Preaching pacifism amid war

A conversation with Utah Phillips about violence, progress and our “male problem”

Nevada City resident Utah Phillips is one of the country’s most stirring pacifist voices.

Nevada City resident Utah Phillips is one of the country’s most stirring pacifist voices.

One of this country’s premier voices of pacifism and a major figure in New York’s storied folk scene of the 1970s, folk singer/storyteller Utah Phillips refuses “to applaud death” in our war in Afghanistan. Though most Americans approve of our participation in this conflict, Phillips remains resolutely and defiantly a pacifist, a dissenting voice calling for peaceful alternatives to our “war on terrorism.”

In the cozy Nevada City home he shares with his wife, a dog and four cats, I show up to speak with Phillips on the day after Kabul has fallen to the Northern Alliance. Across the road in this bucolic neighborhood, a few dingy sheep graze in a meadow.

Phillips answers the door and waves me into the living room, a stack of letters in his hand. He is dressed in a green plaid shirt, the collar bearing an IWW union button, a telling indicator of Phillips’ allegiance and politics. International Workers of the World—also known as the Wobblies—were a radical force for workers’ rights 100 years ago in the United States until they were all but destroyed in the name of anti-communism by the American powers-that-be. The Wobblies have since bounced back and Phillips is an active member.

A gold watch chain peeks out of a pocket on his brown vest. He looks exactly like his photos on recent solo CDs and his collaborations with Ani DiFranco, and as I’ve seen him around town for years. A bit thinner, perhaps due to his cardiac rehab program at the hospital, but still a hearty soul.

Congestive heart failure has slowed Phillips’ peripatetic touring schedule and he was relaxing after a recent gig in Madison, Wisconsin. But he would become lively and animated once we began talking about the violence that has gripped the world.

Built in 1912 for a family that worked on the original farm, the house features an old barrel-shaped Ashley woodstove, the focal point of the living room. Rose hues and natural wood accents lend warmth to rooms lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Giving a tour of his house, he shows me a small office that stores 1,500 “field-recorded tapes” and serves as a pre-production studio for his one-hour weekly syndicated radio show, “Loafer’s Glory,” heard throughout the country and broadcast locally Sunday mornings on radio station KVMR.

On the small patches of wall not covered with shelves of tapes, books and CDs, hang photographs of Dorothy Day, the Catholic worker and founder of the Houses of Hospitality in the 1930s; and Ammon Hennacy, who opened the Joe Hill House for transients in Salt Lake City.

It was Hennacy who started Phillips, a former self-admitted brawler, on his journey to pacifism. Though Hennacy has been dead 30 years, Phillips says that struggle still animates his life. “The anger hasn’t gone away,” Phillips says with a resolve that makes me believe this simple statement. “The capacity for violence hasn’t gone away, anymore than alcoholism has for an alcoholic. You learn to cherish your anger and use it as a motor to move you in another direction. I learned that pacifism is not a tactic that you use here and don’t use there—it’s a way of life.”

It’s a sunny day and he suggests conducting the interview outside. We pass the overstuffed couch and wing chairs clustered around a rose and maroon carpet in the living room, walk out through the French doors, through a south-facing greenhouse to a patio beneath large oaks and cedars and sit down at a wooden table.

The verdant slope of the narrow lot is covered with vines: vinca, ivy, blackberry. Water trickles from a fountain with a bronze frog. Two kittens bat at fallen leaves on the table and at my tape recorders. Utah picks up the kittens and sets them at his feet; they immediately jump back onto the table.

“I like cats a lot,” Phillips says. A Santa Claus warmth envelops him as he sits impassively on the bench. His eyes are shaded from the sun by a buff-colored hat. His long white hair is bound back in a ponytail.

I sense his absolute focus. Every word is well considered and uttered fluidly, poetically, continuously. Every gesture is intentional. Light blue eyes reveal humor, anger, heartbreak.

Serving in the Korean War, he saw firsthand the horrific consequences of starvation and deprivation. “Watching the destruction of a people, the destruction of a small country that had already been devastated by war … that’s when I decided this was all wrong.”

It sometimes seems that Phillips is almost alone in his belief that war is the problem, and can never be the solution. Considering that 90 percent of Americans support the war, I ask, how can you expect people to embrace pacifism?

Phillips disputes the statistics. He says during the Vietnam War, Massachusetts college students canvassed door-to-door and found statistics claiming public support for the war were “way off.” He thinks a similar deception is happening now.

From his recent travels, playing dates in Madison, Berkeley, Santa Cruz and San Francisco, Phillips notes, “I’ve talked to very few people that didn’t know something was terribly wrong. I’ve got two Second World War veterans in my cardiac rehab class who think that there’s something wrong. There should be more thought, a whole lot more thought put into blowing up this country.”

Phillips doesn’t buy President George Bush’s assertion that this is a new kind of war, noting the similarities between Afghanistan and Vietnam: “Intervention in a civil war. Supplying one side. Massive aerial bombardment. Introduction of advisers.”

However, the difference he notes is what he calls “the new imperialism,” where nowadays “you don’t have to occupy the territory like the British in India or the Dutch in Indonesia or the French in Indochina.” Instead of controlling the people, using the labor and extracting the resources, “all we need to do is control the banking system.”

Phillips claims this new imperialism is “running roughshod over the rest of the world.” Rather than hearing theories from Washington pundits or sociology professors, he wants to hear the people who hate us “define that hatred so we can see what of our behavior needs to be readjusted.”

Phillips sees economic incentive as playing into the motivation for our war on terrorism and points to the oil reserves in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan as the “ideal route to transport it is through the Persian Gulf. Unocal figured that out a number of years ago and that’s one of the reasons why we’re there.”

Still, there are difficult questions for pacifists at this point in history. How do you convince the majority of Americans, some of whom have lost friends and relatives in the bombings at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, of the futility of retaliation?

According to Phillips, many of those who lost loved ones at the World Trade Center “did not want to see this retaliation happen. They felt that the death of their relatives should count for more than just more killing.”

In spite of horrendous casualties in the September 11 strike, and even with his condemnation of the U.S. foreign policies that led up to that strike, Phillips sees “no moral imperative in either direction between bombing Afghanistan and blowing up the World Trade Center.”

“I find responsibility for this violence all the way around,” he says. “I’m not morally, ethically able to let anybody off the hook for this one and justify one mass killing with more killing.”

Pointing to “American wrongdoing in the world—global corporate capitalism, economic imperialism”—he feels the United States needs to be “willing to accept some culpability for why this happened, why terrorism exists. Our wrongdoing in the world doesn’t put any moral currency in their pocket to spend against us and the reverse is just as true.”

Even though he feels that bin Laden has deservedly become “the new Hitler,” Phillips points to American terrorism “in the Contra war, in Nicaragua and through the School of the Americas, training the assassins, engineering El Mazolte, that terrible massacre in El Salvador.”

Trying to address anti-American anger, the United States has recently been voicing support for a process that could result in a Palestinian state, which he sees as a good thing. Raised as a Jew, Phillips is dismayed by the “terrible lost opportunity” European Jews had to create “a secular multi-ethnic state” in Israel and chose not to.

“You don’t just move into somebody else’s country and take it over and start waving a book and say ‘God gave it to me.’ If anybody did that in my backyard, I’d be really pissed off. It has to be resolved to guarantee the security of the Palestinians.”

Viewing our presence in Afghanistan as part of “a cycle of retaliation, a cycle of revenge, for a terrible, awful thing that happened in New York, that’s going to continue,” he sees the Middle East conflict potentially escalating into a nuclear conflict.

But isn’t that part of what our military effort now is about, destroying the terrorist network before they do get a nuclear bomb or other weapons of mass destruction?

Phillips reminds me that the U.S. is the only country to have used an atomic bomb against a civilian population, twice. He quotes Richard Nixon, that the only effect of the Peace Movement was to prevent him from using nuclear weapons in North Vietnam.

“This carnage has to stop, this idea if you’re going to beat up on us, we’re going to beat up on you,” he says. “Kids do that in the schoolyard. You separate them and try to teach them a different way to do things.”

Phillips says we all bear culpability for our country’s violence, and he has little patience with “just following orders” arguments. He questions the difference between the Oklahoma City bombing and an American pilot in Baghdad during the Gulf War who dropped a bomb, “one of these daisy-cutters that can wipe out a mile, can kill a great number of people and get a medal and maybe get elected to Congress for exactly the same behavior.”

Phillips emphasizes the power of personal responsibility for one’s actions. Decisions from President Bush or Osama bin Laden ripple down through the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the Taliban, down to field commanders, sergeants and lieutenants.

“Finally, they percolate down to the individual trooper with his finger on the trigger or the individual pilot with his thumb on the button. If that pilot doesn’t push the button or if that trooper doesn’t pull the trigger, all those decisions vanish, like they never were.”

With his aging hippie appearance and refusal to accept militarism in the world, Phillips probably seems anachronistic to some. He knows that, but endeavors to stay relevant.

The old peace movement tactics of sit-ins, vigils, civil disobedience are ineffective and predictable, according to Phillips. Advocating new strategies of organized war tax resistance, Phillips likes the idea of tax money paid to an “alternative fund” and assigned to community organizations.

“There’s no sense for me to go out and protest this war and pay for it at the same time.”

He alludes to photographs he’s saved in a scrapbook, “one of a woman in a refugee camp with her baby in southern Lebanon and she’s got pockmarks all over her face from shrapnel and her little baby is swathed in bandages.” Another is of two little boys “in front of an orphanage in Angola, on crutches, part of their limbs missing from stepping on landmines. I look at those pictures and I say, ‘I didn’t pay for that.’ ”

Thinking of the woman in that photo or the mothers of those boys, he believes “that women know a lot more about the real consequences of war and killing because they provide the fodder; they endure the consequences.” Women, children, old people, disabled people are not the ones doing the killing, he says.

“It’s young men with guns. We don’t have a problem with violence in the world, we’ve got a serious male problem and we’re not looking at it that way.” In our newspapers, he seldom reads of women responsible for murder or other violent crimes.

The problem lies in “the way men are enculturated. I can’t define it, because I’ve had that anger in me. That carried me into Korea, as a soldier carrying a loaded rifle. I was one of those young men with a rifle and I’m willing to shut up and listen if women will get together and give me some ideas. It’s not a problem of violence, it’s a severe male problem. We get at that one and figure it out, most of the other problems will solve themselves.”