The time to act is now: A look at today's anti-war movement
- by Nikki Marterre
The torture photos that have been released from Abu Ghraib surprise few on the left and others that have remained active against the occupation of Iraq. We are familiar with the brutality of the United States and its imperialist adventures. However, the photos have meant something very different for American politics in general and the potential to build the anti-war movement. The anti-war movement has been suffering from stagnation - if not decline- ever since the war began on March 20th, 2003 with the exception of a few important events.
Suddenly this May, hundreds of photos were released to the media (too big a story to cover up or ignore) showing torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib, a known prison under Saddam which had obviously changed little under its new leadership. The pictures were disgusting, showing physical, mental and sexual abuse of prisoners. Even Congress got a slide show. Suddenly the very last reasoning that American troops should be there - liberation - came crashing down. Now according to Gallup polls over 30 percent of Americans want all US troops withdrawn from Iraq. Eighteen percent more at least want some troops withdrawn.
This is a major shift in US opinion, which has remained close to split on the issue of Iraq, like all other political issues. Even that split did not mean that the anti-war half supported a withdrawal from Iraq. These new polls indicate a significant shift in the population and its feeling on Iraq (including its willingness to get active). The numbers of those against the occupation are the same as those in 1968 (the height of the anti-war movement against Vietnam). There are some important differences between the two time periods though. The one that I am choosing to concentrate on is the absence of a visible anti-war movement and what can be done about that very fact. In order to do this it is important to review the history of the anti-war movement to understand where we are at, and to discuss possible tactics to achieve where we need to be.
When the anti-war movement first started it became much larger than those of the sixties very quickly. Thousands protested all around the country. On January 18th, 2003 there were 300,000 people in DC marching against the war. By February 15th there were 500,000 people marching against the war in NYC alone, 11 million (low estimate) marching against the war all around the world on that single day. The crowd was a mixed bag, full of old time activists, tons of new faces which had never been to a protest before, and many who had never seen themselves as activists. Soccer moms, old lefties, Arab and Muslim groups, students, churches, community groups, African-Americans - you name it - showed up to demonstrate against the war.
Despite this, the Bush administration pushed through with its agenda to dominate the Middle East, starting with Iraq.
On that horrible rainy night of March 19th, 2003 Americans everywhere turned on their televisions to see bright yellow flashes and new blurbs about the beginning. The terrible beginning of the war in Iraq, a war that so many had protested and that so many had prayed would never come. Students, community activists, and thousands of others all around the country had been preparing themselves for what they called "Day X" for a while now. All over the streets protests, die-ins, sit-ins and teach-ins happened - smaller than before, but much more radicalized. In San Francisco streets were taken over, blocking traffic in downtown for hours. Black arm-bands were donned so that no one could have just an ordinary day without knowing what was happening and that it was wrong.
However, after the war started the anti-war movement drastically declined. By the time the war began and the demoralization of it actually happening set it, many previous anti-war activists were unprepared to deal with the questions of "Supporting the troops" or "Now that we're there we have to clean up the mess" arguments, much less the role of the UN and what occupation looked like. When 70 percent of the population had opposed the war before it happened, only 30 percent remained opposing the war after it had begun. How did this sort of turn around happen? Looking at the anti-war movement in more depth can explain more clearly why the beginning of the war could have such a demoralizing effect.
It is important to note that the anti-war movement was made up of a mixed bag of Americans, and it contained a mixed bag of ideas about the war and why people opposed it. Many Americans thought that the cost of war was too much (taking away from much needed social safety net programs), others opposed all forms of violence (known as peace-niks to the rightwing), many others demanded that we could find alternative natural resources and didn't need to go after Iraq's oil, others thought that Bush was merely getting revenge on Saddam for a threat against his father and still others saw the war as imperialist. Although the movement was large, there was little cohesive agenda and a low level of politics holding the whole thing together. Thus, when the war started and quickly turned into an occupation, much bigger political questions broke through the light string that held the movement as one.
The anti-war movement has since declined for many reasons. There was mass demoralization that the protests that numbered 11 million around the world on February 15th, 2003 and more were not listened to. It seemed that the American military machine was unstoppable, so what was the point in fighting anymore. Many people were thrown off by arguments such as "Support the troops" to "Now that we're there…" A huge twist in logic was accomplished by the media and others saying that suddenly, even though the anti-war movement pointed out that this war was about "oil and empire", helping the Iraqis was on the agenda too. The long summer after the war ended started to crumble away at these justifications. Scandal after scandal emerged: where were those weapons of mass destruction? Could 9/11 really have been prevented? Was the Bush administration planning to invade Iraq from day one?
Every reason presented by the Bush administration in order to go to war had been broken to pieces except one: we're liberating the Iraqis. Although the reports had shown that only 1 percent of the budget was being spent on rebuilding, and that Iraqi civilians were being killed by the hundreds, there was still the hope held by some Americans that US military forces could do good for the occupied population. This hope was perpetrated by the government, the media (and its special reports on the few and far between reconstruction efforts), the schools and many other American institutions.
Then the ice broke and everything started falling through. Moqata al-Sadr and resistance fighters all across Iraq went on an offensive that at one point took over and was holding five Iraqi cities, and it still controlling Najaf to this day. Suddenly it became evident that not only were Iraqis more than fed up with American presence but they were capable of doing something about it. The media quickly adjusted their rhetoric from calling these Iraqis resistance fighters to "insurgents" and then, even worse "radicals". It was important to portray the resistance as a small number of trouble makers that really wanted power and didn't want to see real democracy in Iraq. Now following that, the torture photos have made it undeniable that liberation is not on the agenda in Iraq. This scandal has broken through the disconnect that existed in many Americans minds (although I am not implying that there are not still many questions around the issue).
The anti-war movement has made many good strides in the past six months to attack a number of the confusions around the occupation. Highlighting military families that oppose the war and having marched on March 20th, 2004 in Fayettville, NC (a military base located very close by) with military families not only helped show how real support for the troops was coming from the anti-war movement and not the Bush administration, but helped overcome arguments such as the "Now that we're there…" one. Military families not only took a leading voice but many of the students and periphery the anti-war movement was (and still is) able to relate to is friends and family of military personnel that are very disgusted with the war because of the obvious and direct effect it has on them. The announcement that more military personnel would have to stay even longer in Iraq then promised after the resistance led by al-Sadr arose brought angry cries from military families that had kept their mouths shut before saying "A year is long enough!" Not only that, but as the resistance in Iraq increased and more soldiers were being killed (around 100 in the first half of April alone) it became even more difficult for people to continue supporting the occupation.
So the question is: where is the anti-war movement? It is true that there have been many active people protesting the war still and organizing on campuses and in communities all over the US throughout all of these events and still today. However, many anti-war organizers have reported that they can get few people to get involved, or even remain interested in what they are saying. They encounter a lot of "ABB" and "Now that we're there…" arguments. However, now that the summer has come, schools (which are main organizing locations) are out and the demoralization of the movement continues although the political atmosphere is changing and the winds are starting to move in the direction of our sails. Now it is a matter of putting the sails back up and getting the boat ready for take off. This looks like a very easy task, but it obviously is not or it probably would have already happened. It is important to look at the main reasons in American politics that have kept the anti-war movement at bay, and how the new development in Abu Ghraib changes that.
After the demoralization last year, it became difficult to get people involved in anti-war groups and even within anti-war activists that remained, there were still questions about the occupation and whether we should oppose it. Many of those problems still exist, but to a much lesser degree. A lot of anti-war groups on campuses and in communities became inward looking, and some in very conservative areas completely fell apart. Scandal after scandal continued to prove that the anti-war movement was correct in all of its criticisms of the lies coming from the White House and the media, but it wasn't translating into numbers in anti-war groups.
Many reasons exist as to why this wasn't happening: a) although some scandals debunked some arguments for supporting the war it didn't translate into a real understanding of the occupation - leaving many questions and conflicting views in tact, b) the election dominating mainstream politics has forced anti-war Americans to choose between two candidates that support the war and leaving them with ABB arguments that prevent activism and reign activity in to only the electoral process, and c) while the right-wing pro-war section of America has a strong leadership at the head of society, the anti-war left-wing (or left-leaning) section of America has no leadership and no party to push forward its agenda. These reasons coupled with the active participation of the media and the schools to - if not merely defend the occupation - at least make it more confusing.
The Abu Ghraib scandal, coupled with a major upset by resistance in Iraq, has cut through the idea that soldiers are being asked to rebuild Iraq. The pictures cut through the lies of liberation by showing exactly what Iraqis have become. An occupied population. One of the most glaring photos showed an American soldier pulling and Iraqi man around with a leash on his neck while he laid destitute on the floor. As one US Senator put it, "For the next 50 years in the Islamic world and many other parts of the world, the image of the United States will be that of an American soldier dragging a prostrate, naked Iraqi across the floor on a leash."
The main reason left standing in most Americans minds for liberation has come crashing down - we are notliberating the Iraqis. That coupled with the fact that the other conditions have not changed - meaning both of the two major candidates for the election this year are still pro-war (which makes it difficult especially for the anti-war movement to relate to either of them). That makes it possible to rebuild a genuine grass roots movement while still encountering those that will choose to vote for the lesser of the two evils this election year.
In response, there are a number of arguments and activities that the anti-war movement now needs to take up in order to ensure that the wind doesn't die out of our sails and to get the sails up in the first place. The media will (and already is) trying to blame the Abu Ghraib tortures on a few low-level personnel stating that "what took place in that prison does not represent…America." Essentially, they are arguing that torture is not systematic but caused by a few bad apples. There will probably be a trial of some soldiers and a couple officers to ease the crisis.
This is the moment that the anti-war movement needs to adopt a strong anti-imperialist tone showing how occupation is systematic torture and that it is a long part of American history. These arguments are necessary - which is indicated in the Gallup poll where although over 70 percent of Americans see what was done in Abu Ghraib as "unjustified", "85 percent of those surveyed blamed the abuse on those who supervised the soldiers in the photographs, with 60 percent saying those superiors bear a great deal of responsibility." Although at least 60 percent of Americans see Bush as at least somewhat to blame for what happened only 22 percent think Rumsfeld should be fired over the events. It is vital that we support the notion that administration members get fired while maintaining the argument that it is a systematic problem, not just one or a few officials' fault.
There also needs to be an argument supporting the right of Iraqis to resist the occupation, which means taking up slogans like "Iraq for Iraqis" and "Support the resistance." This includes the right of resistance by US troops who do not want to participate in the occupation. A lot of these arguments have already been taken up in many local groups but the arguments need to be stepped up in this crucial period in US politics. Maybe having meetings like "Should we support the resistance?" or "Who was really to blame for the torture?" might be a good idea. Many troops are becoming demoralized in Iraq because of the conditions, the resistance, and the photos.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the anti-war movement needs to get visible and fast. There needs to be a real battle of ideas going on, so that those who have been shifted against the occupation cannot be sucked back in with a couple of "good deeds" like the release of prisoners from Abu Ghraib that are already taking place and the coming trials of a few low level guards. That means protests, sit-ins, teach-ins, meetings, etc. Community and school groups (where summer classes exist) need to get out on the streets and make the anti-war movements arguments heard. This can translate into growth of groups. A recent protest against Cheney in Winston-Salem, North Carolina with very little publication drew over 100 people in the rain. Winston-Salem is not the bastion of liberals by far.
This summer is going to pose many challenges to anti-war activists around organizing. However, given the most recent crisis and the shift in American opinion there are ways in which things can be organized.
However, that will require major anti-war organizations to end their sectarian fighting and focus on the end goal - removing US forces from Iraq. That means organizations like UFPJ and ANSWER need to work together again on building national protests and organizing around the country. Grass-roots groups like CAN may be able to play a hand in that. Also, organizing conferences, teach-ins, and speak-outs are going to be crucial to beat back some of the media's lies. It may make sense to support June 5th and argue that it be more of a multi-organizational approach - although the history of ANSWER forbodes a problem with that. UFPJ is calling a Palestine demo in NYC the same day, which indicates how sectarian the fighting has become. There needs to be an argument to combine these two events to make a big, unified presence against the occupation and against the treatment of Palestine. Arguments between all the organizations can take place at the event itself if need be. However, it is necessary to organize this summer in communities, locally and nationally (and quite frankly internationally) to get more people involved. I think that protesting both the Republican and Democratic conventions is a great idea, and possibly holding an Anti-War Convention (or Real Alternative Convention) near the same time (but not infringing on protesting the other two) as an alternative.
There are a lot of exciting things taking place right now in American politics surrounding the war. Even many US officials are questioning the ability of US military presence to maintain itself. As Wesley Clark, former Democratic nominee and general overseeing the bombing of Serbia in the 1990s, put it, "That means the Iraqi people will simply say 'We want the Americans out of here.' You'll see a large outpouring of public animosity in Baghdad and elsewhere, a million Iraqis demonstrating in the streets of Baghdad against us" which will lead to a "two-to-one chance of a catastrophic early end to this mission." That doesn't mean that American forces can't pull it together in Iraq, it means that the odds are against them.
The anti-war movement needs to take advantage of this moment and help make the odds even more grim for the pro-war force in this country. It was the combination of the resistance of the Vietnamese, US soldiers in Vietnam, and the anti-war movement at home that ended the war in the 1970s. The important difference is that in 1968 when around the same percentage of the US wanted to withdraw from Vietnam there was a huge anti-war movement. That is not the case currently. We need to do what we can in this difficult but exciting period to get things prepped up and ready to go. Our forces are small and now scattered somewhat (due to the summer), but the winds will help that if we really take advantage of this. That means organizing in your localities.
However, I think it is crucial to see if organizing for June 5th is an option and to pursue it if we can. It is true that June 5th is being occupied by two events, one in D.C. and the other in NYC, right now and it is also true that ANSWER has proven to be sectarian in the past and that probably has not changed. However, it would be problematic for us to ignore the ability ANSWER has to reach people all across this country and the importance it is to include them in organizing, especially now. At this point, it would be too sectarian to ignore June 5th and not mobilize for it in a unified way - combining the two events if possible. If nothing else there needs to be some efforts made to contact ANSWER and other major anti-war groups to see what can be done about this. The protest on June 5th is not only important because it could be huge if anti-war groups really build for it, but it will make the anti-war message loud and clear before the "hand-over" on June 30th that is supposed to happen occurs (supposing more difficulties in Iraq and at home "prevent it").
The US government will have a hard time escaping the political implications of this crisis, and the anti-war movement needs to guarantee that it doesn't.
The tides are with us and it is time to act while the wind is blowing in our direction. No infighting or sectarianism (or reaction to sectarianism) should stop us from raising the sails.