Is the antiwar movement scaring people away?

June 16, 2008

Eric Ruder analyzes the objection that the antiwar movement is too radical to win a larger following.

IF YOU'VE been involved in building the antiwar movement during the last couple years, chances are that you've asked yourself what it will take to involve more people in organizing to bring the troops home from Iraq.

It's been 18 months since the antiwar movement last held a high-profile national demonstration--on January 27, 2007, in Washington, D.C.--and across the country, local activists and coalitions report a lower level of activity as compared to late 2005 and 2006.

One common explanation for this is that most Americans simply don't care about the war or aren't affected by it.

Likewise, most activists assume that organizing a new GI resistance--like the kind that ended the U.S. war on Vietnam--must take as its starting point that U.S. military personnel, even more than the general population, are flag-waving conservatives.

Flowing from this assessment of the state of political consciousness about the war is the conclusion that the antiwar movement needs to make certain it keeps to a well-defined set of limited demands in order to attract a broader audience. Thus, it should avoid "contentious" issues--such as opposition to the war in Afghanistan, or challenging racism against Arabs and Muslims or sexism in the military--and stick to calls to bring the troops home.

Marching against the war in Iraq at a Washington, D.C., demonstration in January 2007

When it comes to reaching out to soldiers, by this reasoning, perhaps the appeal shouldn't even be explicitly antiwar, but instead focused on first befriending and winning the trust of the troops and then gradually introducing antiwar ideas. The GI antiwar movement needs to be careful not to appear anti-military, or it might alienate pro-military troops.

The underlying argument of this approach is that the U.S., as a whole, is generally conservative--and this is precisely what needs to be reconsidered. In truth, the bulk of the U.S. population is to the left of the political establishment that claims to represent it.

The Bush administration has reached its lowest level of approval yet--25 percent, according to a CBS News report from early June. Only Richard Nixon and Harry Truman had lower approval ratings at some point in their terms--24 and 22 percent respectively.

Fully 42 percent of Americans want U.S. troops home from Iraq within a year, and 21 percent more say within two years. Only 30 percent are willing to have U.S. troops in Iraq longer than two years.

Views among U.S. military personnel and their families mirror those of the public at large. Slightly more--about a third--approve of Bush's presidency, and slightly fewer approve of his policies to address the needs of active-duty troops and veterans, according to a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll from December.

An even higher proportion of soldiers--nearly 60 percent--than the population at large want the troops home within the next year.

IT'S NO surprise, though, that there is still pressure on activists to moderate their demands, considering that the November elections are approaching fast.

The problem is that an electoral calculation without a genuinely antiwar candidate runs smack up against the need to build an antiwar movement capable of forcing whoever ends up in the White House to bring the troops home now.

The logic of electoral politics means taking for granted the millions of Americans who are the most thoroughly antiwar in order to win over those who are on the fence--hence the imperative to water down antiwar demands and appeal to the center to vote for Barack Obama in November.

But this strategy actually undercuts the method needed to build a vibrant antiwar movement. The antiwar movement has to be concerned with winning people to a higher level of commitment and political activity than simply voting in November.

The central problem facing the antiwar movement isn't a lack of support at the level of ideas, but a lack of participation by the millions of Americans who agree with the demands of the movement, but don't have any outlet for the active expression of their views.

The challenge shouldn't be to reach all the fence-sitters, but rather to organize the unorganized on a firm political basis--so that there is a core of antiwar organizers and formations which can spearhead a building movement.

Isn't this just "preaching to the choir"? Yes, because the problem right now is that the members of the choir aren't getting together to sing. And it's the singing--activism, a presence in the streets, sit-ins at congressional offices, reaching out to GIs at military bases, building GI coffeehouses, demanding better treatment for soldiers and veterans from the decrepit military health care system--that brings change.

What's more, placing limits on the movement's demands constrains the very process by which people learn lessons and become more politicized. The movement's strength ultimately depends on how many people come to understand that forcing the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq will require challenging both parties' commitment to projecting U.S. power in the Middle East.

If such discussion and activity is ruled out as an "obstacle" to the immediate needs of election-year activism, both the activity of the movement and its political development will be retarded.

At a time when people are looking for a persuasive and clear alternative to "staying the course" in Iraq, blurring what the movement stands for in order to convince the fence-sitters risks losing those who want to stand for something different, and do so at a higher level of political commitment and involvement.

OFTEN, THIS argument about the threat of the movement scaring off supporters comes in a different form--that if we aren't careful to temper what we say, the right wing will paint us as "radicals," "extremists," "socialists" or "relics of the '60s."

This isn't the first time such ideas have been voiced, of course--and not just by activists who claim to have the movement's interests at heart, but even more so by the political and military establishment and media commentators who have used similar slanders in attempts to tarnish every social movement that ever threatened to become an effective social force.

Such anticommunism had an impact on the struggle for civil rights, for example. In 1946, according to Michael Honey, author of Going Down Jericho Road, a book documenting Martin Luther King Jr.'s support of the Memphis sanitation workers' strike in 1968:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce declared that there were "two great menaces to the U.S., Russia abroad and unions at home," and a new breed of Republicans in Congress, such as Richard Nixon, portrayed CIO unions and New Deal Democrats as part of a Communist conspiracy. Lubricated with money from right-wing oilmen in Texas and supported by segregationists across the South, the rhetoric of anticommunism throttled social change.

King rejected such attempts to divide and conquer. Speaking to the 1961 AFL-CIO convention, he said:

The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement. Together we can bring about the day when there will be no separate identification of Negroes and labor...Some will be called reds and communists merely because they believe in economic justice and the brotherhood of man. But we shall overcome.

The powers that be will always try to claim that social movements are "out of touch" with "regular" people. But the movement can't confront this accusation by adapting to it and excluding radical and left organizations and individuals.

This will only poison the atmosphere of open debate and dialogue that sustains any healthy and growing movement--and marginalize and alienate many experienced and committed activists. And activists will never be successful in mollifying those intent on wielding such criticisms in any case--they'll make such claims anyway.

DURING THE U.S. war on Vietnam, the GI revolt that bloomed within the military in 1970 and 1971 effectively rendered the U.S. military ineffective as a fighting force. Only then did U.S. political and military leaders accept the obvious--that they couldn't achieve a military victory in Vietnam, and it was time to end the bloodshed.

Building an antiwar GI movement today that can end the war will require building a similar resistance. However, if such a movement begins by settling on an antiwar, but pro-military appeal, aimed at attracting the majority of soldiers in the here and now, the end result will be a movement without an orientation capable of building an effective resistance.

There are already plenty of soldiers, albeit a minority, who are enthusiastic about organizing. A strategy aimed at building a GI movement in the long term has to appeal to such GIs in the here and now, as the first step toward attracting more supporters.

It's worth recalling the words of the late Dave Cline, who was featured in the documentary Sir! No Sir! and was one of the GI movement's most effective organizers in the Vietnam era:

Among soldiers, you have to make some distinctions. Some people join the military driven by some patriotic or ideological fervor to go fight, defend the country and avenge 9/11--there's a certain section like that.

But the much larger section of people in the military joined because of what we call the poverty draft. They look at it like, "If I go into the military, I can get this college program, and I'm not going to be stuck working at McDonald's or selling drugs."

They see it as a way to improve themselves in society because they're in such a low economic status. That tells you something about our society--where the main way for poor, young people to improve their lives is to go into an armed force, as opposed to a job program or other alternative. But that's part of the reality of America today.

And when people go into war, even the most gung-ho get changed. It's one thing to talk about fighting. It's another thing when you have to fight, when you have to kill people, when you have to see people get killed, see your friends get killed. That changes people, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically.

Of course, not all the gung-ho become antiwar campaigners. Some will become even more gung ho. But no one escapes unchanged, and indeed, some gung-ho troops will become antiwar activists. Even today, some already have.

For the antiwar movement, therefore, the essential point is that many people are ready to hear an uncompromising argument for immediate withdrawal. But they won't hear it unless someone makes it. It's up to local activists to find ways to reach this audience of millions.

Hopes are high that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama will chart a new course if he wins the White House in November. But Obama has already stated that he will keep 60,000 to 80,000 troops--plus many thousands more Blackwater-type mercenaries--in Iraq for years to come.

But an Obama presidency would bring the expectation that there will be a change of direction. And if antiwar activists can organize around this sense of hope, then our movement will be better positioned to demand change--from the president and Congress, from Democrats and Republicans.

As historian Howard Zinn put it, "There's hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in--in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating--those are the things that determine what happens."

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