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Winning the (Anti)War and Rebuilding Political Imagination | The Nation

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Winning the (Anti)War and Rebuilding Political Imagination

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Dan Berger and Andy Cornell

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January 24, 2007

Sometimes studying history is useful for more than passing a test. This is one of them. In 1969, opposition to the immoral war against Vietnam was nearing its height on the streets and college campuses of the United States. In Vietnam itself, U.S. troops were losing ground, even as they deployed vicious chemical weapons such as Agent Orange on the people and countryside of the small country in southeast Asia. More and more American soldiers were pledging their sympathies with the radical movements in their own country while expressing confusion over the purpose of U.S. involvement overseas. Despite his campaign promise to end the conflict, President Nixon's response was to expand the war by launching bombing raids against Cambodia, a neighboring country accused of harboring that era's political bogeymen, communist insurgents.

Sound familiar? Not two months after voters delivered an unmistakable electoral mandate against the current illegal and brutal U.S. occupation of Iraq, and with top generals declaring the fight militarily hopeless, President Bush announced his intention to expand rather than curtail the war, by sending an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq. Despite the callous arrogance it exposes, Bush's expansion of the war is nothing new. Still, the more relevant historical question is, what did those U.S. citizens who opposed the Vietnam War--after years of peaceful marches and voting for nominally anti-war candidates--do in response to Nixon's escalation?

They set their country, our country, ablaze, literally and metaphorically. The expansion of the Vietnam War into neighboring countries resulted in massive resistance that shut down college campuses through student strikes--often punctuated with incendiary blasts targeting ROTC buildings and the laboratories of professors paid by the government to research more effective ways to kill or repress people--and turned out spirited protests in cities and towns across the country. Many demonstrators realized that the pageantry of marching down prearranged routes had proven insufficient to stop the war. This ethical quandary required a political leap: Having taken each of the actions allotted for citizen participation within the liberal democratic system (voting, writing to Congress, circulating petitions, marching) without meeting their goals, they were still culpable for the massive, daily violence enacted by their government. The war's expansion necessitated an immediate and unequivocal response, even if that meant taking actions considered illegal by that same government. Anti-war actions in the spring of 1970 harnessed this unbridled anger to directly confront the war makers and make their policies unable to function as long as the criminal war continued.

By recounting this history, we are certainly not calling for armed insurrection or random acts of property destruction. Rather, we are arguing for a dramatic reconsideration of the strategies and tactics the anti-war movement has utilized nationally to date. Lately pundits have had a laugh with the comment that there is a clear case for designating Bush insane, if we are to accept the definition that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But if we accede to this logic, would a psychiatrist be forced to give our own anti-war movement the same miserable diagnosis?

As we approach the four-year anniversary of the war in/occupation of Iraq, the need for effective, sustained, and massive resistance is urgent. We cannot sit back now that Democrats control both houses of Congress. Nor can we wait out Bush's term, expecting the war to end if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama manages to win control of the White House. Remember: the people of Iraq have suffered consistently through U.S. military bombardment since 1991. And just as Nixon inherited a war begun by Democrats, so too is the Bush administration expanding a campaign of economic sanctions and bombings maintained by Clinton since the first Gulf War. Sanctions killed an estimated 1.5 million Iraqis, and the current military adventure has killed anywhere from 34,000 to 675,000 Iraqis, along with more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers and untold millions wounded or made orphans and refugees. Joined by a smattering of anti-war Republicans, the triumphant Democratic congressional majority has yet to mobilize the formal mechanisms of political power against the war.

Building a global movement

The anti-war movement cannot afford to waste this moment. Most people in the U.S. oppose the war in Iraq--and remain bitterly divided on other key issues of political significance, including immigration, abortion and environmental protection. The frustration with the war should not be confused with an anti-imperialist majority; most people do not oppose empire. But with grassroots organizing, their frustration could be channeled to broader social justice commitments. When joined with a strategic priority to shutting down the system that thrives on war, such organizing can go a long way toward making all edifices of the country--military, schools, businesses--ungovernable until the war ends.

The same old protest march is not going to cut it. Such displays are always necessary, but never sufficient. Like so many others, we will be among the many filling the streets of Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27. But the anti-war movement must step up to the challenge of the moment or risk alienating its base and sympathizers. While a longer historical view shows that the effects of a demonstration are often not immediately felt, it is equally true that regularly engaging in the same protest every six months proves demoralizing.

Demonstrations go a long way toward bringing a critical mass to symbolically confront the powerful and show the depths of anti-war sentiment. This is vital--but it must be joined with sustained organizing and direct confrontations with the war makers, especially after appeals to reason, wisdom and political expediency have fallen on deaf ears. Movements in countries such as Bolivia and Argentina, together with the mass global justice demonstrations in this country, show that well-organized actions attempting to shut down institutions or entire cities are much more vital than actions that only seek to "make our voices heard." Even when they cannot achieve a full cessation of activities, obstructionist actions succeed in forcing debate, raising social costs to elites, and, just as importantly, firing the creativity and passion of those moved to action.

We recognize and sincerely respect the enormous effort many organizations and individuals have dedicated to the anti-war effort to date, including the organizers of the January 27 mobilization. But none of us can be satisfied with our collective results; we need to act more, but also act differently. Combining on-the-ground organizing--with the prime leadership of soldiers/veterans and their families--with support for (or at least a refusal to denounce) sectors of the movement that utilize more confrontational tactics could hasten the war's end.

We have the opportunity now, in this generation, to affirm a new, democratic critique of empire--a radical anti-imperialism that fully affirms human rights, equitable distribution of resources, ecological sustainability, and grassroots democracy without being mired in the repressive anti-humanism of Stalinism, as previous generations of the left have been. Such a hybrid political platform, a new way of political mobilization, was slowly taking shape in the United States through the global justice movement but was derailed by the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent military adventures. We have the chance to recreate that momentum on a mass scale--through gatherings like this summer's U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta and through a revitalized strategic commitment to stopping the war. We have the opportunity for a reinvigorated mass movement capable of turning Orwellian America into the America Langston Hughes called for, one that has never existed.

The revived anti-war movement would be indistinguishable from a reinvigorated movement against corporate globalization: Global Justice 2.0. Like Web 2.0, this revitalized radicalism is based on interactivity, on combining our many issues into a vibrant movement committed to bringing into being the other world we all chant is possible. A '60s slogan suggested that "the issue is not the issue"; today we have the Zapatistas encouraging us with "points of convergence" based on "one no, many yeses." This energy should serve as the catalyst for a 21st century radical political imagination. Every action defending the environment or immigrant rights is an anti-war action. Every anti-war rally, a stand against patriarchy and growing economic inequality. In theory and practice, U.S. foreign policy--in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Guantanamo, and elsewhere--is rooted in a racialized and gendered attempt at global conquest, leaving dead bodies and environmental catastrophe in its wake. Organizing against the war, therefore, must be equally wide-ranging.

More people will feel that taking action to resist the war in Iraq is worth their time and energy when the movement ably connects the problems caused by the war to the problems they face in their daily lives. This goes beyond the wide and impressive range of signs that appropriately characterize any mobilization. Instead, it is affirming the porous boundaries of the anti-war movement by asserting a commitment to reshaping U.S. foreign and domestic policies from the ground up. It means taking the risks in organizing and conversation, thought and action, to actualize the world we want to see. In short, it means rescuing the political imagination from the neoliberal mindset that has maintained such a firm, deadly grip since at least the '80s.

In Greensboro, N.C., nine people were recently arrested for their refusal to allow Bush's expansion of the war. They stepped into a central intersection and surrounded a pyramid with anti-war messages they had created for the action. When they refused orders to disperse, they were arrested. This simple action was prominently featured on the local television news, in newspapers, on web blogs, and was passed on by word of mouth. In this small Southern town, home both to a rich civil rights movement legacy and a fair share of conservatives, this act was enough to prompt discussions about the war and about civil disobedience. Such a small act will not stop the war alone--and experience and history each prove that the mainstream media is always more concerned with tactics than politics, regardless of how nonviolent the demonstration. But if such protests create more discussion of anti-war ideas and encourage others to take part in similar, and ultimately grander, actions, they are important parts of the anti-war movement.

In bigger cities, larger scale confrontations are needed to break through the mainstream media's radio silence regarding opposition to the war and spur far-reaching debate and action. In Montreal, organizers have undertaken inspiring work to halt their own government's support for the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through a formation called Block the Empire. The group recognizes the need to not simply voice disapproval, but to "disrupt and directly impact the interests" of those enabling the war, and has done so regularly. Throughout the fall of 2006, Block the Empire staged a die-in in the offices of a right-wing newspaper, gate-crashed a press conference for the Canadian prime minister, occupied a recruiting station, organized study groups, and more. Just as importantly, Block the Empire argues the need to not only address war and militarism, but also "their roots and manifestations: colonialism, imperialism and capitalism." The group seeks to "expose the links between capitalist globalization and patriarchy, racism and all forms of oppression, both here and abroad."

If history is a guide, the more stubborn the foreign policy establishment commits itself to pursuing war, the more militant people will get in their response. Knowing this, the anti-war movement has an obligation to prevent the government and mass media from splitting our ranks based on tactical differences. What it means to be politically relevant, to take responsibility for the tremendous violence being done in our names, will differ from place to place. But the responsibility to act strongly and immediately is universal, even as it finds different expression. Thus, the anti-war movement has a responsibility to support this range of options strategically deployed to not only stop this war but overturn the social and economic policies that make war such a defining feature of U.S. society.

Age ain't nothing but a number

In the '60s, the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills sought to dispel what he called "the labor metaphysic," the notion doggedly adhered to by the old, Communist Party-dominated left, that the only people who could make real change in the world were proletarians, or industrial working men. Mills was an inspiration to the New Left, which has (falsely) come to be associated with middle-class college students. Yet, today, the success of the '60s movements has yielded a "student metaphysic," at least when it comes to the war. Older liberals and progressives routinely bemoan the lack of a student movement; some even come close to calling for reinstating the draft to encourage youthful revolt.

The youth of today are not occupying college campuses or physically damaging recruiting centers the ways our parents--or at least their generation--was doing. Our generation has been exposed to its fair share of military conflicts, but they've all been fought quickly, technologically, and with minimal resistance or U.S. casualties--Grenada, Panama, Gulf War I, Kosovo, Somalia, and beyond. Today's student movement searches for direction, but also for support and inspiration. Turning 30, 40 or 65 is not a license for backseat political driving. If the war is the abomination we all declare it to be, opposition to it must be equally intergenerational.

The draft during the Vietnam War was undoubtedly a leading cause of youthful insurgency. But it was not the only such factor. Dave Dellinger and many other activists were well past the age of being drafted when they committed themselves to the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and similar groups. The ecumenical grouping of nine priests, Jews, and atheists that burned draft records in Catonsville, Md., in 1969 did so to fulfill political obligation rather than avoid personal risk. The nascent Students for a Democratic Society, organizers of the first anti-Vietnam War march in April 1965, were catalyzed to action by the politically engaging and tactically creative intergenerational civil rights movement. And the most inspired and inspiring anti-war organizing--then and now--was not by students resisting the draft but returning soldiers pledged to prevent the machinery of empire from doing to others what it did to them. There are many young people willing to protest or risk arrest or tear gas--they have been doing it for the past four years (or more), and many more are waiting in the wings. But such risks are not the province of any particular age group. It takes a movement to stop a war. And building a movement is everyone's responsibility.

Moving forward

The challenge, as we see it, is to pledge allegiance to humanity rather than to any single nation: that is, to dedicate oneself to ideals--of liberty and equality on a global scale--and commit to the mechanisms of enacting such a radical political vision. Such a promise means being proud to fight in the name and tradition of those who have advanced those values, rather than making a blind commitment to a country marked by a history of dispossession, exclusion, and genocide, both within its own borders and on a global level. It means making visible the suffering of the poor, in the United States, Iraq, and elsewhere, as well as the barely detectable anti-war movement.

We must fight to replace state- and media-enforced obscurity with a radical democratic vision--ways of organizing and living in the world that allow no place for racist wars fought to control resources and demonstrate irresistible dominance. It will require visionary thinking that seeks to understand how the Bush administration does at gunpoint--out of panic, rage, and hubris--what preceding administrations did through economic policies to people around the world. Visionary thinking that recognizes the millions of people streaming across borders, proclaiming their right to survive, have been put in motion by the same policies and rifle barrels that continue to obliterate Iraq. Visionary thinking that connects the dots between oil wars and agribusiness, between a flooded New Orleans and a snowless New England.

We put this visionary thinking to practice in the streets of Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27 (and again on March 19 and June 6). But unless the anti-war movement wishes to resign itself to insanity or anonymity, we must make this demonstration, every demonstration from here on out, different from the last one. That the entire world opposes the war in Iraq is abundantly clear. What is needed now is an audacious and strategic anti-war movement committed to stopping it.

For more information on the anti-war March on Washington this Saturday, Jan. 27, visit UnitedforPeace.org. If you can't make it to D.C. this weekend, check the UFPJ calendar for actions planned in your city.

Dan Berger is a writer, activist, and graduate student living in Philadelphia. He is the author of Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006) and co-editor of Letters From Young Activists: Today's Rebels Speak Out. (Nation Books, 2005). Andy Cornell is an activist and a graduate student living in Brooklyn. He works with the NYC Left Turn Magazine collective.

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