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Movement Blues

Not a day too soon the antiwar movement has begun a desperately needed discussion.

As a movement we are great at activism, deficient when it comes to real organizing, and damn near devoid of long range, strategic thinking and discussion. So congratulations to former Marine Corps Major, Scott Ritter, for writing “The Art of War for the Antiwar Movement,” provoking us to stop and think for a minute, and to Cindy Sheehan, Max Obuszewski and others for responding. Here are a few more thoughts I hope will add to our collective wisdom.

First, we needn’t fear appeals for more discipline, nor references to strategic geniuses of any stripe – military or pacifist. Dismissing useful methods because of their source is like spurning modern P.R. techniques to promote peace because Procter and Gamble Corp. uses them to sell toothpaste and deodorant.

One of the intellects Ritter mentions is Sun Tzu, whose “Art of War” should not be dismissed because of its title. It contains such gems as:

* “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

* “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.”

* “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

The last is particularly relevant to today’s antiwar movement. If anybody out there knows what our strategy is, please report to the public address system at once. On the other hand, tactics, like our activism, we do ‘round the clock, and re-do, and do more next time, and try again, and…all of which is to say, dear colleagues, that this may indeed keep us busy but A) it is not organizing, and B) even organizing is not effective without a coherent strategy.

In an email to peace activists around the country, Max Obuszewski, of the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, refutes Ritter’s comment that the antiwar movement “is not just losing, but is in fact on the verge of complete collapse,” by citing more than 600 actions around the country last month, commemorating three years of war.

Cindy Sheehan responded to Ritter that “The anti-war movement is not on the ‘verge of collapse’ because we are not organized, or because we don’t take a ‘warriors’ view of attacking the neocons and the war machine…but because the two-thirds of Americans who philosophically agree that the war is wrong…will not get off of their collective, complacent, and comfortable behinds to demonstrate their dissent with our government.”

I’m encouraged to hear there were over 600 actions around the country marking the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, (even though Max’s use of the word “commemorating” says a lot about how we view our role in this struggle). And who among us has not felt Cindy’s frustration with a system that successfully keeps millions of our fellow citizens sitting on their complacent butts, even when they tell pollsters they are against this criminal war?

But even if the antiwar movement organizes 1200 actions “commemorating” the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq next year, that is not enough. Neither is it enough if we succeed in getting millions of our fellow citizens off their backsides to do something.

“Well, that’s easy enough for you to say, Mr. Smartypants,” I can see already in my inbox, and you’d be right – it certainly is easier said than done. Because what we really need to do is:

* Reevaluate and embolden our tactics. For example, why are we content to have 500,000 people march in the streets of Washington on a Saturday (last September 24), but wait until everyone’s gone home the next Monday for a polite, orchestrated civil disobedience action? If only 10% of that half-million wanted to sit down on Pennsylvania Avenue and stay for as long as it takes to dislodge the criminals, shouldn’t that be part of our plans?

* Reevaluate our long term goals. For example, ask ourselves if we’re content to be an antiwar movement – meaning that our opponents define our existence and purpose. When the agents of empire decide it’s time to march the nation off to war once again, the antiwar movement reassembles activists from a hundred different fronts, throws itself into the fray, and works against the government’s well-oiled killing machine until we are exhausted. Do we ever ask ourselves, as Scott Ritter does, if we want to be more than “a walk-on squad of high school football players…taking on the NFL Super Bowl Champions,” or, as I painfully observed recently in Washington, a brief parade of colorful banners and heartfelt slogans passing an empty White House?

* Reevaluate A) the source of our opponents’ power and B) how to neutralize it so the narrow elite is not always turning our own government against us; so we can redirect U.S. policy to serve the many.

As for bolder tactics, the leadership of many antiwar groups will respond 1) we can’t risk upping the ante because grandparents from Duluth (my apologies, Duluthians) will not participate in civil disobedience, and 2) tradition dictates we cooperate with the police in our own arrests. Regarding #1, I lay odds that people in this movement have more gumption than its leaders. As to #2, I admit I’m not an adequate student of civil disobedience theory, but I can tell when our actions are not commensurate with the misery our government is causing, and they are not.

As for long term goals, we can work our way towards them by not just demanding “troops out now,” but bases out now; paying billions for repairing the physical damage we’ve caused and not funneled through U.S. corporations; no saddling Iraqis with odious debt left over from Saddam Hussein’s reign; getting the clutches of empire off the rest of the globe.

That last goal, of course, requires we determine the source of our opponents’ power and how to neutralize it. I would hardly be the first to suggest that our opponents – those agents of empire in corporations and government – create political power by concentrating economic power, and that the time-tested mechanism for doing so is the corporation. I do, however, suggest there is a more helpful approach to analyzing the problem and determining what to do about it than what we typically do – which, with all respect, rarely goes beyond trying to elect more Democrats, or writing your Congressperson, or petitioning for impeachment, or even protesting and getting arrested.

To get a flavor for what I’m talking about, consider the modern environmental movement or the most recent inspiration, the greatly energized immigrant rights movement.

Environmentalists have become experts at fighting on corporate terrain (regulatory hearings) to reduce the crap in our air and water by a few parts per million, or maybe even stopping a toxic waste dump or a nuclear power plant, one at a time, until we are exhausted. We call that success. But the corporate form continues to gain legal rights and economic and political power, because long ago we surrendered the fight over democratic control of energy and transportation companies, settling instead for regulating them around the edges – a most Faustian bargain. If we want to control energy and transportation policies; if we want to address the root causes of pollution; if we want to treat the disease and not just the symptom we have to reengage the struggle of who’s in charge, not just petition for a little less poison.

Similarly, the immigrant rights movement, regardless of its current energy and numbers, must reduce the political power of corporations profiting from today’s immigration policies, not just change a few clauses in immigration legislation or elect a few promising politicians.

How are we to redirect sufficient time and energy to this more fundamental work, knowing that the individual fires we fight will rage out of control any moment? By learning how to simultaneously fight fires and do fire prevention; by taking this historic opportunity to evolve the antiwar movement into a democracy movement.

It won’t be easy, but it will be necessary if we want to do more than postpone the next war or end the suffering of the current war a few weeks sooner; if we want to actually build peace. We need the discipline to understand that reacting against injustice is fighting fires; that fire prevention requires relearning our histories to find out how and where power is vested; how peoples’ movements dealt with these same problems generations ago; why we have to strip corporations of rights they’ve usurped so we can exercise democracy’s power to make fundamental change; how to change our organizing to focus on fundamental goals.

Scott Ritter prophetically writes that “America is pre-programmed for war, and unless the anti-war movement dramatically changes the manner in which it conducts its struggle, America will become a nation of war, for war, and defined by war, and as such a nation that will ultimately be consumed by war.”

In more painfully personal terms, Cindy Sheehan writes, “Looking back on my life up until Casey was killed in Iraq, on 04/04/04, I have tried to analyze over and over again what went wrong. I knew that our leaders were bought and paid for employees of the war machine, and yet, when Casey came of age, he put on the uniform and marched off to another senseless war to bring his employers that rich reward of money and power. The warning for American mothers and fathers is this: the war machine will get your children, if not now, then your grandchildren. It is a hard and steep price to pay for the certain knowledge that the people in power think of us, not as their employers and electorate whom they swear to serve, but as their tools to be used as cannon fodder whenever the impulse strikes them.”

If we want Scott and Cindy’s words to be more than an intellectually stimulating, forgettable bit in our inbox, we have to learn how to transform the antiwar movement into a democracy movement. Our reward will be that we can finally move beyond opposing one war after another to build the kind of peaceful, just world we deserve…and the planet is waiting for us to create.

MIKE FERNER works these ideas with the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD) and anyone who cares to respond. He is a freelance writer and a member of Veterans For Peace. He can be reached at:





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Mike Ferner is a writer from Ohio and former president of Veterans For Peace.  You can reach him at

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