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National Affairs: The War Over Peace

Is the anti-war movement too fractured to be effective?

Protesters, anti war, demonstration

Protesters gather during an act of civil disobedience in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue on September 26th, 2005, in washington,DC.


BRIDGET PALMATIER, A WIDOW AT THIRTY, HAD NEVER been to a protest before, but she knew the gold star pinned to the collar of her blouse gave her the standing to speak out. Her plain face carried her grief; in her hands she held a photo of her husband, Cpl. Jacob Palmatier: “KIA 02/24/2005.”

Elizabeth Frederick, her blond hair pulled back in a long ponytail, came to represent her boyfriend, Sgt. Michael Bernabe, currently stop-lossed in Tikrit. “I became anti-war because of him,” says the twenty-two-year-old. “It’s not indoctrination. It’s not a slogan. It’s what he tells me – someone on the front.”

These reluctant activists – one with nothing, the other with everything left to lose – joined the estimated 300,000 protesters in front of the White House on September 24th in the largest antiwar demonstration since the fall of Baghdad. Raucous college kids and graying boomers packed the Ellipse and Constitution Avenue for a morning rally before taking to the streets in a march that snaked for twenty blocks. It was an impressive show of strength, one that reflects the public’s growing disapproval of the war. Fifty-two percent of Americans now favor an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and an increasing number of vets and their families are beginning to speak out. “Are we having a positive impact in Iraq?” asks Capt. Justin Gordon, who took part in the assault on Baghdad, as he finishes a cigarette in an unsanctioned memorial of 1,900 white crosses staked on the Washington Mall. “Is our presence there protecting American citizens? The answer to both questions is no. That’s why I can’t support the war.”

But rather than centering the rally around vets like Gordon and family members like Palmatier and Frederick, organizers seemed intent on alienating them. Demonstrators carried papier-mâché masks of George Bush as the Great Satan, raised their middle fingers toward the White House and chanted, “Bush is a terrorist!” Speakers at the rally, all but ignoring the plight of soldiers in Iraq, demanded that the U.S. end its “colonial occupation” of Haiti, called for the dissolution of the state of Israel and urged protesters to ally themselves with Iraqi insurgents “who fight back against the criminal U.S. occupation.” When Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother whose vigil at Bush’s ranch in Texas catapulted the anti-war movement from the margins to the mainstream, took the stage, organizers even tried to cut her speech short – after barely two minutes – to make way for a screechy slew of unknowns, who shouted on about the Angola Three, the Cuban Five and “legitimate revolutionaries” branded as terrorists by the “U.S. puppet regime” in Manila.

The rally, in all its sound and fury, underscores the uneasy truce between soldiers and socialists that threatens to split the anti-war movement. For much of the American left, opposing the war in Iraq is simply a means to an end, a way to raise larger issues about the abuse of U.S. power at home and abroad. For vets and their families, it’s about saving lives – their lives. In their eyes, those they call the “Free Mumia crowd” are marginalizing the movement, scaring off red-state Americans who might otherwise embrace a quick exit.

“When some guy gets up there and rails about Palestine, Karl Rove is kicking back in his chair, saying, ‘Please continue,'” says Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq veterans group Operation Truth, which boycotted the march. “It’s not about Palestine, it’s not about Mumia – it’s about one focused message: Let’s find a way to end this war. If you really want to push back against the administration, you’ve got to get your shit together. Right now they don’t.”

After the march, Gordon expresses similar outrage, venting his anger that far-left groups “hijacked” the protest. “To those of us focused on the Iraq war, our credibility is diminished by groups like this who carry their own pet projects,” he says. “Their anti-American speeches at an anti-war rally are about as useful as having the KKK show up at a pro-war rally.”

THE PEACE MOVEMENT STANDS AT A crucial junction: Will it forge ahead into the mainstream or paint itself into an ideological corner? Cindy Sheehan galvanized the cause, giving it a human face: one that is grieving, pro-soldier and above politics. “None of these professional peace-messaging types could have invented Cindy Sheehan,” says Tom Hayden, a lion of the anti-Vietnam left. “She’s the real thing, and she’s not alone. There’s a contingent of military families that have a more genuine grievance than most anti-war people – and certainly pro-war people.”

In the month between Sheehan’s Texas showdown and the march on Washington, the “Mumia crowd” and other opponents of the war showed rare discipline, placing military families at the head of the movement. Four small groups – Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Veterans for Peace and Gold Star Families for Peace – fanned out from Crawford, crisscrossing the heartland in buses on the Bring Them Home Now! tour. What was most remarkable was who got left off the bus: anyone without a direct connection to the war.

The movement couldn’t ask for better spokespersons. There’s Celeste Zappala, mother of one of the last soldiers to die looking for weapons of mass destruction, a soft-spoken, deeply religious woman who tells of being laughed at and hung up on when she called the Pentagon asking to speak to Donald Rumsfeld. There’s Bill Mitchell, an Army veteran whose son Mike died in the same battle as Casey Sheehan, attempting to suppress a rebellion provoked when Coalition authorities shut down Moqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper. There’s Jimmy Massey, a Marine vet who speaks with biting honesty of his battalion killing civilians at checkpoints on the road to Baghdad, and the day a medic refused to provide insulin for a five-year-old Iraqi girl going into diabetic shock.

These vets and their families connect the incompetent and irresponsible stewardship of the war to real human suffering. Their wrenching stories carry far more weight than anti-Bush statements by groups like International ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice, who co-sponsored the march on Washington. “It’s one thing if someone from UFPJ goes out to Middle America and makes a speech – people can just write them off as some lefty, Commie, pinko tree-hugger,” says Mike Hoffman, a Marine vet from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who took part in the assault on Baghdad before co-founding Iraq Veterans Against the War. “When someone who has been to Iraq stands up – we might say the exact same thing, but we were raised in the same place as the people we’re talking to. We connect with Middle America.”

But the machinery behind the anti-war movement did not emerge from the experience of soldiers in Iraq – it was a direct outgrowth of the anti-globalization movement that put together the protests that rocked Seattle in 1999. Indeed, the first anti-war street action of the Bush era – organized by ANSWER after the 9/11 attacks – was merely an anti-World Bank demonstration that was repurposed at the last minute as a war protest.

Such anti-capitalist activists – think of them as the fractious and the furious – seek to achieve through a social movement what they have been unable to accomplish through electoral politics: to restrain the exercise of American power. Leaders of UFPJ used the march as a platform for its thesis that “war, the IMF and the World Bank are all tools of empire, used by elites toward the same destructive end of corporate domination.” ANSWER, which is reviled for its radicalism even within anti-war circles, takes that position and turns it up to eleven. Bill Hackwell, a national organizer for the group, insists that Iraq’s only crime was “that they were just a little bit independent.” Israel, he asserts, “acts on behalf of the United States as a garrison state in the Middle East against the Arab people of the region.” He even raises the bat-shit theory that the U.S. government blew up the levees in New Orleans to drive out the poor.

When it comes to the peace movement, ANSWER is not some fringe organization frothing on the sidelines. The group secured the permits for the march on Washington and paid for the stage. It was also the sole organizer of concurrent protests in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle that drew tens of thousands. But the group uses the marches to promote its wild-eyed agenda, championing “the resistance” in Iraq, Venezuela and Cuba and defending the dictatorial regimes of North Korea and Iran. At the September rally, its litany of demands included “U.S. out of the Philippines!”

“Why the hell is the Philippines on there?” fumes Todd Gitlin, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s and author of The Whole World Is Watching. ANSWER’s acronym officially stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. But Gitlin jokes that it spells something else entirely: “Easy marginalization.”

THE OPEN QUESTION FACING THE peace movement is whether it can check its ideology at the curb and build an alliance with religious, corporate and, yes, even Republican leaders. “The potential growth of the movement is obvious,” says Gitlin, who teaches mass communications at Columbia University. “But the movement can still box itself in. You can imagine a situation in which the war is leaking popularity but the anti-war movement is demonized – which means that it rules itself out as a political force and becomes yet another sparkler show that just flares out.”

Rieckhoff of Operation Truth likens the movement’s current leadership to a 1958 Edsel. “They need to fucking evolve,” he says. “Nobody wants to say it – but they’re ineffective. That’s the bottom line.”

President Bush and his men certainly aren’t worried about the opposition. “There is no real anti-war movement,” Karl Rove reportedly declared before the September rally. “No serious politician, with anything to do with anything, would show his face at an anti-war rally.” Rove knows that beyond its simplistic sloganeering about “Out now,” the peace movement has failed to develop a pragmatic exit strategy – one that main-stream Democrats can embrace without being blasted as part of Cut and Run. Opponents of the war have to do more than pillory the president’s policy – they must bring a serious alternative to the table.

“Everybody knows that things are fucked up in Iraq,” says Rieckhoff. “But the question is, What do we do now? The Republicans got us into this mess, but the Democrats don’t have a plan to get us out.” Rieckhoff suggests that opponents of the Bush Doctrine sit down and formulate a viable exit strategy guided by generals who oppose the war – the “Zinni Doctrine,” say, or the “Shinseki Doctrine” – that would serve as the basis for a broad-based coalition. “That’s ultimately what’s needed,” he says. “The problem is, that kind of coalition isn’t being formed now.”

Sen. Russ Feingold, one of the war’s most vocal opponents on Capitol Hill, says a “responsible anti-war movement” must also ground its opposition to the war in Iraq within the broader demands of the war on terror. The troops need to come home not because the war is a colonial occupation but because it makes Americans less safe. “To be credible, it’s critical that progressives be passionate about saying we want to protect American lives,” Feingold says. “We support stopping terrorist networks, but we don’t support wars that actually make the terrorist networks stronger.”

Rep. Walter Jones, the right’s most unexpected dove, sounds a similar note. Jones, whose North Carolina district is home to three Marine bases and more than 60,000 veterans, says he now regrets his vote to authorize the war. The same man who sponsored the “Freedom Fries” resolution as “a gesture just to say to the French, ‘Up yours’ ” has joined forces with Rep. Dennis Kucinich to author the Homeward Bound Act, which would force President Bush to announce an exit strategy by the end of the year.

Jones says the president’s stay-the-course message presumes the impossible. “We’re not going to kill all the terrorists in Iraq,” he says. “We’re not going to kill all the insurgents. The director of the CIA says we have created a training field for terrorists in Iraq.” What’s needed now, he insists, is a specific plan, with concrete targets, for turning the war over to Iraqi troops and police. “With 2,000 deaths and more than 14,000 injured, you just get to a point of: When do we say to the Iraqis, ‘It is now your country, it is now your fight’? How do we know when there’s victory?”

Ironically, it’s that simple word – “victory” – that holds the greatest potential to divide the peace movement. It’s unclear that Bush bashers in the anti-war camp will accept any exit strategy that allows the president to declare “victory,” hollow though it may be. For them, withdrawal is not enough – the U.S. must be humbled, its power constrained. “This is the world’s lone superpower,” says Bill Dobbs of UFPJ. “If anything is going to check it, it’s the anti-war movement.” As Hackwell of ANSWER puts it, “When we say, ‘Bring the troops home now,’ we don’t want them brought home so they can be deployed someplace else. The U.S. would love to clear up the mess in Iraq and move on to something else as part of the global thrust toward political and economic domination.”

Even mainstream leaders in the peace movement demand a larger reckoning. “What is important for us as a nation is to come to terms with this deadly, ghastly mistake,” says Tom Andrews, director of Win Without War, a coalition that includes the NAACP, NOW and MoveOn. “It’s only by doing that that we will stop that mistake from happening again. We think that’s the most important thing.” The most important thing, in other words, is stopping the war on terms ideologically acceptable to the movement. As for the face-saving “victory” advocated by Rep. Jones, Andrews dismisses it as nothing more than “the need for self-congratulation.”

As dusk began to fall at the D.C. march, Joan Baez took the stage at the foot of the Washington Monument. As she sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” it was impossible not to feel that history was attempting, tragically, to repeat itself. Turning Iraq into another incarnation of Vietnam might satisfy the left’s pent-up desire to slam the Bush administration – but it’s hardly a blueprint for bringing the troops home quickly. “Here’s an appalling truth,” says Gitlin, a veteran activist of the Vietnam era. “Sentiment had turned against the war by ’68. But the U.S. didn’t leave until ’73.” Repeating that timetable in Iraq, he adds, “would not be much of a victory.”


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