First published by Mobilizing Ideas
The 10-year anniversary for the movement that sprung up against the war in Iraq is on the horizon, and it presents an opportune time to reflect on its progress, and more importantly, the lessons that can be learned from its shortcomings.
While activists were busy organizing in the fall of 2002, the dramatic debut of the movement’s true size and global dimensions took place on February 15, 2003. On that historic date, millions took to the streets around the world in the largest antiwar protest in history. Two days later, Patrick Tyler wrote in The New York Times that there were now perhaps “two superpowers on the planet—the United States, and worldwide public opinion.”
This was no doubt an impressive show of force, but it ultimately did not faze President Bush, who quipped that letting the protests influence his decision to invade Iraq would be like saying “I’m going to decide policy based upon a focus group.” This brazen retort from the president wasn’t mere posturing. A little more than a month later, bombs started raining down on Baghdad once again.
After realizing that this massive demonstration would not stop the impending war, many activists were deflated and left the burgeoning movement when they were most needed. Slowly but surely, however, the movement began to recover, organizing rallies against the war that drew hundreds of thousands. Veterans began to organize and speak out, becoming some of the most poignant critics of the wars that they had participated in.
The persistence of the peace movement in articulating the human and financial costs of the war — bolstered by the devolving situation on the ground in Iraq — steadily eroded the wider public’s support for the occupation and eventually led to the withdrawal of troops in December 2011. The same dynamic can be seen with the war in Afghanistan, which the majority of Americans have now opposed for years.
The movement undoubtedly hastened the turning of the tide against the war in Iraq, which likely pushed the U.S. to withdraw its forces on a shorter timeline than it would have otherwise. How many lives were saved can never be known. At the same time, had the antiwar movement mobilized greater numbers and applied greater pressure on the levers of power, the war could surely have been brought to an end more quickly.
The fact that resistance to the war climaxed before the first salvo is evidence of a deeper predicament. The hard truth of the matter is that the antiwar movement has — with some notable victories along the way — been in a slump for decades.
Ironically, the downturn began just after a major, if incredibly costly, victory: the end of the Vietnam War. In many ways, the U.S. government simply outsmarted and outmaneuvered the peace movement after the war. It astutely honed in on what fueled dissent and systematically worked to remove those obstacles to future wars. The first thing to go was the draft, which politicized many who were forced to fight against their own volition — and, in turn, their families and friends — in 1973. Even though an informal “poverty draft” persists, today’s “all volunteer” military is far more stable because those who enlist and begin to question their choices are much more likely to blame themselves for signing up, rather than overt government coercion.
Another important factor that has contributed to the antiwar movement’s slump has been the dramatic reduction in the number of U.S. casualties in war, from more than 58,000 in Vietnam to less than 8,000 in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. This precipitous drop has been facilitated by the development and use of technology that distances soldiers from killing, which has allowed the military to fight wars with far less risk to U.S. soldiers — and to the politicians that send them off to kill. It has also lessened the mental, emotional and spiritual burden of combat, making soldiers less likely to question their actions or resist.
The steep decline in the number of casualties is also the result of the unprecedented privatization of war. During the 1991 Gulf War, there was only one contractor for every 60 soldiers on the ground in Iraq. As the second war in Iraq wore on, the number of private contractors actually surpassed the number of U.S. troops in the country. Even today, with the war officially over, there are close to 24,000 contractors working for the Department of Defense in Iraq, with almost 9,000 of those armed. The same trend can be seen in Afghanistan, where there are more than 113,000 contractors and slightly under 100,000 U.S. troops. In both Iraq and Afghanistan a minority of these contractors are American, and none of their deaths are counted as official casualties of the war — even though, for the first time in history, in 2010 more contractors died in Iraq and Afghanistan than U.S. troops.
This evolution in the way the Pentagon fights its wars is not likely to reverse, because it has been to its benefit. Moreover, no one should wish for a return of the draft or an increase in the death toll. Therefore the antiwar movement must evolve as well, and figure out how to make the costs of the wars real to an American public that feels increasingly disconnected from them.
One area where the movement has significant room to grow is in its strategy and tactics, which have by and large not evolved since the movement against the war in Vietnam. The same actions are repeated over and over again, and somehow different results are expected. There are mass rallies every year on the anniversaries of the start of the wars and the regular street corner protests in towns across the country. The same characters show up and chant the same slogans. In general, they are depressing events that are unlikely to attract anyone who isn’t already sympathetic to the movement. This does not make a strategy — or at least not a winning one.
The antiwar movement might do well to take a cue from other social movements that do appear to be gaining traction in the U.S. and drawing in a far more youthful demographic. For example, the movements to stop climate change or to challenge corporate power have been booming in recent years. While the hard facts related to these issues are just as depressing (if not more so) than those that can be mustered by opponents of the wars, these movements have found a way to inject more creativity and humor into their messaging and actions. The climate movement has also done a better job of finding potentially winnable short-term goals—like stopping the Keystone XL pipeline—which make it easier to build momentum for the long struggle ahead.
These are not insurmountable challenges, but the antiwar movement’s organizers and foot soldiers need to think more strategically about how to mix things up tactically—and how to grow despite the fact that it is easier today than ever for the public to simply tune out.