Support Their Troops?

Support Their Troops?

If the American people are largely against the war, what’s the matter with the antiwar movement? The answer lies with what has happened over the years to the American left.


Lawrence McGuire, a North Carolinian now teaching in Montpellier, France, organized a meeting of antiwar Americans and various interested French parties there at which I spoke last fall. Since then, we’ve been discussing off and on the strange fact that while two-thirds of Americans oppose the war in Iraq and want the troops to come home, the antiwar movement is pretty much dead. McGuire had raised the matter of direct solidarity with Iraqis fighting the US presence in Iraq. In other words, support their troops:

"I was reading a recent piece by Phyllis Bennis…. She talked about the ‘US military casualties’ and the ‘Iraqi civilian victims’ and it struck me that the grand taboo of the antiwar movement is to show the slightest empathy for the resistance fighters in Iraq. They are never mentioned as people for whom we should show concern, much less admiration.

"But of course, if you are going to sympathize with the US soldiers, who are fighting a war of aggression, then surely you should also sympathize with the soldiers who are fighting for their homeland. Perhaps not until the antiwar movement starts to some degree recognizing that they should include ‘the Iraqi resistance fighters’ in their pantheon of victims (in addition to US soldiers and Iraqi civilians) will there be the necessary critical mass to have a real movement."

Now, there are many evident reasons why the direct solidarity with resistance fighters visible in the Vietnam antiwar struggle and the Central American anti-intervention movement has not been visible in the movement opposing the Iraq War. The "war on terror" means–and was designed to mean–that any group in the United States with detectable ties to or relations with Iraqi resistance movements would be in line for savage legal reprisals under the terms of the Patriot Act. Another important factor: The contours of the Iraqi resistance are murky and in some aspects unappetizing to secular progressives in the West, or so they virtuously claim. But such cavils were familiar in the 1960s and ’80s too, as huge chunks of the solidarity movement found endless reasons to distance themselves from the Vietnamese NLF or the Nicaraguan FSLN. That said, ignorance about the Iraqi resistance is somewhat forgivable. This time there has been no Wilfrid Burchett reporting from behind the lines, and that has had consequences of the kind McGuire sketches out above.

The personal aspect of international political solidarity is not just the stuff of nostalgic anecdote. In the late 1980s the Central American resistance was constantly among us here in the United States in physical form. While Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo worked the Hollywood liberal circuit, the sanctuary movement sheltered militants and sympathizers in churches across the country and defied federal efforts to seize them. Labor organizers from El Salvador traveled across North America from local to friendly local. I can remember being at a picnic of a union local striking a door factory in Springfield, Oregon, southeast of Eugene, where a man from a radical labor coalition in El Salvador got a cordial reception from the strikers and their families as they swapped stories of their respective battles.

The other day I found in a box of old papers in my garage a directory to "sister cities"–towns in the United States that had paired with beleaguered towns in Nicaragua, regularly exchanging delegations. The directory was as thick as a medium-sized telephone book. There were hundreds of such pairings, and many were the individual pairings they led to. People’s Express, the "backpackers’ airline," as it used to be called, would shuttle demure sisters in the struggle from Vermont or the Pacific Northwest to Miami, for onward passage to Managua and a rendezvous with some valiant son of Sandino or downtrodden Nica sister, liberated by North American inversion from the oppressions of Latin patriarchy.

While many soldiers deployed in Iraq have been compelled to serve multiple tours of duty, there is no draft, a prime factor in stoking the Vietnam antiwar movement. The absence of a draft is certainly a major reason for the weakness of this antiwar movement. But even without a draft, in the Reagan years there was a very lively anti-intervention culture.

It looked as though just such a vibrant left antiwar movement was flaring into life in 2003. But many of its troops veered into 9/11 kookdom, shifted to whining about global warming or vested all hopes in a Democratic presidency after 2008. The bulk of the antiwar movement has become subservient to the Democratic Party and to the agenda of its prime candidates for the presidency in 2008, with Hillary Clinton in the lead.

To describe the antiwar movement in its effective form is really to mention a few good efforts–the anti-recruitment campaigns, the tours by those who have lost children in Iraq–or three or four brave souls–Cindy Sheehan, who single-handedly reanimated the antiwar movement and now vows to run against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unless the latter stops blocking impeachment proceedings, or radical Catholic Kathy Kelly, or Medea Benjamin and her Code Pink activists, who have occupied Clinton’s office and ambushed her on YouTube.

A simple question: Has the end of America’s war on Iraq been brought closer by the Democrats’ recapture of Congress in November 2006? The answer is that when it comes to the actual war, which has led to the bloody disintegration of Iraqi society, the death of some 3,000 Iraqis a month, the death and mutilation of US soldiers every day, nothing at all has happened since the Democrats rode to victory in November courtesy of popular revulsion against the war. I don’t think there is much of an independent left in America today. If there was, then Lawrence McGuire’s observation about the lack of solidarity with the Iraqi resistance wouldn’t be so obviously on the mark.

The American people are largely against the war, to the huge embarrassment and distress of the Republican and Democratic leadership. So does it matter that there’s not much of an antiwar movement? Very much so. It’s how the left, down the years, has learned its internationalist ABCs.

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