The contradiction between the mass opposition to the war in Iraq expressed in polls and the minimal opposition in the streets is a central concern of the antiwar movement. This quietism is all the more surprising given the history of the last major American war disaster: Viet Nam. By the late 1960s and early 1970s as support for the war in Viet Nam collapsed, tens of millions of Americans took to the street to “Bring them Home Now”. This time around, however, while the general opposition to the war in Iraq is at least as great as at any time during the Southeast Asia conflict, the masses in the streets are not. Why so much opposition, but so little mobilization?
The answers to this question have been of three sorts. First, and most importantly, many friends of the antiwar movement have pointed to the lack of a draft. The war in Viet Nam was made immediate to millions of college students by the Selective Service. The draft gave a presence to the war, a focus for organizing, and an emotional connection not found in today’s war. Our war is a class struggle in which upper-class white elites hire poor and working-class minorities and whites to fight their conflict. Combined with the suppression of news about casualties, the war for most Americans is a distant buzz that has no real presence in their day-to-day lives.
The second reason for the lack of a mass anti-war movement has been attributed to cooptation by the Democrats. Organizations such as MoveOn.Org, it is argued, have been hesitant to criticize the Democratic Party or to use their resources to mobilize people in opposition to policies supported by the party. The war was made possible by the capitulation of leaders in the Democratic Party, and has been continued today by Democratic officials fear of offending one segment of the population or another. This caution and circumspection has undermined the risk taking that is needed to push an amorphous popular opposition into concrete actions.
The third reason cited for the failure to mobilize is the supposed ethnocentrism of some antiwar activists toward the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike the anti-Vietnam War movement, there are few today who identify with or support either the Iraqi or Afghan oppositions. Without this solidarity, it has been argued, opposition to the war is lackluster and half-spirited. At the extreme, some critics believe there is subterranean racism (toward Arabs) or ethnocentrism (on the part of Christians and Jews toward Muslims). This racism has meant that outrage at the carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan is missing, limiting antiwar mobilization.
All of these points have an element of truth to them, though I think only the lack of a draft (and even here only after an important qualification) is of substantive importance in explaining antiwar quietism. Therefore, let me quickly dispense with the last two criticisms before I turn to the issue of the draft.
Yes, most Democratic leaders are spineless and risk-adverse, but that is what one expects from an elected politician. Most politicians reflect underlying social currents, they do not create them. Even during the war in Viet Nam this was true. There were Democrats during the 1960s who took strong stands against the war, but this was only after the antiwar movement had turned out millions in the streets. Most politicians are less bold leaders than pragmatic opportunists.
It is true most Americans now oppose the war in Iraq, but this opposition is a mile wide and an inch deep. While polls indicate that roughly 60% oppose the war, there is no agreement about what to do about it. Most Americans do NOT support ending funding for the war. Most do NOT want an immediate pull out. Even more disquieting, at least according to a recent poll by the Zogby group, most DO support some kind of military intervention against Iran. General opposition to the war is inchoate and amorphous. It is open to influence from whatever is in the headlines most recently. Democrats are not missing some tidal wave of antiwar sentiment in the country, but instead reflect its complicated cross currents. Thus the solution to spineless Democrats is a movement with a broad backbone that forces them to do the right thing.
“Racist” Anti-War Activists
Neither am I impressed by the argument about the lack of sympathy for “Iraqi liberators”. First, these “liberators” are not the leftist Viet Cong of the 1960s nor are they the Guevarrist Central American guerillas of the 1980s. Most are deists who believe strongly in their religious vision. Democracy demands that we respect the right of a people to make their own decisions; it does not mean blind approval of what those decisions might be. It means even less supporting the tactics (suicide bombings, mass killings, decapitations, etc.) used to pursue these goals. I know that our country has caused many more deaths than the insurgents, but a brutalized people often become brutal themselves. We are under no obligation to support retail brutality because it pales in comparison to the wholesale sort.
More importantly, however, an effective antiwar movement does not depend on identifying with the oppressed. All it takes is revulsion at what the war is doing at home. Even during the 1960s the vast majority of people who opposed the war in Viet Nam had little sympathy for Vietnamese guerillas. It is true that much of the leadership of the antiwar movement did have this sympathy, but the ‘60s antiwar movement succeeded in spite of this support, not because of it. Americans are like people in most countries: their sympathies are limited by nationalism. Expecting that the majority of Americans will end the war because they support Muslim freedom fighters is worse than wrong, it is naive.
The lack of a draft is more central to the crisis of the antiwar movement, but by way of its impact on what I will call a “Middle Mass”. A successful antiwar movement needs three ingredients. First there must be a cadre with an analysis of the origins of the struggle and a commitment to sustained organizing (what used to be called a vanguard). Second there must be a large middle mass that is open to the appeals of the cadre. This group must be large enough to populate demonstrations and ideologically sophisticated enough that they are responsive to the efforts of the cadre. Finally, the mass of the population must be disgusted enough with the war that they are susceptible to the efforts made by the first two.
It was in creating this middle mass that the draft was crucial. A middle mass must feel the connection to the war in their day-to-day lives in order to become active. The draft provided this connection to the war for thousands of students. The fact the nation’s youth as a whole (at least the male portions of it) were at risk made organizing demonstrations of immediate relevance to a middle mass. Draft cards were present in every male’s wallet; registration for the Selective Service was a rite of passage when these men turned 18; and the presence of the draft hung over decisions about college, graduation, and work. This immediacy of the war combined with the ideological ferment on campus that was already created by the Civil Rights Movement and the counter culture (sex, drugs, and rock and roll) to produce the student middle mass that was the base of opposition to the war in Southeast Asia.
It was relatively easy in the 1960s to turn out thousands of people in the streets. Wherever there was a university campus, there was a ready supply of people willing to take action. Most of these people were not willing to put in time planning demonstrations or teach-ins, that was up to the cadre. They were, however, a resource that could be relied upon for the highly visible events of the late 1960s. What the anti-Vietnam war movement lacked for most of its history was the receptivity of the broader American population. Time after time the streets of Washington, New York, and San Francisco were filled with hundreds of thousands of students, but time after time the war was expanded. The streets of Chicago could be in flames and every major university across the country “no go zones” for military recruiters, yet the American population would elect a Nixon not a McGovern.
Our situation today is very different from the 1960s. We have the cadre and the mass discontent. In groups like United for Peace and Justice, Code Pink, ISO, DSA, (a revived) SDS, and even ANSWER we have a cadre of dedicated activists that rivals anything that existed in the 1960s. We also have a level of general opposition to the war that would have been the envy of the antiwar movement in the late 1960s. The American public is at a place today where it took the deaths of 50,000 troops to produce in the early 1970s.
What is missing is the middle mass. We have no easily mobilized group with an immediate connection to the war. There is no community we can go to where we know that people will not only agree with us, but march with us as well. We have no large constituency that is an ideological home base for our movement. Universities and colleges are hot beds of lethargy, and young people are more connected to their IPods than to the war. The volunteer military means that the burden of service falls only on those who because of ideology or financial necessity are willing to serve. Without a draft and with an Administration that does everything it can to hide the cost of the war from the broader population, we lack the middle mass that is the central catalyst in a successful antiwar movement.
The closest we come to this middle mass is the so-called “net-roots”. Bloggers and internet activists have proven themselves able to bring in large amounts of money for candidates such as Howard Dean four years ago and Barak Obama today. These activists have honed polemics and analyses that have energized those who already oppose the war. The ability to contact those who share a specific orientation is the net-roots’ strength. If you are a Trotskyite-feminist-gay-punk antiwar activist, the net-roots will track you down and offer a virtual community of co-believers. But this is also the problem. The net-roots lend themselves not to building the middle mass, but to honing the skills and analyses of the cadre. Experienced at speaking to a hyper-targeted constituency, these activists have little background to prepare them to speak to a mass audience. Precisely because of the insularity and narrowness of the internet, it is not a device that lends itself well to building the mass base that is so important now.
Moreover, this net-roots is good at producing financial and verbal support, but not at turning out large numbers of people for demonstrations. What we see in the net-roots are the limits of a virtual community. People on the internet are strung together by silicon and wire, not by block and neighborhood. Demonstrations require people who not only share an outrage, but live in the same area and know where to congregate. The net-roots is too diffuse, too constituted in the electronic ether, to provide the flesh and blood bodies in the streets.
Building the Middle Mass
I believe that the crucial task of the antiwar movement at this point is building this middle mass. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution as to how to do so. Recognizing the need for the middle mass is easier than figuring out how to build it. While I have no definitive answers to this question, I do have some tentative suggestions. There are three things I think we should be doing that would contribute to creating this important group.
First, I believe the antiwar movement needs to commit itself to making the war immediate and visible to an American population insulated by a manipulative administration and a supine media. We need to consciously fashion the connections that the draft produced by accident. The deaths, injuries, and financial costs of the war must be driven home to the American people. Calling for demonstrations when the death toll of U.S. service men and women hits 4000 is one example of this, but we must do much more. We must also dramatize the tens of thousands of our kids who are coming home wounded and brain-damaged.
We need to make the connections between the cost of the war and our inability to fund healthcare and education. We should search for ways to link the money going to rebuild Iraq and the lack of money to bail out Americans who are losing their homes in the subprime disaster. We should be searching the headlines to make connections between the presence of our National Guard fighting a war in Iraq and their absence in fighting the fires in southern California. When the cost of gas hits four dollars a gallon, we should be demonstrating in front of gas stations and refineries about the instability the war has created in the Middle East.
Second we must target groups for these “connection demonstrations” that are most likely to become part of the middle mass. It is not enough to turn out large numbers of people in the street, we must target those who because of their greater sacrifice or because of their political ideology have the potential to become mobilized continually. We should be looking for ways to take our movement into poor and working-class communities because those are the people who are making the most sacrifices. We should be looking beyond university campuses to minority and gay communities because these groups already have a critical understanding of American culture. In general we must think strategically about building the middle mass when we target our demonstrations.
The third and most important thing we need is a period of tactical experimentation to build the middle mass. We need to look beyond the formulas and practices accumulated by the antiwar movement over the last forty years. We cannot rely on tactics from the 1960s, because that was a time in which the middle mass was already in existence. By confining our activities to mass demonstrations, our antiwar movement presupposes what we need to build: the middle mass. Instead, we need to innovate in ways that make the connections I mentioned above. We should not be afraid to take risks. It is O.K. to be wrong nine times if the tenth time we succeed. This IS hard work that we are engaged in. We have a task that did not face the activists of a generation ago. We do not have the luxury of depression or disappointment. A demonstration of a few hundred today is acceptable if it builds toward a demonstration tomorrow of a few million.
What all this means for San Diego is the following. The main peace organization in this area, the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice (SDCPJ), is a group of highly dedicated and experienced peace activists. These activists have committed themselves to building a peace movement here through a series of demonstrations, teach-ins, and lectures. They have given huge amounts of time and energy to an extremely difficult task. It is hard to understand how exhausting it can be to organize a demonstration: leaflets must be drawn up, publicity releases must be written, countless meetings must be attended, porta-potties must be rented, etc. These efforts are all the more costly when the results are meager. The SDCPJ was able to turn out thousands of people to rallies and protests before the war began, but since then the numbers have dwindled.
This decline is nothing unique to San Diego. It is the result of the problems discussed above. What is encouraging, however, is that the SDCPJ has been willing to engage in the kind of tactical experimentation so desperately needed. One of the best examples of this is the demonstration that was planned for last October 27th. The SDCPJ decided to do something that the peace movement in San Diego (or anywhere else that I am aware of) had never tried before: to focus a demonstration on the connection between the war and the crisis in healthcare. The group agreed on three slogans as the focus of the demonstration: End the War on Iraq, Healthcare not Warfare, and Fund the Wounded not the War. The SDCPJ then reached out to groups that would most likely be attracted to this issue: anti-poverty organizations, healthcare reform groups, African-American and Latino organizations, but particularly veterans groups and healthcare unions. These groups were solicited not merely to endorse, but to actively plan and participate in the demonstration.
This was a major step in the right direction, but it did not go far enough. First, the innovative focus of the demonstration was not extended into the groups it targeted. The organizers chose to conduct the demonstration like most others in San Diego: there was to be an initial rally downtown at Horton Plaza, a march through the Gaslamp District, and a final rally at Pantoja Park. This has been the standard demonstration route for the last few years, and makes none of the connections with a potential middle mass that I believe are important in building the antiwar movement. With the exception of the poor (a disappearing group in this gentrifying area), there is little of the Middle Mass that can be appealed to downtown. At most the SDCPJ thought in terms of “visibility”. The belief was that there were large numbers of people downtown and the media was close by. But concern for visibility reflects none of the middle-mass targeting that I think is essential right now. Instead, it amounts to little more than “rounding up the usual suspects”.
Second, the focus of the march failed to dramatize the link between the war and healthcare. There was nothing in the route or tactics of the demonstration that spoke to healthcare, veterans’ benefits, or even the war. Granted demonstration signs were to make this connection, but most people passing by in a car at 35 miles an hour have little time to read these messages. Even the media are less interested in what a sign says than in some human interest focus. More dramatic and appropriate venues were possible with a little imagination. With the number of seriously wounded veterans piling up, wouldn’t the Veteran’s Hospital at UCSD be a more dramatic alternative than downtown? With children’s healthcare (SCHIP) being slashed by the Bush administration, wouldn’t Children’s Hospital be a better site than Pantoja Park? With the number of Americans without healthcare now over 47 million, wouldn’t having people line up along University Ave. near “Pill Hill” be better than Broadway and Horton Plaza? The focus of the demonstration must reinforce the connections between healthcare and the war.
Finally, and symbolically, the SDCPJ decided to call off the demonstration less than three days before it was scheduled because of the fires. The worry was that San Diegans would become angry at demonstrators for their insensitivity if a demonstration took place during one of the greatest disasters in the City’s history. While this concern is understandable, it is also meant three months of intense planning was abandoned. More importantly, it also is symptomatic of the tactical timidity that I believe is one of the biggest enemies of the antiwar movement at this point. Given the need for innovation that I spoke of earlier, I think taking the risk to go forward with a modified version of the demonstration that took the crisis into account would have been preferable.
Moreover, the SDCPJ seems not to have recognized the significance of the tactical innovation of its healthcare/war demonstration. While the organization plans on coming back to this form of demonstration eventually, it has been placed on a back burner. Instead, the organization’s plan is to hold a teach-in/rally sometime this winter and organize a demonstration at a local mall during the Xmas season. I think this is a mistake. The major problem with the Oct. 27th demonstration was that it did not have the courage of its convictions. Far from backing off this kind of demonstration, a series of them should be organized around making the connections I spoke of earlier.
It is essential, however, that implementation of these demonstrations should reflect the innovation of their focus. That is, not only should another demonstration linking the War to healthcare be called, but a series of them planned that link the War to the sacrifices forced on the American people. Issues of healthcare, education cuts, housing crisis, energy prices, and declining wages all have the kind of links to the war that could be made. The SPCPJ should not be afraid to try and make connections to issues seemingly far from the war.
Second, these innovations in the foci of demonstrations should be reflected in the groups they are aimed at. The key is to think in terms of building the middle mass. Organizing a Housing/War demonstration is good, but placing it in Barrio Logan is even better. Planning a picket of a filling station the next time the price of gasoline goes up to make the connection between the energy crisis and the war is good, doing it in Southeast San Diego is even better. By appealing to the Latino and African-American communities the SDCPF would be looking to make connections to the war on the part of people who are already aware of their own exploitation. The organization should think in terms of who is most likely to learn the most quickly from our educational efforts. If this effort is successful in mobilizing a middle mass, then these people in the street will help to further mobilize that larger and more difficult group of middle-class Americans.
More specifically, I think the SDCPJ should plan to revive the Healthcare/war demonstration, but relocate it to Hillcrest in the Pill Hill area (around UCSD and Mercy/Scripps Hospitals). The UCSD hospital would make a good initial beginning point. This hospital has been hammered recently by increases in the number of patients without insurance. At one point they threatened to close the institution and move it to La Jolla in order to get away from poor people and the uninsured. The connection between the lack of money for the healthcare of poor people in hospitals like UCSD and the war should be made, but in the process the surrounding gay community should be consciously targeted for this demonstration.
The need to reach out to this progressive constituency should be taken seriously. For example, adds for the demo could be taken out in Gay newspapers, gay organizations should be solicited to send speakers to the rally, leafleting of gay bars about the demonstration could be done, Gay oriented businesses should be approached about posting announcements of the demonstration, etc. The key here is to take seriously the group to which the demonstration is aimed. If the importance of building the middle mass is recognized, then is not enough to “place” a demonstration in a community, it must be “organically connected” to it.
This suggestion is not set in stone, but I am attracted to its two fold focus: first on healthcare, but then on a progressive community. The antiwar movement must do more than merely set this kind of demonstration in a community like Hillcrest, it must reach out to community members and attempt to educate them about the war’s connections to their daily lives. In this sense, the peace movement needs fewer “political tourists”, and more “missionaries of the middle mass”.
I am not calling for a complete change in the orientation of the SDCPJ. Yes, we still need major demonstrations, but we also need the tactical innovations that will add the adjective “mass” to these demonstrations. We must build the middle mass while we use it to mobilize larger popular opposition. I know this is a little like changing the wheel of a car while it is still in motion, but I don’t know any other way to build the mass movement we so desperately need right now.