Is the Antiwar Movement Scaring People Away?

If you’ve been involved in building the antiwar movement during the last couple years, chances are that you’ve asked yourself what it will take to involve more people in organizing to bring the troops home from Iraq.

It’s been 18 months since the antiwar movement last held a high-profile national demonstration–on January 27, 2007, in Washington, D.C.–and across the country, local activists and coalitions report a lower level of activity as compared to late 2005 and 2006.

One common explanation for this is that most Americans simply don’t care about the war or aren’t affected by it.

Likewise, most activists assume that organizing a new GI resistance–like the kind that ended the U.S. war on Vietnam–must take as its starting point that U.S. military personnel, even more than the general population, are flag-waving conservatives.

Flowing from this assessment of the state of political consciousness about the war is the conclusion that the antiwar movement needs to make certain it keeps to a well-defined set of limited demands in order to attract a broader audience. Thus, it should avoid “contentious” issues–such as opposition to the war in Afghanistan, or challenging racism against Arabs and Muslims or sexism in the military–and stick to calls to bring the troops home.

When it comes to reaching out to soldiers, by this reasoning, perhaps the appeal shouldn’t even be explicitly antiwar, but instead focused on first befriending and winning the trust of the troops and then gradually introducing antiwar ideas. The GI antiwar movement needs to be careful not to appear anti-military, or it might alienate pro-military troops.

The underlying argument of this approach is that the U.S., as a whole, is generally conservative–and this is precisely what needs to be reconsidered. In truth, the bulk of the U.S. population is to the left of the political establishment that claims to represent it.

The Bush administration has reached its lowest level of approval yet–25 percent, according to a CBS News report from early June. Only Richard Nixon and Harry Truman had lower approval ratings at some point in their terms–24 and 22 percent respectively.

Fully 42 percent of Americans want U.S. troops home from Iraq within a year, and 21 percent more say within two years. Only 30 percent are willing to have U.S. troops in Iraq longer than two years.

Views among U.S. military personnel and their families mirror those of the public at large. Slightly more–about a third–approve of Bush’s presidency, and slightly fewer approve of his policies to address the needs of active-duty troops and veterans, according to a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll from December.

An even higher proportion of soldiers–nearly 60 percent–than the population at large want the troops home within the next year.

It’s no surprise, though, that there is still pressure on activists to moderate their demands, considering that the November elections are approaching fast.

The problem is that an electoral calculation without a genuinely antiwar candidate runs smack up against the need to build an antiwar movement capable of forcing whoever ends up in the White House to bring the troops home now.

The logic of electoral politics means taking for granted the millions of Americans who are the most thoroughly antiwar in order to win over those who are on the fence–hence the imperative to water down antiwar demands and appeal to the center to vote for Barack Obama in November.

But this strategy actually undercuts the method needed to build a vibrant antiwar movement. The antiwar movement has to be concerned with winning people to a higher level of commitment and political activity than simply voting in November.

The central problem facing the antiwar movement isn’t a lack of support at the level of ideas, but a lack of participation by the millions of Americans who agree with the demands of the movement, but don’t have any outlet for the active expression of their views.

The challenge shouldn’t be to reach all the fence-sitters, but rather to organize the unorganized on a firm political basis–so that there is a core of antiwar organizers and formations which can spearhead a building movement.

Isn’t this just “preaching to the choir”? Yes, because the problem right now is that the members of the choir aren’t getting together to sing. And it’s the singing–activism, a presence in the streets, sit-ins at congressional offices, reaching out to GIs at military bases, building GI coffeehouses, demanding better treatment for soldiers and veterans from the decrepit military health care system–that brings change.

What’s more, placing limits on the movement’s demands constrains the very process by which people learn lessons and become more politicized. The movement’s strength ultimately depends on how many people come to understand that forcing the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq will require challenging both parties’ commitment to projecting U.S. power in the Middle East.

If such discussion and activity is ruled out as an “obstacle” to the immediate needs of election-year activism, both the activity of the movement and its political development will be retarded.

At a time when people are looking for a persuasive and clear alternative to “staying the course” in Iraq, blurring what the movement stands for in order to convince the fence-sitters risks losing those who want to stand for something different, and do so at a higher level of political commitment and involvement.

Often, this argument about the threat of the movement scaring off supporters comes in a different form–that if we aren’t careful to temper what we say, the right wing will paint us as “radicals,” “extremists,” “socialists” or “relics of the ’60s.”

This isn’t the first time such ideas have been voiced, of course–and not just by activists who claim to have the movement’s interests at heart, but even more so by the political and military establishment and media commentators who have used similar slanders in attempts to tarnish every social movement that ever threatened to become an effective social force.

Such anticommunism had an impact on the struggle for civil rights, for example. In 1946, according to Michael Honey, author of Going Down Jericho Road, a book documenting Martin Luther King Jr.’s support of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce declared that there were “two great menaces to the U.S., Russia abroad and unions at home,” and a new breed of Republicans in Congress, such as Richard Nixon, portrayed CIO unions and New Deal Democrats as part of a Communist conspiracy. Lubricated with money from right-wing oilmen in Texas and supported by segregationists across the South, the rhetoric of anticommunism throttled social change.

King rejected such attempts to divide and conquer. Speaking to the 1961 AFL-CIO convention, he said:

The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement. Together we can bring about the day when there will be no separate identification of Negroes and labor…Some will be called reds and communists merely because they believe in economic justice and the brotherhood of man. But we shall overcome.

The powers that be will always try to claim that social movements are “out of touch” with “regular” people. But the movement can’t confront this accusation by adapting to it and excluding radical and left organizations and individuals.

This will only poison the atmosphere of open debate and dialogue that sustains any healthy and growing movement–and marginalize and alienate many experienced and committed activists. And activists will never be successful in mollifying those intent on wielding such criticisms in any case–they’ll make such claims anyway.

During the U.S. war on Vietnam, the GI revolt that bloomed within the military in 1970 and 1971 effectively rendered the U.S. military ineffective as a fighting force. Only then did U.S. political and military leaders accept the obvious–that they couldn’t achieve a military victory in Vietnam, and it was time to end the bloodshed.

Building an antiwar GI movement today that can end the war will require building a similar resistance. However, if such a movement begins by settling on an antiwar, but pro-military appeal, aimed at attracting the majority of soldiers in the here and now, the end result will be a movement without an orientation capable of building an effective resistance.

There are already plenty of soldiers, albeit a minority, who are enthusiastic about organizing. A strategy aimed at building a GI movement in the long term has to appeal to such GIs in the here and now, as the first step toward attracting more supporters.

It’s worth recalling the words of the late Dave Cline, who was featured in the documentary Sir! No Sir! and was one of the GI movement’s most effective organizers in the Vietnam era.

Among soldiers, you have to make some distinctions. Some people join the military driven by some patriotic or ideological fervor to go fight, defend the country and avenge 9/11–there’s a certain section like that.

But the much larger section of people in the military joined because of what we call the poverty draft. They look at it like, “If I go into the military, I can get this college program, and I’m not going to be stuck working at McDonald’s or selling drugs.”

They see it as a way to improve themselves in society because they’re in such a low economic status. That tells you something about our society–where the main way for poor, young people to improve their lives is to go into an armed force, as opposed to a job program or other alternative. But that’s part of the reality of America today.

And when people go into war, even the most gung-ho get changed. It’s one thing to talk about fighting. It’s another thing when you have to fight, when you have to kill people, when you have to see people get killed, see your friends get killed. That changes people, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically.”

Of course, not all the gung-ho become antiwar campaigners. Some will become even more gung ho. But no one escapes unchanged, and indeed, some gung-ho troops will become antiwar activists. Even today, some already have.

For the antiwar movement, therefore, the essential point is that many people are ready to hear an uncompromising argument for immediate withdrawal. But they won’t hear it unless someone makes it. It’s up to local activists to find ways to reach this audience of millions.

Hopes are high that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama will chart a new course if he wins the White House in November. But Obama has already stated that he will keep 60,000 to 80,000 troops–plus many thousands more Blackwater-type mercenaries–in Iraq for years to come.

But an Obama presidency would bring the expectation that there will be a change of direction. And if antiwar activists can organize around this sense of hope, then our movement will be better positioned to demand change–from the president and Congress, from Democrats and Republicans.

As historian Howard Zinn put it, “There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in–in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating–those are the things that determine what happens.”

Eric Ruder writes for Socialist Worker where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.

22 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Erroll said on June 19th, 2008 at 11:09am #

    Interesting article dealing with the state of the antiwar movement in this country. But it seems that Eric Ruder neglected to cite what David Cline had said in the powerful documentary Sir! No Sir!. The former president of the Veterans for Peace noted in the film that:

    “You find out that it’s all lies, they are just lying to the American people. And your silence just means that you are part of keeping that lie going. I couldn’t stop; I couldn’t be silent. I felt I had a responsibility to my friends, and to the country, in general. And to advocate for the Vietnamese [who were] fighting for their country.”

  2. rosemarie jackowski said on June 19th, 2008 at 1:57pm #

    A week ago, I attended a meeting of VFP. The current president of the organization traveled many miles from New York State to be there. Yes, there is a handful of dedicated anti-war folks folks – too small in number to even be thought of as a “movement”. Proof of that is in the way people vote. 95% will again vote for a war party candidate, unless we all get behind Nader.

  3. hp said on June 19th, 2008 at 3:04pm #

    People vote as needed, when needed, and that’s that.
    If the two stolen elections (both 2000 and 2004) didn’t produce the catalyst required to get things moving, than what will? The fraud, corruption and apathy from the immensity of this criminal empire’s power to subvert, control and punish any opposition is overwhelming.

    The 2004 US Elections: The Mother of all Vote Frauds
    Alex Pelosi’s new film “Diary of a Political Tourist” catches a tipsy Congressman Peter King making a comment at a White House function before the election had been finished that, “It’s already over. The Election’s over. We Won.”

    When Pelosi asks, “How do you know that?” King replies, “It’s all over but the counting. And we’ll take care of the counting.”

  4. Deadbeat said on June 19th, 2008 at 4:08pm #

    No mention by the author of how the “left” diffused the anti-war movement due to the desire not to confront Zionism. Hmmmm

    I see Ms. Jackowski still blaming the citizens. I saw a large number of citizens get active in 2003-2004. Apparently those on the “left” noticed that too and decided it was more risky for them to realize that the War in Iraq was NOT for oil.

  5. Rich Paul said on June 19th, 2008 at 5:43pm #

    It is important to keep issues separated. There are people who will see that some of the anti-war people are apologists for dictators and mass-murders, like Guevera, Castro, Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Mugabe and Chavez — Socialists all — and think that all anti-war people are in love with poverty, tyranny, and death.

    Note: Though Hitler was a National Socialist, and thought Socialism should be financed by robbery of Jews instead of robbery of Capitalist, the result is the same — only his choice of victims differed.

  6. hp said on June 19th, 2008 at 5:48pm #

    Yes Deadbeat, it’s the same ole hidden in plain sight syndrome. Ain’t it.

  7. hp said on June 19th, 2008 at 6:05pm #

    Aw shucks.

  8. ron said on June 19th, 2008 at 6:53pm #

    stop the war, get the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

  9. ron said on June 19th, 2008 at 6:53pm #


  10. Joy Moore said on June 19th, 2008 at 7:16pm #

    The only action that will allow for expression of anti-war sentiment , and ultimately stop this war, is if we withold our personal resources and begin strikes and boycotts. Strategic strikes and boycotts. Lets eliminate one major credit card from our wallet, at least 1! Let’s pick the top three warmongering profiteering corporations and refuse to spend our money with them for 6 months. Top 3, like Chevron, BP or Boeing and Catapillar. We, the taxpaying 62 percent who want the troops home asap, fund and fuel this war. We can stop it by refusing to lend our resources and capital to war profiteers!!! Especially the money changers, banks and investment firms. Shut Wall Street down and this war will end!

  11. MattR said on June 19th, 2008 at 10:04pm #

    Another possibility for why it’s so difficult to create anti-war activities is that, the monthly death rate in Iraq is now less than that in D.C. (22/100,000 vs 35/100,000)? That nearly all of the political benchmarks have been met? That Al Qaeda in Iraq is almost insignificant? That Sadr City is now controlled by the Iraqi Army? That Sadr is almost insignificant? All we need to do now is create jobs, as in the Kurdish areas, and we’ve created the first Muslim democracy in the Mideast. That helps the whole world.

  12. bozhidar balkas said on June 20th, 2008 at 11:00am #

    but first americans must create own democracy and as such wd help undemocratic countr ies become by any other means but warfare more democratic.
    as i have already said, It might take 1 td yrs to democratize iraq and 2 td or more to democratize US.
    killing people in iraq ( by now anywhere btwn 500,000 to 1mn) to make it democratic (an impssibility) is benovelence to some amers.
    there is only one country in the world that has a governance one might call a “democracy” and that is switzerland.
    and that’s why it doesn’t join the den of thiefs, murderes, land grabbers such as UK, france, US, Russia, china, israel and many others . thank u

  13. Arch Stanton said on June 20th, 2008 at 12:43pm #

    “If you’ve been involved in building the antiwar movement during the last couple years, chances are that you’ve asked yourself what it will take to involve more people in organizing to bring the troops home from Iraq.”

    Probably a familiarity with the Nuremberg Principles and jettisoning jingoist catch phrases about “supporting the troops” by “bringing them home.”

    “One common explanation for this is that most Americans simply don’t care about the war or aren’t affected by it.”

    “Care” is a rather subjective term. As to whether they are affected by it–if they’re not now they will be very shortly. Of course, expecting Americans to make the connection is like expecting your cat to open its own food.

    “Flowing from this assessment of the state of political consciousness about the war is the conclusion that the antiwar movement needs to make certain it keeps to a well-defined set of limited demands in order to attract a broader audience. Thus, it should avoid “contentious” issues–such as opposition to the war in Afghanistan, or challenging racism against Arabs and Muslims or sexism in the military–and stick to calls to bring the troops home.”

    So I suppose it never occurred to you that some people simply will not play politics with their ethical concerns. But if you want to, rock on with your bad self.

    “The GI antiwar movement needs to be careful not to appear anti-military, or it might alienate pro-military troops.”

    So people are to simply ignore the fact that the US military machine is pouring unimaginably massive resources into ludicrous schemes to try and run the world, creating a massive destruction of human life and natural resources in the process?
    Ole Ike offered the best answer to that psychotic bullshit.

    “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
    This world in arms is not spending money alone.
    It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
    The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
    It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.
    It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.
    We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.
    We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.
    This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.
    This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

    “For the antiwar movement, therefore, the essential point is that many people are ready to hear an uncompromising argument for immediate withdrawal. But they won’t hear it unless someone makes it. It’s up to local activists to find ways to reach this audience of millions.”

    Eyyeah, sure. At this point, anti-war activism and anti-military activism are a matter of self protection. “America” and Americans can continue to delude themselves that they can run the world, destroy their economy, countless lives, wreck the environment and very possibly cause human extinction (along with innumerable other species), or they can stand down, back off, withdraw and get on with the business of attempting to make this planet a place in which decent people would want to live.

  14. MattR said on June 20th, 2008 at 1:23pm #

    Switzerland is a democracy but the US isn’t? I’m sorry, but I don’t understand that.

    I do understand that people don’t like war. I agree with people that say we didn’t need to start a war in Iraq. There were probably better ways to help the Kurds and the Shiites, and bring the Sunnis along. But, we can’t go back to 2003. We can only go forward and make up for our mistakes. The war in Iraq is almost over so an anti-war rally won’t do anything. If you really want to help the Iraqis demand jobs for them. Demand that the State Department start creating industry. That’s what the Iraqis want and need.

  15. dan e said on June 20th, 2008 at 3:00pm #

    I was impressed by Eric Ruder’s article. It might be possible to improve on his take, but so far no Comments have really added anything of substance. I know some of you regular “trolls” are capable of better things; so am I but who has time?

  16. bozhidar balkas said on June 21st, 2008 at 7:45am #

    US structure of governance is unique. by any name, i see that it is one of the best ever devised for controlling domestic and foreign peoples.
    surely, we can say that a house wife, a hobo, a prisoner, an immigrant has very little or no military-political power in US.
    so, if we evaluate this as true, it can be then understod even by a child.
    how ab a working person? how much power does he/she have?
    and how much in comparison w. dan rather, brokaw, rove, obama, media, a billionaire?
    i do not know. it is up to americans to find out what r the differences.
    nevertheless, broadly, i conclude that rather, russ perot, baker, clinton has more power than jane jones or stan smith.
    i also aver that, broadly, US is a classful society w. a ruling and a nonruling class.
    but, do not fret, US has lotsof company. i’m not picking on US only. thank u

  17. Lev said on June 21st, 2008 at 12:03pm #

    Rich Paul, you couldn’t be further from the truth even when you “clarified” it. You seem to fall into the same trap so many do who only superficially understand the World War II era. Just because something has “socialism” in its title doesn’t make it socialist by any means. Adding “socialist” to it to become “National Socialist” (Nazi) was a sop to the German working class who had just seen the party of the working class made illegal in Germany and also seen their labor unions made illegal in favor of one national “labor union” which was controlled by the Nazis. There was precious little “socialism” to do with Hitler and his ilk. Let’s review: They were anti-Communist, anti-worker, anti-womens’ rights, anti-gay rights, anti-progress in general. They were belligerant, pro-war, chauvanist, fascist, corporate-handmaiden stooges. They were the opposite of international proletarian socialism which seeks a fair world with no social class distinctions and no race is considered superior or inferior. Instead the Nazis sought a world where everyone not of German blood was a slave to the Germans. So no offense but you’re making the same mistake a lot of people do in that they see jackboots and flags and hear “socialist” in the title and automatically think they’re the same thing. This is ridiculously reductionist and simplistic.

  18. Lev said on June 21st, 2008 at 12:07pm #

    A good way to keep it straight is to envision a spectrum with those on the center left being like Democrats here or Social Democrats in Europe, those on the far left being Communist, those on the center right being like Republicans here and those on the far right being fascist like the Nazis, Italian fascists, Spanish fascists etc.

  19. hp said on June 21st, 2008 at 4:46pm #

    Every one of the above danced to the tune of the “banksters,” and their”ilk.”
    And they still do.
    Can’t help but notice the “far left” accounts for more mass murder than all the rest combined.

    Understanding the WW2 era also should take into account that Hitler’s fate was sealed when he started printing his own money. Attempting to break free from the “banksters” and their “ilk.”
    If Hitler had never fired a shot, he was already a goner for daring to free Germany from control of the, well, lets just say, “banksters.”
    A disturbing trend. Can you say Federal Reserve?
    Just trying to “keep it straight.”

  20. Al said on June 22nd, 2008 at 3:14pm #

    I don’t think anyone has been scared away. I, for one don’t go to anti war [or any other] demos any more, because I don’t believe they are effective.
    How effective do expect a pre- approved demo to be? Millions of people demonstrated against the war in Iraq all over the world & what happened? It was a total waste of time & effort. We have to find a more effective mode of dissent.

  21. Tango Hotel said on June 23rd, 2008 at 6:54am #

    The biggest problem facing the anti-war movement and why you are not attracting that “majority” of Americans that oppose the war, is that once again you cannot stick to the subject. All I see here is a litany of social & political injustices. It’s like someone rang the bell and all of P’s dogs started salivating.

    The subject, clearly stated is how do foks show their opposition to the current troop occupation in Iraq and come up with an effective stategy to bring them home sooner rather than later? Please stick to the program.

  22. hp said on June 23rd, 2008 at 8:07pm #

    The only viable solution, the only person who had a snowball’s chance in hell, was obviously Ron Paul. To end the war. If that’s what people wanted first and foremost. I don’t believe they do. Not for a second.

    It is obvious their little worries, their little pet isms and moans and groans out weigh their phony baloney desire to end the war. Like if Paul was elected he’d make things worse than they are. That hardly seems possible.
    Ron Paul had a true movement going. One Nader, McKinney, et al may only dream about having. Same for their ‘followers.’
    I’m not saying Ron is better, Just that he’d end the war.
    But he won’t have the chance because for all the little do gooders ending the war does not come first. Not by a long shot.
    Vote for Ron Paul? Support Ron Paul?
    Not if I have to vote for a…… … Fill in the blank.
    Well, enjoy your war(s).