Over the past 75 years, the United States has built the greatest war-making force the world has ever known. Today, our country boasts an infrastructure of global surveillance, flying killer robots, and floating aircraft carriers, all administered from a network of more than 800 military bases in over 70 countries. In recent decades, we decided to erase from that infrastructure any semblance of democratic accountability, allowing the president to make war almost anytime, anywhere, for any reason.
This year, we put at the helm of this global killing regime a reality-TV star who has promised to “bomb the shit” out of our enemies, attack the families of terrorists, and reinstitute torture—and who, in February, proposed increasing the already bloated military budget by $54 billion. Imagine the response of this president to a significant terrorist attack, the damage to our democracy and our world that he might unleash. It helps clear the mind.
In the face of such a nightmare, how do we build the peace movement we need? This is not a new question. Over the past decade, many thoughtful and talented organizers have been working to strengthen the antiwar movement. I came to these conversations a year and a half ago, when I was asked by the Colombe Foundation to help it determine how best to support new organizing against militarism. I began speaking with various organizers and leaders, both longtime antiwar activists and young folks shaping struggles for racial justice, immigrant rights, climate justice, and corporate accountability.
Throughout those conversations, there was consensus that the contemporary peace movement was not nearly powerful enough to mount a serious challenge to the forces of American empire and militarism. As the challenges facing that movement came into focus for me, so did their scale. It is hard to imagine a more difficult target, from an organizing perspective, than military policy. The US empire today leaves a great deal of ruin in its wake, but its cost is only vaguely felt by most Americans, while its gargantuan profits are pocketed by a few and its most recognized organization—the military itself—is widely celebrated as the most trusted public institution.
In the wake of the election, as the need for a constituency to challenge American militarism grows in urgency, how might such challenges be met? Doing so will require reimagining the constituency, strategy, and purpose of the movement itself. It is not at all clear that a “peace movement” or even an “antiwar movement,” as those have generally been conceived, will suffice. Rather, we need a movement that can speak to the anger that so many Americans feel toward the corporate powers that dominate our politics. Such a movement would expose how militarism is not immune to that influence but is particularly beholden to it. Can such a movement be organized?
Why We Need a Peace Movement—and Why We Don’t Have One
While most progressives would concede that the antiwar movement isn’t the power it once was, antiwar sentiment remains among the most potent forces in our politics. It was pivotal to Barack Obama’s election in 2008, and his two terms in office brought major victories for those who have spent decades organizing for a demilitarized foreign policy—most notably the nuclear deal with Iran and the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Yet despite those achievements, the military that Obama passed on to his successor is largely identical to the one he inherited. Troops remain in Afghanistan, making this the longest-running war in American history. In the final years of his presidency, US Special Operations forces were deployed in over 105 countries—more than 80 percent of all of the nations on earth. Obama authorized over 1,800 drone strikes (that we know of), which killed at least 5,500 people. American arms are shipped throughout the world, supplying the machinery for Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, and Egypt’s domestic repression and counterterrorism operations in the Sinai, to name just three examples. All of this eats up an annual military expenditure larger than that of the next seven nations combined.
What have these billions brought us? Today, Americans are more likely to be killed by their own police, and much more likely to be shot by a neighbor, than by a jihadist. To some, this is proof of the effectiveness of our deterrence; to others, it is evidence of astonishing overreaction. Either way, if the aim of the War on Terror has been to defeat terrorism, then the result has been an unmitigated disaster. In 2002, 725 people were killed in terrorist attacks worldwide; in 2014, that number was over 32,000. According to the Costs of War project at Brown University, the War on Terror has cost the country nearly $5 trillion—enough to guarantee every American citizen a basic income. Or, if you prefer, enough to make public college free for every American student for more than 50 years.
Many on the left explain the relative weakness of a constituency to challenge this catastrophe by pointing to the limitations of the current antiwar movement. Its leaders are too old, the criticism goes, too white, too ideological, too pacifist, too hippie, too male. Others point to the ease with which the Bush administration was able to shrug off the global wave of protests against the Iraq invasion in 2003.
There is substance to all this, but in crucial ways the antiwar movement is more a victim of its success than its failures. It has largely won the public and the politics. The massive demonstrations against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq—and the disastrous consequences of those wars—generated real costs for politicians who supported them (just ask Hillary Clinton). Leadership of both parties today remains wary of support for direct intervention. Today, Americans are both opposed to war and accustomed to its permanence.
This paradox holds because our military policy has shielded itself from the public. Members of Congress pay a political price for authorizing war, so they don’t seek authorization. Americans are reluctant to support bombing in countries they’ve never heard of, so the government keeps those bombings secret. We don’t want to pay for missions that lack a clear rationale, so the money is borrowed from future generations. We refuse to allow our soldiers to be killed, so the government attacks its enemies with flying robots and outsources much of the fieldwork to private contractors. We don’t want to face the cost of our foreign entanglements, so a smaller percentage of our country is asked to serve, and serve longer. The irony is that these transformations follow from how politically unpopular war has become. Our wars feel so distant because they’ve been made more distant by design.
In the face of such a shift, the antiwar movement has struggled to adapt. A DC-based network loosely gathered under the “peace and security” label advances a diplomacy-first approach. The antiwar base organizes against intervention. Talented organizers and very smart thinkers lead a variety of crucial institutions, but the constituency usually emerges as a political power only in opposition to large-scale interventions. There were and remain important exceptions to this trend: the anti-nuke movement and opposition to military involvement in Central America in the 1980s, and organizing against the Israeli occupation today. But over the past several decades, popular opposition to US militarism has generally been confined to those moments that look like what we expect war to look like. The consequence is that American empire expands, with little domestic challenge to its growth. As Todd Gitlin, onetime leader of the anti– Vietnam War movement, put it to me, “So long as our conflicts are confined to the outskirts of empire, I don’t see Americans getting too worked up about it.”
Antiwar, Peace, or Anti-Imperialism?
The transformations that our military policy has undergone present enormous challenges to organizing, but also opportunities. These changes have produced a startling consolidation of power and wealth—a ripe target for a political era defined by rage at crony capitalism and anger at a politics that serves only the wealthiest among us.
It is unlikely that President Dwight Eisenhower, who coined the term “military-industrial complex,” could have imagined what has emerged in the past 25 years. Raytheon, the fourth-largest military contractor in the United States and the world’s leading producer of guided missiles, received 90 percent of its revenues in 2015 from the federal government. In that year, Raytheon CEO Thomas Kennedy took home $20.4 million in total compensation. Among the large military contractors, this is the norm. In 2014, the CEO of Lockheed Martin—which received 78 percent of its revenues from the government that year—was paid a total of $33.7 million. In 2015, the CEO of Boeing, the second-largest government contractor, earned $29 million—and paid no federal income tax in 2013.
When most of us think of an antiwar movement, we imagine efforts to limit the horror that this lethal network unleashes and to slow its growth. And under President Trump, we will indeed need to challenge the expansion of the Pentagon and prepare ourselves to stop the next war. But in an era of flying robots, classified special-forces operations launched from bases dotting the globe, police departments overflowing with military-grade equipment, and Saudi pilots dropping US-made bombs on Yemeni villages, we need organizing that challenges the very nature of the beast—not just campaigns that arise sporadically to oppose its most egregious actions.
We don’t yet have a good word for this beast, or for the movement that might challenge it. “Military- industrial complex” sounds both overly technical and dated; “antiwar” doesn’t capture it; and “peace” is almost entirely absent from our political vocabulary today. The rhetoric of anti-imperialism has come to signal a politics confined to the academy, anarchist bookstores, and the drum circles at various protests.
Opposition to American empire, however, has deep roots in our politics. The Anti-Imperialist League was founded in 1898 to oppose American annexation of the Philippines and featured a former governor of Massachusetts as its president. Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, and Mark Twain were all avowed anti- imperialists—as were W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr. (and The Nation). Before the two world wars and the Cold War, the question of whether a country founded on self-rule could rule over others without cost to its democratic principles was hotly contested. American empire today functions through subtler means than annexation, but the future of the antiwar movement (or the peace movement, or whatever it comes to be called) will be determined by whether this tradition can be revived.
While this might strike some as naive, the shifting sands of our politics should unsettle those tempted to dismiss the possibility. The assault on corporate globalization that provided much of the energy behind both Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s campaigns carried with it an implicit critique of the military infrastructure upon which much of the global economy depends. Sanders used a primary debate stage, amazingly, to attack Henry Kissinger for working to overthrow Cambodia’s Prince Sihanouk. And though he was a loathsome vehicle for the message, when Trump asked whether the United States should provide defense services for Germany, Japan, and South Korea, when he questioned whether we should remain in NATO, and when he lamented the disaster of the Iraq War, he raised issues familiar to critics of American empire.
Among the many alarming lessons of this election was that strong criticism of a globalized military—traditionally the ground of the left—can be manipulated by a shrewd right-wing demagogue. If progressives do not seize such ground, they will cede it to the isolationist right.
Antiwar Organizing and the New Movements
Anyone who has spent time in the antiwar movement quickly finds that the tension that bedevils all progressive politics—the one between policy-minded institutional leaders and more radical activists driven by ideological commitments—is particularly acute in the realm of foreign policy. The brutality of violence and repression in places like Syria, for example, leads some to sympathize with what has come to be called “humanitarian intervention,” while others see in those same circumstances evidence of the catastrophic results of a misconceived prior entanglement. The upshot is that apart from opposition to large-scale wars like the one in Iraq, progressives as a whole have little shared agenda when it comes to America’s role in the world.
In speaking with organizers and activists about the future of the peace movement, these tensions were ever-present. Many older activists lamented that issues of militarism had become marginal to the broader progressive agenda. And yet most of the younger leaders with whom I spoke described the target of their struggles as inseparable from America’s global policy. The reason for this gulf, it became clear, is that each defines the problem differently. The traditional antiwar left defines itself in opposition to, well, war. Many younger leaders, on the other hand, are challenging the brutality of an empire that serves the interests of capital and perpetuates white supremacy.
“We know the same companies that are building our prisons are the ones building our bases,” said Ahmad Abuznaid, co-founder of the Dream Defenders, a Miami-based racial-justice organization. “If one wanted to organize folks in the US that understand the destructive impact of American militarization, immigrants would be a good place to start,” said Sofia Campos, former board chair of United We Dream. Max Berger, an organizer in the Occupy movement who is currently helping to launch #AllOfUs, a project to organize millennials behind a radical progressive agenda, captured the perspective of many young activists: “Do we want to be a country where people can go to college without being in debt their whole lives, or do we want to have hundreds of military bases around the world that protect the corporate interests of the elites that own our government? Do we want an empire, or a democracy?”
This orientation challenges the prevailing liberal consensus. The platform released last year by more than 50 organizations involved in the Movement for Black Lives, and the response it provoked, is indicative of the dynamic. “America is an empire that uses war to expand territory and power,” the platform declares. It calls for a cut in the military budget by 50 percent, the closing of all foreign US military bases, and an end to military support for Israel’s “genocide.” In tying the struggle for racial justice locally with America’s global military policy, the platform inspired those seeking to connect domestic injustice with global issues. (It also outraged some who wondered why a movement to achieve racial justice was addressing the Israeli occupation.)
The perspective of these new movements creates both opportunities and challenges for those committed to demilitarization. If a mass movement to combat militarism emerges, it will likely do so in the same manner as other contemporary movements shaking and shaping progressive politics: not by any existing advocacy institutions, but by a groundswell of grassroots organizing energy. As Heather Hurlburt, director of the New Models of Policy Change initiative, put it, in striking words from a leader at a DC think tank, “The progressive foreign policy agenda will not be shaped by us here in DC. It will be made by those young folks organizing in the streets.”
Yet today, engagement between the peace camp and the millennial movements follows a coalition model, as antiwar organizers reach out to other movements for support. Rashad Robinson, director of Color of Change, reflected that in the wake of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, “you had all these folks jump on the anti-militarization bandwagon—as if the problem was just the military equipment, and not the police using them.” For people in the Movement for Black Lives, “that just confirmed that these activists care more about their pet issue than about actual black bodies that are getting brutalized.” Moving forward, the agenda will emerge with the relationships.
In the work of building those relationships, the leadership of those hit hardest by America’s foreign policy will prove particularly important: military veterans, some 20 of whom commit suicide every day; refugees, many of whom have fled countries decimated by US attacks or invasions; and Muslim Americans, who suffer the humiliations of Islamophobia on a daily basis. Groups like Military Families Speak Out, Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, VoteVets.org, and more recent initiatives like Beyond the Choir need to be supported and strengthened. The same goes for organizing in the Arab-American and refugee communities.
So far, the lens of anti-imperialism provides a paradigm for many movements, but not yet a program. A strong case can be made that in fighting the violence unleashed on black bodies over the past four decades by the War on Crime and the War on Drugs—wars fought with some of the same equipment with which we have fought more distant conflicts—the Movement for Black Lives has become the most powerful antiwar movement in America. But on its own, that movement will not dismantle a structure that demands such an oversupply of MRAPs (mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles) that they end up parked in the lots of over 500 police departments.
Such an effort will require that some of the younger leaders coming up in contemporary justice movements make the struggle against militarism central to their program, not just their analysis. Those organizers who make this their life’s labor will find ways of exposing the cost and waste of imperialism, organizing against those who profit from it, and offering a clear choice between global military expansion and a democracy that serves its citizens. Perhaps their work will be framed by the profit made from killing, or by the costs of our globalized military, or by the disastrous consequences of foreign entanglements. Perhaps it will target particular institutions that benefit from the corrosive connections between racism, militarism, and oil; perhaps it will expose how a culture of violence abroad is manifested in a culture of violence at home. Perhaps it will be led by veterans, or by refugees, or by women, who bear the brunt of so much American violence. All of these directions, and more, will have to be attempted, tested, grown—and supported by funders, many of whom, after Obama’s election, turned away from a focus on war and militarism. (For its part, the Colombe Foundation is launching a new fund to support such organizing and inviting other funders to join. The fund will support, among other projects, a series of trainings on militarism for movement leaders across the country and a coordinated campaign to address police militarization.)
Whatever shape this organizing takes, it will run into the question that faces all oppositional politics: What alternative is on offer? This dilemma is particularly acute when it comes to American empire, opposition to which can easily devolve into a nativist isolationism. There is a long history to that trend—many leaders in the Anti-Imperialist League of the late 19th century were as racist as the imperialists, arguing that the browner populations of the Philippines and Puerto Rico didn’t have the racial composition required for liberty.
There are two possible alternatives to American global hegemony, whose decline has perhaps been prematurely declared but is nonetheless on the wane. In one, the nativist impulse prevails and we have an even larger military, contained in a nation surrounded by walls and protected by travel bans. In the other, the United States embraces a true internationalism, working to build institutions to which it will also be accountable. At the moment, it may be difficult to imagine this latter path. But these past months have given us a glimpse of the consequences that await us if we fail to capture the anger that so many harbor toward an American empire that exacts such terrible costs and benefits so few.
Nothing is promised in politics. Movements rise and fall, truth-tellers often lose, xenophobic nationalists sometimes gain power, cowards frequently prevail. There is no determined arc to our history; no guaranteed results have been foretold. But at no moment over the past half-century has there been such an opportunity to ask whether our empire serves our democracy or undermines it. The question is whether those committed to a less brutal, less violent, more just, more equal country can muster the imagination, anger, courage, and energy to seize it.