The Anti-War Movement Seven Years After Shock and Awe

The Cost of WarThe war in Iraq is still on. It’s already the second most expensive war in US history–only WWII cost more.

The war in Afghanistan is heating up. It’s now the second longest war in US history–only Vietnam lasted longer.

So what the hell happened to the anti-war movement? Today, the movement that turned out millions around the world to try and stave off the invasion of Iraq, that created the conditions for Barack Obama’s history-making electoral victory, is nearly invisible and in disarray.

How Come?

We can stipulate a few causes everybody will agree on.

  • Mainstream media coverage of the wars has been criminal.

Pop quiz: How many US troops are still in Iraq? (Answer: 100,000, and that’s not counting an equal number of “contractors,” i.e. mercenaries and logistics people our tax dollars are paying for.)

In some cases we’re better off when they don’t cover it. Take the Battle of Marja in Afghanistan. After breathless news reports quoting Pentagon spokespeople about a week-long offensive against the Taliban for control of this key city of 80,000, the place turned out to be a rural crossroads with more goats than people.

  • The military has become very good at holding down casualty figures among US troops. In Iraq, they are hunkered down in bases and avoid combat, while the escalation in Afghanistan is just now starting to produce a new spike in US casualties. But people in this country have an unfortunate tendency to care only about “our” deaths, even as the super-expensive remote-controlled drone aircraft blow up schools and kill non-combatants in Afghanistan. (This, we are told, is okay, because the military wasn’t actually trying to kill those kids.)
  • Of course there is the ongoing economic meltdown which has become the principal focus for tens of millions of ordinary people looking fruitlessly for those green shoots of growth that the politicians and TV talking heads keep promoting. Activists, too, have been scuffling for their own survival and struggling to organize their coworkers and communities to fight cutbacks.

Behind The Obvious
Iraq War Demonstration

“Each red flag represents at least 5 Americans. Each white flag represents at least 5 Iraqis. Killed as a result of the 2003 invasion in Iraq.”

There is another big-picture reason for the sorry state of the anti-war movement that is not easy to come to grips with. We have to face it: the 2008 election campaign and the Obama presidency are the biggest things that have taken the wind out of the anti-war movement’s sails.

From 2003-2008, a substantial and growing mass of class forces and social movements formed an objective bloc to the left of the Bush/Cheney administration. It was a broad united front consisting of sections and strata of the people including trade union members, environmentalists, educators, civil libertarians, college students, women’s groups, African Americans, immigrants, veterans, etc.

The bloc was dominated by large, reform-minded, generally liberal organizations and coalitions whose leaders realized that there was no gain in kowtowing to the Bushies to try and get their programs passed. Still, it was more than a brief alliance of convenience, and was manifested in the deep visceral loathing for Bush/Cheney among the masses.

The lead unifying issue for this united front became the war in Iraq. For one thing, none of the forces in the bloc was strong enough to impose its program on the others: the unions weren’t going to mobilize around reproductive rights nor the environmentalists around card check. More important, the war was, objectively, the principal contradiction facing the people of the US (and the world) and by early 2005 or so, popular rejection of the war had made it a very prominent vulnerable spot for the administration.

In fact, it can be said that it was the anti-war movement that elected Barack Obama. His Democratic rivals, Clinton and Edwards, had not spoken out during the buildup to the Iraq invasion, while Obama had. He became, by default, the anti-war candidate. And once the primaries were over and John McCain predicted that the US occupation of Iraq might continue for 50 or even 100 years, he was toast, even before the economy went belly-up.

By mid-2008, the united front was largely incorporated into the Democratic Party campaign. With Obama’s election, the main organized groupings from that bloc became part of the establishment, and they did so on terms dictated by the White House. What was once an objective bloc is now an array of interest groups, each pursuing its own agenda, and each tending to regard others as rivals for (increasingly shrinking) resources and positioning to “affect affairs of state.”  

None of these groups was about to put the war at the center of their agenda, especially when confronted with the catastrophic and ongoing collapse of the economic boom. Even when Obama announced two big troop escalations in Afghanistan in his first year in office and showed no sign that a rapid and complete withdrawal from Iraq was in the making, there wasn’t a peep. Quite the opposite, Obama was able to bring anti-war groups into the White House for closed-door meetings before making his announcement.  

We ask: Is there any basis for expecting even a weaker version of a broad united front to coalesce to the left of the Obama administration any time soon, in particular one centered on opposing the wars?

A Hard Look Around

Looking around, the organized anti-war movement found that these developments had downsized it to its hard core: essentially peace people (religious and secular) and the anti-imperialist left.

The long uphill slog of trying to end the occupations now seemed like a task that might never end. As Obama put more troops in harm’s way than had ever been deployed under Bush/Cheney, Congresspeople who had spoken and voted against war funding before were, with a few honorable exceptions, suddenly confused and silent.

More important, hundreds of thousands of everyday people who had participated during the Bush years simply weren’t there any longer. Their organizations weren’t mobilizing them. Individually, some figured the job was done with Obama’s election, or that he deserved a chance to get it done. The economy pulled the attention of many. Others were dismayed at how little their efforts had produced and gave up.

That all had its own suppression effect, disheartening a good part of the hard core of the anti-war movement. That core group, mainly aged forty-five to sixty-five when the war started, is not only tired but nearly a decade older.

We ask: When was the last time you turned out for an anti-war mobilization?

This highlights a final problem facing the anti-war movement. The sheer duration of these occupations has tended to normalize war—with “acceptable” casualty levels—as a regrettable but inevitable fact of life in the US. The first-year college students who were demonstrating against education cuts in California and around the country last month were in 3rd grade when Afghanistan was invaded and occupied, and in 4th when the Iraq war started. They’ve never really known a country not in combat in that region, since during their lifetime “we have always been at war with Eurasia.”

Could the anti-war movement become the equivalent of the nuclear disarmament movement, with a handful of stalwarts still lobbying and holding vigils, still fighting the good fight three generations after it started in the early ’50s?

So What Do We Do?

Shock and AweIf there were some quick and easy way to bring into being a vibrant and growing anti-war movement, it would already be happening. We have our work cut out for us.  

But we must keep on.  As much as the terrain has shifted under our feet and presented us with an even steeper uphill trek, we still have a duty to oppose the crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan that our rulers are committing, with our tax money, in our name.

The folks who marched with us in 2005 and 2006 and 2007 haven’t disappeared. There’s a whole layer of folks who cut their political teeth in the anti-war movement and are now organizers against budget cutbacks and the collapse of our social safety net. We need to reconnect the dots and bring an anti-war analysis and message into the struggles that have motion on the ground now.

One of the most powerful arguments against the wars right now is the astonishing bill for them. It costs $1 million a year to keep a single soldier in Afghanistan. How much does it cost to keep that person in college?  Your city has a $300 million deficit? Simple–just don’t send 300 people to Afghanistan for a year, problem solved.   

We need to build activity at the local level that’s easy for people to engage in and doesn’t require signing on to a whole stew of anti-imperialist statements. We also need to bring our bodies and signs to the marches and vigils against budget cutbacks in our communities, instead of just waiting for people to show up at an anti-war rally. We need to make the connections in our messages; “Heath care Not Warfare” at the rallies on the congressional showdown. “Books Not Bombs” when folks march in defense of public education.  

This isn’t rocket science. We know how to do it. Let’s get going.

Dennis O’Neil is a member of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Organización Socialista del Camino para la Libertad and active in the War Moratorium project. <>

Eric See became active during the first gulf war, he was one of the co-founders of the War Moratorium project and currently works at Peace Action.

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