America right now is “anti-war”, in the sense that about two thirds of the people think the war in Iraq is a bad business and the troops should come home. Anti-war sentiment was a major factor in the success of the Democrats in last November’s elections, when they recaptured Congress. The irony is that this sharp disillusion of voters with America‘s occupation of Iraq owes almost nothing to any anti-war movement. To say the anti-war movement is dead would be an overstatement. But in comparison to kindred movements in the 1960s and early 1970s, or to the struggles against Reagan’s wars in Central America in the late 1980s, it is certainly inert.
When Democrats in Congress recently felt obliged to send President Bush the message that he should bring the troops home before he leaves office, they weren’t voting in the shadow of a mighty throng of protesters cramming into the open spaces in front of the Lincoln Memorial. They were voting to display in gesture if not in substance some acknowledgement of a general anti-war feeling abroad in the land.
The anti-war movements of the Vietnam war era survive to this day – often vividly – in the texture of everyday life in America. Lives were changed forever by the decisions of thousands upon thousands to refuse to serve in southeast Asia. The great peace marches on Washington, the rallies in major cities, the riots outside recruiting offices, the upheavals in the universities smoulder still – sometimes dangerously – in popular memory. Just last year, a Vietnam veteran in Colorado spat on Jane Fonda and said publicly he would be happy to shoot her because of her supposed treachery to the American flag 40 years ago.
Of course, back in the Vietnam era, America had the draft. The imminent possibility that one might be drafted into the army or the marines and find oneself in the Mekong Delta in six months concentrated the mind of a middle-class 18-year-old on the horrors of war with marvellous speed. Today there is no draft. It’s true that many soldiers deployed in Iraq have been made to serve double tours of duty; that others have been people facing criminal conviction and offered the option of prison or enlistment in the army; that others again are illegal immigrants offered a green card or US citizenship in exchange for service in Iraq. But every member of the US military in Iraq or Afghanistan is a volunteer – in the technical sense, anyway.
No bringing back the draft
At least in the near future, no US administration will take the political risk of trying to bring back the draft, even though lack of manpower is now a very serious problem for the Pentagon. By the same token, the absence of the draft is certainly a major factor in the weakness of the anti-war movement. But though there was no draft in the Reagan years, there was certainly a very vital peace movement opposing his efforts to destroy the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and to crush the FMLN insurgency in El Salvador.
I well remember criss-crossing America in those years, giving anti-intervention speeches on campuses, in churches and labour halls in scores of towns in every state in the union. Almost every American town in every decade has its dissident community. At any rally you can see the historical strata in human contour. Up until a decade ago there would be the old communists, maybe veterans of the Lincoln Brigade that volunteered to fight for the republic in the Spanish Civil war. Into the late 1980s these old fellows were often the best organisers. Then there would be anti-war activists like the late Dave Dellinger, who went to federal prison as a pacifist in the second world war. There were people who came of age politically with Henry Wallace and the Progressive party that challenged Truman from the left in l948.
A slightly younger cohort learned its organising in the years of the Korean war and the rise of the civil rights movement. Old labour organisers rubbed shoulders with Quakers and Unitarians. Then there’s the Vietnam generation, many of them in their mid-60s now. More than once, in the South, I’ve found that the still-active sparks are former Maoists who deployed to places like Birmingham (Alabama) as their revolutionary duty, and who took root as civil rights attorneys, public defenders or labour organisers.
There are hundreds of overlapping “lefts” in America, mustered in their separate struggles – for immigrants’ rights, for public control of energy, against military recruitment. There are the anarchists, the Trotskyist groups. And when a war comes along, as it does with great regularity in America, they coalesce into an anti-war movement. They certainly did in the late 1980s. The other day, in a box of old papers in my garage, I found a directory to “sister-cities” – towns in the US that had “paired” with beleaguered cities in Nicaragua, exchanging regular delegations. The directory was as thick as a telephone book. There was just such a coalescing against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1999 in Seattle.
On the eve of the US attack on Iraq in 2003, it looked as if a vigorous anti-war movement would flare into life. There were some very big rallies. But across the four ensuing years, as the full ghastly futility of the war has become more and more manifest, the anti-war movement has got weaker. In late January this year the major anti-war coalition – United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) – held a rally in Washington. It mustered a respectable number of people, and featured Hollywood stars like Sean Penn and 1960s icons like Fonda. But it was, alas, rather dreary, rather predictable.
Not just a picnic
To be memorable and effective, an anti-war rally has to be edgy, not comfortable. Emotions have to be high, nerves at least a bit on edge, anger tinged with fear. It shouldn’t be just a picnic or a reunion. At the anti-WTO demonstration in Washington after the one in Seattle, the police had orders to shoot to kill if things got out of hand. I doubt any cop had orders to shoot to kill in Washington this January. The political temperature was way too low.
An absence on the speakers’ platform at that January UPFJ rally gives us a significant clue to the weakness of the anti-war movement. Ralph Nader was not invited, even though he is a major political figure on the left, and a fierce critic of the war. Why? Because Nader is still anathema to many Democrats because he ran as a third party candidate in 2000 and they blame him from drawing crucial votes from Al Gore, enabling Bush to win. Even though the war in Iraq is a bipartisan enterprise, even though Democrats in Congress have voted year after year to give Bush the money to fight that war, the mainstream anti-war movement, as represented by UFPJ, is captive to the Democratic party.
To clarify the consequences of this willing captivity, we can ask a simple question. Has the end of America‘s war on Iraq been brought closer by the recent votes in the House of Representatives and the US Senate? On 23 March the full House voted 218 to 212 to set a timeline on the withdrawal of US troops, with 1 September 2008, as the putative date after which war funding might be restricted to withdrawal purposes only. It’s not exactly a stringent deadline. It only requires Bush to seek Congressional approval before extending the occupation and spending new funds to do so.
On Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi’s website we find her portrait of what US troops will be doing in Iraq following this withdrawal or “redeployment”, should it occur late next year on the bill’s schedule: “US troops remaining in Iraq may only be used for diplomatic protection, counterterrorism operations and training of Iraqi Security Forces.” But does this not bear an eerie resemblance to Bush’s pre-surge war plan? Will the troops being redeployed out of Iraq even come home? No, says Pelosi; these troops will go to Afghanistan to battle against al-Qaida.
So the bill essentially adopts and enforces Bush’s war plan and attendant “benchmarks” as spelled out in his 10 January speech. On 27 March the Senate voted 50-48 to start withdrawal in March 2008, the said schedule being non-binding on the president. Meanwhile the war goes on, with a supplemental, Democrat-approved $124bn – more than Bush himself requested. As Congress considers the $0.5trn for the 2008 fiscal year (October to September) Pentagon budget, there is no sign that the Democratic leadership will permit any serious attack on further war funding.
Catcalls for Pelosi
When it comes to the actual war, which has led to the bloody disintegration of Iraqi society, the deaths of up to 5,000 Iraqis a month, and the death and mutilation of US soldiers every day, nothing at all has happened since the Democrats rode to victory in November courtesy of popular revulsion against the war. Bush’s reaction to this censure at the polls was to appoint a new commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, to oversee the troop surge in Baghdad and Anbar province. The Democrats voted unanimously to approve Petraeus and have now okayed the money for the surge. Bush hinted that he would like to widen the war to Iran. Nancy Pelosi, chastened by catcalls at the annual AIPAC (pro-Israel lobby) convention, swiftly abandoned all talk of compelling Bush to seek congressional authorisation to make war on Iran.
Although nothing of any significance actually happened on 23 March, to read liberal commentators one would think we’d witnessed some profound upheaval, courtesy of Nancy Pelosi’s skilful uniting of the various Democratic factions. What she accomplished in practice was the neutering of the anti-war faction. In the end only eight Democrats (plus two Republicans) voted against the Supplemental Appropriation out of opposition to the war. The balance of 202 no votes came from Republicans who opposed Pelosi’s bill as anti-Bush and anti-war. So, in Congress 420 representatives officially have no problem with the war continuing until the eve of the next election. Ten are dead against it, which is where Congress has always been, in terms of committed nay-sayers.
Anti-war forces in Congress are now weaker. Take Sam Farr of Santa Cruz (California) and Peter DeFazio of Eugene (Oregon), both Congressmen with large progressive constituencies. In the last Republican-controlled Congress they were stout opponents of the war, voting against authorisation to invade and money for the war thereafter. No longer. Pelosi handed Farr bailout money for his district’s spinach growers and DeFazio got funding for schools and libraries.
Seeking to explain his vote for Pelosi’s war-funding bill, Farr issued a press release saying: “This bill brings our troops home.” But he also told the San Francisco Chronicle: “They want to go gung-ho. They want to escalate in Iraq. So what would our `no’ votes mean?”
Actually they would have meant more votes against the war, and had there been four more holdouts against Pelosi’s palm-greasing, these no votes would have wrecked her bill, demonstrating that it is impossible to get a majority in the House of Representatives to endorse a piece of fakery designed to deceive the very people who put the Democrats back in power.
The real anti-war movement proved itself incapable of pressuring House Democrats to hold out. As noted above, the 27 January demonstration organised by UFPJ did involve active lobbying of Democrats to hold their feet to the fire, but the demo itself was really a Bush-bashing session, with scant reminders that Bush’s war has been and continues to be a bipartisan project.
`Our worst enemy and best ally’
Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of MoveOn.org, said after the 23 March vote: “Bush is our worst enemy and our best ally.” In other words, when Bush savaged Pelosi’s bill with accusations that it gives aid and comfort to the enemy, he cemented Democratic support for it. The focus stays always on Bush, over whom MoveOn will never have influence, as opposed to Democrats, whom MoveOn could have pressured with its three million-strong email list. But rather than rousing its members to accuse Pelosi of enabling the war, MoveOn carefully limited the available options in polling its members. It only asked whether they were for, against or not sure about war funding as dealt with in her bill.
MoveOn could have phrased it another way: do you support the Pelosi plan (fully describing it)? Do you support the Barbara Lee plan (funding exclusively for gradual withdrawal of US troops)? Do you reject war funding altogether?
Will Congressional opposition to the war now get stronger, anchored by Pelosi’s bill? Not likely. The window of opportunity for that flew open right after the election, when anti-war forces roared in outrage after being snubbed by Pelosi and Reid, who omitted the war and the Patriot Act from their must-do agenda. Instead, the Democratic leadership chose merely to appear to oppose the war while continuing to fund it.
Do anti-war “movements” end wars? The Vietnam war ended primarily because the Vietnamese defeated the Americans, and because a huge number of US troops were in open mutiny. At home a large sector of society was in mutiny too. Anti-war movements are often most significant in their afterlife – schooling a new generation in attitudes and tactics of resistance. What’s happened here in the US across the intervening years since Vietnam is a steady, unsurprising decline in the left’s overall political confidence and ambition, and, as in the 1990s, a disastrous failure to attack the Democratic party, and the Democratic administration led by Clinton and Gore, for the onslaught on Yugoslavia and the inhumane sanctions against Iraq.
In the Bush years we’ve seen a further decline in any independent left with a unified theoretical and practical strategy or even a political theory; also a rise in unconstructive and indeed demobilising paranoia, as in the orgy of 9/11 conspiracism I described here recently (1). The campuses are quiet. The labour movement is reeling. To describe the anti-war movement in its effective form is really to mention a few good efforts: the anti-recruitment campaigns; the tours by those who have lost children in Iraq; or a few brave souls like Cindy Sheehan, who single-handedly reanimated the anti-war movement last year, commencing with her vigil outside Bush’s Texas ranch, or the radical Catholic Kathy Kelly, or Medea Benjamin and her “Code Pink” activists.
What were the big surprise demonstrations in the US last year? Quite suddenly major American cities saw gigantic, militant demonstrations of immigrants – mostly Hispanic. Their fury was at brutal treatment and harsh new laws against illegal migrants, without whose low paid toil agriculture in states like California would come to a halt. The war wasn’t an issue.
Alexander Cockburn is co-director of CounterPunch
(1) See Alexander Cockburn, “US: the conspiracy that wasn’t”, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, December 2006.