Hope: The Peace Movement After the War
By Paul Loeb
bombs that fell on Iraq shattered the armies of Saddam Hussein
and the bodies of five to ten thousand civilians. They also
crushed the spirits of many in the peace movement, driving
participants into their shells. In the months before the war,
several million ordinary Americans marched and spoke out to
challenge it, joined by the largest global peace demonstrations
in history. Then we watched the war on TV, or read about it
in the papers, and felt hopeless and powerless. Many of us
wonder now whether our actions can matter.
Because so many citizens marched, vigiled, lobbied, and
otherwise raised our voices, we felt like we might stop the
war. An amazing movement bloomed, seemingly out of nowhere.
Then Bush invaded nonetheless. And many of us sank into despair.
"I did everything I could," a Minnesota college student
told me recently. "I wrote letters and called Congressmen.
I marched and held signs. So many other people did too. Then
Bush said he wouldn't listen no matter what we did. I felt
all our efforts were worthless." The student was young, but
people thirty years older expressed the same demoralization
- a sense of futility and dashed hopes.
This response risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy
where a movement that may still be our best hope to transform
America dissipates in resignation. To move past the despair
many of us are feeling, we're going to need to look at its
roots. And then gain enough long-term perspective to remind
us why our actions still matter.
Think back to the war. Arrogant men of power will always
deny that those who challenge them are affecting their actions.
But when Bush dismissed the massive protests as no more consequential
than a poll-manipulated focus group, it was a calculated attempt
to make people feel powerless. Then the attack began, presented
by America's TV networks as a mix of Fourth of July spectacle
and Super Bowl cheerleading. Unless we tuned to the BBC, we
rarely saw the human carnage, just endless glorification of
U.S. technical might. When Iraqis resisted, against all odds,
our reporters dismissed them as "fanatics." They accepted
without question the transformation of British and American
troops into "coalition forces," as if the whole world stood
by our side, like a child with an army of imaginary friends.
We were told again and again that America fought only for
freedom and that even to question would betray our brave young
soldiers. As a friend said, "I feel all I can do is watch,
but watching makes it worse."
When the bombs were falling, it was hard to know what to
hope for, much less what to advocate. And harder still to
feel you could have an influence. The longer the war lasted
and the more resistance, the more US soldiers - and Iraqis
- would die or be wounded. Our troops didn't start the war.
We wanted them safe from harm. We also didn't want to see
casualties among ordinary Iraqis, whether civilians or the
young soldiers who believed they were fighting for their country.
It tore us apart to go about our daily lives while children
were being torn apart by American bombs.
We also worried about the costs of a quick US victory -
the risk of feeding more interventions, more "preemptive"
wars, and more imperial arrogance. We feared that this war
would not be the last that the Bush administration would wage.
With the war now over, many of our predictions have proved
correct. Looters and fundamentalist Shiites have dominated
the post-Saddam landscape. Despite justified relief about
the collapse of Saddam Hussein's brutal rule, most Iraqis
have not welcomed us with cheers, but with hesitation and
mistrust. Our attacks provoked riots throughout the Islamic
world, from Egypt and Pakistan to Indonesia and Malaysia.
Weapons of mass destruction still have not been found, and
may never be. Contracts are being handed out like Halloween
candy to Republican-linked corporations like Haliburton and
Bechtel, equal-opportunity merchants who had no problems dancing
with Saddam Hussein when he was in power, Haliburton as recently
as three years ago.
The global peace movement may have actually helped pressure
the US military to limit what they called "collateral damage,"
as they scaled down the initial plans for the massive bombardment
they called "shock & awe." Now, placed in what psychiatrist
Robert Jay Lifton called, during Vietnam, "an atrocity-creating
situation," our scared young soldiers have responded to suicide
bombers and snipers by shooting up cars full of women and
children and firing on unarmed demonstrators. Given the occupation's
continuing chaos and the developing bitterness of ordinary
Iraqis, our troops stand to be vulnerable targets for years.
But watching the complications unfold hasn't helped peace
movement morale. During the war itself, communities that had
massive demonstrations just a few weeks before saw the numbers
of those visibly protesting quickly melt away. Although public
witness remained critically important, we wanted to do more,
even to stop the bombs physically. We wanted the power to
immediately prevent the destructive actions that were unfolding,
but within the war's abbreviated timeframe, that was something
we couldn't do. As a result, many who'd just recently felt
a massive common strength, quickly felt isolated and confused,
and have remained so. It's not that we bought into the administration's
propaganda juggernaut, or do now that the war is over. But
it's hard to know how to challenge it, especially in an atmosphere
that attacks even the mildest dissent as allegiance to terrorism.
And without the clear focus of working to prevent a looming
war, it's now harder to define our common tasks.
As conservative pundits talk glibly of moving on to Syria
and Iran, we might start with questioning the ethic of arrogance
that would make this war just a first step toward a new imperial
America, at home and abroad. On the eve of the war, an army
mother from El Paso, Texas, wrote to me, describing why she'd
began attending peace vigils. She prayed every night for the
safety of her son and the others in his unit. "I have no doubts,"
she wrote, "about our military and the job it can do. But
does that make it right and just? I know that Saddam is an
evil dictator but he is but one in a long list, and I worry
that this administration will not want to stop with just him.
I heard Bill Bennett on TV last night and he was actually
grinning and saying that we were a superpower and we have
every right to show our might. What happened to 'being humble'?"
We need to challenge a view that we our leaders can do whatever
they choose without consequence, simply because they have
the power. After the UN didn't support the Bush administration
on Iraq, the Bush administration attacked anyway, then spurned
post-war international control, leaving our troops as visible
occupiers, exposed to attack, blamed for continued disorder,
and inflaming the Islamic world with their presence. Whenever
treaties on global warming, tobacco use, child labor, ballistic
missiles, or landmines threaten to place limits on corporate
or military power, the administration undermines them or withdraws,
even though this unilateralism makes it impossible for the
world to address our most urgent common problems. If the rich
want more tax breaks, it doesn't matter that the funds come
out of domestic education, health and social welfare budgets,
even the programs that serve military families. Those making
these decisions assume that they will have no costs, or none
to anyone who matters.
We need to challenge this politics of denial and contempt,
and offer alternatives that honor our common ties: working
with other nations, respecting communities at home, treating
democracy as more than just a rhetorical cloak for bullying
and greed. To do this effectively, we can begin by working
to re-involve those millions of ordinary citizens, who, despite
all the polls, do not believe the Bush administration's actions,
whether at home or abroad, have made the world safer, more
democratic, or more humane. For the moment, many have grown
quiet - isolated, intimidated, and demoralized. But this past
year, so many people got involved - either again or for the
first time - they could form the core of the largest American
peace and justice movement in decades.
Powerful journeys can emerge out of bleak times. The first
local NAACP meeting attended by Rosa Parks, a dozen years
before her stand on the Montgomery bus, addressed one of America's
own buried legacies of terror, the persistence of lynching.
We also never know what some of those just coming into involvement
may end up accomplishing. In the early 1960s, a friend of
mine named Lisa took two of her kids to a Washington, DC,
vigil in front of the White House, protesting nuclear testing.
The vigil was small, a hundred women at most. Rain poured
down. The women felt frustrated and powerless. A few years
later, the movement against testing had grown dramatically,
and Lisa attended a major march at which Dr. Benjamin Spock
spoke. He described how he'd come to take a stand, which because
of his stature had influenced thousands, and would continue
to after his early opposition to the Vietnam War. Spock talked
briefly about the issues, then mentioned being in DC a few
years before and seeing a small group of women marching, with
their kids, in the pouring rain. "I thought that if those
women were out there," he said, "their cause must be really
important." As he described the scene and setting, and how
much he was moved, Lisa realized that Spock was referring
to her soggy group.
The movements of this past year may well have brought into
involvement the next Ben Spock, the next Rosa Parks, the next
Martin Luther King. But the tide of new citizen activists
will matter only if we can find ways to re-involve them. A
prime task, therefore, has to be connecting with those people
who participated at the periphery of the movement but melted
away when the war began: the neighbor who displayed a peace
sign; the co-worker who went to a march or candle-light vigil;
the friend who raised hesitations. We need to validate their
impulse to participate to begin with, listen to their concerns,
refer them to groups that are acting. We need to give them
ways to reclaim their voice, and begin reaching out again
in their communities. Just the process of working to raise
issues together will help us recover some of our sense of
power, because nothing is more depressing than watching the
bad news in withdrawal and silence.
We have powerful potential allies institutionally as well
as individually. The recent movement brought together key
organizations and voices of conscience in ways that didn't
remotely occur even at the height of the opposition to the
Vietnam War. The Win Without War coalition joined the National
Council of Churches, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the National
Organization for Women, national peace groups, major union
leaders, and cyberactivists like www.moveon.org
and Working Assets. We saw strong peace statements from every
major Catholic leader and the heads of every major mainline
Protestant denomination except the Southern Baptists. ACLU
memberships have soared in the wake of the Patriot Act's gross
invasion of the most basic elements of privacy. If these institutions
and institutional leaders can keep working together, they
can offer powerful ways to create a common voice. Add in a
continuing global peace movement, and we have a powerful base
Making progress on any of these issues will be vastly easier,
of course, if we can get George Bush out of office. Many peace,
justice, and environmental activists are already shifting
gears to begin working toward this end. Many are backing the
more progressive Democratic candidates, like Howard Dean and
Dennis Kucinich. Some are supporting other contenders, like
Richard Gephardt and John Kerry. (Though Gephardt's support
of the war and Kerry's waffling hardly make this an easy task,
either would be far better than Bush in a dozen key ways if
they got in.) Others are focusing on registering disengaged
voters, and on beginning anew to talk about issues buried
beneath Bush's media whitewashing.
At some point we'll be left with no choice but to back the
last Democratic standing, or tacitly help Bush get reelected.
No matter who the Democratic nominee is in 2004, the Republican
agenda is ruthless and regressive enough, and the Bush electoral
machine so efficient, that we can't afford Green Party diversions.
We have to be united in voting, helping get out the vote,
and doing whatever we can. But between now and November 2004,
it will be our energies that do or don't build both the grassroots
movement that can hold Bush accountable for his actions and
the political context that can give us a chance to defeat
We live, alas, in a time of lies. If we stay silent, they
build up like mud piling in front of a door. The deeper the
mud, the harder it is to dig out from it. We need to find
ways to help our fellow citizens recognize how little this
administration has ever cared about democracy, and how much
about its own power. And how that power makes both individuals
and communities expendable, whether American troops deployed
in the Gulf, Iraqi civilians killed by our bombs, or ordinary
citizens living in communities seeing cuts in every institution
that serves the poor and vulnerable-and even the middle class,
as teachers get laid off from all but the most affluent public
schools. We need to start local dialogues about our choices
and priorities, who wins and who loses, and the long-term
implications of everything from waging preemptive war, to
ignoring global warming, to transferring unprecedented amounts
of money from the poorest to the wealthiest. We have to start
those dialogues now and with people who don't necessarily
agree with us. We need to give our fellow citizens the courage
not to just duck and cover when told they've no right to speak
out, and stand by those who are attacked.
Finally, we need to persist. The roots of the Iraq war go
back decades, from the "Southern Strategy" that handed the
Republicans so much political power to the US role in bringing
Saddam Hussein and his Baathist party to power to begin with.
These roots won't be instantly untangled. If we look just
at the past few months, we didn't win what we hoped. We ran
out of time to stop the war. But we were never in it only
to stop just a single war, but to redirect this country down
paths that treat the world with respect. And that's a task
to take on not in a single month or political season, but
throughout the course of our lives.
Immediately, we need to do whatever we can between now and
November of 2004 to elect a different president. But we also
have to be in this for the long haul. If we act with enough
courage, and persevere long enough in raising the real and
difficult issues, the turnings of history may surprise us
in powerful and hopeful ways. Despite the Bush administration's
insistence to the contrary, we are far from alone in this
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen:
Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.soulofacitizen.org
for more information. To receive Paul's articles directly,
send a blank message to firstname.lastname@example.org