One Thousand Soldiers Dead - and the Left Lies Paralyzed
Larry Syverson, whose son Bryce is a tank gunner in the 1st Armored Division stationed in Baghdad, told me: "I asked my son what do they talk about over there, you know, on their down time when they're not patrolling or doing raids. My son said, 'we try to guess the number of dead soldiers that's going to make the American people wake up and turn against the war.'" Larry and his son thought that 1,000 military deaths in Iraq might do it.
That tragic milestone has come faster than anyone expected. As of this writing, 1,003 American military personnel have died in Iraq, and over 7,000 have been wounded. No one knows how many Iraqis have died, but estimates range up to 30,000.
Make no mistake, the outrage against the war is there - among active-duty service people, military families, and working-class communities all over the country. It was in the theatres, where tens of millions lined up to see "Fahrenheit 9/11," and in the streets of New York when half a million marched against Bush's billionaire bash disguised as a respectable political convention.
Despite all this, it is hard to tell that there is an ongoing anti-war movement here. The organized left is still numerically small; neighborhood, workplace, and campus anti-war committees are few and far between; and large anti-war protests are the exception, not the rule. Why?
Let's be clear: it's not the casualties. The American public by and large supported the Vietnam war up until around 1968, despite almost 15,000 dead. In the Second World War, the U.S. lost almost 300,000, but the public supported the war because they thought the cause was just.
A big part of the answer to the question "why" is the political confusion on the part of those who hate Bush. "If we just leave Iraq, won't there be chaos and civil war? Wouldn't that be irresponsible?" or "the Iraq war was the pet-project of a handful of Empire-building neo-conservative nuts in the Bush administration; if Gore was president, we would not have gone to Iraq after 9/11" are just some examples of this confusion.
Today, the anti-war movement that marched in the hundreds of thousands against the war before it even started now finds itself marching behind a candidate and the Democratic Party, both of which gave Bush the green light to go into Iraq. In the name of "beating Bush" at the ballot box, the movement has given up its independence - and with it, its visibility.
There are those in the anti-Bush crowd who have taken the idea that beating Bush in November is the most important thing the left can do to its logical conclusion by attacking the Nader campaign for "helping Bush" and by dropping the issues that we are active around so as not to harm, embarrass, expose, criticize, or challenge Kerry. The Sunday march against the Republican Convention had "the World Says No to the Bush Agenda!" on its lead banner - without spelling out what that agenda is, for the simple reason that Bush and Kerry have the same agenda.
The "anybody but Bush" mantra has led the movement into a dead end - the presidential campaign of John Kerry. Kerry's attempt to paint himself as a more effective war-maker backfired when he announced that he would have given Bush the authority "knowing what we know today" i.e. that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. In other words, Bush was right to pull the trigger in the first place. But if that's the case, why should anyone vote for Kerry when they can vote for Bush, who made the right decision to begin with? Kerry's support declined since the remark, and following the Republican Convention, he trailed Bush by 5-10%. In an attempt to distinguish himself from Bush and his earlier position, he recently attacked the Iraq war as being, "the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time," but this may prove to be too little, too late.
The Kerry campaign is a dead end for a second reason. Only 2 things will happen on election day - either Bush will be re-defeated, or Bush will for the first time win the presidency fair and square. If Kerry is elected, many will celebrate but he won't face as much protest when he pushes through an escalation of the war on Iraq, much as poor people's advocacy groups mustered little opposition to Clinton's gutting of welfare in 1996. The job of ending welfare had to be an "inside job" because only a liberal could defuse opposition to an attack on the poor. The same may be true of a future draft, since Kerry was not a chicken-hawk and did serve in Vietnam, despite his privileged status. Who better than a decorated war "hero" from an upper-class family to call on Americans of all tax-brackets to lay down their lives to finish the war that Bush started?
The second unthinkable - growing - possibility is that Bush may win a national election for the first time in his life. In this case, a tide of demoralization will engulf the left and the anti-war movement, people will wring their hands over how the working-class majority of the country is too conservative for things to ever change, and how evil Nader was to run in the first place.
In either case, the political dynamic at work in this election year is that Bush shifts the country to the right, Kerry follows Bush, and the opposition movements follow behind Kerry, and on election day nothing really changes. Until the opposition to Bush breaks out of this trap and declares its independence from the two pro-war, pro-corporate parties of America, it will be stuck in a straight-jacket and unable to force the U.S. government to bring the troops home from Iraq, and the death toll will continue to rise with each passing day.
Pham Binh is a student at Hunter College in NYC. Member
of local CAN chapter and of Traveling Soldier