My politics begin with a fundamental and visceral opposition to war and those who profit from it. I have felt war’s fear hiding in air raid trenches in Peshawar and I have seen its destruction. I have watched as the government of the country I live in wage war after war in my lifetime with no seeming end. Not one of those wars ended up the way we were told it would. I lost a few friends in those wars and their aftermaths. I saw family members who were sent to those wars wrestle with their actions there for years afterward. Indeed, my father wondered about the actions he was involved in in Vietnam up to the end of his days. He never killed anyone directly, but he made decisions that resulted in the deaths of people he never even saw. I won’t speak about the effects of war on my friends and other family members because it’s not my place to do so here.
In October 1969, I attended my first protest against war. I was a fourteen year old high school freshman attending a small Catholic school in the DC suburbs. Some of the nuns who taught at the school had organized a teach-in together with some juniors and seniors at the school. After some speeches for and against the war followed by discussion, some of us followed the antiwar nuns and upper classmen and women to a corner a couple blocks from the school. We joined a small vigil for peace there. The other attendees included college students and some townspeople. We held signs, flashed peace signs, and listened to the names of the US war dead being read. The reaction from the cars driving by was mostly apathetic. Some people called us commies and gave us the finger and some flashed peace signs, but most tried not to look. The protest was part of the first National Moratorium Day that year.
My protesting against the US war on the Vietnamese continued all the way up to the day Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City in May 1975. This included numerous protests in Frankfurt am Main, Germany called by antiwar students and groups there and a couple smaller protests in Manhattan when I lived there for a few months. The latter were smaller because Nixon had removed almost all of the US combat troops from the country and Kissinger had signed a peace agreement. History tells us the war continued for two more years with major US funding and bombardment. As the years went on since my first protest my politics became more radical. I gained an understanding of imperialism and applied that understanding to what I saw in the world. When the Vietnamese finally won in Vietnam, I took a breather.
That breather didn’t last long. By 1977, I was marching with Iranian students in DC against the Shah of Iran. As the revolutionary movement there grew in strength our fears of a US invasion also grew. Fortunately, that didn’t occur, but US meddling in that country helped create a political situation that forced the more secular and socialist elements of the revolution into the background in favor of a socially reactionary government. Meanwhile, Washington was fomenting and encouraging wars in Central America, Afghanistan and between Iraq and Iran. The 1980s were filled with protests and actions against the US involvement in Central America; many of which I helped organize in the Pacific Northwest. Other friends worked in the national arena against them. Meanwhile, the more anti-imperialist among us kept an eye on those other nations, understanding that Washington’s involvement was unlikely to be a positive one. The reactions by the antiwar movement to the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 and its invasion of Panama in 1989 were concerning. Barely anyone protested the blatant abuses of power. I attended a protest in Berkeley of about a thousand people against the Grenada invasion and a protest of fewer than twenty in Olympia, Washington against the invasion of Panama.
The lackluster reaction to those military actions indicated something had changed in the United States. People who I used to think were as antiwar as I was told me those military actions were necessary because the targets were “bad people.” This was the line being touted by the warmongers and its mainstream media in the US. It was a line that trivialized the politics and economics involved and lacked any serious analysis. Instead, it justified murderous attacks on entire nations because those nations’ leaders had upset the regime in Washington by opposing its orders and plans for their nations. In the case of Panama, the targeted leader Noriega had been a one-time ally of Washington, but had recently become more of a nationalist opposed to Washington’s plans for his country. This ‘Noriega scenario” would become a standard trope in the decades to come. In other words, a former client of Washington would be turned into an enemy once they refused to go along with Washington’s plans. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is the prime example of this. Not only was Iraq attacked in 1991 by US military forces, it was attacked again in 2003. Both invasions were brutal, bloody and lopsided as hell in favor of the Pentagon. The 1991 invasion was followed by a decade of sanctions and bombings that caused the death of a half million Iraqi children, not to mention other Iraqis. After the 2003 invasion, an occupation by US forces presided over a civil war that killed thousands (many at the hands of US forces) and destroyed much of the country. As the reader knows, we continue to live with the effects of those invasions.
Naturally, my friends and I were involved in opposing those wars. Fortunately, the movements against both conflicts were the biggest since the movement against the US war in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the politics of the movement were divided between anti-imperialist politics and a politics which, at the least, ignored the imperial nature of the US actions and saw these wars as aberrations instead of policy. In addition, the US media intentionally downplayed and ignored the protests in favor of relentless pro-war propaganda that never seemed to go away. The movement that developed before the 2003 invasion of Iraq was millions strong and international. It remained huge until at least 2007 when the US campaign for president kicked off. By the time the election was held in November 2008, the leadership of one of the major national antiwar groups had become cheerleaders for the Democratic candidate Barack Obama. This transition was not universal among that leadership, but it involved enough of the movement from the leadership down to the rank and file to shrink that movement considerably. Although the movement probably did limit the scope of the war, it did not end it. Indeed, it expanded into other nations in the region and continues to this day, albeit without even close to the number of ground troops, but with plenty of armed drones instead. A similar situation evolved in Afghanistan, which was invaded and occupied after the events known as 9-11. That war remained fairly popular for a few years until those of us in the antiwar movement were able to point out its futility and pointlessness. This took longer than it should have because too many in the movement considered it a just war.
And now, we find ourselves at a potentially new point in history; a point where the antiwar position is barely considered and only cheered when it aligns with US foreign policy. I am referring, of course, to the war between Russia and Ukraine. It makes sense that people are opposed to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. This seems especially true if one was also opposed to the US military actions discussed in this piece. After all, the basic similarities are as obvious as the sun in the sky on an uncloudy day. Likewise, it is heartening to see antiwar protesters in the streets of Russian cities opposing the invasion. However, the fact that this opposition to the invasion has been quickly turned into what looks like support for Ukrainian nationalism replaces the desire for peace with a desire for a Ukrainian military victory no matter the cost. Pasting a Ukrainian flag on one’s car or making it one’s avatar on social media is not a call for a political settlement of this multilayered conflict, but a call for more war. It is not an antiwar statement, but a prowar statement. Acknowledging the Ukrainian and NATO role in provoking this conflict does not mean someone supports the Russian invasion. Likewise, neither does calling for a ceasefire and peace talks suggest that. If the movement against the US war on Iraq had made the Iraqi flag its go-to symbol, how would those we were attempting to reach with our message responded? The short answer is poorly. Championing the Iraqi flag in the days of the war there would have been seen as support for Iraq’s victory no matter what the cost. Championing the Ukrainian flag today suggests a similar message. If you are flying that flag and claim to want peace, you are lying to yourself. You want more war.
Wars by national governments and their militaries depend on emotional pleas to homeland and family, flag and even faith. When the fighting ends, it is the common folk who have paid the most. In his poem A War Primer, Bertolt Brecht includes this verse:
The war which is coming
Is not the first one. There were
Other wars before it.
When the last one came to an end
There were conquerors and conquered.
Among the conquered the common people
Starved. Among the conquerors
The common people starved too.
This is why my politics begin with a fundamental and visceral opposition to war and those who profit from it.