Ending the War, Organizing for Change


Tom Hayden’ has credentials when it comes to movements opposing war and racism. From the early days of the original SDS to the Chicago 8, his Berkeley days with the Red Family collective to his time in the California legislature and today, his approaches have included confrontation, mass rallies and lobbying. Likewise, his theoretical takes have gone from ending a particular war to revolution to reform. Hayden utilizes this experience quite wisely in his new book Ending the War in Iraq, at least to a point.

He opens the book with a discussion of the history of the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s, detailing its growth and setbacks. Taking into account the particular elements of that period in history, Hayden acknowledges the role the counterculture played in the opposition to that war, while rightly stating that the military draft was also important to the movement’s growth. From there, he moves into a brief history of US involvement in Iraq, including Washington’s support of Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of his rise to power and during the war between Iraq and Iran during the 1980s.

As his discussion shifts to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the rise of the insurgency, Hayden provides brief analyses of the various phenomena on the Iraqi ground and in its political minefield. Simultaneously, Hayden points to the failure of the warmakers to anticipate the insurgency and the arrogance of its postwar assumptions. It is here where Hayden stumbles. Like many antiwar progressives, Hayden tends to lay way too much blame for the post-invasion failures on the neoconservative elements of the Washington power structure. This analysis ignores the role played by the Democratic liberals in their acceptance of the lies used by the White House to justify the war. Furthermore, it tacitly accepts the idea that the war will end when the neocons are driven from power.

While Hayden is not as simplistic in his apparent belief in this scenario as many other antiwar “leaders,” the fact that he places as much blame on the neocons without an equally angry attack on the liberal elites’ votes for the war and its subsequent expansion make it clear that Hayden’s sympathies lie with those in the movement who believe the best way to end the war is to pressure the Democrats. This is despite the recent surrender by the Democrats in Congress regarding the war funding measure passed in May 2007. Behind these sympathies lies a belief that the power of US is inevitable and permanent and can only be manipulated but not overturned. It is this lesson that Hayden seems to have drawn from his years in the political ring. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in the necessity of a mass movement; it’s that he thinks the primary role of that mass movement should be to pressure the politicians into changing their allegiances. Once again, the most recent example of this strategy’s shortcomings is the recent votes in Congress that ultimately gave the White House and the Pentagon exactly what they wanted in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet, there are many positive elements present in this book. Hayden makes some important and useful connections between the way US power perceives those that it fears–from the Islamist driven forces in Afghanistan to the young urban Black males in its cities to popular forces against global capitalism. Because Washington fears those it can not control, it brutalizes them, locks them up and kills them. Hayden discusses how these forces are portrayed as evil by the power elites media and are, therefore, without conscience. Because they are “evil,” they deserve no quarter. Hence, Guantanamo and the supermax prisons of the United States.

A section of Hayden’s book is dedicated towards organizing tactics–all of which are useful despite their brevity. If the reader wants to explore the tactics and strategies of organizing in more detail, however, let me recommend Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups That Can Solve Problems and Change the World by veteran organizer Michael Brown. This text is reminiscent of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and could play as important a role in the future as Alinsky’s text did for organizers in the 1970s.

Going well beyond Hayden’s brief but useful suggestions on organizing against the war in one’s community, Brown’s book is a veritable step-by-step guide to creating and maintaining a viable and effective grassroots organization. He intersperses anecdotes of various organizing successes and failures with straightforward instructions and practical exercises to make an indispensable addition to any serious organizer’s bookshelf. Whether a group’s goal is to organize against public transit fare hikes, getting a stoplight at a dangerous intersection or building a large antiwar coalition, the strategies discussed in Brown’s book will have something to offer.

Nowadays, with so much communications technology available, many organizations tend to assume that mass emails and a website can replace one-on-one conversations and other person-to-person contacts. While the internet and text messaging are certainly important tools for notifications and tactical decisions during actions, especially for those already in a particular organization, they tend to be pretty ineffective for recruiting new members and inviting the public to meetings. Building Powerful Community Organizations points out the necessity of personal contact over and over. In addition, Brown makes note of the important role that providing services to the community can make. While reading this section, I was reminded of the Black Panthers free breakfast and community schools program. It was through this type of outreach that the Panthers were able to become a cherished part of the communities they organized in. Another example of this from another part of the world is the social services provided by Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. According to most observers it was the services Hamas provides that furthered their integration into the community, not their armed tactics. Another less controversial example of the role services can play in developing support for an organization is the counseling and other psychological services provided to US veterans of the war in Vietnam by the antiwar group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Brown, of course, has not written a manual on revolution here. The fact that I chose these examples is only to prove the universality of his methods. Most of us who read and utilize Brown’s text will find ourselves involved in considerably more local endeavors. Yet, it is such local endeavors that can ultimately become something much greater. Indeed, not only can they become greater, it seems to me essential that they do.

He also discusses the need and role of actions. Most telling, Brown tells the reader that an effective action will create tension and that it is tension that creates change. To hearken back to Tom Hayden and the movement against the war in Iraq, it is the very lack of tension created by the major antiwar mobilizations that has allowed those with the power to turn off the flow of money to kill and destroy in Iraq to continue funding the war. This ineffectiveness tells us that we must go beyond the recitation of facts regarding the war’s costs on every US resident (not to mention the Iraqis) and make those costs obvious.

Most importantly, Brown makes it clear that in order to organize effectively, people must see things as they are and work from there. Furthermore, he points out that there can be no success without organization and that an organization must be effectively organized in order to be successful. The current discussions by various national antiwar organizations regarding more effective strategies must hear from the grassroots. They’ve listened to their leadership councils and the politicians for way too long. In fact, the grassroots must show the way. The time to raise the level of tension is now. The ways to do it are many and Mr. Brown’s text makes them easily accessible for us all.

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: rjacobs3625@charter.net




Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com