The Anti-War Movement’s Election Year Challenge

As the media focus on questions of judgment, and politicians debate the finer points of how to “win the peace” in Iraq, the horror that continues to unfold in Iraq remains muted in US society. NBC’s “Fear Factor” is more explicitly gruesome than the day-to-day coverage of a real live war. It is reality TV without the reality, as if Iraqi children don’t bleed and scream when they die, as if American soldiers do not have coffins and their families don’t hold funerals.

But in fact, during the span of just 4 days last week, 110 people died and over 300 were injured in Baghdad alone, according to Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi. He wrote recently, “The numbers [of Iraqi dead] are so shocking that the ministry of health — which was attempting an exercise of public transparency by releasing the numbers — has now stopped disclosing them.”

So add to the fog of war, the opaque filter of election year politics. Not that during other times we are told and shown the truth, but it is striking that as the crisis in Iraq intensifies to its highest pitch since “Mission Accomplished,” and the candidates are forced to at least discuss the issue, the anti-war movement is quiet.

No doubt there are important, courageous exceptions to this state of affairs. A rally by veterans and military families in Bush’s so-called hometown in Texas; a memorial procession from Arlington Cemetery to the Pentagon, to name a few. There are also rallies in which Iraq will rightly be part of a set of progressive demands such as the Million Worker March and rallies planned by local coalitions outside the Presidential debates. But it would be dishonest to say that the bulk of the groups who make up the national anti-war movement have their eyes glued to events in Iraq and Palestine, not to mention Afghanistan. Instead, the efforts of most individuals and officially non-partisan organizations are focused on getting Bush out of office. These efforts may be couched in the form of “voter education” or “preventing voter fraud,” but if we can step outside the confines of 501(c)3 status for a moment and speak candidly, the majority of the movement believes that defeating Bush is our central priority this fall.

People on the left who object to the politics of supporting the Democratic Party often reach back into history in an attempt to convince others why it is that voting for the lesser evil only demobilizes movements and moves the political spectrum to the right, making it more difficult to build effective progressive movements in the US. But this year it is happening right now, right in front of us. Certainly there are other issues facing the movement. There are questions about the political nature of the Iraqi resistance which cause people who may in theory agree with an occupied people’s right to self-defense to pause or lose enthusiasm in the face of the concrete reality of a politically heterogeneous resistance movement. This of course makes more difficult answering the central question of “won’t there be chaos and the possibility of an Islamist government” if we pull the troops out now. But those are issues for further discussion elsewhere.

Central to the current low profile of the anti-war movement is the belief that ending the occupation of Iraq under Kerry would be an easier task. The effect has been building for months. Where is the urgency in building a movement if the most effective place to exert power is at the ballot box in November? The deafening silence after the torture at Abu Ghraib was the first sign. Then came the decision by most to forgo protesting the Democratic Convention, strewn as it was with generals and war cries, and instead to focus on the Republican National Convention. No doubt the 1/2 million-person march at the RNC was spectacular, and should indeed have been a central focus. But even there, the decision to simply unite behind the slogan, “We Say No to the Bush Agenda,” and issue no informational leaflets, put forward no demands, and print no new anti-war signs aside from ones that read “We Say No to the Bush Agenda,” muted its political impact.

Now, as the election nears, the central effort of groups around the country is getting out the vote and “voter education,” with activists being shipped off to “swing states” to “talk about the issues.” Without endangering anyone’s non-profit status, a candid look at the actual priorities reveals a fall focused on stumping for Kerry. After a month of the highest death rates since the siege of Falluja in April, when US generals are admitting they have lost control of large sections of the country, and when injury rates for US soldiers are up to 30-35 per day on average, anti-war forces in the US are hitting the streets to elect a candidate who promises to “lead the troops to victory” in Iraq.

Last week’s debate is being hailed by some as proof of Kerry’s right to claim the anti-war vote. But a closer examination says just the opposite. To be sure, the candidates said different things and even proposed different strategies for dealing with Iraq (as well as a variety of other countries now simply assumed to be “the enemy”). But the difference was one of how best to fight and win, not whether or not the US military should be deployed to defend so-called “American interests” around the world.

On Iraq, Kerry argued, “What I want to do is to change the dynamics on the ground. And you have to do that by beginning to not back off Fallujas and other places and send the wrong message to the terrorists.” He finished up by looking straight into the camera and telling us, “I,m not talking about leaving. I,m talking about winning.” Only the experts of Spin Alley could make us think that it would be easier to end the occupation under this man. And for all the seductive talk of working with others, rebuilding alliances and regaining credibility, Kerry’s speech at New York University a week earlier laid out most plainly what this will mean. He argued that Bush “should give other countries a stake in Iraq’s future by encouraging them to help develop Iraq’s oil resources and by letting them bid on contracts instead of locking them out of the reconstruction process.” In this scenario, the lucky people of Iraq will be helped by shifting from a US-dominated theft, to one where other rich countries will divide the spoils with the US.

What was even more frightening was Kerry’s plan for the War on Terror. He wants to “finish the job” in Iraq so he can focus on the real problem. He began by telling us, “I have a better plan to be able to fight the war on terror by strengthening our military, strengthening our intelligence” and “I will hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever they are.” Kerry wants us to focus again on Afghanistan, sounding eerily like the Vietnam revisionists, as he claims that Bush didn’t fight the war well enough, with enough US troops, enough bombs, and enough Special Forces. While the war in Afghanistan may have more support in the US than the war in Iraq, surely it is the responsibility of the anti-war movement, which burst onto the scene as Bush targeted the Taliban, to oppose this intervention as steadfastly as the one in Iraq, and see as its task explaining the reality of the US slaughter in Afghanistan to people in the US who find themselves under the influence of Fox News and CNN’s relentless propaganda campaign.

But Kerry did not stop with Afghanistan. He argued for his plan to add “two active-duty divisions to the US Army, not for Iraq but for our general demands across the globe.” He even floated the idea of the use of military troop deployment and/or pre-emptive strikes aimed at North Korea, Iran and the Sudan. Most in the anti-war movement would agree that it is our job to object to all of these attacks. But this task is made near impossible if we are instead out in the streets trying to convince people to vote for a man who is laying out his own “improved” war plan.

Imagine a different scenario. Imagine if, instead of comparing Get Out the Vote for Kerry bus trips to “today’s version of the Civil Rights Movement’s Freedom Rides,” the anti-war movement was busy exposing the complete and utter failure of the occupation in Iraq. Imagine if we held press conferences directly after each debate to deplore the complete invisibility of the occupation of Palestine and the absurdity of a “debate” between two men who both want to strengthen the occupation until complete victory and domination.

Imagine if we were “educating voters” that neither of the candidates will bring the troops home, and that only by building a movement at home and in the armed services will we ever succeed. Imagine if, led by military families and veterans, we did real Freedom Rides to Kerry and Bush’s campaign headquarters, to demand freedom for people in Iraq. Imagine if we sat-in on the media headquarters until they showed pictures of injured US soldiers in Germany. Imagine if we dropped banners around the country that took up the latest slogan from Not In Our Name, “We Say No to the Bush Agenda No Matter Who Kerry’s it Out.” And imagine if it weren’t considered heresy to mention that there is an anti-war candidate, but that his name is not John, it’s Ralph.

This is not simply a matter of saying the movement should be doing more that can always be said. It is a matter of what precisely the movement is doing and how the great sucking sound of the Democratic Party is actively demobilizing the anti-war movement. If the movement is busy getting out the vote for a pro-war candidate, we only sow illusions in the idea that Kerry may pull the troops out. It is the job of the anti-war movement to undo those illusions so that if Kerry is elected, there is not yet another lull in the movement as we “give him a chance.” With an Administration that lies pathologically and a Democratic Party that thinks that as long as focus groups agree, it’s not really a lie, it is the responsibility of the anti-war movement to tell the truth.

MEREDITH KOLODNER is an activist in New York City. She can be reached at