Posted August 17, 2008
Those of us who have organized against the US war and occupation of Iraq are faced with a major paradox. On the one hand, the war is extremely unpopular—most people in the US want their government to withdraw troops from Iraq sooner than later. On the other hand, the level of anti-war organization and mobilization is extremely low. While some of the largest anti-war demonstrations in history marked the run up to the war in the Winter-Spring of 2003, mobilizations since then have been progressively smaller. In September 2007, only 10,000-15,000 people turned out at a national demonstration in Washington, DC, while regional demonstrations that October were significantly smaller than most organizers expected—with fewer than 5,000 turning out in New York City, a center of anti-war sentiment in the US.
How do we explain this paradox, especially when we compare the movement against the war/occupation of Iraq with the anti-Vietnam war movement of 40 years ago? Clearly, there are important similarities between 2008 and 1968. While both wars were very unpopular, a majority of US citizens did not come to support the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam until after 1970—just as most Americans do not support “US out of Iraq now” today. The movements against both wars were divided between different national coalitions, which differed in their relationship to liberal “anti-war” Democrats. Both movements experienced sharp ups and downs in the level of mobilizations, with Presidential election years being low points and periods of US escalation being high points. Despite these similarities, it is clear that the level of organization and mobilization against the US war in Vietnam—even at its lowest ebbs—was significantly higher than against the US war and occupation of Iraq.
Anti-War GIs during the Vietnam War
Two key factors, in my opinion, explain the differences in anti-war organization and struggle against the Vietnam and Iraq wars. The first is the level of US military presence and the status of the US armed forces. During Vietnam, the US fought with a conscript army, there was up to 500,000 GIs on the ground in Vietnam and over 50,000 American soldiers—disproportionately working class and people of color—lost their lives in Vietnam. The draft and US casualties fueled anti-war sentiment and activism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While the draft targeted young people from the working class and communities of color, the threat of being forced to fight in a losing war most viewed as immoral and unjust produced sustained student activism against the war. The high level of casualties—nearly every working class and Black or Latino neighborhood in the US experienced young men coming back in body bags nearly every month after 1967—turned the majority of Americans against the war. The high likelihood of death and injury in a hopeless and pointless war sparked opposition among active duty GIs and veterans. After 1969, disgust with the war in the military made the US army in Vietnam an unreliable fighting force.
Today, the US military in Iraq has deployed, at most, 150,000 volunteer soldiers. Clearly, the growing number of injuries—tens of thousands of soldiers have returned from Iraq missing limbs and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—has fueled significant opposition to the war. The emergence of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and anti-war organization among active duty military personnel early in the Iraq war and occupation is unprecedented. However, the size of the military force “on the ground” and the relatively low level of casualties is not sustaining the level of revulsion and resistance that existed during Vietnam. While the US military relies on an “economic draft”—poverty and unemployment pushing young men and women into the armed forces—the absence of a draft leaves large sectors of working and middle class youth exempt from the possibilities of being sent to Iraq.
As the low level of casualties and the absence of a draft undercut mass organization and mobilization against the US war and occupation of Iraq, three decades of retreat and defeats on the past of the labor and social movements in the US undermines the emergence of a large “militant minority” that could sustain the movement in its low ebbs. The movement against the US war in Vietnam came in the wake of the victory of the African-American Civil Rights movement—which smashed the “Jim Crow” system of legal segregation and disenfranchisement in the US south. The Black Liberation movement continued, as urban insurrections, black workers struggles and community organizations targeted institutionalized racism. The African-American struggle provided a powerful lived experience of how ordinary people, in the face of tremendous odds, could organize, fight and win—inspiring student and anti-war activism in the 1960s.
The ascending social movement promoted the development of a broad far left that maintained some independence from the Democratic Party and could be a counter-weight to demoralization and disorientation of the anti-Vietnam war movement during its low points. These forces made the anti-war movement a living reality during Vietnam between the semi-annual national and regional mobilizations—fighting the draft, organizing among GIs, veterans, and among people of color.
Today, we are attempting to build a movement against the US war and occupation of Iraq in the midst of over thirty years of defeats. There are no existing social movements that can inspire a significant minority to believe in the power of mass organization and struggle from below. The absence of effective mass movements has resulted in the withering of the far left in the US (and internationally), deepening discouragement among many activists—and making the futile attempt to use the Democratic party to end the war more and more attractive.
The character of the popular opposition to US occupation in Iraq—a reflection of the evolution of the global relationship of forces over the past three decades—also undermines the coherence of a “hard-core” of anti-war activists. In Vietnam, a popular-nationalist movement against imperialism—despite its Stalinist-bureaucratic leadership—inspired a generation of anti-imperialist student and youth radicals, and successfully stalemated US military forces on the ground after 1968. The divided, religious-sectarian resistance in Iraq, that targets both US forces and their Iraqi opponents, is incapable of inspiring an “anti-imperialist” minority or of militarily defeating the US occupation.
Building—or rebuilding—any social movement in the US during a Presidential election year is always difficult. The “presidential” (versus parliamentary) system in the US increases the pressure to “vote realistically”—for one or another “lesser evil”—that exists in all capitalist democracies. The main beneficiary of these pressures has been the pro-corporate, pro-imperialist Democratic Party.
The pressure on social movement activists to pour all their energy into electing whomever the Democrats nominate is even greater this year with the nomination of Barak Obama. Most opponents of the war are attracted to Obama’s anti-war rhetoric. They recognize that a major party’s nomination—and the realistic possibility of the election—of an African-American for President is a tribute to the enduring impact of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s and 1960s. While a small minority of radicals and revolutionaries have pointed to Obama’s pro-imperialist, pro-neo-liberal politics, most anti-war activists will not take to the street in order to elect Obama and may be willing to “give him a chance to end the war” if he is elected.
Despite these obstacles, there remains a hard-core of anti-war activists in the US. While most will hold their nose and vote for the Democrat Obama, they have few illusions that a Democratic victory will end the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, or prevent an attack on Iran. They remain committed to fighting for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of US forces from the Middle East whoever occupies the White House or holds the majority in Congress. These activists are maintaining anti-war committees in their neighborhoods and union locals, continuing counter-recruitment activity and building MFSO, IVAW and the new anti-war GI coffeehouses. The success of the IVAW’s Winter Soldier hearings this past Spring was the most visible and important anti-war activity this year. The continued organization and activity of these militants will be central to the revival of the anti-war movement after the next Presidential election.
This reflection also appears in the next issue of NEW SOCIALIST, the publication of Solidarity’s Canadian sister organization, the New Socialist Group.