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The Withering of the Anti-War Movement

The 15th of Febuary 2003: a Eulogy and Prelude

by KEITH ROSENTHAL

It’s high time that the anti-war movement addresses the 500-pound gorilla standing in the middle of the room. That’s right – I’m talking about the mass movement that collapsed roughly around the 20th of March 2003, in the wake of Bush’s decision to go ahead with the invasion of Iraq.

We all remember the feeling of euphoria on February 15th of that year, when 10 million people worldwide marched against the war on Iraq. Millions took to the streets across America, chanting, blocking traffic, and speaking out. Although we all knew that Bush was determined to have his war, somewhere, in the recesses of our minds, we also held a flicker of hope that maybe—just maybe—we would force him to stand down.

Within two months’ time, the million beams of hope had receded back into the dark alleys of the general feeling of powerlessness we know as “the American political system.”

First, we were barraged with the hypocritical demand: “Support the Troops!” The media, Democratic and Republican politicians alike, and “common-sense,” all chimed in to order anti-war activists to immediately cease and desist, for the very lives of American soldiers were at stake!

Next, as soon as the invasion had turned into occupation, we were told by the same foregoing echo chambers that we again had to cease and desist all anti-war activity, but this time for the sake of the Iraqis themselves. For if the US were to just pull out of Iraq, the argument went, we would most certainly leave Iraq a much worse place than when we found it. This turned into a variation of the ‘you break it, you own it’ mantra.

Finally, we were told that the US must stay in Iraq for the next 5 to 10 years to continue fighting “foreign terrorists,” “insurgents,” and “former Ba’athist loyalists.” All pretenses of ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction or of securing revenge for the attacks of September 11th went out the window.

In the end, the sole reason offered by the Bush administration for why the US had to stay in Iraq was (drum roll please) . . . because we were already there (dah-dah)!

The saddest part of this whole charade was not the base superficiality of the Bush administration’s rationalizations, but the fact that the vast majority of anti-war activists bought it, or, at least, sunk into a deep demoralization out of despair that we were unable to stop the war.

The past year has been characterized by an intense hangover for the anti-war movement. This hangover has been made worse by the fact that people have grasped to the Democrat, John Kerry, as the alternative—an alternative, not to Bush, but to our inability to influence policy through mass demonstrations. The “Anybody But Bush” phenomenon is less a referendum on George Bush, and more so on the confidence of the American Left in its ability to affect change through independent, mass action.

This is the reason why there was barely a ripple of protest when the pictures of Iraqis being tortured in Abu Ghraib prison by American soldiers spread across the front-pages of newspapers like wildfire. This is the reason why the anti-occupation movement remains so peripheral in the American public eye despite a recent Gallup poll revealing that 44% of Americans are for an immediate US withdrawal from Iraq.

The fact of the matter is that the anti-war movement has to face up to some tough political realities. First and foremost, we have to come to understand why the anti-war protests failed to stop Bush’s war, lest we draw the hopeless conclusion that mass protests simply don’t work. In the context of the Election 2004, this amounts to the idea that the only way we can have our voices heard is by changing our tune (i.e., voting for a candidate who is for everything that we’re against).

During the Vietnam War era, millions of people all across the country spent years organizing and protesting to stop the slaughter. One Democrat after another betrayed the anti-war movement by escalating the conflict. The anti-war movement was left with but one recourse: up the stakes.

This meant coming to organize on the basis of a political analysis that went deeper than simple opposition to a “mistaken” military venture. It meant coming to see that wars fought by powerful nations against weaker ones was nothing more than imperialism, pure and simple. Imperialism—the logical extension of the “survival-of-the-fittest” capitalist system onto the global market—was no mere policy adopted by this or that administration. Imperialism is something rooted in the economic system under which we live.
The movement had to begin to develop ideas to explain the stubbornness of the government in the face of mass protests. It had to deepen its connections with the armed resistance of the Vietnamese against the US invasion. It had to forge more solid links with the US soldiers becoming increasingly radicalized by the experience of fighting a war to liberate a people who sought liberation from the US.

It was only at this juncture that the American public eye began to turn wearily towards the anti-war movement, seeing it not as a blight but as a haggard sage. It was only at this juncture, when the movement began to pass beyond the bounds within which it had previously defined itself—that is, when it passed from an anti-war to a potentially revolutionary movement—that the rulers began to listen . . . and take heed.

We are currently at the very beginning of this process. The movement that failed to stop Bush’s war was politically unequipped to deal with the question of occupation; the question of the Iraqi resistance; the question of democracy under capitalism. It may not come to develop an understanding of these central issues for some time.

Meanwhile, the dynamic of the occupation and the indemnity it is incurring domestically, are playing out in an interesting manner. New forces are beginning to emerge in active opposition to the occupation—forces a thousand times stronger and more resolute than those comprising the February 15th demonstration. The February 15th movement was planning all along to disappear within a year—either as a result of stopping the war, or as a result of not stopping the war.

The new movement, however, is being spear-headed by military families opposed to the occupation; by soldiers themselves returning from Iraq; by Palestinians connecting the occupation of their land with that of the Iraqis’; and by the remnants of the anti-war movement of yester-year who have drawn the conclusion that the only weakness of the February 15th protests was that they didn’t go far enough—politically or organizationally.

Such forces will not easily be diverted from their course. In fact, their cause can only grow in active support as the Iraqi resistance develops apace, as the US continues to lose more soldiers in the years to come, and as the occupation waxes more and more brutal as the US attempts to “pacify” a population refusing in larger and larger numbers to be accomplices in their own oppression.

Moreover, whatever the outcome of the election in November, it can be nothing more than a school in the futility of advancing social causes through a “changing of the guard.” If Bush wins, people will once again be forced to look for alternatives to the electoral arena in which to make their voices heard. If Kerry wins, he will add 40,000 more troops to the occupation, and people will in due course have to once again discover the importance of independent, mass organizing as the only vehicle for social change.
None of this is to preach inevitability. The dynamics playing out in Iraq—and their domestic consequences—can merely render the conditions around us ripe for the re-emergence of mass struggle. Moreover, this struggle has the potential to emerge on a much more solid political footing than it had before it last disappeared.
The key link in this chain of events is the extent to which all of the above lessons are learned, transmitted, and integrated into the very consciousness of any future mass movement. This will primarily be done by developing organizational links between the various forces emerging around us in opposition to the occupation, but more importantly, in carrying out a series of political discussions with these forces and all others around us who are not yet active.

We have to develop a lesser or greater degree of political continuity between the coming movement and the last. We have to ensure that, although we may go through the same motions in rebuilding a protest movement, we are actually not reinventing the wheel. We must ensure that we come to the tool-bench this time with a more refined dexterity and a clearer blueprint. Finally, we must make sure that our toolkit is stocked with the best equipment: anti-imperialism, a history of social struggle, and a sober assessment of our own strengths and weaknesses. These crucial tools must be forged through the process of political debate, discussion, and argumentation.

This is the single-most important task that we will face over the next year.

KEITH ROSENTHAL is active with the International Socialist Organization in Burlington, VT.  He can be reached at keithmr81@yahoo.com