Going to war is habit for Americans. Essentially, we’ve done it every twenty to forty years since we became a country, but really, if you count the wars waged against all the different Native American communities throughout the lands and especially if you count the quashing of slave revolts, the first 100 years of the United States was a time of more or less constant war. And since the Civil War, rather than getting less warlike, we’ve actually gotten bloodier and bloodier. For all the talk of peace dividends and the end of the Cold War in the nineties, Clinton bombed or invaded 12 countries during his eight years.
It's not very surprising that the US public doesn’t have much faith in the prospects of antiwar movements. Our record of stopping wars before they started is pretty dismal, and only two have been noticeably shortened by the presence of a grassroots antiwar movement – the Mexican War and Vietnam.
That makes what has happened in the last two weeks pretty remarkable.
Last Saturday, the San Francisco Chronicle’s lead afternoon story was “Possible US-led attack on Syria sparks rallies.” The article, from the Associated Press wire, covered demonstrations of 100 people in Houston, 200 in Boston and Los Angeles, two dozen in Arkansas and 40 in Chicago. The 15 or so in Oakland didn’t make the cut.
Today’s paper contains this news:
“More than 30 protesters gathered Saturday outside the federal building in Lincoln to oppose possible U.S. military action in Syria. The Lincoln Journal Star reports that among the crowd was 32-year-old Haidar Kazem, holding a Syrian flag and a sign aimed at throngs of Nebraska football fans that read "Go Big Red, No 'Little' War.”
Excuse me, 30? Need I detail the demonstrations of hundreds or thousands I’ve attended that have been completely ignored by the press? Remember when the New York Times justified not covering Occupy Wall Street by saying there were only a few hundred people involved? The baffling fact that the demonstration in San Francisco today, which drew at least 1500 people, didn’t get a mention does not lessen the marvel that the mainstream media seems to be beating the bushes for antiwar activity to report on.
Even more extraordinary is that Obama and his team, who appeared all set a week ago to go it alone, despite being rebuffed by the British Parliament, suddenly backed off. CBS News mentioned the US public’s 20% support of an attack as one factor in that decision. Another was that 140 Congresspeople, led by the East Bay’s own Barbara Lee, signed a letter demanding a say. It’s easy for us here, and I’m certainly one of them, to assume that we just vote for Lee to make ourselves feel good, that she and other progressives in Congress don’t have any real power. Indeed, it usually seems that way, but lo and behold, one of the most out-there members of Congress set something in motion that – at least momentarily -- stopped the war machine in its tracks.
Obama has backed himself into a corner, because on one hand he drew a red line, so his ego and all that are at stake, but on the other he made this big speech about democracy and letting Congress decide, so if he can’t get Congress on board, then he will look bad if he does it. Which makes a call to your Congressperson a little less futile than usual.
Obama and the media have told us we’re “war-weary,” and that’s kind of nervy. Afghans are war-weary. Iraqis, Pakistanis, Yemenis, the guys still stuck in Guantanamo. Except for the troops themselves – who are actually speaking out against a new war themselves -- and the very small percentage of people who have a family member in the military, we have no right to be “war-weary.” Weary of what exactly? We don’t even hear about the wars most days.
Nonetheless, it seems like even the media folks who couldn’t wait to attack Iraq, while they are not challenging patently false assertions like the 1400 dead in the chemical weapons attack that the US officials are hammering like a drumbeat (the Syrian Human Rights Observatory puts it at 502), are saying, “Enough already.” It seems like our taste for blood may be waning slightly. And that’s a good thing.
A study released last week purports to find that “the absence of a strong and visible anti-war movement, the way there was during the George W. Bush Presidency” is due to the desertion of Democrats following the election of Obama. Now the authors’ data documenting a decline in participation by identified Democrats seems solid, but I dispute that there was a “strong and visible” peace movement during the period of the Bush presidency they’re looking at, which starts in 2007. My recollection is that our ability to pull out more than a few hundred people plummeted in the six months after March 19, 2003, and that by 2006 the antiwar movement was more or less dormant. I credit the decline much more to the perception that demonstrating just doesn’t do any good – that when millions out in the street couldn’t stop the Iraq war, the balloon essentially popped.
Now is a good time to blow it up again. It actually turns out that the record of movements for stopping wars in recent times is not quite as poor as we think. Historian Lew Rockwell reminds us that
“Popular pressure against U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua [in the 1980s] not only blocked the dispatch of U.S. combat troops, but led to congressional action (i.e., the Boland amendment) cutting off U.S. government funding for the U.S. surrogates, the contras.”
Rockwell further points out that during the consumerist eighties, the dead period following the activist sixties and seventies, “the Nuclear Freeze campaign … organized the largest political demonstration up to that time in U.S. history, and drew the support of more than 70 percent of the public. In Europe, much the same thing occurred, and in the fall of 1983 some five million people turned out for demonstrations against the planned deployment of intermediate range nuclear missiles. Reagan was stunned.” Rockwell posits that this led Reagan to pull back from Cold War rhetoric and seek an arms control agreement.
I was part of those movements in the eighties and I never before thought about how successful we were. When people talk about successful social movements, they don’t talk about Central America. That’s partly because for many of us, our goal was an end to US imperialism, if not social revolution at home, and we didn’t get that. It’s also because the media never credited us; they continued to make fun of us as a throwback to the sixties.
But we did do it, and we can do it again. Today.