by Robert Wrubel
(Swans - December 18, 2006) 2006 is the year in which we can finally say goodbye to the anti-war movement. By allowing the focus of the debate to be shifted entirely onto the November elections, we allowed victory to be defined as a Democratic Congress. I'm not even sure the word "we" is justified in this case. It seems the electorate would have gone that way without any help from us.
The Democratic victory was not about whether the war was right or wrong, but merely whether it was being properly managed. This is how the Democrats are interpreting it, and they ought to know. They crafted the message on the war that carefully avoided any of the larger questions of legality, morality, or national strategy.
The anti-war movement failed to achieve its goals for four reasons: 1) the campaign was fought exclusively in the realm of public opinion, through the mainstream media; 2) opposition to the war was mainly expressed on moral grounds; 3) the message was aimed at only a limited part of the electorate; and 4) the campaign lacked adequate political strategy.
The anti-war movement expressed itself in a scattering of demonstrations, an outpouring of passionate writing, particularly on the Internet, and a few acts of personal heroism, like Cindy Sheehan's or Lieutenant Watada's. Each of these forms of action had to pass through the filter of the mainstream media in order to reach the public at large, and very few did. Cindy Sheehan almost succeeded, by defying the rule that only privileged insiders can address the President, but the media soon tired of her storyline.
Though the critical books and articles and reporting on the war doubtless seeped through to the public at large, to some degree, the anti-war campaign increasingly found itself talking to itself, through the narrow channel of the Internet.
Was there any alternative to this? Perhaps not. I would like to say that direct physical action that disrupted the system, like strikes or boycotts, or rolling demonstrations, might have been effective, but those too ultimately depend for success on being reported by the media. We may have to face the painful truth that we live in a world of "spectacle," where speaking the truth is vastly overmatched by the constant din of "news," propaganda, entertainment, and product advertising. Admitting this can be healthy, if it makes us turn our attention to other forms of action.
Related to the mistake of relying on speech rather than action was the tendency to oppose the war mainly on moral grounds. Moral grounds are of course why we do oppose the war, but moral arguments are notoriously ineffective in changing peoples' opinions. Humans are generally defensive about their deeply held beliefs. Most Americans believed the terrorist story the Bush administration spun out of 9/11, and were not well-informed enough to spot the shell game when the war was switched from Afghanistan to Iraq. Having said yes to what turned out to be a grotesque and futile slaughter, it was difficult to later admit they were wrong.
Beyond that, Americans generally accept the myth of America as global policeman, and global arbiter of good and bad behavior. So there is quite a mass of congealed prejudice to be penetrated by opponents of the war on moral grounds.
Is there an alternative to the moral argument? Michael Neumann says, in an August article on Counterpunch.org, it's arguing based on self-interest. By self-interest Neumann seems to mean the interest of people who have power, i.e., corporate wealth, but I think his meaning can be expanded to include ordinary people affected by the war.
Martin Luther King and Malcolm X both linked opposition to the Vietnam War with racism. Though the number of Americans directly involved in Iraq is smaller than in Vietnam, racial and class bias in military recruiting is even more pronounced. In this particular war, further, the National Guard and Reserves were crudely exploited, being forced to serve well beyond their normal terms and make significant domestic sacrifices. All members of the armed services had to serve without adequate protection, and large numbers are returning home to inadequate services and dim employment prospects. The number of people directly affected by the war, if expanded to include family and friends, is a potentially significant electoral bloc.
The point about interest-based rather than value-based arguments is related to my third point, the failure to address other segments of the electorate. I have mentioned some of these above, and to them may be added anyone dependent on government services (the Katrina victims, for example), the elderly living on fixed incomes, the unemployed, those with inadequate public services, and the young who are the target of next year's recruiting. Any of these segments could have been fertile ground for sowing the message that war is not in our self-interest.
The final weakness of the anti-war movement was the lack of an effective political strategy. Evidently the strategy was to influence public opinion and thereby put pressure on the political class to bring about change. There was obvious wishful thinking in this approach, since the political class -- the Democratic Party, in this case -- was guided by its own calculations and was evidently going to avoid any of the tough issues raised by the war.
A realistic strategy would have begun with the recognition that the Democratic Party was as much responsible for the war as the Republican, and that the idea of merely throwing the Republicans out would accomplish nothing. An effective political strategy would have put pressure on the Democrats, by threatening not to vote for them if they did not change their position.
All of these "failures" are linked together, or are perhaps different faces of a single failure, which is to see the war only from the viewpoint of a single class. The focus on moral grounds, the belief in speaking truth to power, the assumption that the political parties actually represent us, the unfamiliarity with the needs and interests of other classes, the tendency to rely on speaking rather than organizing, are all characteristics of an educated and comfortable middle class. Since most of the writers and activists of the anti-war movement come from this class, it is not surprising that they expressed its viewpoints.
There is a mixed message of hope and hopelessness in all this. On the negative side is the recognition that as long as America is a predominantly middle-class nation, we're unlikely to change any of its basic institutions -- its two-party system, its domination by corporate power, the favored status given to the military. On the positive side, recognition of this could be a first step toward seeing that war is part of a larger dysfunctional class-based system, which harms us all.
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