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Falling in line behind Kerry
What happened to the antiwar movement?

October 22, 2004 | Page 10

MEREDITH KOLODNER looks at the state of the antiwar struggle during Election 2004.

AS THE media focus on questions of judgment, and politicians debate the finer points of how to "win the peace" in Iraq, the horror that continues to unfold in Iraq remains muted in U.S. society. NBC's Fear Factor is more explicitly gruesome than the day-to-day coverage of a real live war. It is reality TV without the reality--as if Iraqi children don't bleed and scream when they die, as if American soldiers do not have coffins and their families don't hold funerals.

But in fact, during the span of a few days at the beginning of October, 110 people died and more than 300 were injured in Baghdad alone, according to Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi. She wrote in a private e-mail, "The numbers [of Iraqi dead] are so shocking that the ministry of health--which was attempting an exercise of public transparency by releasing the numbers--has now stopped disclosing them."

So add to the fog of war the opaque filter of election-year politics. Not that during other times we are told and shown the truth, but it is striking that as the crisis in Iraq intensifies to its highest pitch since "Mission Accomplished"--and the candidates are forced to at least discuss the issue--the antiwar movement is quiet.

There are important, courageous exceptions to this state of affairs--a rally by veterans and military families in Bush's so-called hometown in Texas; a memorial procession from Arlington Cemetery to the Pentagon; to name a few. There are also rallies in which Iraq will rightly be part of a set of progressive demands--such as the Million Worker March and demonstrations planned by local coalitions outside the presidential debates.

But it would be dishonest to say that the bulk of the groups who make up the national antiwar movement have their eyes glued on events in Iraq and Palestine, not to mention Afghanistan. Instead, the efforts of most individuals and officially nonpartisan organizations are focused on getting Bush out of office. These efforts may be couched in the form of "voter education" or "preventing voter fraud," but if we can step outside the confines of 501c3 status for a moment and speak candidly, the majority of the movement believes that defeating Bush is our central priority this fall.

People on the left who object to the politics of supporting the Democratic Party often reach back into history in an attempt to convince others why voting for the lesser evil only demobilizes movements and moves the political spectrum to the right, making it more difficult to build effective progressive movements in the U.S. But this year, it is happening right now--right in front of us.

Certainly there are other issues facing the movement. There are questions about the political nature of the Iraqi resistance that cause people who may in theory agree with an occupied people's right to self-defense to pause or lose enthusiasm in the face of the reality of a politically heterogeneous resistance movement. This, of course, makes more difficult answering the central question of "won't there be chaos and the possibility of an Islamist government" if we pull the troops out now. But those are issues for further discussion elsewhere.

Central to the current low profile of the antiwar movement is the belief that ending the occupation of Iraq under Kerry would be an easier task. The effect has been building for months. Where is the urgency in building a movement if the most effective place to exert power is at the ballot box in November?

The deafening silence after revelations of the torture at Abu Ghraib was the first sign. Then came the decision by most to forgo protesting the Democratic National Convention--strewn as it was with generals and war cries--and instead focus on the Republican National Convention. No doubt the half million-person march at the RNC was spectacular, and should indeed have been a central focus. But even there, the decision to simply unite behind the slogan "We Say No to the Bush Agenda" and issue no informational leaflets, put forward no demands, and print no new antiwar signs muted its political impact.

Now, as the election nears, the central effort of groups around the country is getting out the vote and "voter education," with activists being shipped off to "swing states" to "talk about the issues." Without endangering anyone's nonprofit status, a candid look at the actual priorities reveals a fall focused on stumping for Kerry.

After a month of the highest death rates since the siege of Falluja in April, when U.S. generals are admitting they have lost control of large sections of the country, and injury rates for U.S. soldiers are up to 30 to 35 per day on average, antiwar forces in the US are hitting the streets to elect a candidate who promises to "lead the troops to victory" in Iraq.

The presidential debates were hailed by some as proof of John Kerry's right to claim the antiwar vote. But a closer examination shows just the opposite.

To be sure, the candidates said different things and even proposed different strategies for dealing with Iraq (as well as a variety of other countries now simply assumed to be "the enemy"). But the difference was one of how best to fight and win--not whether the U.S. military should be deployed to defend so-called "American interests" around the world.

On Iraq, Kerry argued, "What I want to do is to change the dynamics on the ground. And you have to do that by beginning to not back off Falluja and other places and send the wrong message to the terrorists." He finished that first debate by looking straight into the camera and telling us, "I'm not talking about leaving. I'm talking about winning." Only the experts of Spin Alley could make us think that it would be easier to end the occupation under this man.

And for all the seductive talk of working with others, rebuilding alliances and regaining credibility, Kerry's speech at New York University in September laid out most plainly what this will mean. He argued that Bush "should give other countries a stake in Iraq's future by encouraging them to help develop Iraq's oil resources and by letting them bid on contracts instead of locking them out of the reconstruction process." In this scenario, the lucky people of Iraq will be helped by shifting from a U.S.-dominated theft, to one where other rich countries will divide the spoils with the U.S.

What was even more frightening was Kerry's plan for the "war on terror." He wants to "finish the job" in Iraq so he can focus on the real problem. "I have a better plan to be able to fight the war on terror by strengthening our military, strengthening our intelligence," Kerry declared--and, of course, concluded: "I will hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever they are."

Kerry wants us to focus again on Afghanistan--sounding eerily like the Vietnam War revisionists, as he claims that Bush didn't fight the war well enough, with enough U.S. troops, enough bombs and enough Special Forces. While the war in Afghanistan may have more support in the U.S. than the war in Iraq, surely it is the responsibility of the antiwar movement to oppose this intervention as steadfastly as the one in Iraq--and see as its task explaining the reality of the U.S. slaughter in Afghanistan to people who find themselves under the influence of Fox News and CNN's relentless propaganda campaign.

But Kerry didn't stop with Afghanistan. He argued for his plan to add "two active-duty divisions to the U.S. Army, not for Iraq, but for our general demands across the globe." He even floated the idea of the use of military troop deployment and/or pre-emptive strikes aimed at North Korea, Iran and Sudan.

Most in the antiwar movement would agree that it is our job to object to all of these attacks. But this task is made nearly impossible if we are instead out in the streets trying to convince people to vote for a man who is laying out his own "improved" war plan.

Imagine a different scenario. Imagine if, instead of comparing Get Out the Vote for Kerry bus trips to "today's version of the civil rights movement's Freedom Rides," the antiwar movement was busy exposing the complete and utter failure of the occupation in Iraq. Imagine if we held press conferences directly after each debate to deplore the complete invisibility of the occupation of Palestine--and the absurdity of a "debate" between two men who both want to strengthen the occupation until complete victory and domination is won.

Imagine if we were "educating voters" about the fact that neither of the candidates will bring the troops home, and that only by building a movement at home and in the armed services will we ever succeed. Imagine if, led by military families and veterans, we did real Freedom Rides to Kerry's and Bush's campaign headquarters to demand freedom for the people in Iraq.

Imagine if we sat in on the media headquarters until they showed pictures of injured U.S. soldiers in Germany. Imagine if we dropped banners around the country that took up the latest slogan from Not In Our Name, "We Say No to the Bush Agenda No Matter Who Kerry's It Out."

And imagine if it weren't considered heresy to mention that there is an antiwar candidate in this election--but that his name isn't John, but Ralph.

This isn't a matter of saying that the movement should be doing more--that can always be said. It is a matter of what the movement is doing--and how the great sucking sound of the Democratic Party is actively demobilizing the antiwar movement.

If the antiwar movement is busy getting out the vote for a pro-war candidate, we only sow illusions in the idea that Kerry may pull the troops out. It is the job of the antiwar movement to undo those illusions, so that if Kerry is elected, there is not yet another lull as we "give him a chance."

With an administration that lies pathologically, and a Democratic Party which thinks that as long as focus groups agree, it's not really a lie, it is the responsibility of the antiwar movement to tell the truth.

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