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The fight against Papa Bush's Gulf War

February 14, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7

PAUL D'AMATO tells the story of the movement against the last Gulf War.

DURING the last Gulf War against Iraq in 1991, U.S. forces mercilessly bombed Iraq into a "pre-industrial state." Tens of thousands of civilians died in the bombing, and during the weeklong and completely one-sided ground war, Iraqi soldiers were buried alive by bulldozers in their trenches or incinerated by U.S. warplanes on the Basra road out of Kuwait.

The media and the history books hide these horrors from us. But then again, they've also hidden the fact that there was a mass antiwar movement in 1991. From August 1990, when Papa Bush began mobilizing for a war against Iraq, people began organizing against it--in communities, on college campuses and at high schools.

On January 16, 1991--the night U.S. bombs began dropping on Baghdad--huge numbers of people took to the streets. Some 30,000 protested in Seattle, and 10,000 people came out and blocked Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. In San Francisco, more than 100,000 people occupied the Bay Bridge for six full hours.

Activists were frustrated because the media virtually ignored these protests--preferring to drown the public with images of war that looked more like video games than the horrifying reality. Nevertheless, the movement continued to grow.

Three days into bombing, 80,000 people turned out in San Francisco and 40,000 in Washington, D.C., for a national mobilization. The following weekend, another national day of protest saw 200,000 march in Washington and more than 100,000 in San Francisco.

Then as now, there were many arguments and debates in the movement. From the beginning, antiwar activists were clear that the war was about oil--despite Bush's talk about saving "poor little Kuwait." That's why the most popular slogan was "No blood for oil."

Two national antiwar coalitions emerged, one controlled by the International Action Center (IAC)--the precursor to today's ANSWER--and the other, the liberal-controlled National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East. The two rival groups called the competing national demonstrations just one week apart in January 1991.

The IAC-led protest called for U.S. troops out of the Gulf. The Campaign also supported withdrawal. But in the name of building the "broadest" movement, the Campaign insisted on demanding an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait and pandered to organizations such as Sane-Freeze (the predecessor of today's Peace Action), which supported United Nations (UN) sanctions against Iraq as an "alternative" to war. Twelve years later, with more than a million Iraqis killed by the sanctions, it's clear how wrong support for them turned out to be.

Socialist Worker's position in 1991--shared by many on the left--was for a united antiwar march, not sectarian posturing between the two national coalitions. But we also argued that, while the movement shouldn't condone Saddam Hussein's actions, making Iraq's expulsion from Kuwait a condition of unity conceded the right of the U.S. to intervene--and therefore weakened the movement.

"We must not lock ourselves into demanding Iraq's withdrawal, a position that, if taken to its logical conclusion, will have us justifying a horrendous war," wrote Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The same logic applies today to those who insist that the antiwar movement must support UN weapons inspectors in Iraq as a way to avert war. In fact, the entire inspections charade is part of an orchestrated campaign to facilitate war. It's a mistake to accept their terms of debate when we should be turning the whole argument around against the biggest threat to world peace--the U.S.

So one of the most important lessons of the last Gulf War is that politics matter in determining the shape of the movement. The other important lesson was that activists have to build on the ground.

The formation of the National Network of Campuses Against the War (NNCAW), which brought together more than 100 campus-based antiwar committees across the country, was a sign of the flowering of activism at the grassroots. The movement became a crucible of debate and discussion. And activists who started out as supporters of more moderate positions became, by the end, opponents of U.S. imperialism.

Our movement wasn't able to stop the 1991 Gulf War, but the fight radicalized tens of thousands of people. This war--tied up as it is with Bush's attacks at home and the promise of an endless war abroad--is likely to radicalize even more.

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