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How The Anti-War Movement Lost The Peace

by Gary Gordon
by Gary Gordon, 3/31/07
(A shorter version of this was published in the L.A. Free Press)

     The emails these days include many writers and activists who've concluded the reason for the current Congressional debate about setting a deadline to withdraw from Iraq is that the anti-war demonstrations have been effective.
     And the readers of this piece may agree with that conclusion.
     But should they?
     It is not cynical to point out that a huge additional pot of money to support the war was just agreed to by the Senate and the House, and that the language concerning withdrawal still lives in that gray area within the new instrument of government, the non-binding resolution.
     Let's turn back a few pages to Oct. 10 and 11, 2002, when both the Senate and House passed a binding resolution: the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution. On October 10, 133 members of the US House of Representatives voted against that resolution, losing to the 296 who supported it. The next day, 23 Senators voted against the resolution, defeated by the 77 who supported it.
     Put another way, almost a quarter of the Senate and over a quarter of the House voted against the war. This was a significant improvement over the vote that took place in 1964 when Johnson wanted to pursue his war in Vietnam. Then, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution garnered unanimous support in the House and only two Senators voted against it.
     What does this mean? In part, it means that in 2002 the peace movement, the anti-war movement was already in the Senate and House, not solely in the streets.
     What has happened since 2002? Books have already been written that describe the calamity that the Iraq war quickly became. Everyone but the beneficiaries of government no-bid contracts has lost: lost lives, relatives, friends, homes, cities, funding, business, rights, freedoms, opportunities—the losses here and there are too great to calculate.
     We all know the mainstream press was complicit. All of us can go to and learn how many schools or hospitals could've been built for what has been spent on bombs, guns, ammo, armor, camo and MREs—a comparison that rarely makes it into mainstream press analysis. And all of us have seen the 10- to 30-second clips of anti-war demonstrations on mainstream TV "news".
     Yet we all know what has been going on, whether through the internet, or various shows on C-SPAN (and BookTV); Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and Keith Olbermann; or thru the documentaries by Robert Greenwald and others, or by hearing speakers at community meetings and universities, or by reading the now numerous books.
     And we all know that, except for the price of gas, which may or may not be a by-product of the war, that the war has actually not impacted us very much, other than to offend our sensibilities, to outrage us, to cause us to walk through city blocks chanting, or in the words of my comrade, to "shout at buildings".
     The irony and shame that must be reckoned with at the moment—well, there are many ironies and many shames, but I'll start with this one: as the protestors march, many of them are either recalling their anti-war demonstration activities during the Vietnam War, or, if they're not old enough, then they're thinking, vicariously, that this is what was done and what ended the Vietnam War.
     There are many things that contributed to the end of the Vietnam War, and I submit that decreasing numbers of anti-war demonstrators was not one of them. During that war the opposition increased and the number of demonstrators increased. To draw five or six thousand people in a city the size of Los Angeles would've been thought of as pathetic. And it is pathetic.
     But it is not pathetic because so few people show up to the almost monthly ANSWER "Coalition" demos. It is pathetic because the anti-war movement, such as it is, has been reduced to thinking that marching through a few city blocks and shouting at buildings is actually the way to end the war. It is pathetic because otherwise rational and well-intentioned people actually think that standing on a curb or traffic circle in a clump of three or four or even ten and holding signs saying "End the War" is what has worked in the past and is working now.
     But even though the numbers of those who opposed the Vietnam War visibly increased as the war continued, it was not only the number that was significant. It was the behavior. It doesn't take much memory or research to recall or learn that most of those demonstrations represented a threat to the powers that were. Why? Because at the edge of those primarily peaceful marches lived those who were engaged in making the society ungovernable.
     There are two ways for the people to end a war: they must either make the society ungovernable, or they must change the make-up of those in power.
     Since 2002 the anti-war movement has done neither.
     So what do we have? We have an anti-war movement that won't take the action necessary to be effective and instead hopes that its' meager actions will cause those in power to shake in fear.
     Does anyone actually believe that Bush, Rove, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, or any of the other instigators and perpetrators of this war and any of the back-channel beneficiaries of the no-bid contracts has, for even one moment, been shaken by any of the demonstrations? Johnson was shaken in '67 and '68; Nixon was shaken for most of his occupation of the White House. Just read the books, read the transcripts, listen to the tapes: they thought the society was on the verge of collapse or revolution or anarchy. And if you take the time to remember or do the research, you'll see why someone who grew up in WWII and began their political career in the "Leave It To Beaver" '50s might've thought so. Demonstrators were demanding, unruly, uppity, troublesome, clever, unpredictable, fearless, lawbreaking and—here's the punchline: dangerous.
     Contrast that to the narrowly scripted ANSWER "Coalition" fundraising events that pass for demonstrations these days. First, the power structure is paid a fee for a permit so the march can occur. It's remindful of the line in Oliver Twist when the starving youth holds out his empty bowl and pleads: "Please sir, can I have some more food?"
     Second, the "coalition" (in L.A., really an elite, top-down, exclusionary organization) lines up speakers. Is the first or second speaker or the majority of speakers from either the Green or Peace & Freedom Party, the two anti-war parties on the ballot? Does the "coalition" support these parties by providing a platform for genuine electoral action? No. Instead there is the usual rhetoric that passes for analysis, most of which has been heard before by the marchers, who are already in agreement with most of the speakers, punctuated with various chants like "Dump Bush" and "Stop the War Machine" or "End Imperialism" as if chanting makes it so. (Did the people who responded to King, Gandhi, Malcolm etc. merely chant?)
     Third, any organization wanting to set up an information table has to pay the "coalition", thus begging the question, what happened to free speech? The "coalition" insists it must be paid because these demos cost money. (I've heard the figure $20,000.)
     So let's recap: a demonstration that must be bought from the power structure and has no possible chance of throwing any fear into the power structure and that does not give an ample and abundant platform to support the electoral alternatives to the power structure is what passes for an anti-war movement.
     That is pathetic.
     And what of resistance, the step beyond demonstration?
     During the Vietnam War there was actual resistance. Draft evasion. Draft-card burning. Peaceful civil disobedience and a variety of other activities that did not please the law and order crowd who elected Nixon to "bring us together" occurred with varying degrees of impact and alarm. Now resistance, for the most part, takes the form of calling for a national no-shopping day, as if this could possibly have any impact that matters to anyone but those who call for this nonsense. Break it down: if all of us don't buy toothpaste and groceries and gas etc. on a particular day, there's a one hundred percent chance that we'll buy that stuff within the week if not the next day.
     This is going to end the war?
     I realize that of those of you who may still be reading this, many of you may be furious with my thesis, or offended at my willingness to negate many of your activities over the last 5 years.
     And some of you may be getting set to argue that there is forward motion on ending the war, as evidenced by the 2006 mid-term elections.
     So let me ask: how many of you have studied those elections closely, district by district, to discover exactly how many real anti-war candidates were elected? Do not victimize yourself by hearing what you want to believe, reading what you want to believe, concluding what you want to believe. Belief has nothing to do with it. Feelings have nothing to do with it. Ending the war is about facts and acts, not beliefs and feelings. Feeling or believing a particular candidate will do a certain thing is the weakest reason someone can have for supporting a candidate.
     In the California 36th congressional district that includes Venice, California, represented by the wealthy pro-war, pro-patriot act, pro-torture Democrat Jane Harmon, an anti-war Democrat (Marcy Winograd) challenged her in the primary, garnered eighteen thousand votes (37.5%), but lost. The Peace and Freedom Party candidate did substantially worse in the general election (forty-five hundred votes), as most of the anti-war voters who supported Winograd let their anti-war sentiments take a back seat to supporting a Democrat over a Republican.
     How often did this happen?
     Even without doing the research, the evidence is clear: it happened enough so that, along with continuing funding for the war, we now have the possibility of a non-binding resolution that might end the US occupation of Iraq in 2008. Not 2007. 2008. But just the possibility. This is an anti-war Congress?
     The investment of votes and hopes by the anti-war movement in the Democratic Party has yielded mush. The door prize might be that Attorney General Gonzales resigns. Whoopee.
     Meanwhile, the war continues, and although Republican pundits Tony Blankley and Robert Novak write that Bush is in trouble, the people who are really in trouble are those at the terminus of the bombs, and those of us back in the States who would prefer universal health insurance, more schools, more hospitals, fewer prisons, and an end to the war.
     Again, glancing quickly at the past, in 1972 the Democrats actually nominated an anti-war candidate who won 39% of the national vote. Continued investment in the Democrats means one must ask if Hillary or Barack is genuinely against the war. The prognosis is not good. Put another way, the only hope we have to fear is pointless hope.
     The 1972 Democratic Party candidate, Sen. George McGovern, returned to D.C. in December to offer his plan for a withdrawal within six months and a reparations program for Iraq, a plan detailed in the October 2006 Harper's Magazine article and in his book Out of Iraq. Some in the Congress appreciated and supported his plan, but most Democrats, along with the Republicans, ignored him. Had this Congress been truly anti-war, the plan would’ve been adopted in January and the war would be over in three months.
     The sad truth is that in all likelihood the anti-war movement will not end this war. Eventually the mainstream politicians at various levels of government will become so strapped for cash that they will insist the war be ended. The part of the power structure that wasn't cut in on the Haliburton/KGR skim will declare that stability is better than instability and further involvement in the war will create too much destabilization. The funding of the war itself will make the country ungovernable because it will tie up too much money.
     The exception to this sad truth would be if the anti-war movement participates in making the society ungovernable faster than the money drain makes it ungovernable.
     Meanwhile, there is the big picture, the long run. What can be done to prevent future wars like this? This is the relevance of the two anti-war parties in California: the Greens and the Peace & Freedom Party. I don't think anyone in either of these parties is under the illusion that they will win significant power in the foreseeable future to change the paradigm, retract the empire, and get back to the job of creating a just society. The people in these parties are engaged not in making the society ungovernable, but in the other option: electoral power. True, many of these activists have chosen to victimize themselves by being distracted into practicing the pointless tactic of demonstrations and shouting at buildings. The hope is that they will return to their actual purpose: they are political parties, their job is not to plead with and try to influence those in power, their job is to gain power.
     At this point I have either convinced some of you, or failed. Some of you will still insist that demonstrations have a place, and I would agree with you under certain conditions. Spontaneous demonstrations are effective. Demonstrations that contain an unexpected turnout, like the immigration demonstrations last year, or unexpected fervor, fury, militancy, and organization, like the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle several years ago, were very effective, in part because they reflected power and in part because they were threatening to those in power. But the success or failure of a demonstration ultimately has to be measured in whether or not in genuinely forwards the agenda and that means: does it lead to gaining power?
     When Bush was re-selected in 2004, I suggested the following plan: 1) cease all demonstrations, 2) put all energy that was going into demonstrations into working door-to-door, neighborhood-to-neighborhood, to build as large and organized constituency as possible, 3) return to demonstrations only after number two had been worked for at least a year if not two years, and 4) when returning to demonstrations, do not get permits. Along with this, people would choose whether they would prefer to contribute to making the society ungovernable, or work in the electoral realm as offered the Peace & Freedom Party and the Greens. Further, all demonstrations would be geared to one tactic or the other, and not to endless rhetorical speeches.
     Obviously, this did not occur. But it's not too late to adopt the strategy.
     To those of you who disagree with this thinking, I would urge you to study the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 60s, study the make-up of the current and prospective Congress, and think about the best use of your time. Demonstrations then were qualitatively different, a tactic that offered and secured results, and I submit that having house parties, inviting friends, neighbors and co-workers, educating them with documentaries and discussions, and urging them to get involved in the same way with their friends, neighbors and co-workers will yield more anti-war volunteers than endless ANSWER "Coalition" marches ever will, and that those volunteers, if they're wise, will reflect the kind of power that ultimately shakes the power structure.
     To those of you who agree with what I've written here, please register Peace & Freedom or Green (one is Socialist, the other isn't; both are anti-war). If you're already registered then it's time for you to consider being on a steering committee or central committee, or running for office.
     In this way, eventually, the anti-war movement can win the peace.



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