[Baltimore Sun] Tax Day and war resistance, Philip Berrigan style | GUEST COMMENTARY

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Each year Americans forfeit a sizable slice of their income to the United States Treasury to fund the government. Tax Day is dreaded. No one likes surrendering their hard-earned cash. But rather than a resigned shrug, Americans should look closely at what they are getting for their money when it comes to government services and policy.

In fiscal year 2023, the Pentagon received $858 billion for the preparation of war. This doesn’t include hidden costs for intelligence services, veterans’ benefits, Homeland Security or the Department of Energy, which oversees the nation’s nuclear arsenal. All totaled, over $1 trillion a year is allotted for war-making. By comparison, the 2023 budget for the U.S. Department of State, this nation’s department tasked with making peace across the globe, was a relatively minuscule $63 billion.

Renowned peace activist and Catholic priest Philip Berrigan called Baltimore home for over 30 years and founded the nonviolent resistance community called Jonah House here. During the Vietnam War, he initiated the destruction of U.S. military draft files in Baltimore and Catonsville, to save the lives of both Vietnamese and Americans, actions for which he received lengthy prison sentences. He strongly objected to the notion that U.S. citizens should fund needless death and destruction abroad, and possibly their own destruction, via Tax Day.

In 1980, Phil initiated the Plowshares movement — which continues to this day — as he and others entered the General Electric Nuclear Weapons facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, pouring blood on weapons blueprints and symbolically hammering on the nosecones of missiles, “Beating swords into plowshares.” A Christian metaphor indeed, but a universal message.

Phil repeated such actions time and again, serving a total of 11 years in prison to stop the slaughter of innocents and protest the use of U.S. tax dollars for arms proliferation, nuclear war-making and endless wars of choice. He never wearied of challenging the U.S. Empire, the suffering it caused here and abroad. He wrote, rallied, protested, preached, went to prison. He repeatedly told others, “Don’t get tired.”

For U.S. citizens, the well-known waste and fraud of the Pentagon should be one outrage. The Pentagon remains the only federal department to never pass a required federal audit. The Pentagon cannot account for 63% of the tax money it receives. That’s our money. Gone. Unaccounted. Lining the pockets of weapons manufacturers.

But the more pressing concern with these war dollars is their use to initiate wars of choice, often against impoverished countries, because those countries have natural resources beneath the soil that the U.S. seems to think belongs to them. The cruel joke is, “How dare they put their country over our oil.” And so, we take it. With extreme violence and death.

The U.S. currently has soldiers in northern Syria where massive quantities of oil are extracted for Western fossil fuel companies. The war in Iraq was for oil. We are building new bases in Somalia where oil fields have been found. These wars for corporate profit have gone on for over a century. As decorated war hero Smedley Butler said in the 1930s about his many years in the U.S. military, “I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. … Looking back on it, I might have given Al Capone a few hints.”

Whether it be gold, fruit, rubber or sugar in Latin America, or oil in the Middle East, the U.S. taxpayer has long funded the corporate theft of natural resources from indigenous lands for the benefit of U.S. corporations and their wealthy shareholders. Innocents in foreign lands die as a result, while U.S. taxpayers struggle to pay mortgages, rent, health care bills, food costs, frantically grappling with a badly frayed social safety net.

According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the United States spent some $8 trillion in the last 23 years for the Wars on Terror. Six million people in foreign lands died because of those wars, most of them innocent civilians. Mothers and fathers and children.

And so, on this Tax Day, perhaps we can reflect on the life and work of Philip Berrigan and undertake our own ministry of risk for peace, to ease the suffering, to restore human dignity, to challenge our doomed policy of war-making. Only in this way can we reconcile ourselves with justice and democracy. Only in this way can we save ourselves and our country.

As Phil said, “These blind leading the blind have done more than threaten us with doomsday scenarios. They have, with a devilish ingenuity, convinced us that we ought to pay, through taxes, for our own destruction.”

Philip Berrigan died in 2002 shortly after he was released from prison. He is buried near Jonah House in St. Peter the Apostle Cemetery in Baltimore.

Brad Wolf ([email protected]), a lawyer and former prosecutor, is director of Peace Action Network of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and co-coordinates the Merchants of Death War Crimes Tribunal. His new book on the writings of Philip Berrigan is entitled “A Ministry of Risk” and was published April 2 by Fordham University Press.

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