Where’s the Antiwar Movement?

W.J. Astore

In America, we get what we pay for

A question I hear often concerns the lack of a strong antiwar movement in America. The last large protest against war I remember preceded the Iraq invasion in 2003. The nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s was sharply focused and somewhat effective in raising concerns about nuclear escalation between the US and USSR. But I can’t recall a truly powerful and effective antiwar movement since the Vietnam War days, when the draft was still in force and American troops were dying in the tens of thousands in a useless and atrocious war in Southeast Asia.

And those are, of course, two key reasons why America lacks a strong antiwar movement today: there is no military draft, and Americans are not dying in large numbers in a deeply unpopular war.

Rally agains the Iraq War in 2003. Photo by Jeff Miller

Another obvious (I think) reason: we get what we pay for. America pays for war and weapons, we even speak of “investing” in them, so at some (deep) level we believe in war and its efficacy. We are caught or even enraptured by it; our culture is infused with it, whether you speak of movies like “Top Gun: Maverick” or video games like the “Call of Duty” franchise or sporting events that routinely celebrate “our” troops and their weaponry. We “invest” in wars and weapons, and that investment sure pays dividends for the military and all its weapons makers.

There’s another reason as well, perhaps more subtle: the antiwar movement is fragmented whereas pro-war forces are united. What unites them is the pursuit of power, greed, profit, and their own sense they are being patriotic in “defending” America. A lot of people make a lot of money off the military-industrial complex, but it’s not solely about money. They also gain an identity from it and relatively high social status. (The military remains deeply respected within American culture.)

By comparison, antiwar forces in America are fragmented. In talking to some members, I found considerable diversity in what motivates them. This is hardly surprising. There’s no one “big” war to be against, as in the Vietnam War years or in the run up to the Iraq War. Being against war in general is not as compelling a message to fence-straddlers. Meanwhile, Americans are being told by the mainstream media that war works in places like Ukraine and that a new cold war is looming with Russia and China, so how can we afford the hypothetical comforts of peace when we’re afflicted by the grim realities of war?

Again, antiwar forces sometimes disagree about what is at the root of America’s hyper-aggressiveness and how best to counter it. I hear that we must tackle racism first; I hear that the white male patriarchy must be dismantled; I hear that indigenous peoples must finally obtain justice and reparations for the land and livelihoods stolen from them; I hear that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities must be heard and empowered; these motivations and agendas, and more, animate antiwar voices and communities. Diversity can be a strength, but it can also make working on a common cause problematic when there’s no clear unity of purpose.

I am perhaps most familiar with antiwar voices on the left, though I also listen to Tulsi Gabbard, Tucker Carlson, Rand Paul, and other voices that are considered right or libertarian. Generally speaking, the left doesn’t want to make common cause against war with the right, and vice-versa. There’s simply too much distrust and distaste. This is perhaps a fatal blow to building a truly effective antiwar movement.

I say this because the pro-war movement in America is truly bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans routinely come together in Congress to vote for more money for weapons and for more war. If we are to resist this, the antiwar movement must also be bipartisan. It must also pitch a big tent and let all people in, irrespective of their political affiliations.

I’d add as well that some antiwar voices in America are also anti-military. Perhaps I’m biased as a retired military officer, but I don’t think an anti-military message is attractive or compelling to most Americans. Anti-militarism, yes. Antiwar, yes. Anti-military, no. That said, I strongly believe America needs to reject warrior and warfighter nonsense and return to its roots and traditions with citizen-soldiers and a much smaller standing military.

Back in 2016, I wrote a similar article on the absence of a concerted antiwar war movement in America. Looking at that today, I think I should repeat the point I made about fear and threat inflation. To wit:

“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.”

So, perhaps the biggest reason America lacks an effective antiwar movement is simply that we get what we pay for. America spends roughly a trillion dollars a year on wars and weaponry and an imperial military presence, so that’s what we get. We’re not spending a trillion a year on peace and diplomacy and conflict resolution. We reap what we sow, and what we sow is almost entirely favorable to more war.

Are Women the Secret Weapon in a Mass Antiwar Movement?

W.J. Astore

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is an organization that’s helped to change the narrative on drinking and driving. Could a new organization like Mothers Against War (MAW) do the same for the world’s endless cycles of war?

In an antiwar movement that’s often fragmented and something less than the sum of its parts, a movement that unites women (and, of course, sympathetic men) in a dedicated push against war makes a lot of sense, argues Andre Sheldon. As he pointed out to me in our conversation yesterday, women united in the #MeToo movement against sexual violence; women marched on Washington in the aftermath of Trump’s election, donning pussy hats to remind us of his wanton and casual sexism (see Linda Roller’s account here for Bracing Views); Black women created the Black Lives Matter movement; and women helped to drive a movement against gun violence in the “Moms Demand Action” movement.

One thing we all have in common: we all have mothers. And there’s another thing that’s true for most of us (especially for us men): We should have listened to our mothers more, especially as a counterpoint to macho pro-war narratives being driven by powerful state and corporate interests.

As retired Army Colonel Ann Wright so eloquently put it recently: “For God’s Sake Boys, Stop this War S**t!!!”

In one of my favorite “Calvin & Hobbes” comic strips (from 1987), Calvin is shown comparing art projects with his friend, Susie. While Susie is content with a “tidy little domestic scene,” Calvin has something more ambitious in mind:

Something tells me we need more Susies and fewer Calvins.

For some reason, certain men, especially those who wear suits in the government, seem to think that toughness is all about putting on “big boy pants” and waging war. Of course, these same men usually don’t go to war themselves; they send other “boys” to fight and die for them. Macho posturing is common to both political parties in the United States, and it’s not just restricted to men. Perhaps the worst offenders were George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who also both avoided the Vietnam War, but women like Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice have shown no remorse in waging disastrous wars. Think here of Hillary’s infamous comment, “We came, we saw, he died” in the aftermath of the death of Qaddafi and the collapse of Libya into chaos.

Obviously, the answer isn’t as simple as putting women like Clinton or Rice in command. What we need instead are courageous and outspoken women like Barbara Lee and Dorothy Day. For, as Dorothy Day put it, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

Too many men have the emotional maturity of eight-year-old boys still seeking to knock each other over as they play “king of the hill.” But when the hill is Planet Earth and the toys they play with are nuclear missiles, the stakes are somewhat higher than bragging rights at the local playground.

Instead of “Jesus, take the wheel,” maybe it’s high time that women do. Something tells me we’d be better off as a people and as a planet.

Addendum: For more information on Andre Sheldon’s proposal, please check out his Facebook page.

Testament of Youth

W.J. Astore

Perhaps the most powerful antiwar film that I’ve seen is “Testament of Youth” (2014), based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of the same title. I watched it soon after it first came out, and I rewatched it this past week after Russia invaded Ukraine. The film rips your heart out with its depiction of the costs of war: battered and bloodied bodies, blasted and shattered nature. It’s set during World War I and recounts Brittain’s heartrending loss of her fiancé, her brother, and other close friends. Brittain is played brilliantly by Alicia Vikander, who pours her heart and soul into every scene.

Especially powerful is the scene near the end, where Brittain passionately denounces war and the way it demonizes and dehumanizes the enemy, even as “patriots” (including her younger self) send young men off to fight and die in the name of honor. Even if you haven’t seen all that leads up to this scene, it retains its power (you may need to click and watch on YouTube):

“No to killing. No to war.”

Near the end of Brittain’s memoir, she passionately asks us to find another way, a better way, than the murderous one of war. She seeks to “rescue mankind from that domination by the irrational which leads to war,” to lead an “exultant fight” against war that would enlarge the soul of humanity.

Earlier in her memoir, she quoted from the war diary she kept that “It is impossible to find any satisfaction in the thought of 25,000 slaughtered Germans, left to mutilation and decay; the destruction of men as though beasts, whether they be English, French, German or anything else, seems a crime to the whole march of civilization.” How right she was, and remains.

One aspect of this film I truly appreciate is that it shows the costs of war without glorifying battle. In fact, there are no spectacular battle scenes; no rousing music; nothing to distract us from war’s many horrors. The movie does not romanticize war in any way, which makes it that much more effective.

I’m astonished this movie isn’t better known. It is worth 100 “Avatars” and “Titanics” and Marvel/DC superhero movies. Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked; antiwar films are rarely that popular, no matter how powerful, no matter how well-crafted, no matter how true.

If you haven’t seen it, watch it. Think about its message. We need to ask ourselves, again and again, why we as humans simply can’t say no to war.

Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in “Testament of Youth”