled in learning about these different theories and ideologies. From my experience, the most dedicated socialists and anarchists have had mentors, friends and comrades who have helped guide them through these complex waters. It can become mind-numbing trying to figure it out on your own.

I followed up with speaking about the importance of class struggle. We shouldn’t blame the older generations, or immigrants, or people of color, or China or Russia for today’s problems of climate change, nuclear weapons, or global inequality. We should blame the ruling class, the minority of people who have exploited our wealth and are destroying our world as we know it. The ruling class, groups of people who own the means of production while at the same time belonging to a particular set of families who control the world, will not give up their power. It should be clear by now that when they go down, they are willing to bring the whole planet down with them. So not only must we, the working class, overthrow the ruling class but we must save the planet in the mean time. Two difficult obstacles we must overcome in order to survive just this century.

Now, if you’re highly angered at the perspective I offered these students then you probably have an opposing view of the world and how it operates. That’s fine. But let me just state a few bits of information to demonstrate the inequality of our world:

Here’s some interesting “key findings” in a report by the Institute of Policy Studies:

  • Pentagon & Military — the average U.S. taxpayer pays more to private military contractors than funds that directly support the troops
  • Nuclear weapons — the U.S. spends more on proliferating weapons of mass destruction than we do on foreign aid and diplomacy, the EPA, or CHIP
  • Education — the U.S. government spend as much taxpayer money separating families as it does on K-12 education
  • Health care — this is the taxpayer’s biggest tab, with Medicare and Medicaid providing health care for 1 in 3 people in the U.S.
  • Climate, Energy, & Environment — many more of your tax dollars go to disaster relief than to investments like renewable energy that could help prevent the worst disasters
  • Poverty and Low-Income — in the age of growing income inequality, the average taxpayer contributes more to private DoD contractors than to labor and unemployment programs

I recently spoke to an elder of mine who is a Vietnam veteran, a socialist, and a black man in America. I asked him if teaching ideology should be important and why? He basically said the following…

Listen, everyone has a worldview. The importance of teaching an ideology, specifically a socialist ideology, is that you give them a tool, a lens in which to analyze the world. Or else, what are you teaching them? If they ever leave your group or organization, what do they have to move on with?


His answer forced me to think of the many peace and antiwar organizations I’ve worked with for the past 4 years. Many members, especially the younger people, come and go just passing through these organizations. Young people want to get involved, but often leave the organization due to financial and personal reasons, or something else. But after listening to my elder, I wondered… did these ‘come and go’ members/activists leave the organization with anything construction in their lives? Most likely not. Antiwar/peace organizations generally just talk about how war is immoral or explain the conditions of the war, i.e. destruction and damage, but give little or no explanation. They certainly don’t give a complete analysis of the political economy in which we suffer from, or the global system that oppresses the overwhelming majority of the world. So I leave you with the same question: if not to give the younger generations the tools to change the world, what are you doing?

I’d like to thank the students for their engaged attention and Dr. Annmaria Shimabuku for inviting me to speak to her class. Dr. Shimabuku recently wrote a book, which I am reading and recommend. It is about issues concerning Okinawa, “Alegal: Biopolitics and the Unintelligibility of Okinawan Life“.

Latest Podcasts from The Peace Report!