The anti-war movement in the USA

Geoff Bailey is a member of the International Socialist Organization in New York City. His cousin is currently serving in the United States Navy.
Cet interview est paru (en français) dans le numéro 14 de la revue Socialisme International, en janvier 2006

How was the demonstration on the  24th of September ?

The demonstration was tremendous. It was the first national demonstration specifically against the war since the war began. (The large demonstrations against the Republican National Convention in 2004 were directed against Bush and were broadly electoral in their focus.) The turnout exceeded all expectations, with more than 250,000 people turning out. I met people from all over the country, many of whom had simply jumped in their cars and driven as much as 20 hours to get to the protest. Others came in large bus caravans from the major cities.

 Overall, the march was a clear display of the overall decline in support for the war and the Bush Administration generally. This past year, opposition to the war rose above 50% for the first time since the start of the war. Today, most major polls show that more than 60% of the American people believe that the war in Iraq was a mistake and more than 50% are in favor of immediate withdrawl. Iraq has remained the thorn in the side of the Bush Administration; it is the crisis that will not go away. But in the past few months, it has been compounded by the criminal lack of response by the Bush Administration to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and a series of political scandals involving former Republican Majority Leader, Tom DeLay, and, presidential advisor, Karl Rove.

 What was particularly exciting about the demonstration was to see the ways in which people were making the connections between these issues. We marched by one young Black woman standing with a sign that read, “No Iraqi ever left me to die on a rooftop.” It was a very powerful echo of Muhammed Ali’s famous statement against the Vietnam War: “No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.”

Can you describe briefly the history and the present state of the anti-war movement in the United States?

The anti-war movement in America exploded in the months running up to the war. More than a million people demonstrated on February 15, 2003. Very early on, organizations of service members and their families opposed to the war in Iraq emerged. The size of the demonstration and the involvement of military personnel in the movement were both things that took years to develop in the United States during the Vietnam War. But the beginning of the war and the onset of the occupation proved to be extremely difficult for the anti-war movement.

 First, I think that there was a genuine belief among many people, particularly the tens of thousands of people becoming active for the first time, that the war was simply a mistake and that the massive size of the demonstrations on February 15th would stop it before it started. When the war began despite the protests, which Bush dismissed derisively as a “focus group”, many people began to doubt whether protests could really make a difference.

 Second, the onset of the occupation led to a political crisis in the anti-war movement. While the anti-war movement had been united in it’s opposition to the war, suddenly a major debate emerged between those who continued to argue for the immediate withdrawl of U.S. forces, and those who argued that now that the U.S. was in Iraq, it had the responsibility to develop the country and defend it against Islamic fundamentalist forces. A caricature of the Iraqi resistance, as being made up solely of fanatical fundamentalists, was used by sections of the anti-war movement to argue why the U.S. had to remain in Iraq.

 These two factors together tended to lead the anti-war movement away from protest and into electoral politics. Increasingly, support for the Democratic Party in the upcoming 2004 elections was seen as the most “realistic” way to defeat Bush. It began with support for those candidates who had spoken out against the war—like Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean—but ended with the anti-war movement throwing its support behind pro-war candidate, John Kerry. The result was that there was almost no national response to the assaults on Falluja or even the horrendous scandal of abuse at Abu Ghraib. The anti-war movement was completely demobilized in the run up to the elections and when the “realistic” strategy even failed in its stated aim of unseating Bush, the movement faced a major crisis.

 It is in the last few months that we are beginning to witness the revival of the anti-war movement. Public sentiment has continued to turn against the war and that is beginning to find expression in the movement. We saw the courageous stand taken by Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq. When Cindy began her encampment outside George Bush’s Texas ranch, many people saw in that a way forward. Thousands of people traveled to Crawford, TX to join the camp, and thousands more attended rallies in support of Cindy. In the past few months we have also seen the growth of a national movement against military recruiting in schools. There have been resolutions passed against it in several school districts and a series of direct confrontations between students and recruiters. With the military facing a massive shortage in enlistment as a result of the war’s unpopularity, they are putting pressure on schools to crack down on this new movement. In one recent protest at Holyoke Community College, organized by the Campus Anti-war Movement (CAN), students were pepper sprayed by campus security at a peaceful protest and one student was threatened with expulsion. But I think that these protests show the way forward for the broader anti-war movement as we begin to revive and move forward.

What are the most influential political organizations present and their role ?

The anti-war movement, at a national level, is largely divided between the United for Peace and Justice coalition (UFPJ) and the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) coalition. UFPJ includes a wide spectrum of organizations, but liberal organizations and the Communist Party largely dominate its leadership. It has organized some of the largest demonstrations against the war, but its focus has largely reflected the politics of its leadership. It has maintained a strong focus on lobbying Democratic Party politicians and has been resistant to taking up issues of anti-Arab racism and the question of Palestine, in particular. The September 24th rally nearly split over the refusal of UFPJ to make an end to the occupation of Palestine a demand of the march. The result is that there is almost no involvement of Arab or Muslim organizations in the coalition—something that remains an overall weakness of the American movement.

 The ANSWER coalition is comprised of more radical organizations, many from a radical nationalist or Stalinist tradition. It has taken a very principled stance against the occupation in Palestine and put opposition to the scapegoating of Arabs and Muslims very much at the forefront of its organizing. Much of the criticism of ANSWER is aimed at the lack of democracy in the coalition and the way in which it relates to other forces in the anti-war movement.

 Many of the criticisms are justified, but they often serve as thin covers for attacks on ANSWER’s political positions. And UFPJ is not qualitatively any more democratic that ANSWER. In both coalitions, decisions are made by national leaderships with little input from local organizations, and in neither coalition are there local, democratic chapters that people can join. The result is that the national anti-war movement operates very much over the heads of most local activists. It has yet to root itself in individual communities, especially communities of color and within the Arab and Muslim community.

What is the implication of soldiers’ families ? What are the possibilities and difficulties - for both groups - of joint work between military families and revolutionaries ?

The largest organization of military families against the occupation, Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), has grown dramatically in the last year. It currently has more than 2,400 families who have joined. It has grown both as a result of the continuing growth in opposition to the war and the continuing growth of political strains within the military.
Many families have joined because of a general opposition to war and the occupation in Iraq. Others have joined for more immediate reasons. Families have to sit home and worry about loved ones knowing that they are being sent off without properly armored vehicles. The result is that the movement of military families represents a wide cross-section of the anti-war movement, from more conservative families becoming politically active because they believe this war is wrong to families who have drawn more radical conclusions—and of course, this is not a static process, families tend to become more radical as they are exposed to new ideas within the anti-war movement. This is one of the movement’s real strengths; it represents a wide spectrum of military families opposed to the war. It also presents real challenges.

 Revolutionaries have an incredibly important role in facilitating the radicalization that is already taking place within the military family movement. The political ideas and analysis that revolutionaries can bring is invaluable in dealing with the questions facing the movement. The challenge, as in any movement, is to create a space for debate and the development of more radical ideas, while at the same time keeping a focus on those—more limited—things that unite us: opposition to the occupation, return of the troops, support for soldiers when they return.

 But there are pressing questions facing the anti-war movement as it moves forward: Who has the power to end the occupation? What is our relationship to the Democratic Party? How do we build a more multi-racial movement? Do the Iraqi people have the right to govern their own country regardless of the government they choose? Do they have the right to resist both peacefully and with arms? These are not abstract questions, but questions the anti-war movement must answer if it is to move forward. Revolutionaries can, and must, contribute to the debate over these questions.

Is the antiwar movement allowing some people to draw wider radical conclusions, or even become revolutionaries ?

There is no doubt that many people are drawing more radical conclusions. Many people are drawing a more generalized opposition to what appears, more and more, as a systemic inequality in our society. Part of this is a result of the sheer audacity with which Bush has pursued an all-out assault on working class people in this country. It has been much easier to see the connections between war, racism and poverty after you’ve seen the way the residents of New Orleans, who are largely Black and poor, were left to die after the hurricane. It is easier to understand why the Iraqi people are fighting American soldiers after you’ve seen tanks in the streets of your city and witnessed the deadly results of shoot-to-kill policies. Many people are open to a discussion of why capitalism doesn’t work and whether alternatives exist to it.

 However, there is a lingering question that hangs over much of the anti-war movement. The majority of activists viewed the victory of Bush in the last election, not as proof of what happens when we sacrifice our independent voice to support pro-war candidates, but as a confirmation that the U.S. is too conservative. The conclusion was that we need to tone down our message to appeal to conservative voters, more radical views should be silenced.

 Now, I believe that the last few months have shown this to be completely upside down. There are millions of people in this country looking for an alternative to war, racism and poverty and it is precisely those people that the anti-war movement needs to reach, involved and develop as new leaders. A clear critique of the connections between imperialism, oppression and poverty will only strengthen the anti-war movement.

Is any resistance possible for soldiers in the army?

There is already resistance among soldiers. However, I always want to point to people that resistance within the military comes at a very high price. Camilo Mejia, the first soldier to refuse to return to Iraq, was sentenced to a year in prison for his courageous stand. Sgt. Kevin Benderman was sentenced to 15 months confinement. Petty Officer Pablo Paredes, who organized a national defense campaign around his case, was convicted and given 3 months hard labor. So the price of speaking out for soldiers is very high. What is inspiring is that despite the dangers, soldiers continue to resist. National campaigns have been organized around the cases of soldiers who have refused to return to Iraq. Anti-war newspapers like GI Special and Traveling Soldier have gained an impressive hearing. In October of 2004, the 343rd Quartermaster Company refused orders to deliver fuel in vehicles that were not adequately armored. Fearful that an example of collective resistance might spread, the military quickly swept the case under the rug and gave out relatively light punishments. One of the most promising developments has been the growth of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), which, today, has hundreds of members.

 So we are still at the very beginning of organizing resistance among soldiers, but there is reason to be hopeful. But given the consequences, it is imperative that the anti-war movement grown stronger in the United States and internationally. Only by building a strong movement at home will soldiers feel confident to stand up against the war in larger numbers.

Can we compare the movement to the movement against the Vietnam war?

In some ways the movement today is developing much more quickly than the movement against the Vietnam War. The size of the demonstrations today far surpasses the size of demonstrations in the first years of the Vietnam War. And the anti-war movement among soldiers and veterans and within the trade unions developed quite late in the movement against the Vietnam War. Today, groups like IVAW, MFSO and U.S. Labor Against the War are very much in the forefront. The difference is that this war comes on the heels of a thirty-year, one-sided class war against workers in America.

 However, the movement of the 1960s had a much higher degree of organizational continuity than we have today. Groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) involved large numbers of newly radicalized activists and provided continuity between various stages of the social movements. Much of the radical leadership of the late-1960 developed out of these organizations. Today, the Left is much weaker. The traditions of anti-imperialism and anti-racism that dominated as a result of the movements of the 1960s have been severely weakened. In many ways, we are building a new Left from scratch.

What are the perspectives now for the anti-war movement?  Is it possible to be optimistic?

There are many reasons to be optimistic. Opposition to Bush and to the occupation is growing at an incredible pace. I believe that there are millions of people who would join the anti-war movement if we were rooted in their communities. There is also growing opposition among soldiers and military families that the anti-war movement must encourage and help organize. And there is a growing movement against military recruitment that will explode it the Bush Administration is forced to reinstitute a draft. There is every reason to think that the current revival of the movement will continue.

 There are also political questions that remain unanswered within the movement. The question of immediate withdrawl must be clarified. We must win people to an understanding that the U.S. is the cause of chaos in Iraq, not its solution. We must win people to the understanding that the Iraqi people have a fundamental right to self-determination. This is not as hard as some in the anti-war movement believe it to be. We live, after all, in a country that was founded through a guerilla war aimed at the expulsion of a colonial army. But it is an argument that must be made. The relationship of the anti-war movement to the Democratic Party must be severed. To continue supporting a party that supports the occupation will only cripple our movement; with each election we will face a similar crisis as we faced in the 2004 elections. Finally, the anti-war movement must seriously debate how to involve Arab and Muslim communities. It must focus on opposition to anti-Arab and Muslim racism and it must come to grips with the question of Palestine. Palestine is not an arbitrary appendage to the aims of U.S. imperialism. It is central to its aim of dominance over the richest oil-producing region of the world.

 The perspectives for revolutionaries are to broaden and deepen the organizations of the anti-war movement at the same time as we fight to build a stronger anti-imperialist current within them. That is, we must broaden the anti-war movement at the same time as we are strengthening a new, anti-imperialist Left.

Interview by John Mullen





GI Special

Traveling Soldier

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