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.

19 thoughts on “Learning from shortcomings and other movements

  1. Dear Eric, good article! It really made me think about the anti-war protests. Before the Irak war, I participated in some in Madrid. I remember that people really believed that that war was totally unfair and unjustified.
    I believe there is another reason why what you call anti-war movement has also slumped. In fact, after the Afghanistan and Irak wars, the media has played a fundamental role in convincing the public opinion that the war was justified because of humanitarian reasons. The media has repeated over and over again that the government was killing its own citizens. The argument for attacking Irak was preventive (massive weapons could be used against the West or any country in the world). However, the arguments for attacking Libya, for instance, are based on the responsibility to protect. Besides, all the broadcasted/published images of people being killed make the public opinion to think that a war is justified and necessary.
    In both the Libyan and the Syrian case, the media has only reported one side of the story. The public opinion has been manipulated. And unfortunately, this applies to many other current issues, not only war.

    1. Very true. If I had had more space I would have definitely talked about the evolution of the media and its relation to war over recent decades, which is a very important factor. The Pentagon has figured out a much better way of shaping the mainstream’s narrative on war today, primarily by embedding journalists with the troops. This obviously builds strong ties between the journalists and soldiers, who they are now dependent on for their lives, and in turn makes their reporting that much more biased. There are of course many other ways that the media is influenced by government and the corporations that benefit from war as well.

  2. If you liked this post, I run a website called Waging Nonviolence that publishes good reported articles on activism and social movements around the world every day. Check it out at: Thanks!

  3. Really great post! I was particularly surprised by the paragraph on contractors. I didn’t even know that was something that was practiced.

    1. Yeah, this is one of the craziest and most under-reported aspects of the war. As you can see, it’s a good way to make a war look a lot smaller than it really is.

  4. Great post Eric. Thank you. I marched in the anti-war protest in London in Feb 2003. In the 24 hours after the march, millions of us believed that we could make a difference and that our voices would be heard. I very much hope that on the tenth anniversary of the march we can all join together around the world and reiterate our message for peace. I’m now following you on WordPress and will visit you at your Waging Nonviolence website. Btw, I work for an organization called The Peace Project — an international peace-buidling charity that has engaged and mobilized thousands of people, most of them from the creative fields, who have become more caring, involved citizens because they’ve come to realize that we’re all responsible for creating a better world and that no problem is too big nor is any person too small to make change possible.

    And these thousands of changed people have engaged thousands more through personal storytelling and their art to take a stand for peace.

    Have a beautiful day. Michele

  5. Some good observations here. Before I begin my own, a small matter of language:
    “honed in on” in the eighth paragraph. Really:

    Some things to remember:

    (1) The U.S. Government doesn’t give a flying falafel what the rest of the world thinks unless it’s backed up with power.

    (2) The U.S. Government doesn’t give a plying puck what the U.S. population thinks unless it’s backed up with power.

    (3) Showing numbers is not power. The vote is not power, when election systems are rigged. A government makes major changes in policy only when its country threatens to become ungovernable otherwise.

    (4) There is no “antiwar movement” dating back to the Vietnam War. A few of us participated in both earlier and later movements, but really, each war leads to its own antiwar movement. The case against each war needs to be made all over again, to a new group of people.

    (5) The antiwar movement in the U.S. fell into a slump for the first few months after the invasion of Iraq for a very simple reason: the invasion was portrayed, with little dissent in the media, as a quick, easy victory. (U.S. citizens don’t give a dying cluck about Iraqi casualties, only their own.) The antiwar movement grew again only as Iraqi resistance got organized and made the war costly to the U.S.

  6. Being a former Infantryman who spent a total of 3 years in Iraq, I can say one major factor in the anti-war movement’s decline is the lack of news about the war, not to mention the lack of a draft. We’re all volunteers so there aren’t hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform who were forced into it. Some of us change our minds about things and leave when our contracts end, others stay either because of their beliefs or, more often than not, because they don’t know anything else. The news is a big factor because most people in this country are more concerned about who Kim Kardashian is dating this week than who died in Iraq-istan this week. I heard a Vietnam Vet speaking on a mental health podcast I listen to about how bad he feels for us (“those poor f**ks” were his exact words) because nobody seems to honestly care about us anymore besides family. He stated how they’re more concerned about American Idol than American soldiers. This is partially the fault of the media, but it’s also the fault of the American public. There’s no way to get more people to protest wars that most of the country forgets that we are fighting. I’ve never felt so alone as my first two years out of the Army have been, because nobody knows what goes on over there and not many seem to truly care.

  7. I hope that the 15M “Los Indignados” in Spain will be so important and usefull and we can remember it 10 years later!
    I lived it in Buenos Aires and in Spain and it’s amazing how the spanish people moved all around the world.

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