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The Antiwar Movement 10 Years On


Remarks from a plenary at the Stop the War Coalition's June 11, 2011, conference in London on "Afghanistan and the War on Terror: 10 Years On."

I want to thank the Stop the War Coalition and Lindsey German in particular for having invited me here, and for having invited me to a similar conference five years ago. Maybe in 2016 we can meet under better circumstances. I'm especially glad to have come back to Europe because George W. Bush can no longer do so. He recently canceled a trip to Switzerland because an indictment for torture awaited him there.

It is an honor to speak together with Tony Benn, Lindsey German, Sanasino Al-Yemen, Mohammed Kozbar, Tariq Ali, and George Galloway.

Five years ago was a high point for participation in the peace movement in the United States. This was because the Iraq war was young and violent, but also because the pitiful, poorly funded organizations driven by opposition to war were joined by the major well-funded organizations and individuals and funders who oppose the Republican Party in any way available, including through opposition to wars that are identified as Republican wars. The Democratic Party was in the minority in Congress and not in the White House. It didn't promise peace and justice, but its supporters poured money and time and energy into bashing the Republicans for their wars and injustices.

We recently learned from Wikileaks — where else? — that the United States government was quite upset with Gordon Brown for pulling troops out of Iraq, and accused him of something even worse: of having pulled the troops out in order to please the British public and win an election. That's disgraceful behavior in the view of U.S. media outlets that trumpet wars to spread democracy. We also learned recently from former president George W. Bush's book that in 2006, the Republican leader in the Senate, who was publicly vilifying war opponents, secretly urged Bush to get troops out of Iraq before the war cost the Republicans badly in the 2006 elections. Bush did not take that advice. The Democrats won big. And then they won big again in 2008. By January 2009 they controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. And the peace movement was largely shut down after muttering a big collective "Our work here is done."

Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas published a paper drawing on 5,398 surveys of demonstrators at antiwar protests, interviews with movement leaders, and ethnographic observation. They argued that "the antiwar movement demobilized as Democrats, who had been motivated to participate by anti-Republican sentiments, withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success, if not policy success in ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." 

The scaling back of the Iraq occupation was dictated by a treaty put in place by President Bush, which will now be rewritten if we allow it, to avoid the December 31 deadline. Since we've had a peace prize winner in the White House our military has grown, our international bases have expanded, drone use has expanded, secret use of special forces has expanded, a new war has been launched, and war powers have been further concentrated. Some inspiring peace activists that I met in Afghanistan in April called the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers told me they had trouble selling Afghans on the idea of peace, since they'd never known it, and its leading representative, the prize winner, was bombing them. What remains of the U.S. peace movement is substantial and growing, but has been completely written out of corporate news coverage, as its existence doesn't fit comfortably into any narrative comprehensible to corporate news producers.

Americans, by the way, would die to have news media merely as awful as the British media.

Many of us have come to the conclusion that the antiwar movement in the United States needs to act much more boldly in order to succeed. When other nations' governments go off track, their people do something about it. In Tunisia and Egypt people have nonviolently claimed power in a way that has inspired Americans in Wisconsin and other states, as well as the people of Spain and the rest of the world. In England too, people seem less inclined to accept abuse. Movements like UK Uncut inspire lesser versions like US Uncut.

In the United States, our federal government in Washington, D.C., is the weakest point in our democracy, without which state-level reform cannot succeed. Just as here, two-thirds of the people in the United States want the wars ended, and want our corporations and billionaires taxed, and our rights expanded rather than curtailed. We want our money invested in jobs and green energy, not a global military that can't stop itself. Our government in Washington goes in the opposite direction, opposing popular will on these major issues, regardless of personality or party.

On October 6th, a Thursday, the Afghanistan War will complete its first decade as the United States goes into its 2012 austerity budget. Tahrir Square in Cairo Egypt translates as Liberation Square. We have in Washington, D.C., a square with the similar name: Freedom Plaza. This square is located between the Capitol and the White House along Pennsylvania Avenue, and built into its surface is a map of downtown Washington on which nonviolent resistance actions can be planned.

This past week a coalition of organizations and prominent individuals announced at october2011.org a plan to begin a people's occupation of Washington, D.C., on October 6th, to build it into something larger on the 7th, 8th, and 9th, and to not leave until we are satisfied.

Our situation in the United States may be different. People have to travel very far to a D.C. rally, and we have no media outlets that would take notice if they did. Our government, I would dare say, is far more hopelessly corrupt than yours. So, this will not be another rally and march on a Saturday, make home movies, pat ourselves on the back, and go home. We are going to Washington to stay. We will shut down the offices of the machine.

While you are all invited to Washington in October, I trust you will make a good showing here and that we can work together.

Where the peace movement is growing in the United States is around a campaign to bring the war dollars home, to move the money. We put about half of the public dollars raised by income tax and borrowing into wars and the military. This fact means that we can build alliances with groups that have better ideas for where to spend that money. This is working at the local and state levels, as cities pass resolutions, and pressure builds on congress members. Next week the U.S. Conference of Mayors will vote on a resolution asking Congress to redirect spending away from wars.

Fifty years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower said "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

The same president said "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."

But there's something missing here. What drives the peace movement is opposition to killing people. Opposition to killing people is the reason wars are now marketed as humanitarian deeds. If we lose that to focus purely on moving the money, we'll lose our core and our energy.

I don't think we should underestimate the ability of the people of our nations to act on behalf of the people of other nations, including by forcing an end to wars. The activism of Tunisians and Egyptians has inspired a lot of people who can now be asked to consider the consequences of their actions on similarly active people struggling for justice nonviolently in distant lands.

If we work at that, we won't need an antiwar movement another 10 years from now.

David Swanson is the author of "War Is A Lie."  

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