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The New Fight Against the War

A March long ago: Protesters in NYC in 2003
photo: Cary Conover

Anyone who thinks today's anti-war movement is trapped in tie-dyed '60s nostalgia should go to the United for Peace and Justice website, where one can sign up online to participate in civil disobedience next Monday, at the close of a three-day protest in Washington. It's not just a sign that the peaceniks of 2005 are Internet savvy; it's a signal that the movement thinks the D.C. rally is the moment to turn the tide against the war.

"We expect upwards of 100,000 people," says Bill Dobbs, spokesman for UFPJ. "This is going to be a big protest because of what has happened over the summer." He means the chain of events over recent months that includes the Downing Street memo, the formation of an "Out of Iraq" caucus in Congress, the attacks that killed scores of soldiers from Ohio, and—of course—Cindy Sheehan.

"She showed the cost of this war, the cost that the administration wants to hide," says Nancy Lessin of Military Families Speak Out. And Sheehan's protest is part of the reason why, Lessin says, "we're going to have the largest contingent of military families ever assembled speaking out against a war in certainly the history of this war and probably any other. We're expecting over 200 military families from all over the country."

The weekend of protest begins on Saturday, September 24, with a march and concert. Sunday there's an interfaith service. And on Monday, while some lobby Congress, others will get busted at the White House. Both are newly prominent tactics in the fight against the war—and products of the realization that protest alone won't work.

Not that they haven't tried. On February 15, 2003, about a month before the war began, the side streets around the United Nations were choked with people who couldn't make it in to a huge rally demanding the war be stopped. At the same time, there were people packing the streets in London, Amsterdam, and other cities. It was exciting. The television shots were striking. But the policy didn't budge.

"Most of us knew there was an inevitability to the war. But we didn't expect how little [the protests] would matter to the administration," says War Resisters League national anti-militarism coordinator G. Simon Harak. "That was a realization that came to people: Just to bring up our objections is not enough. That's why this demonstration, there's not only going to be lobbying, there's going to be well-coordinated civil disobedience. That's the lesson we've learned: Now we have to obstruct this war machine that's not listening to the people. That's, I think, the change that's come in the past two years."


Those two years have proved frustrating to war opponents. Despite the evaporation of the Bush administration's rationale for invading, escalating violence in Iraq and increased terrorism elsewhere in the world, and mounting human and financial costs—everything you'd think you'd need to convince people the war was a mistake and must be ended—there was no groundswell to stop military action.

Partly that was because the anti-war movement was divided on what the U.S. should do, specifically whether it should pull the troops out. It took a while for some protest groups to embrace withdrawal. United for Peace and Justice, the umbrella group that has organized most of the large protests against the war, began forcefully advocating withdrawal in October 2003. Other elements of the anti-war movement moved more slowly.

"I think that at first there was kind of an awareness that the disruption of the invasion was so great that withdrawal may have been precipitous, so it took a while," Harak tells the Voice, "but now it's clear that the presence of the U.S. troops there is highly resisted by the Iraqis themselves."

Whatever its message, the political climate didn't exactly welcome the anti-war movement. The February 15, 2003, rally was supposed to be a march, but Mayor Bloomberg blocked it. The protests around last summer's Republican National Convention were originally intended for Central Park, but the city scuttled that plan as well. Authorities in Boston similarly curtailed protests outside the DNC. Recently, an ACLU lawsuit revealed that the FBI was monitoring UFPJ and Act Now to Stop War & End Racism (ANSWER). Beyond those official attempts to defuse dissent, there was an atmosphere that discouraged it. "This administration has tried to tell people that if they are speaking against the war they are speaking against the troops," Lessin tells the Voice. "Our organization has tried to uncouple those."

Military Families Speak Out, Lessin says, comprises over 2,500 families from across the political spectrum. The members disagree on a lot of things, except that the war is wrong. The same could be said for the larger movement, and that's yet another challenge it has faced since the war began. There have been tensions between the radical ANSWER and more mainstream UFPJ.

Similar tensions underlay the protest movement against the Vietnam War. Adam Garfinkle, author of a history of that era's anti-war effort, said that pacifists, Communists, and traditional liberals all sat at the core of the movement in the mid 1960s, "and what you see in this early period of the anti-war movement is a pushing and shoving among these groups to get the better of the other." The outcome of those power struggles had a real policy impact, Garfinkle contends: When liberals held sway, they were effective in limiting U.S. involvement. When radicals ran the show, he argues, they alienated too much of Middle America to accomplish anything.

An alternative view is that while the radicals weren't popular, they made the mainstream protesters appear that much more reasonable. In any case, a genuine radical anti-war faction has yet to emerge against the Iraq conflict. But the September 24 through 26 event reflects, if not a radicalized opposition to the war, at least a more ambitious one.


Comparisons to the Vietnam era do little justice to either war or to the current protest movement. For one thing, the Iraq war is young compared with the stage of the Vietnam War at which public opinion turned. For another, while 1,900 Americans have been killed in Iraq, more than 2,000 U.S. troops died in May 1968 alone. And with no draft, today's deaths are at a safe distance from the majority of American families.

But what's also different in the current movement is that some of those families who have suffered losses from the war are taking a lead role in the protests against it. Indeed, rather than reviling soldiers as some Vietnam protesters did, the anti-Iraq-war movement goes to great lengths to include them.

Despite the differences, there are lessons that can be drawn from the Vietnam era. For one thing, Congress ended up being the part of government that most restricted U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. And today's anti-war movement is now targeting Congress more directly than ever, starting with the lobbying day on the 26th. In addition, Lessin says her group will start "challenging our governors who have been willing to send our National Guards off to a war based on lies" with "ballot initiatives, town meetings, and legislative sessions calling for the return of the National Guard."

Along with the focus on Congress and governors, there is the new emphasis on civil disobedience, starting September 26 with a "mass civil resistance action at the White House," as UFPJ calls it. Protesters will "approach the White House to insist that they be received to meet with the president. They will attempt to deliver the names of American and Iraqi dead and get an agreement from him to end the occupation."

Obviously, Dubya is unlikely to run down the driveway to say "Hi," so the hope is that the sight of dozens or hundreds of people getting pinched on Pennsylvania Avenue will galvanize the festering opposition to the war. The protest leaders take some credit for that growing skepticism. "How is it 60 percent of the population has said we want to withdraw our troops, it was a mistake in the first place? It's not because of the major media," says Harak. "It's because of efforts of folks like us who've been going around knocking on doors, going to churches."

Anti-war movement people say the war's backers have also been doing a good job of erasing support for it. Says Pax Christi USA executive director Dave Robinson, "At every turn, the shallowness of thinking of the Bush administration and the lies that were put out there began to wear thin on the public."


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