Swans Commentary » swans.com October 8, 2007  



Do Protests Make A Difference?


by Philip Greenspan





(Swans - October 8, 2007)  In November 2002, before the U.S. attacked Iraq, the Rockland Coalition for Peace and Justice (RCFPJ), an antiwar group that my wife Fran and I belong to, commenced weekly protests every Saturday from 1:00 to 3:00 PM at the busiest corner in Rockland County, New York. Since then there has never been a week -- rain, shine, sleet, or snow -- when a respectable turnout, averaging twenty to forty and ranging in age from teenagers to the nineties, did not show up. Amongst the regulars, those who come almost every week, are three in their nineties and three who served prison sentences because they refused to serve in the military during World War II and Vietnam. Occasionally when another protest is scheduled at the same time in Washington D.C., New York City, West Point, or another location, RCFPJ will participate in both. The few regulars remaining in Rockland will draft friends and acquaintances to augment the reduced numbers for that one afternoon and surprisingly the turnout often exceeds the usual weekly draw -- once to about a hundred. Over the years the turnout at the weekly vigils has varied as conditions in Iraq and the U.S. affected the mindset of the public.

Activists may prepare and display posters reflecting their current thoughts, or they may select one of the many posters always available for those who forget theirs or for spur-of-the-moment joiners. Several signs invite motorists to "Honk for Peace." Over the years the honks and beeps emanating from their horns has increased substantially and the cacophony is music to our ears.

Flyers summarizing pertinent current news items -- such as the court martial of Lt. Ehren Watada; the enormous financial cost of the war and the health, education, and housing assistance those funds could provide here at home; the authorization by the White House of torture as an acceptable method of interrogation; the bitter comments of angry and exhausted GIs in Iraq; the shameful cover up of Pat Tillman's death; the comments of a former Bush insider who now feels the troops should be withdrawn -- are handed out to passing pedestrians and to motorists when they stop at a traffic light.

The weekly protests are just the main activity of several undertaken by the group. These include writing letters to the editor of the local paper; meeting with congressional representatives and other government officials to express our opinions; scheduling and co-sponsoring pertinent antiwar films and lectures; and supporting similar programs of other organizations.

Five years of weekly protests and much more? A commemoration was certainly merited. The failure to achieve our objective -- stopping the war -- led many at a recent biweekly planning session to insist that a celebration should be precluded. The emphasis of the quinquennial should focus on our long term persistence and commitment to eventually achieve that goal. A pleasant social evening limited to members would be sufficient. I disagreed. I maintained that we accomplished a great deal and mentioned some of the following facts.

We took on the United States of America, the most powerful government in the world. The sole superpower had the firm support all three branches of government, both major parties -- the Democrats and Republicans, the military, the main stream media with all their columnists and pundits. It also had the expertise of sophisticated advertising and public relations specialists who persuaded the public to buy the administration's lies and back its pro-war positions. And they successfully corralled an overwhelming proportion when the country went to war. With such a formidable array of opposition we should have been crushed like a bug. Instead we have now converted a majority of the public to side with us. Yes, we were fortunate. We had help. Millions all over the world from time to time were out protesting with us; the Iraqis tenaciously resisted the occupation of their country; the internet and the alternate media provided an honest oppositional perspective; and the dishonesty and incompetence of Bush and his cronies turned many against them.

The few who then spoke supported my comments and from the nods and smiles of others it seemed that most agreed.

Having mentioned SEVERAL factors that turned the public against the war, a question I'm often asked comes to mind. Does the activism of the RCFPJ and other such groups have much effect? Surely the failure of the military to subdue the Iraqis and Afghans was the most important factor; and the lies and incompetence of Bush gang also ranks high. Weren't those two items what essentially caused the public to change its position? It's impossible to assign relative values to the contributions of each item. I can only subjectively analyze the resulting conditions.

I believe all counties try to program their people to react in certain ways. The U.S., no exception, does it more skillfully and subtly. Schools by various means indoctrinate loyalty to the state. Young children before they understand what the words actually mean learn by rote the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance. For the rest of their lives they often sing the anthem and recite the pledge. They are also taught to respect and obey the law, laws that favor and are drawn for the elite that run the country. Team sports instill cooperation and loyalty not only among the members of the team but from the student body who root for them. The school band and orchestra are teams as well and should get analogous results. This benign indoctrination process continues throughout one's life because the mainstream media, a pillar of the elite, ensures that only proper news, ideas and information is disseminated. Consequently governments can expect wide support for their actions deemed reasonable.

The human species to preserve itself imbues people with a hatred of killing and war. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a psychology professor and an expert on human aggression, has written ". . . throughout history the majority of the men on the battlefield would not attempt to kill the enemy, even to save their own lives or the lives of their friends. . . This lack of enthusiasm for killing the enemy causes many soldiers to posture, submit, or flee the battlefield; and is a force discernible throughout the history of man." (1) When the US military became aware of this problem they modified the training to overcome such pusillanimous behavior. When war seems probable but before governments have committed themselves the public overwhelmingly favors peaceful resolutions. Governments must therefore present convincing reasons for embarking on war. Once accomplished the indoctrinated citizens overcome their initial antipathy and patriotically respond to the colors. Their aversion to war however is never dispelled. It hangs in there and tugs on the conscience. But there is another hang-up an unwillingness to break away from the crowd -- to be a dissident loner.

The continued presence of antiwar protestors in time gives their position legitimacy and intrigues those loyalists with the strongest aversion to war. Joining others is not as difficult as being a lonely voice in the crowd. The more who openly dissent the easier it becomes for others to join them and in time it snowballs into a mass movement. GIs are not immune! An unprecedented massive mutiny during the Vietnam War was the coup de grâce for the US Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. in an enlightening article on that mutiny states "It is a truism that national armies closely reflect societies from which they have been raised. It would be strange indeed if the Armed Forces did not today mirror the agonizing divisions and social traumas of American society, and of course they do." (2) What happened then can recur and symptoms are already appearing. Reenlistments are down. The services are having difficulty meeting enlistment quotas although they have downgraded requirements and expanded the age for enlistment. West Point graduates are increasingly opting-out when their commitment is complete. Over twenty retired generals defied tradition to criticize the commander in chief.. Desertions and AWOLs are increasing,

The protesters have definitely had an effect by modifying the pervading attitudes in the country. Because the decision makers are adamantly holding their ground it may seem that the situation is hopeless. But if those pro-warriors are to be turned around continued protests, protests and more protests -- speeches, essays, lobbying, hunger strikes, civil disobedience -- may be necessary. Prior struggles against intransigent governments took many years to achieve success. It took over fifty years for the suffragettes to gain the right to vote. When those guys become alarmed at how adamantly the people are reacting they will respond. Our neighbors to the south provide us with recent examples. People power in Cochabamba, Bolivia overturned the privatization of their water supply and forced the successful bidder Bechtel out of the country. People power in Venezuela reversed a coup d'état the very next day and on several other occasions defeated attempts by the former oligarchs of that country to stymie the people's choice, Hugo Chávez.

A couple of very well-known authorities brilliantly and concisely summarize what I tried to explain in this essay -- that the power of the people can effect change but intense and prolonged activism may be necessary to turn the trick.

"If there is no struggle there is no progress.... Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will."
—Frederick Douglass

"When governments fear people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny."
—Thomas Jefferson



1.  Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Little, Brown and Company Boston, 1995; (pgs. 4 and 28)  (back)

2.  "The Collapse of the Armed Forces" by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., Armed Forces Journal, 7 June 1971.
http://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/Vietnam/heinl.pdf  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published October 8, 2007