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The US Antiwar Movement: Toward a Critical Self-Assessment


As the United States occupation of Iraq approaches the six-year mark, the US government faces ever-increasing constraints on its ability to control Iraq’s future. Overwhelming Iraqi opposition to the occupation, fairly consistent since at least 2004, has recently compelled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to adopt a firm posture toward the US; the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated last year mandates the gradual—though partial—withdrawal of US forces starting later this year. Iraqi activists and politicians, led by a strong movement of oil workers that has defied the occupation’s prohibition of public-sector unionization, have refused to pass the so-called "revenue-sharing" oil law proposed by the US in 2007, which would have divvied the majority of Iraq’s oil up among Western corporations. Here in the US, the most hawkish voices have suffered a partial setback with the election of Barack Obama; the new president, though committed to a long-term US presence in Iraq, is at least somewhat confined by his public posture as an antiwar candidate and by his need to maintain support among the US population.

 

The role of the organized US antiwar movement in these developments has been relatively small, however.  The antiwar movement has not been wholly ineffective, as some observers have implied; the oft-repeated leftist lamentation that "the antiwar movement is pretty much dead" is an exaggeration that fails to account for the hundreds of dedicated groups across the US that have been opposing the Iraq War in creative and inspiring ways for the past six years, as well as the accomplishments (e.g., no war on Iran, heightened public awareness) to which those groups have contributed [1]. Moreover, such arguments often derive from an exaggerated and romanticized conception of the level of political activism in the 1960s. Yet the lamentation does have merit: the antiwar movement in this country has failed to develop the strength necessary to pull the US out of Iraq; the constraints on US occupation forces have been primarily the effect of Iraqi actions, not the US antiwar movement. The six-year mark of the war is an appropriate time for reflection on why this has been the case.

 

 

 

Assessing the Movement’s Weakness

 

There are a variety of reasons for the current movement’s relative weakness, many of which are beyond the movement’s control.  Many of the military and political factors that fueled the Vietnam-era movement are far less apparent today: total US forces have averaged fewer than 150,000 in Iraq (not counting corporate mercenaries like Blackwater), compared with three times that number in Vietnam in 1967; the death rate of US soldiers in Iraq has been relatively low, at less than 4,300 compared with nearly 48,000 in Vietnam by 1970; and there is no military draft to compel middle- and upper-class students to pay attention to the war.

 

Additional contrasts with the Vietnam era are also significant. For example, the large protest movements of the early 1960s which lent personnel and momentum to the antiwar movement later in the decade have no real equivalents for this generation. Today the mainstream news media are even more subservient than they were in the Vietnam era, when pictures and news of US atrocities at least trickled into coverage by the late 1960s. Media portrayals of antiwar activism have also become more hostile; when not ignoring protests, today’s media outlets perpetuate the derogatory depiction of progressive activists as spoiled middle-class teenagers eager to protest any cause they can find and disdainful of "the troops." The subservience of today’s press reflects the continued enthusiasm of most sectors of the US corporate and political elite for the Iraq occupation and the militaristic and neoliberal agenda it signifies. These elites have been slower to turn against the current war than they were in the late 1960s, in large part because Iraq is far more vital to long-term elite interests than Vietnam was. Confronted by all these factors, many ordinary citizens feel antiwar activism to be futile, especially after massive pre-war protests—the largest in world history—failed to stop the initial invasion and as Democratic politicians have repeatedly signed off on the continuation of the occupation [2].  

 

 

 

Internal Failures

 

But the movement itself also deserves much of the blame for its own weakness, and it is of course the internal failures that are most correctable for those of us seeking to strengthen the movement. Many of these failures have been articulately criticized by others, including writers on this website. Much of the so-called antiwar movement has remained tied—politically, and sometimes financially—to the Democratic Party, failing to adequately denounce pro-war Democrats for the swine they are or to apply to Democrats the same rigorous standards they apply to Republicans [3]. Many groups greatly toned down their outrage when the presidential campaign season started, and have stayed relatively hushed since Obama won the election. The same organizations (e.g., MoveOn, and to a lesser extent the leadership of United For Peace and Justice) have also placed disproportionate emphasis on legislative lobbying, failing to balance that strategy with one of concerted and widespread direct action that would physically disrupt the machinery of war and militarism [4]. Although many older leaders in the peace movement have presumably been seeking to avoid appearing too "radical" in their tactics for fear of alienating potential supporters, this hesitancy to engage in more dramatic nonviolent confrontation has, at least from my own observations, probably deterred more young people than it has attracted. A more creative, courageous movement—one that combines nonviolent civil disobedience with political advocacy and concerted outreach to the general public—would be more successful in attracting supporters (in addition to exerting stronger pressure on policymakers). It would, I believe, help to inspire a generation that has come to be cynical about the efficacy of protest or dismissive of protesters as stereotypical peace-sign-waving hippies or screaming black-clad outcasts.      

 

A separate bloc of groups and organizations has devoted excessive time and energy to pursuing various conspiracy theories, with the slogan that 9-11 was "an inside job" being the most common [5]. As a variety of seasoned activist-intellectuals like Jerry Lembcke, Noam Chomsky, and Michael Albert have argued, this tendency has weakened the movement by distracting it from more pressing concerns and from a more structurally-rooted and coherent critique of militarism, class exploitation, and other forms of oppression. As these critics have also suggested, many of the groups that have focused their energies on pursuing these conspiracy theories bear some bizarre and disturbing resemblances to pseudo-libertarian, religious fundamentalist, and neo-Fascist groups on the Right [6]. 

 

A third, major weakness that characterizes much or most of the antiwar movement is a stubborn reluctance to work with other antiwar groups that diverge in one or more respects from one’s own values, ideology, or strategy. The ongoing tiff between A.N.S.W.E.R. and UFPJ, the two major national antiwar coalitions, exemplifies this tendency. For the six-year mark of the Iraq War, the two organizations are sponsoring two separate demonstrations (on different dates, March 21st and April 4th), and neither, to my knowledge, is even endorsing the other’s event.

 

Such stubbornness seems to characterize much of the movement as a whole. Rather than participate in an event sponsored by other antiwar activists with whom we have disagreements, we would rather boycott it for the sake of maintaining our own purity and instead hold our own event two weeks later. I have had many conversations and been in many activist group settings where the mere drop of a group’s name has elicited a vitriolic tirade against participating in any event or campaign with which that group is remotely associated. The A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, The World Can’t Wait, and the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have been the targets of particularly heated criticism from those who accuse them of operating undemocratically, of endorsing authoritarian or Soviet-style regimes, or of promoting violence. 

 

Such skepticism is very healthy, and often derives from anti-authoritarian principles. Moreover, these criticisms are often legitimate. But the extent to which such criticisms are valid in any particular instance is not my concern here. Regardless of their validity, concerns about authoritarianism or dogmatism should not prevent coalition- building, especially when the groups in question are not aiming to take State power (or at least, have no chance of actually doing so). The willingness to work together in loose, operational coalitions to achieve concrete goals like ending a war or reducing military spending is crucial if we truly wish to build a strong and effective movement. Although those of us with anarchist inclinations may not relish the thought of closet-Stalinists taking part in public educational campaigns, we should keep our differences in perspective; marching at their side or joining them in an act of nonviolent direct action won’t tarnish our own purity too much (for a more extended and highly prescient consideration of this problem, see Michael Albert’s 2002 "Ten Q&A on Antiwar Organizing") [7].

 

Unlike the various external obstacles that lie largely beyond the control of those in the movement, petty factionalism is a weakness that can be easily overcome. Of course, not all of these conflicts are "petty"; many reflect legitimate political, moral, or strategic disagreements, and should not be totally forgotten for the sake of unity. But haggling to the point that one’s anger and frustration is directed more at other antiwar groups than at the perpetrators of violence is foolish and counterproductive, and ultimately a sign that we live in an environment sheltered from the most direct effects of violence and militarism. Cooperating with other groups need not imply adoption of their ideologies or strategies, or even prolonged debate with those whose politics or personalities we find unsavory. But to refuse to cooperate at all is to further weaken the movement as a whole, and a disservice to the victims for whose security and well-being we are all working.

 

The antiwar movement today faces significant external obstacles that it did not face in the 1960s and early 1970s. But much of the movement’s weakness can also be attributed to its internal failings—especially, I would argue, the childish stubbornness that has led the two major antiwar coalitions to boycott each other’s events. As the Iraq occupation enters its seventh year, antiwar organizers also have unprecedented opportunities given the election of a president and other Democrats who are all largely reliant on the support of progressives and the strong antiwar and social democratic proclivities of the general population. Capitalizing on these opportunities requires that we begin with a critical self-assessment of our own organizing efforts in recent years.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Quote from Alexander Cockburn, "Support Their Troops?" Counterpunch (online version), 14-15 July 2007, http://www.counterpunch.org/cockburn07142007.html. Also published in The Nation, July 30, 2007, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070730/cockburn.

 

[2] This sense of futility is perhaps less true for other progressive causes. In fact, progressive activism in general has probably increased since the 1960s, but is more diversified and more diffuse. The multiplication of activist causes is not a bad thing, but is detrimental for the antiwar movement, at least in theory.

 

[3] Cockburn, "Support Their Troops?"; Sharon Smith, "The Anti-War Enablers: Tom Hayden and the Dead End Democrats," Counterpunch (online version), December 5, 2007,

http://www.counterpunch.org/sharon12052007.html.

 

[4] UFPJ does endorse tactics of nonviolent direct action on their website (see

http://www.unitedforpeace.org/article.php?list=type&type=125), and leaders of UFPJ have supported specific direct actions from time to time; however, in my view it has not constituted a very prominent place in most of the coalition’s official actions and campaigns. Of course, many of UFPJ’s member groups have also failed to emphasize—and in some cases, even frowned upon—nonviolent direct action. I should also note here that organizations like UFPJ do a lot of very good and important work; I do not mean to imply otherwise.

 

[5] In the case of 9-11, I do not entirely rule out this possibility, but I do feel that focusing on a charge that will never be proven distracts the movement from more dire and immediate concerns. 

 

[6] See, for example, Stephen Philion, "Conspiracy Theory, Fears of Betrayal and Today’s Anti-war Movement: An Interview with Jerry Lembcke," Counterpunch (online version), February 27, 2008,

http://www.counterpunch.org/philion02272008.html.

 

[7] ZNet (online), October 24, 2002,

http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/11490 (accessed February 19, 2009).

 

 

 

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