His always-identifiable, once-in-a-generation voice booming across the sun-drenched National Mall, the legendary actor-activist Harry Belafonte evoked the words of his long-ago friend and colleague, Martin Luther King, Jr. As he spoke, a hundred thousand people rose to their feet in a roaring ovation. Whatever had come before, this was the real reclaiming of the legacy of another speech that had issued decades earlier from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Martin Luther King, Belafonte reminded the crowd, “said that America would soon come to realize that the war that we were in at that time that this nation waged in Vietnam, was not only unconscionable, but unwinnable. Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in that cruel adventure, and over two million Vietnamese and Cambodians perished. Now today, almost a half-a-century later, as we gather at this place where Dr. King prayed for the soul of this great nation, tens of thousands of citizens from all walks of life have come here today to rekindle his dream and once again hope that all America will soon come to the realization that the wars that we wage today in far away lands are immoral, unconscionable, and unwinnable.”
The ralliers who carried “Jobs Not War” signs were a reminder of the connection between our out of control military budget—particularly the expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and the jobs crisis in the U.S.
It was an extraordinary moment. The first national mobilization in Washington led by civil rights and labor groups in more than a decade was motivated by the economic crisis and energized by the demand for jobs—but reflected the breadth of understanding of a wide range of communities and constituencies who joined One Nation Working Together. The leadership of the coalition began with the NAACP, whose dynamic young president, Ben Jealous, stood as the first of his generation to head one of the fabled early civil rights organizations in the U.S. The SEIU, whose fast-growing service worker sector faces some of the most oppressive conditions, was there at the beginning, and the AFL-CIO as a whole quickly followed suit. Other core sponsors included the National Council of La Raza, Center for Community Change, US Students Association and more. By the time of the rally, hundreds of labor, civil rights, community, immigrant rights, environmental, and peace organizations were on board.
Part of the goal was easy—a massive get out the vote effort ahead of the Nov. 2nd mid-term election. But part of it was much more complicated—the organizations that initiated ONWT included some that had been at the center of the Obama campaign in 2008. So it was very unclear how they would walk that fine line between cheerleading for the president they had helped elect and criticizing the president who continued to disappoint so much of those organizations’ political base.
While jobs were the uniting issue of the march, the ralliers who carried “Jobs Not War” signs were a reminder of the connection between our out of control military budget—particularly the expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and the jobs crisis in the U.S. But the presence of that large, visible, vocal anti-war contingent was not inevitable. The peace movement had not been approached during the initial organizing process. Following very friendly and supportive meetings soon after, national peace and anti-war organizations, led by the United for Peace & Justice network and Peace Action, created the ONWT Peace Table, which was quickly welcomed as part of the steering committee of the broader coalition.
The work was nuanced and complicated. For key ONWT leaders, personal anti-war perspectives vied with the need to keep on board those influential national organizations—especially but not only within parts of the labor movement—whose members perceive their jobs as depending on military spending or whose leadership supports the Iraq and/or Afghanistan wars. Those organizations and individuals, fewer than they used to be but still powerful, wanted to keep the coalition’s overall message away from the critical issue of how war spending destroys jobs. Discussions continued, and by the time the official policy document was finalized, it did include the call for “a future of justice at home and peace abroad.”
The challenge reflected the current political moment. Of course the wars themselves have not ended; Iraq’s war continues with 50,000 re-named U.S. combat troops and 75,000 military contractors still occupying the country, while the U.S. war in Afghanistan has escalated and is causing dramatically higher casualties among the civilian population. But those wars are now being waged in a changed political climate, in which they are no longer the symbolic or strategic centerpiece of the U.S. political trajectory. The economic catastrophe overall, and the urgency of the jobs crisis in particular, have for the past two years superseded the wars as the most urgent issue most Americans face.
The anti-war movement itself is now only one stream in a much wider river of protest. Inevitably, that means that the anti-war movement is no longer the centerpiece of U.S. and global opposition to U.S. policies of aggression that continue to assault and undermine lives, health, and prosperity at home and around the world. The anti-war movement itself is now only one stream in a much wider river of protest.
But that anti-war stream was central on the National Mall last Saturday. The Peace Table’s own website and mobilization efforts had led dozens of anti-war organizations to endorse the rally and brought thousands of peace activists to Washington. The official program appeared ambivalent about the war-vs.-jobs issue—despite a consciously inclusive list of artists and activists representing virtually every participating constituency, there was no consultation on program with the Peace Table and no one speaking officially on behalf of an anti-war organization. But nonetheless, the costs of war shaped much of the program. Informal counts indicated that all but two of the speakers mentioned the military budget or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in some context while on stage.
One was Bob King, head of the United Auto Workers, who called directly for ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another was Bishop Garrison, a young army veteran who had served two year-long deployments in Iraq. He spoke early in the program, focusing on jobs, and he described how “opportunities in the job force were more than simply lacking” when he got out of the military. He spoke of veterans who had reenlisted only because they had no alternative means of providing for their families. And (while trying to give President Obama credit for beginning to bring some troops home from Iraq) Garrison condemned the way the U.S. had “supported wars abroad while the working class pays the bill and the poorest of our society fight for their very well-being.”
Many of the speakers emphasized the November elections—in which Democrats are widely expected to lose significantly in both houses of Congress. But whatever the party count on November 3rd, the elections will change little without massive public mobilization and pressure on whoever wins those seats. The day after the rally, dozens of labor, peace, civil rights, community organizing, and other groups met to plan strategy for moving forward in efforts to cut the military budget and shift U.S. priorities from war to jobs, from drones to mass transit, from building F-16s to building green energy technologies.
We will never solve the economic crisis while fighting “immoral, unconscionable, and unwinnable” wars.
As long as we keep spending nearly a trillion dollars on the military annually, as we did this year, there will never be new green union jobs in this country. We will never solve the economic crisis while fighting “immoral, unconscionable, and unwinnable” wars. The Afghanistan escalation alone costs $33 billion—funds that could have paid instead to create 600,000 new green jobs, with three billion left over to begin to repay our huge debt to the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Harry Belafonte reminded us that voting is hugely important. But voting alone is never enough. “Let us vote on November 2nd,” Belafonte called out to 100,000 people, “for jobs, for jobs, for jobs, for peace, for justice, for human rights, for our children and the future of America. And let us put an end to war. Peace is necessary. For justice, it is necessary. For hope, it is necessary. For our future.”
Phyllis Bennis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Phyllis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. She is co-author of Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan: A Primer.