March 28, 2010

The Anti-War Movement Seven Years After Shock & Awe

[This important piece first appeared at the website of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad. It is reposted here because Fire on the Mountain, as a blog, has the capacity to house a discussion of its content, which we are starting here by following the piece with five interesting comments which appeared on a Facebook thread.]

by Dennis O'Neil & Eric See

The war in Iraq is still on. It's already the second most expensive war in US history--only WWII cost more.

The war in Afghanistan is heating up. It's now the second longest war in US history--only Vietnam lasted longer.

So what the hell happened to the anti-war movement? Today, the movement that turned out millions around the world to try and stave off the invasion of Iraq, that created the conditions for Barack Obama's history-making electoral victory, is nearly invisible and in disarray.

How Come?

We can stipulate a few causes everybody will agree on.

* Mainstream media coverage of the wars has been criminal.

Pop quiz: How many US troops are still in Iraq? (Answer: 100,000, and that's not counting an equal number of "contractors," i.e. mercenaries and logistics people our tax dollars are paying for.)

In some cases we're better off when they don't cover it. Take the Battle of Marja in Afghanistan. After breathless news reports quoting Pentagon spokespeople about a week-long offensive against the Taliban for control of this key city of 80,000, the place turned out to be a rural crossroads with more goats than people.

* The military has become very good at holding down casualty figures among US troops. In Iraq, they are hunkered down in bases and avoid combat, while the escalation in Afghanistan is just now starting to produce a new spike in US casualties. But people in this country have an unfortunate tendency to care only about "our" deaths, even as the super-expensive remote-controlled drone aircraft blow up schools and kill non-combatants in Afghanistan. (This, we are told, is okay, because the military wasn't actually trying to kill those kids.)

* Of course there is the ongoing economic meltdown which has become the principal focus for tens of millions of ordinary people looking fruitlessly for those green shoots of growth that the politicians and TV talking heads keep promoting. Activists, too, have been scuffling for their own survival and struggling to organize their coworkers and communities to fight cutbacks.

Behind The Obvious

There is another big-picture reason for the sorry state of the anti-war movement that is not easy to come to grips with. We have to face it: the 2008 election campaign and the Obama presidency are the biggest
things that have taken the wind out of the anti-war movement's sails.

From 2003-2008, a substantial and growing mass of class forces and social movements formed an objective bloc to the left of the Bush/Cheney administration. It was a broad united front consisting of sections and strata of the people including trade union members, environmentalists, educators, civil libertarians, college students, women's groups, African Americans, immigrants, veterans, etc.

The bloc was dominated by large, reform-minded, generally liberal organizations and coalitions whose leaders realized that there was no gain in kowtowing to the Bushies to try and get their programs passed. Still, it was more than a brief alliance of convenience, and was manifested in the deep visceral loathing for Bush/Cheney among the masses.

The lead unifying issue for this united front became the war in Iraq. For one thing, none of the forces in the bloc was strong enough to impose its program on the others: the unions weren't going to mobilize around reproductive rights nor the environmentalists around card check. More important, the war was, objectively, the principal contradiction facing the people of the US (and the world) and by early 2005 or so, popular rejection of the war had made it a very prominent vulnerable spot for the administration.

In fact, it can be said that it was the anti-war movement that elected Barack Obama. His Democratic rivals, Clinton and Edwards, had not spoken out during the buildup to the Iraq invasion, while Obama had. He became, by default, the anti-war candidate. And once the primaries were over and John McCain predicted that the US occupation of Iraq might continue for 50 or even 100 years, he was toast, even before the economy went belly-up.

By mid-2008, the united front was largely incorporated into the Democratic Party campaign. With Obama's election, the main organized groupings from that bloc became part of the establishment, and they did so on terms dictated by the White House. What was once an objective bloc is now an array of interest groups, each pursuing its own agenda, and each tending to regard others as rivals for (increasingly shrinking) resources and positioning to "affect affairs of state."

None of these groups was about to put the war at the center of their agenda, especially when confronted with the catastrophic and ongoing collapse of the economic boom. Even when Obama announced two big troop escalations in Afghanistan in his first year in office and showed no sign that a rapid and complete withdrawal from Iraq was in the making, there wasn't a peep. Quite the opposite, Obama was able to bring anti-war groups into the White House for closed-door meetings before making his announcement.

We ask: Is there any basis for expecting even a weaker version of a broad united front to coalesce to the left of the Obama administration any time soon, in particular one centered on opposing the wars?

A Hard Look Around

Looking around, the organized anti-war movement found that these developments had downsized it to its hard core: essentially peace people (religious and secular) and the anti-imperialist left.

The long uphill slog of trying to end the occupations now seemed like a task that might never end. As Obama put more troops in harm’s way than had ever been deployed under Bush/Cheney, Congresspeople who had spoken and voted against war funding before were, with a few honorable exceptions, suddenly confused and silent.

More important, hundreds of thousands of everyday people who had participated during the Bush years simply weren't there any longer. Their organizations weren't mobilizing them. Individually, some figured the job was done with Obama's election, or that he deserved a chance to get it done. The economy pulled the attention of many. Others were dismayed at how little their efforts had produced and gave up.

That all had its own suppression effect, disheartening a good part of the hard core of the anti-war movement. That core group, mainly aged forty-five to sixty-five when the war started, is not only tired but nearly a decade older.

We ask: When was the last time you turned out for an anti-war mobilization?

This highlights a final problem facing the anti-war movement. The sheer duration of these occupations has tended to normalize war—with "acceptable" casualty levels—as a regrettable but inevitable fact of life in the US. The first-year college students who were demonstrating against education cuts in California and around the country last month were in 3rd grade when Afghanistan was invaded and occupied, and in 4th when the Iraq war started. They've never really known a country not in combat in that region, since during their lifetime “we have always been at war with Eurasia."

Could the anti-war movement become the equivalent of the nuclear disarmament movement, with a handful of stalwarts still lobbying and holding vigils, still fighting the good fight three generations after it started in the early '50s?

So What Do We Do?

If there were some quick and easy way to bring into being a vibrant and growing anti-war movement, it would already be happening. We have our work cut out for us.

But we must keep on. As much as the terrain has shifted under our feet and presented us with an even steeper uphill trek, we still have a duty to oppose the crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan that our rulers are committing, with our tax money, in our name.

The folks who marched with us in 2005 and 2006 and 2007 haven’t disappeared. There’s a whole layer of folks who cut their political teeth in the anti-war movement and are now organizers against budget cutbacks and the collapse of our social safety net. We need to reconnect the dots and bring an anti-war analysis and message into the struggles that have motion on the ground now.

One of the most powerful arguments against the wars right now is the astonishing bill for them. It costs $1 million a year to keep a single soldier in Afghanistan. How much does it cost to keep that person in college? Your city has a $300 million deficit? Simple--just don’t send 300 people to Afghanistan for a year, problem solved.

We need to build activity at the local level that’s easy for people to engage in and doesn’t require signing on to a whole stew of anti-imperialist statements. We also need to bring our bodies and signs to the marches and vigils against budget cutbacks in our communities, instead of just waiting for people to show up at an anti-war rally. We need to make the connections in our messages; “Heath care Not Warfare” at the rallies on the congressional showdown. “Books Not Bombs” when folks march in defense of public education.

This isn’t rocket science. We know how to do it. Let’s get going.

Dennis O'Neil is a member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad and active in the War Moratorium project.

Eric See became active during the first Gulf War, he was one of the co-founders of the War Moratorium project and currently works at Peace Action.

Initial comments on this piece

FotM has taken the liberty of borrowing these from Facebook. Kindly add your own in the comments section below.

Sigrid: i have not been able to leave town, pretty much, since last summer (think gas & brake repair). seattle is 100 miles to the south of me & is the nearest protest game around...not to mention i can't find anyone who can, who would.

Diana: There was not enough interest to have a bus from the Lehigh Valley to Washington [for the March 20 Demonstration]. Wwe drove down last weekend. There are vigils in several places on different days in the area, but since the Republicans are out of office people don't seem as outraged as they should be about the wars, the drones, the 20% unemployment, climate change...

Bruce: there's nothing wrong with the anti-war movement being a little like the nuclear disarmament [movement]--which was, after all, was incredibly effective and made up of long distance runner-type activists.

Larry: This is a very sound and very valuable article, and I hope it gets wide distribution. I do want to say though that at the beginning, it seems to buy into the emotional roller coaster so typical of the left.The statement that the anti-war movement is now "nearly invisible and in disarray" is simply not true--and in fact the rest of the article demonstrates this. There is a broad and tested base of anti-war activists in every part of the country, including rural Virginia, where I live. Yes, the highly visible actions are not happening and would not be covered if they did.

It is critical, as the article suggests, that anti-war activists move into alliances, esp. around the budget, and otherwise respond effectively to current conditions. But it is also critical that we convey a historical or at least transgenerational awareness of our task. Of course the antiwar movement shrank after Obama's election. Of course it shrank after the national turn against the Iraq war (almost entirely due to the antiwar movement). and of course imperialism didn't go away because either of these events. These are the conditions we work with. They do not contradict the reality that the anti-imperialist movement has grown in numbers, sophistication, and geographical and racial and age diversity over the last 40 years. It will never be easy in the belly of the beast, but let's not confuse predictable short-term changes with deficiencies in the movement building for the long term.

Laurel: If you want to feel better, Dennis, check out [which] spotlights 20 of 150 organized events organized around the 7th anniversary of the war.


Jimmy Higgins said...

I will certainly have more to say later, but I just want to identify one common thread in the comments from Diana, Larry and Laurel. That is the crucial role that locally-based grassroots activities have in the anti-war movement today. The 7th anniversary demo that Diana (and Barry) went to was dismayingly small. If we'd seen each other in the last 30 years or so, we would not likely have missed each other. Not in a crowd numbering under 3,500.

That says to the powers that be: feel free to ignore this movement. local actions and individual protest activities say to elected officials: watch out we're still here.

That's why I spend my anti-war time mainly pushing the War Moratorium (recently renamed from Iraq Moratorium for reasons too obvious, and too painful, to need explanation here). Check it out at .

Anonymous said...

I tend to view the anti-war movement`s demise through the lens of critiques of neoliberalization and global economic restructuring. This process foregrounds cities and urban regions, while at the same time changing the role of the nation-state. The US plays a specific role in maintaining a single unitary political-economic space for transnational capital. The US economy is essentially driven by the military industrial complex. Finding sites where social movements are in proximity to centers of the MIC and can exert leverage might be helpful when considering how and where to build a resurgent anti-war movement. During the mass anti-war upsurge,it was expedient to focus attention on Bush-Cheney.The public forms of the anti-war movement looked more like the anti-war movement of the 1960s than the convergence style politics of the noglobal movement.
With the unit of analysis and action being the nation or alternatively the local,power becomes a static attribute rather than a dynamic network of relationships.There are more activists today than ever before, connecting the dots between the modular elements that make up social movements we see today is critical. Discourse is framed by the tea party, on the left there is the sound of static.

ethan young said...

One big problem is that from Reagan on, the White House has ignored demos, no matter how big. In fact, the 'demos' in democracy is playing less and less of a role in steering policy, either by direct pushing or by making the ruling class nervous.

The 'Vietnam syndrome' lives on, and played an important role in electing O. But his main concern is not the consent of the governed, but the ability to govern when the ruling class itself is polarized and a big hunk of it has not accepted a black president, and/or are unwilling to accept policy changes needed to save capitalism, when they had so much fun during the GWB barn-burning. O will humor and appease the Pentagon and arms industries til forever if that's what it takes to get them on his side.

I think we should look into ways to make militarism shameful. Starting with giving military families the biggest platforms we can organize... bigger than we think we can.

e said...

I agree, this war has been awful and has taken period over a long period of time. Though i respect your opinions, this is not a war we can just back out of just like that. or even back out because of an "anti War movement" that pops up. I mean are you assuming that the people over there do mot want to be there? or that they are like prisoners to this war? i think everyone over there who is fighting wants to be there. I mean look at this couple... There job is to bring people home but they are so happy to be serving their country. But this is just one example oh how Americans want to be doing what there doing. OF I mean of course would rather be home with their families but i think they all see the good they are doing. As much good as a war can bring anyway. Not in the literally since of good, War is never good but in this case has to be done. Now we possibly could have voided the start of this war or found some alternative, but e are there now and should AT LEAST finish everything we started before we up and leave. At of respect for those who have already died. I know that's what they would want. Just try to think of it from the stand point of, those soldiers want to be there, want to serve their country and finish what they started all so long ago.

Chris said...

This comment aobve is Chris

Carl Davidson said...

While I share the problem and appreciate your effort here, I think you’re missing or discounting a number of critical points. And if we’re off base on these, there’s little hope of making progress on the tasks at hand.

Your first mistake is in this assertion: “We have to face it: the 2008 election campaign and the Obama presidency are the biggest things that have taken the wind out of the anti-war movement's sails.”

This blames Obama’s campaign for our problems. If you had said something about “the inability of much of the antiwar movement to respond creatively to the Obama campaign,” you would have a fruitful position to develop. Generally speaking, the antiwar movement responded in three ways: the first was to ignore or oppose the campaign, the second was to dive into the campaign itself as individual volunteers and tail the Dem leadership, and the third was to urge a collective nonpartisan intervention to expand the electorate and put out our views on the war in the center of the debate.

As someone fully engaged in pushing the third position, I can tell you that we lost out in relation to the other two, by a large margin. Most of those who should have fought with us took the first position, staying out of the campaign, and a huge number, many of whom were opposed to the wars but never part of the organized antiwar forces, took the second course. But they did so, whether we agreed with them of not, as their first antiwar activity. They had largely been inactive up until then. They never asked our permission, even if they had ever heard of our groups and organizers.

The antiwar movement helped elect Obama in that it helped him win Iowa. After that, we were a minor player, after the African American community and then the labor movement came over to his side. As for his approach to the wars, he’s unfortunately done pretty much what he always said he would: Wind down the fighting in Iraq and step it up in Afghanistan. His position was never ‘Out Now!’ on either of them.

Moreover, you go off the deep end with this conclusion: “With Obama's election, the main organized groupings from that bloc became part of the establishment, and they did so on terms dictated by the White House.” The group I worked with, PDA, along with many of our local unions, and the HR 676 forces, are far from being “part of the establishment”, and even if we were, and it’s something of a joke to claim we are, we’re still sticking to our views, not Obama’s, where we’ve opposed him on Afghanistan and other matters every step of the way. I’m sure this may apply to some Beltway letterhead groups, but your estimate of the base organizations is way off.

You claim, “Obama was able to bring anti-war groups into the White House for closed-door meetings before making his announcement.” First, you should say SOME groups; second, I was among those invited in for the second round. With a number of others, I declined the invitation, but delivered the ‘Out Now’ message along with it. (continued)

Carl Davidson said...

Part of your failure here, besides one-sided claims against the antiwar movement or its leadership, is not making an adequate distinction between objective and subjective factors. Huge numbers of young people critical of the war entering Obama’s campaign was an objective factor. It would have happened even if every single antiwar group put up big banners saying, No! Don’t Do It! As it was, a good many did tell them not to do so, and their warnings were ignored.

The real discussion should have been how best to intervene in the campaign in a way that maintained an independent position and build independent organization. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of it, and many of us urging it were dismissed with ultraleft and semi-anarchist tirades.

Another objective factor is the decision by wealthy liberals and foundations to stop funding, or severely restrict funding, for peace groups all across the board. You can criticize THEM that, but it’s hardly a criticism to aim at those turned down—except that all of us have to take the matter of grassroots funding more seriously.

But the biggest objective factor by far was the economic crisis taking center stage, where it remains today. You can claim the ‘principle contradiction’ is something else, but that matters little, at least from the perspective on many of us organizing at the base. Our current task is to develop antiwar contingents within the mass struggles around economic concerns being organized by the trade unions and others. The AFL-CIO has organized dozens of them involving thousands around the country.

But have there been antiwar contingents within them? No, only in a handful have done so. And the trade unions would largely welcome them; they are inviting allies to join them. Uncovering the reasons why would be a fruitful line of criticism, but you don’t go there.

Yet too many of the antiwar organizations don’t know how to shift gears, or fight on battlefields other than the streets. We’re still raising a few demands about funding social needs, and waiting for the trade unions and community groups to join us, rather than the other way around.

Wars end when three things happen: soldiers refuse to fight, the streets become ungovernable, and Congress votes to cut off the money. Kucinich’s forced vote on Afghanistan reveals how far we have to go on the latter task—and all of these have to be won and consolidated at the base before we get what we what at the top, no matter who is in the Oval office. We’ll have a better shot at doing it with the current occupant, but that has never meant he will do our work for us. Just the opposite. We have to assemble the forces, including huge numbers of Democratic voters and others as well, to make him do it. It’s a long march through the institutions, and we had best get on with it.

Diana Balot Frank said...

I think it was the World Trade Center collapse that changed everything. I don't remember all the details, but there was a demonstration in Washington in October- a month after 9/11. It was supposed to be a really, really big one not just against the war - the anti-globalization movement was growing but because of 9/11 a lot of people thought it was not appropriate and stayed away. I also have difficulty separating the anti-war movement from all the other issues - the current economy (jobs and housing crisis,) the environmental crisis and the continuing lack of health care for all.

Rahim on the Docks said...

Diana is absolutely on mark about the way the destruction at NYC's World Trade Center changed the terms of battle. The Big demonstration in DC she refers to was planned as an AFL-CIO follow-up to the major antiglobalization movement from Seattle. The particular labor leader who was given charge (a northeast Machinists local union and Central Labor Council president) who'd been central to broadening the national AFL-CIO's grasp of the "Teamsters & Turtles" phenomenon basically had his portfolio pulled after 9/11.

At the time I'd just successfully organized NJ's first forum in support of the Charleston 5, pulling together ILA longshoremen and local union leaders, and a number of northern NJ AFL-CIO Central Labor Councils as well as multiple African-American local union leaders, along with community activists from the African-American and Latina/o communities. It looked like the start of a broad coalition, far more inclusive and diverse than most of what had been achieved prior.

Less than a week later, after September 11, the NJ labor movement responded to calls for follow-up meetings with the question "Charleston WHO?, Charleston What?"

Returning to Jimmy's point and Carl Davidson's critique; the role of the Obama Presidential Campaign (as well as individuals in the administration) in negating anti-war and other people's movement organizing efforts is complex. In the African-American community in particular, the negation of the people's movement has been an extended and difficult lesson.

Among the rank & file of NJ's People's Organization for Progress, for example, the hope and good-will engendered by the appearance of a federal government whose leadership "looks like us" can't simply be wished away. At the same time, the lesson of the illusory nature of "Black faces in high places" is learned daily.

But Mr. Davidson, while I'm happy that you can hold your head high because you returned your White House "will not attend" RSVP marked ‘Out Now’, the tendency to be disarmed when officials recognize our contributions is historically even more pronounced among the so-called "Left" than among Black Clergy. You will remember the many "comrades" who were so overjoyed to gain Democratic Party recognition after the second Jackson Campaign that they dissolved their "one true vanguard." And this wasn't the crime of any single self-proclaimed revolutionary leadership, it happened in multiple versions of this self-delusion.

Jimmy Higgins said...

I should have guessed that my old bud, Carl Davidson, would take affront at this article. I may respond further (and certainly hope others will) but I cannot let his closing point go unaddressed.

Carl argues, "Wars end when three things happen: soldiers refuse to fight, the streets become ungovernable, and Congress votes to cut off the money."

Actually there is another way that wars end--Presidents realize that further killing and bleeding are pointless and stop it. President Eisenhower did exactly that in Korea, within months of his first inauguration. It is most unfortunate that President Obama lacks--what? the vision? the humanity? the common sense? the humility? the political courage?--to do the same.

ethan young said...

I don't think presidents act out of decency. If the majority of the ruling class [in its corporate, military and political state forms] want war, we have war. If not, not. Maintaining domestic stability is a factor. So is power on the global level, and finally, military viability of the mission.

Does Obama realize teh US can't win in Afghanistan? He is opportunist but not stupid. My guess is he is in it to placate the Pentagon, and will quit only when a)they want to or b)he gets the actual say-so he currently lacks to go in another direction. Not because he's 'decent' but because he's a pragmatist. And even that other direction could simply mean war somewhere else. That's where antiwar action could make a difference.

Rahim is wrong about the ML groups dissolving into the Jackson campaign. Their shelf-life was over by 1989, whatever was going on in the broader scene.

Carl Davidson said...

That would be fine, comrade Higgins, if our presidents represented the people, or a majority of them. But they never have, even the best of them. They rarely act on their own or directly in the people's interest; they need to dance with those that brung them, ie, one or another faction of the ruling class. And that includes the current occupant of the Oval office. So yes, we can pressure him, but we need to deepen the division at the top as best as we can, which is my point about Congress. All this is ABC, and I assume you know it, too.

ilya said...

Dennis, in lieu of a longer polemic, I'll only make a few comments. I think the whole strategy of "More money for [X], not for War!" is a failing strategy. Note this example- Most of the Tea Party base believes that Obama has increased taxes, 3% of it realizes that actually Obama has slashed taxes on the majority of "workers" and middle-class within the U$A. The Anti-War movement has utilized left-economism from the beginning of the war of Iraq. Not only does it belittle people in the sense that it reduces "workers" to their economic interests in terms of income but it annihilates politics. I don't know why, in our fractured world, where Communists are generally disorganized or hide themselves as left Social Democrats, why many think it's necessary to adopt non-political slogans and never offer a comprehensive Communist critique of the situation, nor engage in actual Communist work. So, declaring "We are Communists. This is why we oppose the war: X,Y,Z" Might not hang well with our NGO friends or with the wider mass movement, but, with the rest of the Left pulling post-modern identity politics and left-econonomism, the same dried up drivel that the Democrats use during elections, why not come out with a strong position? Maybe people are afraid of becoming the RCP or the Spartacus League, but, that is not necessary. So what if we will be isolated at first? The Bolsheviks were isolated in the mass movements. I think we need to be intellectually and practically honest and not dove-tail the obsession with the Amerikkkan Dream (More Money For X)

What is FRSO waiting for? Let's work on the Communist hypothesis experimentally, rigorously and courageously!

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