Is Today’s Anti-War Movement Smaller, or Just Harder to See?

Over at Slate, editor Jacob Weisberg tries to explain “why you’re not demonstrating against the Iraq war.”

Support for the Iraq war and the president’s handling of it are significantly lower than comparable polling numbers for Vietnam and LBJ at an analogous point in . Yet since the war began, antiwar protesters haven’t been numerous, visible, or influential.

Weisberg comes up with some plausible reasons: there’s no draft yet, the U.S. death toll is low compared to Vietnam, the media is sanitizing the war for public consumption, the insurgents in Iraq are less sympathetic than those in Vietnam were, and Iraq is seen as an issue in isolation while opposition to the Vietnam War became part of a platform with civil rights, civil liberties, and social justice. Oh yeah, and today’s protest organizers “are inevitably moth-eaten left-wing sectarians.”

To this, I would add that the media and the public have become more jaded and hard-to-impress. In part because the Vietnam protests were part of a major cultural upheaval, they were hard not to watch. Will hippies run naked through the streets? Will dope fiends dose the cops with acid? Will a crowd of wild negroes run rampant through the shopping district? Will the National Guard shoot people? Are they really trying to levitate the Pentagon with a big “Om”?

That “levitate the pentagon” protest, so notorious in the lore of the anti-war and yippie movements, was about a 50,000-person affair. If United for Peace gets twice that many people at their march in Washington , how much coverage do you expect? They say they had 350,000 marching in New York City . Remember that? If that had happened in , it would have been the biggest anti-war demonstration yet. In it earned a 521-word article on page 35 of the New York Times the next day.

So even if today’s anti-war movement were every bit as big and active as its counterpart from , it wouldn’t seem like it from reading the papers.

Time has been kind to the anti-Vietnam War movement. It has the advantages of having been right and — eventually — having met its goal of getting the U.S. out of Vietnam. But I think its role in forcing the U.S. out is often exaggerated — both by participants who want to trumpet their accomplishments and by opponents who want to explain their failures. The U.S. did not withdraw because the peace movement convinced it to, but because it was defeated by the Vietnamese, and by the rebellion of draftees overseas. This isn’t to say that those protests and other anti-war activities by Americans at home weren’t helpful or important.

Similarly, the recent shift in the political winds over the Iraq war — which has made withdrawal of U.S. forces an almost respectable viewpoint — has come from a shift in popular opinion — in which withdrawal has become the majority view. But this shift has more to do with the reality on the ground in Iraq and the overselling of the glorious victory on the U.S.S. Mission Accomplished to an easily-illusioned and -disillusioned public than it does with efforts at education and agitation by the anti-war movement.

Which is one more reason, I think, why the anti-war movement seems smaller and less-active this time around. It’s stuck in a rut, doing the same old ineffective things again and again (marches, rallies, quixotic lobbying). Smart people with anti-war views know that this isn’t helping much, and they either participate half-heartedly for lack of an alternative or they sit on the sidelines, frustrated.

I have said before that people who feel strongly that they want the U.S. out of Iraq — or that they want to end any of the government’s other ongoing atrocities — should not be protesting but should be resisting in some fashion.

And so I’ve spent some time studying the nonviolent conflict scholarship of the Gene Sharp school that has been so helpful to “People Power” movements elsewhere. If the people of the United States want to actually change government behavior by asserting their own power, this is how it is done. Don’t throw up your hands and say “impossible!” — RTFM.

Now Kevin Van Horn has called my bluff. He’s organizing a “Beyond Ballots or Bullets” conference that will be held in a few months. This conference will, among other things, prepare a Strategic Estimate for nonviolent struggle, based on Gene Sharp’s theories.

This is not a gathering for reporting on the current state of freedom; nor for denouncing the State’s crimes; nor for rhapsodizing wistfully about how wonderful a free society would be. It is a working conference for those who have a burning desire to see a free America and are committed to making it a reality.

I like the sound of that!


Thanks to Claire Wolfe for plugging The Picket Line recently.

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