Report on the Youth Anti-War Movement: Rebuilding the Antiwar Movement on Campuses

-by Elizabeth Wrigley-Field

Since the election there have been small signs of the reemergence of the antiwar movement - with small actions and emergency protests around the country in response to the U.S. slaughter in Falluja, for example, and more recent campaigns against campus repression, such as the campaign against Zionist attacks on the right to criticize Israel at Columbia University. Last weekend, 400 people marched against the war in Boston in response to a call put out by the Boston Student Mobilization to End the War, and in many cities, plans are being made to travel to D.C. to protest Bush's inauguration on January 20.

With the U.S. going full throttle to crush the resistance and impose the "election" of its hand-picked puppets, these are very welcome developments. And in another significant step toward rebuilding the national antiwar movement, nearly 100 people from 30 schools gathered at Pace University in New York City on November 13-14 at the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN)'s Stop the War 2004 national conference. As a conference participant from the CAN chapter at New York University, I want to give my impressions of the conference and how the student antiwar movement is positioning itself.

Following the very successful March 20 protest on the anniversary of the war, the antiwar movement nationally stood largely silent through months of continuous scandals and crises for the occupation: the forced U.S. withdrawal from Falluja in April, the Abu Ghraib scandal in May, June's "handover of power" having to occur in secret to stave off the resistance, the troop deaths reaching 1,000 in August, the Duelfer Report reconfirming in September that claims of Iraq's WMD were all lies, and more. All of this could have created new openings for the idea that the U.S. should withdraw, but were never taken up by a national antiwar movement. For one thing, they occurred in the context of a presidential election that pushed the debate on the occupation further and further to the right, with both candidates competing for who could better "succeed" in Iraq and crush the resistance in Falluja.

This situation produced what was, for many of us trying to build the antiwar movement on our campuses, a very frustrating Fall. Most campus groups remained small, with no national protests to build toward and political discussion nationally focused on the election. Some groups collapsed altogether. Significantly, many students at the conference had only just founded an antiwar group at their school, or were about to attempt it.

In this context, coming directly after the election, and in the middle of the historic escalation of the war begun in Falluja, the CAN conference represented an attempt to take stock of what has happened over the summer and fall, and to rebuild the movement on stronger footing. We grappled with how to move forward, both in terms of new ideological challenges that the last several months have thrown up, and by trying to develop our sense of how the organizing we do on local campuses will play a role in ending the occupation.

Taking on the war on terror

The conference extended and deepened CAN's politics formally with the addition or alteration of some points of unity, and informally with discussions hashing out key debates inside the movement.

A theme underlying many discussions at the conference was the question of why the organized movement is so small. Over the course of the conference, this debate more or less coalesced into two competing ideas, which often took shape around divergent interpretations of the Republican election victory. One side argued that the antiwar movement risks isolating itself from the majority of Americans, and that the passage of some of the more "radical" points of unity in the past has contributed to CAN's relatively small size this fall. A nearly opposite position was that the antiwar movement, and left movements more generally, lost ground during the election season by not making a forceful case for left-wing ideas, allowing the political spectrum nationally to shift to the right; and thus, the greater risk for the antiwar movement is failure to stake a position that really takes on the U.S. aims in Iraq. This debate, which came up around specific political questions (such as the war on terror) as well as structural questions about how political positions should be decided, was not fully resolved over the course of the conference. I believe it will be an ongoing question within the antiwar movement.

Many of the discussions at the conference strengthened politics CAN had formally adopted in the past, but that remain controversial in the antiwar movement. The up-and-down nature of the antiwar movement over the past year has meant that arguments that were partially "resolved" months ago have needed to be revisited.

For example, although CAN's national conference a year ago adopted a position in favor of the immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq and self-determination for Iraqis, and the regional conferences last spring explicitly extended that idea to a rejection of any foreign occupation (including one conducted by the UN), many people joining campus antiwar groups are uncertain whether the troops should leave right away. This is not surprising, since the broader movement as a whole has not been clearly in support of this position. A workshop organized by my campus's group called "Is Withdrawal Possible?" produced one of the best, most honest and open discussions of this question that I have personally been a part of. Several activists who had come to it unconvinced left in favor of immediate withdrawal.

The most important change in CAN's politics was the decision to oppose the War on Terror. This was essential because the War on Terror has become the central justification for U.S. imperialism - not only the overtures toward military engagement with Iran and the racist civil liberties attacks at home, but also the U.S. escalation in Iraq itself, with the excuse of targeting "terrorists" (the Iraqi resistance). Because of this, my school and others at the conference argued that it is no longer possible to solidly convince people that the U.S. has no right to occupy Iraq and put down its resistance, without also taking on the idea that the U.S. can militarily "fight terrorism" around the world. We could not adopt the line that the occupation of Iraq represents a "misuse" of the war on terror; we had to call out the whole idea of a war on terror as nothing but a cloak for U.S. aggression. Ultimately, a point of unity opposing the war on terror passed overwhelmingly.

The other major change in politics was a revision of CAN's position on Palestine. A year ago, CAN adopted a point of unity opposing the oppression of Palestinians and the occupations of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This conference extended this point to support Palestinian self-determination and oppose the occupation of all Palestine. While nearly everyone recognized the need to alter the original point of unity - the West Bank and Gaza are only a small part of the occupation in Palestine, and this position trailed far behind the demands of the Palestine movement in the United States - substantial debate emerged around whether it was necessary to explicitly oppose the occupation of Palestinian land, or whether supporting Palestinian self-determination was sufficient. Columbia University, where the CAN group is now helping to lead the campaign against the Zionist repression on their campus, was one of the main schools arguing that the occupation of land is actually the central feature of the conflict in Palestine, and so opposing it explicitly was essential. That point passed.

Positioning students in the antiwar movement

One thread running through the conference was an attempt to understand exactly what role students can play in making a continuation of the occupation untenable. Much of this centered on our relationship to antiwar soldiers. In the 1960s, the student movement formed significant links to soldiers before and after their tours in Vietnam, aiding the development of a soldiers' movement that eventually made it impossible for the U.S. to continue the war. Today, despite the small size of the domestic antiwar movement nationally, there are the beginnings of a soldiers' movement again, with the formation of groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Military Families Speak Out (now representing nearly 2,000 families). There is also a much wider discontent within the military, which is not always expressed politically. Some of the discontent has produced active opposition to elements of how the war is being carried out, if not the war itself; the troop refusals of orders, lawsuits against stop-loss orders, and Rumsfeld's recent grilling by soldiers on their lack of protective equipment are examples.

Given that context, a central question of the CAN conference was how students can position themselves to contribute to the development of a soldiers' movement today. The keynote speaker at the conference was Mike Hoffman, cofounder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who also led the strategy session on demilitarizing campuses. One of Mike's proposals was that campus antiwar groups work with veterans' groups to host a version of the "coffeehouses" operated by Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, which were activist-run spaces near military bases where soldiers could come to talk. At some campuses, there are many students who are veterans themselves, or whose family members are serving in the military. Building the student movement at those schools is building the soldiers' and military families movement as well.

CAN has made a decision to focus our organizing, wherever possible, in such as way as to set us up as a force that can encourage dissent within the military. The conference was only the beginning of a discussion on how this can be done. Nationally, we have adopted positions that can be the basis of future organizing, such as demands for soldiers' full benefits and free health care, and support for troop resistance. The latter has become the basis of a national petition in solidarity with the 343rd Quartermaster soldiers who refused a "suicide mission" in Iraq.

Meanwhile, since the conference, a federal court overturned the Solomon Amendment, which precluded any schools that barred or impeded military recruitment on campus from receiving federal funding. This opens up new possibilities for banning the military on campuses. Before the court ruling, activists could drive recruiters away - as antiwar students did at New York's City College earlier this semester and again this week, by surrounding the recruitment table and chanting against it - but they could not get the military banned as policy. Moreover, since the legal basis of the ruling centered around the anti-gay discrimination of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, antiwar groups may find LGBT groups among their allies in this campaign. CAN is beginning a national discussion of strategy on kicking recruiters off campuses, including discussion of using anti-recruitment campaigns to raise wider criticisms of the military, from the lies its recruiters tell to the reality of what the military is doing in Iraq.

In addition to demilitarization, a lot of organizational focus at the conference was devoted to how a national network can best be set up to further activism on individual campuses. Given the difficulties of organizing this Fall, one student from Northeastern University in Boston remarked that it was an achievement even to still have a national network that could link antiwar students in different parts of the country, and try to generalize the lessons we've learned over the course of the occupation. At this conference, there was a strong feeling of wanting the engagement between local activism and the national network to be much stronger, and a lot of debate about how to do that when the movement is still very small in most places. We formed a campus representation committee, with members from each campus, to work with the national coordinating committee so that national decisions reflect a more concrete sense of what is happening at every school. And we are setting up a resource board to share the materials we make at different campuses - to get the most mileage possible out of the effort we put into making fliers, speeches, fact sheets, etc. The hope is to be able to use the national network to make schools less isolated from one another, in a time when there isn't a very visible national movement that individual campus groups can identify with.

After the conference

Since the conference, some new CAN chapters have sprung up, at schools such as New York's City College. Other schools, like mine, had felt like we were spinning our wheels throughout most of the Fall and have used momentum from the conference to find ways to start meeting more students on our campus, and bring them to the inauguration protest on January 20 (where CAN will organize a student and youth contingent). The antiwar movement nationally is still nowhere near as prominent or organized as the number of antiwar Americans suggests it could be. But with the situation in Iraq deteriorating every day, and many people looking for something they can do after the elections, I think there is an opening to begin to turn that around. The CAN conference was an important chance to take stock of that situation, and figure out where we need to go from here to rebuild the movement on our campuses.

For more information about CAN, visit

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field is a student at New York University, where she is a member of the Campus Antiwar Network and the International Socialist Organization. She is the coauthor, with Aaron Hess, of "Civil Rights Betrayed" in the most recent issue of the International Socialist Review. You can email her at

Discussion List Issues: The Youth Anti-War Movement: A Debate (1) The Youth Anti-War Movement: A Debate (2) The Youth Anti-War Movement: A Debate (3) Oil and Indigenous Lands (1) Oil and Indigenous Lands (2) Oil and Indigenous Lands (3) Israel, Palestine, and Nationalism (1) Israel, Palestine, and Nationalism (2) Israel, Palestine, and Nationalism (3) To join our discussion list, go here Join Our Info. List:
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