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.

no-more-war
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.

A Revealing Moment at the Democratic National Convention

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Honest passion at the DNC

W.J. Astore

Yes, there was a revealing moment at last night’s Democratic National Convention.  No, it wasn’t President Obama’s soaring speech, or Joe Biden’s heartfelt appeal, or Tim Kaine’s “believe me” lampoon of Donald Trump.  All these were scripted.

It was the anti-war protesters who spoke out against drone assassinations and war while former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke.

Good for them.  This democratic convention has been at pains to please the military. Last night, Panetta called the U.S. military our greatest national treasure.  Obama repeated his claim that the U.S. military is the finest fighting force since Cain slew Abel.  Tim Kaine opened his remarks by mentioning the Marines and shouting Semper Fi.

The Democrats are the new Republicans: they’re going “all in” on military boosterism and ra-ra patriotism.

Which is why the anti-war protest was so refreshing.  End the wars — end the killing — what’s wrong with these protesters for expressing such crazy sentiments at a Democratic political rally?  (An aside: my favorite sign read “Fauxmocracy.”)

The DNC response was swift.  Apparently, they cut the lights to the section where the main body of protesters sat (the Oregon delegation), but the protesters simply pulled out their Smart phones for light.  Panetta, of course, ignored them, carrying on with his prepared speech that vilified Trump for his remarks about Vladimir Putin and hacking.  (Pretty dumb by The Donald, but the man is an empty barrel, an Archie Bunker who loves to make lots of noise.)

Most interesting of all was media response.  I was watching MSNBC (I think) when a commentator attacked the anti-war protesters for undercutting Panetta’s speech against Trump.  Yes, it was the protesters who were TOTALLY in the wrong!  How dare they chant “no more war” at a former CIA Director and secretary of war? How dare they challenge an olympian like Panetta while he’s on the stage?  How dare they organize and exercise their first amendment rights?

Expect more unbounded praise of the U.S. military tonight by Hillary Clinton. Expect more talk of war.  Just don’t expect any honest talk about the cost of America’s wars or any vows about ending them in our lifetimes.

Update (7/28):

I just endured General Allen’s jingoistic speech/scream and all the “USA! USA!” chants, followed by a short speech by a Medal of Honor recipient in favor of Clinton.

After which Brian Williams of MSNBC said, “Sadly,” you could still hear faintly the voices of protesters shouting “No more war.” Why is that so sad, Brian Williams? Why is it so sad for Democrats to be against war? Why must they shut up when a general speaks, a general who boasts of making the U.S. military stronger with even better weaponry with which to kill?

That’s the real “sad” part, Brian Williams: How the Democratic Party has become the war party.

Where’s the Anti-War Movement?

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Thousands of people with signs of peace gather on Library Mall for the start of an anti-war rally protesting a potential United States-led war against Iraq. Protesters later marched up State Street to the Wisconsin State Capitol Building. ©UW-Madison University Communications 608/262-0067 Photo by: Jeff Miller

W.J. Astore

Yesterday, Ira Chernus had a stimulating article at TomDispatch.com in which he noted the present lack of an American anti-war movement.  When it comes to war and foreign policy, Americans face a Hobson’s choice: the Democrats with drones and Special Ops and bombing against evildoers, or the Republicans with even more drones and Special Ops and bombing against even more evildoers.  The American master narrative, Chernus noted, is essentially all war.

He’s right about this, and I think it’s mainly for five reasons:

  1. The military draft is gone, so our youth can safely (they think) ignore America’s never-ending wars. In Vietnam, with the draft, most of our youth didn’t have the luxury of apathy.  Today, our youth have little personal incentive (as yet) to push back against the prevailing war narrative.
  2. Militarism.  Creeping militarism has shifted the American narrative rightwards.  In the Vietnam period, General Curtis LeMay’s “bomb them back to the stone age” was a fringe opinion; now it’s mainstream with “carpet bombing” Cruz and Trump and Rubio, the “top three” Republican presidential contenders after the Iowa caucuses.
  3. The Democrats have also shifted rightwards, so much so that now both major political parties embrace endless war. War, in short, has been normalized and removed from partisan politics.  As Chernus documents, you simply can’t get an alternative narrative from the U.S. political mainstream.  For that, you have to look to much smaller political parties, e.g. the Green Party.
  4. The U.S. mainstream media has been thoroughly co-opted by corporations that profit from war.  Anti-war ideas simply don’t get published; or, if they do, they’re dismissed as unserious.  I simply can’t imagine any of today’s TV talking heads coming out against the war on terror like Walter Cronkite came out in the 1960s against Vietnam. There is simply no push back from the U.S. media.
  5. Finally, a nebulous factor that’s always lurking: FEAR.  The popular narrative today is that terrorists may kill you at any time right here in America.  So you must be ready to “lockdown“; you must be ready to “shelter in place.”  You must always defer to the police and military to keep you safe.  You must fully fund the military or YOU WILL DIE. Repeated incantations of fear reinforce the master narrative of war.

Chernus makes many good points about how America’s constant warring in the Middle East only feeds radical Islam.  In short, it’s vital to develop a new narrative, not only because the current one feeds war and death, but also because it’s fated to fail.

I doubt pacifism will fly in warrior corp USA.  But why not containment?  Containment worked against the Soviet Union, or so most Americans believe.  If it worked against the far greater threat posed by the USSR, why shouldn’t it work against radical Islam?

Containment suggests several concrete actions: American troops should pull out of the Middle East.  Bombing and drone strikes should stop.  Establish a cordon sanitaire around the area.  Lead a diplomatic effort to resolve the conflicts.  And recognize that violent civil and ideological wars within Islam may need to burn themselves out.

One thing is certain: Because violent U.S. actions are most likely to act as accelerants to radical Islam, we need to stop attacking.  Now.

Yes, the U.S. has a responsibility to help the peoples of the region.  American actions helped to create the mess.  But you don’t “solve” the mess by blowing more people and things to smithereens.

Containment, diplomacy, humanitarian aid.  Not a chest-thumping course of action celebrated by the likes of Trump or Cruz or Clinton, but a new master narrative that would be more likely to spare lives and reduce the chaos in the Middle East.