America Needs a Stronger Anti-War Movement

W.J. Astore

Remember that saying from the Vietnam War era, “Suppose they gave a war and no one came?”  Considering present events, we need to modify that.  Suppose they kept giving us war after war and no one cared?

It’s remarkable that, even as President Trump expands our military involvement overseas, there is no significant anti-war protest movement in America.  Why is this?  Perhaps Americans don’t recognize the reality of today’s wars?

Tom Engelhardt has a great article today in which he reflects about World War II, the Vietnam War, and current conflicts around the world.  He ends his article with this powerful question:

In many ways, from its founding the United States has been a nation made by wars. The question in this century is: Will its citizenry and its form of government be unmade by them?

The answer to that is “yes,” if we continue largely to ignore them.

Protesters who shouted “No more war!” at the Democratic National Convention were silenced

Let me give you an example; it may sound trivial, but I think it’s indicative.  I just finished watching a seven-part series on HBO, “Big Little Lies.”  Set on the Monterey peninsula in California, the series revolved around several sets of mostly affluent, mostly White, parents and the travails of their privileged children.  The series did tackle serious issues, especially spousal abuse, and did feature fine acting.  What it did not feature was any sense that the U.S. has a military, let alone that America is at war around the world.

Wait a minute, you’re saying.  Why should a series featuring mostly affluent adults and their precocious children have said anything about the U.S. military and its wars?  Because of the setting.  I lived in Monterey for three years while serving as the military dean of students at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey.  I also taught at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.  The U.S. military has a high profile there, but you’d never know it from watching “Big Little Lies.”  From that series, you’d think nearly everyone lived in sleek and expensive houses gazing out on the Pacific Ocean.  You’d never think that American adults had any concern whatsoever about what their military was up to around the world.  And perhaps that’s even true.

One teenager in “Big Little Lies” stirs family controversy by plotting to sell her virginity on the Internet to raise awareness of human trafficking.  (She eventually backs down.)  Perhaps she might have protested America’s wars instead?

So, why aren’t Americans protesting war?  Besides the unreality of these wars to the “Big Little Lies” crowd, here are some reasons that come to mind:

  • They’re couched as “necessary” wars against terrorism.
  • Unlike WWII or Vietnam, there’s no draft, hence the wars directly impact only American “volunteers” and their families/friends.
  • Recent U.S. casualties are much lower than they were from 2004-10 before, during, and after the “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and much lower than in Vietnam. Americans care most when Americans die.  Witness the reaction to one Navy SEAL dying in a raid in Yemen.  If comparatively few American are dying, we don’t care much.
  • There is no major anti-war political party in the USA; the Democrats have embraced war as tightly as the Republicans. In short, there’s no strong rallying point against war.
  • The U.S. military has developed a form of war, based on technologies such as “smart” munitions and drones, that at least to us seems antiseptic and low cost.
  • American exceptionalism also plays a role, the government/mainstream media spin that Americans always enter wars reluctantly and only to do good.
  • Fear.  And nationalism (America First!) disguised as patriotism.

Another crucial reason: Many if not most Americans are remarkably disconnected from their government and its actions.  As Engelhardt wrote in another article (on the legendary journalist I. F. Stone):

What’s missing is any sense of connection to the government, any sense that it’s “ours” or that we the people matter. In its place—and you can thank successive administrations for this—is the deepest sort of pessimism and cynicism about a national security state and war-making machine beyond our control. And why protest what you can’t change?

Engelhardt wrote this in 2015, when Barack Obama was still commander-in-chief.  Now we have Trump and his unmerry crew, operating in their own bellicose reality.  In 2017 even more Americans are disconnected from the government, which they don’t see as “theirs.”  (Meanwhile, those who do see Trump and Crew as “theirs” probably embrace a bellicose approach to foreign policy.)

Disconnecting from government does not mean one should disconnect from its wars.  Those wars are being waged in our name; it’s up to us to work to end them.

Afterthoughts: Many Americans think that anti-war protest is somehow against “our” troops.  Yet, what could be better for our troops than fewer wars and less fighting?  Also, it’s foolhardy to give the U.S. military a blank check when it comes to war.  We the people are supposed to control our military, which is why America’s Founders gave Congress the power to declare war and to control the budget.  Finally, whether they know it or not, the Pentagon and its generals seriously need push-back from the American people.  When I watch Congressional hearings, most of our representatives are at pains to praise the military, instead of challenging it with tough questions.

Our military gets enough kudos!  What it needs is serious criticism, not unstinting praise along with buckets of money.

6 thoughts on “America Needs a Stronger Anti-War Movement

  1. Nixon learned that without a Draft that might threaten middle-class youth, opposition to warmaking would dwindle to zilch. Still true, unfortunately. And another lesson is that the length of the existence of a dominant empire is in inverse proportion to its’ waste of national treasure on war production.


    1. Nailed it in the first sentence. Ironic that when the “power to the people” left ended active conscription, they turned our presidents into emperors while arming them with the known weapon of republican destruction.


  2. I have my own tales to tell of life as a U.S. Navy enlisted man at the Defense Language Institute, West Coast (DLIWC), in 1969-1970, but I’ll save those for a separate comment. Here, I would like to address this article’s “afterthoughts” regarding America’s putative — meaning, “commonly accepted or supposed” — civilian control of the country’s military, a bungling bureaucratic behemoth that I prefer to call, with all due disrespect, The Lunatic Leviathan. I once spent nearly six years as an indigestible ingredient within the bowels of the bloated beast, so I know something of whence I speak. Still, no need to take my jaundiced and jaded word for it, please see the following for the essence of the implacable problem faced by every post-WWII President of United States upon taking office and every day that he (or she) occupies it thereafter:

    JFK vs. the Military, by Robert Dallek, The Atlantic, Special JFK Commemorative Issue (August, 2013)

    A few of my favorite passages:

    “President Kennedy faced a foe more relentless than Khrushchev, just across the Potomac: the bellicose Joint Chiefs of Staff argued for the deployment of nuclear weapons and kept pressing to invade Cuba. A presidential historian reveals that Kennedy’s success in fending them off may have been his most consequential victory.”

    A good way to start off, but I prefer the term Joint Chefs of Stuff to the formal title enjoyed by this collective proof of the Peter Principle’s timeless applicability. But moving right along to the heart of the matter:

    “[After the Bay of Pigs], Kennedy accused himself of naïveté for trusting the military’s judgment that the Cuban operation was well thought-out and capable of success. “Those sons of bitches with all the fruit salad just sat there nodding, saying it would work,” Kennedy said of the chiefs. He repeatedly told his wife, “Oh my God, the bunch of advisers that we inherited!” Kennedy concluded that he was too little schooled in the Pentagon’s covert ways and that he had been overly deferential to the CIA and the military chiefs. He later told [Arthur M.] Schlesinger [Jr.] he had made the mistake of thinking that “the military and intelligence people have some secret skill not available to ordinary mortals.” His lesson: never rely on the experts. Or at least: be skeptical of the inside experts’ advice, and consult with outsiders who may hold a more detached view of the policy in question.”

    The bottom line for any U.S. President:

    “The disaster at the Bay of Pigs intensified Kennedy’s doubts about listening to advisers from the CIA, the Pentagon, or the State Department who had misled him or allowed him to accept lousy advice.”

    President Lyndon Johnson failed to understand this danger and got railroaded into escalating the Pentagram’s War on Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) by the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin” (not the Gulf of Mexico) “incident.” Tens of thousands of young men from my generation paid the price for President Johnson’s gullibility and fear of what the Pentagram and its Republican congressional allies would do to his domestic agenda if he did not surrender to their demands for “involvement” in America’s foreign policy.

    Moving forward in time to the recent past, President Barack Obama, immediately upon assuming office in 2009, got railroaded into “surging” more thousands of targets (usually referred to as “troops”) into the Afghanistan Shooting Gallery, and President Donald Trump — eight years later — has already had the same scam pulled on him. Had he actually known more than “his generals” — which wouldn’t take much — he’d have summarily fired the lot of them in order to enjoy a much greater freedom of action than he now has. It seems that our post-WWII U.S. presidents never read Machiavelli’s The Prince (a pretty tiny little book) or even watch The Godfather on used DVD or VHS tape. Get all your enemies and get them at once or they’ll get you.

    President Donald Trump apparently thought that he had all of Day One to do his thing. He didn’t even have an hour. So much for what he “knows.”


  3. Most people are just struggling to live. Rising rents and exorbitant levels of student debt make showing up for anything a challenge. Also mass surveillance is a pretty good way to keep people from protesting anything. I live in Missouri and back in 07 or 08, we had police infiltrate a bunch of 60 year old quakers who were protesting the Iraq war. How are most people supposed to make their voices heard when the ship is on auto pilot and you are struggling to stay afloat?


  4. Great article and some very good replies. I asked family that supported the Iraq war if it was ‘fair to support a war that you don’t want your children to fight in?’ Bush had some smart people around him, having reporters imbedded with troops to control their stories and have them feel empathy for the troops, no draft- this was huge, putting out propaganda that stated that if you didn’t support the war- you were anti-American, anti-military and didn’t deserve to be free.


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