In a recent radio commentary, Glen Ford, executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, lashed out at what he calls the “The Phony Anti-War Movement” (BAR, 5-3-11). Based on a comprehensive study conducted by two academic writers, Michael Heaney, of the University of Michigan, and Fabio Rojas, of Indiana University, Ford charges that “many of the folks that turned out in such large numbers to demonstrate against America’s wars when George Bush was president, were really only opposed to Republican wars. Thus, when Barack Obama captured the White House, the so-called anti-war movement largely collapsed.” The study, as well as Ford’s commentary, gives voice to what many of us on the left have felt for some time. In the US, during the Bush administration and prior to the 2008 election, the anti-war movement surfaced, grew, and gathered momentum. Subsequent to the election, the movement appeared to hesitate and immobilize.
Ford, one of the most incisive, principled, and uncompromising commentators on the left, adds that “United for Peace and Justice, UFPJ, the anti-war umbrella group during the height of protest, was behaving more as an arm of the Democratic Party than as principled peace activists. The shallowness of these phony anti-warriors was so obvious, UFPJ was widely derided as United for Peanut Butter and Jelly.” Thus, Ford paints both the leadership and many of the activists associated with the movement as “a cynical gathering of partisan Democrats.”
But are matters quite that simple? Should we cast the anti-war leadership and thousands of activists into the same barrel? Are there more complex reasons for the “sell-out” of the anti-war movement?
Surely many remember the dissolution of the anti-war movement of the sixties and seventies. Contrary to our recent experience, that movement grew massively during the tenure of a Democratic President and dissipated during the rule of the hated Nixon. Many attribute that “collapse” to the elimination of the draft, the winding down of direct US military involvement, and the shrinking of US casualty figures.
We might argue that in both cases – the Vietnam war and today’s endless twenty-first-century wars – the decline of anti-war activity was a victim of personalized, narrow commitment and shallow ideology. The earlier anti-war movement lost young people when their fate decoupled from the prosecution of the war and lost liberals when US surrogates took over combat and the US death toll dropped dramatically. The lessons of this period were not lost on the ruling class; the many wars preceding the “War on Terror” were fought with puppet fighters or the massing of vastly overwhelming power exercised by a volunteer military. The use of unmanned drones and other remote weaponry – favored by the Obama administration - draws on these lessons.
Similarly, our era’s anti-war movement reflected growing military setbacks and rising casualty figures. More than the organizing skills of the official leadership, the imagery of a solitary mother of a dead soldier stalking George Bush energized the movement. Cindy Sheehan was effectively the inspirational leader of the movement. Other family members of US casualties added their voices, dramatizing the horrors of war inflicted upon US families.
Cindy Sheehan, through her activism, grew to understand the role of the US in world affairs, especially the effects of US aggression upon its victims and the interests served by these attacks. She began to see the historical patterns and connections that reveal the real nature of US foreign policy. In short, she acquired an anti-imperialist consciousness.
Sadly, this understanding has not sunk deep roots in the US peace movement since the wholesale destruction of the left in the McCarthy era. Consequently, the bulwark of anti-imperialist resistance has been the distant victims of US intervention and not the folks on the imperialist home front. They have risen when things went badly, when aggression proved costly, when the consequences of US imperialism began to touch people personally. It is only then that opposition to war becomes a mass movement. Undoubtedly this sentiment, when it arises, plays a key role in stopping US predatory wars, but it should not be confused with anti-imperialism.
Without anti-imperialism at its core, anti-war movements in the US are destined to only activate masses when the horrors of war are brought home. “Successful” assaults on the interests, lives, and dignity of other peoples will likely be met with passivity, even applause, when they are wrapped in the cause of “democracy” or deposing a demonized “tyrant.” We saw this in Angola, Grenada and Yugoslavia. And we see this today in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Syria, Libya, Peoples Democratic Republic of Korea, Iran and many other countries.
Of course the ultimate source of this profound weakness is a political system – a two-party charade - that resolutely denies that the US is an imperialist power. Indeed, both parties actively and openly advocate for US imperialism. They make no concession to those standing in the way of US corporate interests or seeking their own path of development. While progressives may have hopefully thought they heard Obama and the Democrats say they were anti-war, they really heard that Obama and the Democrats were determined to drop direct and risky military involvement in the costly Iraq occupation and re-direct it to Afghanistan. It was undisguised in the campaign speeches and clearly stated in the Democratic platform. In other words, the Democrats resolved to deliver imperialism at a cost more agreeable to the US public.
With the presumptive “people’s” party fully committed to the imperialist agenda and a corporate media slavishly cheerleading for the same, it is only independent progressives and the left – the political outliers - who can lead the US public away from complicity with imperial aggression. They – and they alone – can provide the leadership that will educate and organize the US peace movement to be more than a response to mounting US casualties, military setbacks, and a useful tool for Democratic Party politicians.
Glen Ford’s scathing condemnation of much of the prominent recent leadership of the peace movement is well deserved. They failed to elevate the anti-war program to include a deeper understanding of imperialist aggression. In the interest of “breadth” and “unity,” they assiduously excluded many causes associated with US intervention or complicity, arguing that these issues might offend feckless liberals and middle class sensibilities. Principles were sacrificed for an elusive broad appeal. Whether the leaders were web warriors masking Democratic Party partisanship or struggle-in-the-streets “radicals” seeking some kind of soulless popular front is irrelevant. They allowed electoral politics to trump resistance; they bet everything on the 2008 election. The “success” of this effort was the creation of a movement shallow in commitment and thin in ideology, a movement easily hijacked by the Democratic Party.
Fortunately, there are organizations, like the United National Antiwar Committee (UNAC) and many national, regional and local committees, which are continuing the battle to end, not just Bush’s wars, but Obama’s wars as well. They share an independence of the two parties as well as a core understanding of the imperialist character of US foreign policy. While others wait for the Administration to have a change of heart, they continue to organize and agitate against policies that are costing thousands of lives to project US capitalism throughout the world. No one is excluded from these organizations or actions, but no one’s resolve against imperialism is muffled, either. When the imperial program is again perceived by the public as failing – which it will – they will be there to build a more militant, principled mass movement. Hopefully, next time will be different.