If War Comes
by Paul Loeb and Geov Parrish
March 18, 2003
With millions marching worldwide, we might still avert Bush’s war on Iraq. But given one of the most insular administrations in America’s history, we may also fail. No matter how powerful our arguments, and the unprecedented breadth and strength of our movement, Bush and his cohorts may still go ahead with a war they’ve wanted for years. So we’re working not only to stop this war, but to lay the groundwork to prevent it from leading to wars on Iran, North Korea, Columbia, Venezuela, Brazil—maybe even France. This means we’ll need those now surging into the movement to stick around for the long haul, and not melt away when times get hard.
During the first Gulf War, one arguably more justified, the U.S. peace movement got kicked in the gut. Then as well, major protests surged through American and European cities, hoping to stop the war before it started. But once the war began, mainstream debate over the wisdom of war quickly became supplanted by the insistence that anything other than relentless cheerleading was disloyal to the troops—and to the country. In previous fights against Contra aid and the nuclear arms race, polls said our fellow citizens were with us. But Americans overwhelmingly supported the first Gulf War, because it worked militarily, and because the hundred thousand Iraqis who died were faceless and anonymous. Those who continued speaking out for peace quickly felt marginalized, isolated, and silenced. Some blamed their compatriots for not doing enough. Most quickly retreated into private life, many entering a political cocoon they would stay in for years. Either way, visible public opposition quickly faded.
Yet for some who’ve been active working for justice and peace ever since, that war was their entry point to involvement. What made the difference between the people who retreated and those who stayed engaged? What will make the difference now that many more ordinary citizens are outraged enough to speak out—opposing both the war and Bush’s broader assault on democracy?
Those who persisted back then promptly learned that their actions could matter whether or not they produced immediate results. Connecting with fellow activists, they saw themselves as part of a long-term movement for change—fighting for basic principles that mattered more than how fast the largest military power in human history could crush a relatively small nation whose dictator it had armed and supported. They retained hope and courage even when the political tides seemed to run against them.
So how do we encourage the newly engaged to continue? How do we keep on ourselves, and keep reaching beyond the core converted? History never fully repeats itself, a lesson that the Bush administration seems to forget. But if Bush does go to war despite massive global opposition, the peace movement needs to be prepared for some unsettling possibilities.
The initial military phase may go quickly. Iraq today poses far less of a military threat to American troops than it did in 1991, when the phrase "turkey shoot" came into popular use. The march to Baghdad—following massive bombing of the city and its inhabitants—will likely encounter little substantial opposition; as was true in the first Gulf War, far more U.S. troops will probably die due to cancer from their uranium-enriched arsenals than from any initial Iraqi attacks. But once U.S. troops reach Baghdad, there’s major potential for bloody urban warfare, followed by a protracted occupation.
If the war goes well militarily, Americans are likely to rally behind Bush, as their worst fears seem to be averted. The mainline media will praise our President’s heroic leadership and largely avoid covering civilian deaths, though tens of thousands will certainly die, if not several hundred thousand. Most Americans will hesitate to speak out, once again fearful of undermining the troops or too discouraged to think it will matter. The administration will brand those who challenge their policies as disloyal and irrelevant cowards.
But the same casualties that our media minimize will be highly visible to the Islamic world. Our planes may “accidentally” bomb Al Jazeera in the first raids, but this will only further inflame the Arab street. Whether through satellite image or word of mouth, Muslims worldwide will hear of the dead and wounded, the fleeing refugees, the destruction of homes, power stations, and sewage plants. Just as our conduct in the first Gulf War helped shift Osama bin Laden from an ally to a murderous foe, so attacking Iraq now will create further enemies, in ways we can only hope we’ll never know.
Perhaps the results of this rage will be delayed. But an uglier immediate scenario is also possible—that the attack on Baghdad, and the crackdown on Palestinians that Israel is likely to launch at the same time, will trigger counterattacks on American and allied targets throughout the world—including on U.S. soil. Forgotten in the Bush II administration's relentless propaganda campaign, equating Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction with terror and 9/11, is that many of the actual perpetrators of 9/11 are still out there – quite possibly including Osama bin Laden himself. And Islamic terror groups have been planning for this invasion at least as long as the Pentagon.
If terrorist bombs do go off in Chicago, Des Moines, or Philadelphia, America will no longer simply be conducting an invisible war in a faraway land. We will be at war with an enemy that fights back here at home. If bombs are killing innocent American civilians, most citizens are likely to feel overwhelmed with anger and fear. Just as was true after 9/11, they’ll hardly be receptive to the difficult truth that America's own actions will have helped set those terrible events in motion. And that we as well have taken innocent lives, again and again. It will be hard to resist the administration’s permanent evisceration of due process, the Bill of Rights, and other inconvenient nuisances. If unprepared, the peace movement risks being isolated and obliterated.
The best way to avoid this nightmare scenario, of course, is to apply enough public pressure — globally and here at home— that the Bush Administration feels unable to proceed with its invasion. Failing that, the anti-war movement needs a Plan B. It needs a message that will play well after an invasion begins, even if terrorist counterattacks begin; it needs a plan for getting that message out to the public despite all the media cheerleading; and it needs a strategy for not only retaining its current massive numbers, but expanding them to the point where we can reverse government policy. We need to take account of these possibilities now, in our message and approach, doing our best to prevent the coming war, but also anticipating the public mood, so our actions still count no matter what happens.
In the face of such grim possibilities, we might begin by connecting the waves of new participants just beginning to speak out with communities of longtime activists. That sounds almost trivial, but there’s nothing more demoralizing than staying home in isolation, watching Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld on TV. Even with supportive communities, keeping on will be difficult. But the more disconnected we are, the harder it will be. And if we’re connected with enough sympathetic people, we can support each other, pass on alternative perspectives, and talk about all the issues that will remain whether or not Saddam Hussein gets removed from the Baghdad palaces where we helped install and maintain him.
Community also lets us gather to mourn. We did this far too little during the first Gulf War, and suffered as a result. It’s sometimes necessary to admit that we feel angry and powerless. Then we can remember that we still have the power to act, and that our actions still matter, even when things seem bleakest. Supportive community reminds us that, whatever men like John Ashcroft may think, true patriotism means engagement, not silence.
This past December, a Seattle antiwar coalition called SNOW gathered 2,000 people from the city and suburbs at a local high school, and divided them in neighborhood groups. The resulting 80 groups are now operating on their own with local facilitators and email listservs. Some are conducting vigils and neighborhood marches, others door–to-door canvassing and handing out yard signs, others peace fairs, petition drives and potlucks. These efforts reach people who’d never go near a downtown march.
We could build this infrastructure at every point we speak out. Our marches and rallies have grown, in nearly every city in the country, to create carnivals of homemade signs, stilt-walkers, puppets, belly-dancers, marching bands, grandmothers, ministers, punks, and all manner of ordinary citizens. But they’ve also missed opportunities. Speakers have focused, with reason, on how Bush has failed to make the case for a war that will make us less safe, not more. But they’ve talked little about what it means to work in an ongoing way to address the root causes of the crises we now face. They’ve taken for granted the need to give people psychological bread for their journey.
Our marches and rallies have also done far too little to connect the tide of new participants to concrete networks that could support their involvement. Some of us are linked with a hundred different groups, juggling endless invitations to act. But most in America, including most participants in the huge recent marches, aren’t connected in this fashion. Despite the growing involvement of religious and labor groups, most march as individuals, not through organized institutions. Except when local peace and justice efforts are most visible, those newly involved can easily miss them, particularly if they live, like most Americans, in neighborhoods outside the urban core which is the focus of so much visible alternative politics. When the propaganda barrage escalates into a full-scale blitz, those just beginning to act will find it particularly hard to resist isolation.
But peace movement participants don’t have to be disconnected. We now have the technologies to keep people involved. Imagine if at every march, rally, or door-to-door campaign, organizers put major volunteer energy into gathering names, emails, and zip codes, then used the Seattle model to set up local meetings. Organizers could at least do their best to ensure that no one left a major march without knowing about the key local websites that could allow them to plug in and get connected. Integrating the flood of new participants would take serious volunteer energy, but if we can link even a fraction of those just coming in to each other and to existing communities of concern, far more will persist when the going gets tough. That’s also an argument for continuing our coordinated local protests, in ways that can keep reaching new communities. Encouraging this kind of connection should be as high a priority as getting people to march to begin with.
If war comes, we’ll need to remind ourselves and our fellow citizens that no matter how “well” it goes militarily, it’s a betrayal of law and of justice, and an incitement to bitterness and terror. That’s why, for all the need to build community, we also need visions sufficiently compelling to help participants new and old keep going no matter what happens. We need to raise these visions to all just beginning to raise their concerns, including those who backed Bush’s war in Afghanistan, served in other wars, or even consider themselves honorable Republicans.
Given how continually Bush plays the fear card, we might acknowledge that Americans have some reasons for fear. And then make clear that reckless zealotry and a willingness to make entire populations expendable does nothing to bring real security. That’s part of why so many major military figures—like retired Generals Anthony Zinni, Wesley Clark, and even Norman Schwarzkopf—have expressed strong reservations about this war.
Think of bin Laden's original vision. His Al Qaeda militants justified their anti-American jihad on three grounds: American military desecration of the Islamic holy land of Saudi Arabia; American support for Israel's brutal military occupation of Palestine; and (despite Al Qaeda's loathing for Saddam Hussein himself) the massive suffering of ordinary Iraqis during the Gulf War and the medieval economic siege, punctuated by occasional bombings, that America has led ever since.
From every indication, bin Laden hoped 9/11 would provoke the United States into perpetrating such atrocities against Muslims to inspire a global Islamic holy war against the Western oppressors. Or at least that it would trigger a regional jihad bringing militant Islam to power in the Middle East. After some initial bows to multilateral restraint, the Bush Administration has complied more fully than bin Laden could ever have dreamed. It has given a blank check to unprecedented levels of Israeli brutality; it has openly plotted for a widespread, permanent military presence in the Middle East; it now proposes to incinerate vast numbers of Baghdad residents just in the first few days of our invasion.
Add to that the renewed American allegiance to brutal dictators from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, and all points between; a pointed campaign for America to dominate energy resources in every country with Islamic populations, from Nigeria, to Indonesia, to the Caspian Sea; the re-installation into power of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance warlords; and the targeting of Islamic minority communities in the United States itself. The Bush administration has already handed a wealth of arguments to Islamic terrorist groups worldwide. As an Arab diplomat recently told Reuters, “With Bush as a recruiting sergeant these people will be in business for another generation."
We need to remind people that the terrorists whose attacks Bush has used to give his efforts legitimacy wear no uniform, answer to no central authority, and work from no single national state. And that their efforts were fueled in part by past American actions, like supporting bin Laden in Afghanistan. As a result, their efforts can ultimately be prevented, not by war, but a combination of police work and persuasion — ensuring that such tactics are embraced by dozens, not millions, and then working to render those dozens as ineffectual as possible. Ignoring this not only puts our soldiers at risk, it risks the lives of ordinary Americans at home. We need to talk about this now and if an invasion starts. We need to be clear that those who’ve rushed to war, not those of us who oppose it, are the real betrayers of trust and security.
From its embrace of might-makes-right and preemptive war, to its rejection of international treaties and norms, to its crude taunting of the elected leaders and populations of America's historic allies, the Bush Administration has taken the United States from being the object of the world's sympathy and solidarity to inspiring global resentment and anger. That, in turn, not only helps isolate the U.S. from its historic allies, it also incites the violent fringe who are willing to kill more innocent American civilians.
Facing crises that have built on own government’s actions, we have no magic solutions to resolve every possible global problem. But at any point our country can make the world safer or more dangerous, more respectful or more brutal, more sustainable or more environmentally destructive. And in every one of these choices, this administration is inviting the worst possible consequences. The more we elaborate this, the more we’ll have credibility even if the nightmare scenario occurs and 9/11 turns out to be just an opening act for further death and carnage.
But we can’t just appeal to fear. Two themes link the millions who recently marched worldwide: They recognize that war on Iraq would be a practical and moral disaster. And they reject Bush administration’s attempts to impose their vision on the world. Which means we also need to challenge this administration’s raw arrogance, the contempt with which they view not only those who challenge their vision, but also the process of democracy itself. We need to do this in a way that reaches even to those who once called themselves administration supporters. If Saddam’s armies fold quickly, we’ll need even more to challenge the apostles of empire, who insist that because our armies dwarf those of every other nation, we have the right to impose our will however we choose. We need particularly to resist scenarios where the US turns military victory into regional economic and political dominance.
We might point out that Bush’s disregard of world opinion on Iraq has ample precedent. From the moment it took office, this administration has sought more power and less accountability than any U.S. administration in living memory. The assault on democracy began with the 2000 election, emerged early on through Enron-crafted secret energy policies and massive wealth transfers masked as tax reform, and has continued with the gutting of core civil liberties and laws requiring government openness. Since this government’s relationship to both the world and its own citizens is bullying arrogance, we need to make challenging that arrogance a central focus.
An ethic of accountability would link the casual way this administration approaches this war’s potential human and political consequences, with the ease with which they make other lives and communities expendable. We should connect the dots between Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest, his cuts in every program that serves the poor and vulnerable, and his cavalier dismissal of every major environmental crisis that we face. We need to highlight the broad-spectrum recklessness of such choices, then challenge the distracted powerlessness that makes too many citizens accept in resigned silence whatever is handed down.
When we’re challenging this recklessness, we need more than ever to express our vision in human terms, not abstract rhetoric, to put human stories and faces on the issues we address. We need to do this without self-righteousness or ideological abstraction, and with compassion for how easy it is to feel overwhelmed by a world spinning out of control. We need to stand up and not be intimidated.
We also need long-term perspective, for the perseverance that creates real change. Contrary to the prevailing myth, Rosa Parks didn’t just step onto a bus in Montgomery, but had been an NAACP activist for a dozen years, part of a supportive community that taught people to persist despite every setback. Because we can’t foresee every twist and turn, we need to view our involvement as a long-term process. If we give up simply because things get difficult, we create self-fulfilling prophecies of despair.
If war comes, it will be particularly important to not berate ourselves or our activist compatriots for having failed to stop it. We did this during the first Gulf War. That was part of what burned people out. We need the faith that if we keep on long enough and keep raising critical questions, our actions will have an impact, in ways we can rarely foresee. We need to remember this even when our efforts appear utterly futile, when we seem to be rolling the proverbial rock up a hill only to watch it roll back again and again.
Even if we succeed, we may never know when our actions are mattering most. The heads of the Eastern European police states insisted their hold on power was secure until almost the moment peaceful revolutions erupted and the Berlin Wall came down. So did the white rulers of South Africa, almost until the moment when Nelson Mandela was freed. During Vietnam, Richard Nixon seriously considered using nuclear weapons and at one point threatened their use—then backed down in the face of the nationwide Moratorium demonstrations and a huge march in Washington DC. Publicly, Nixon responded to the protests by watching the Washington Redskins football game and declaring that the marchers weren't affecting his policies in the slightest—sentiments that fed the frustration and demoralization of far too many in the peace movement. Yet privately, Nixon decided the movement had, in his words, so "polarized" American opinion that he couldn't carry out his threat. Participants had no idea that their efforts may have helped stopped a nuclear attack.
Whatever the impact of our protests on an administration drunk on its own power, they show the rest of the world that vast numbers of ordinary Americans disagree. They help deflect anti-American sentiment, perhaps even violence, away from U.S. citizens. They give us back our dignity as we resist attempts to intimidate and silence us, and they challenge and change us at a personal level.
Global protests have already handed the White House major United Nations setbacks, prompting daily anti-Europe tirades that sound an awful lot like those of a petulant child finally being told ”no.” If enough ordinary citizens here at home have the courage to keep on saying “no” to reckless actions, there's no telling what we can stop. And if we accompany that “no” with a “yes” that demands a world where humans are treated with respect, there’s no telling what we can create. For only by persisting do we have a chance to break the cycles of endless enemies, retaliations, and deaths of ordinary people caught in the crossfire.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (St Martin’s Press) and three other books on citizen involvement. See www.soulofacitizen.org. Geov Parrish is a columnist for www.workingforchange.com, the Seattle Weekly, and In These Times. To get Paul Loeb’s articles email firstname.lastname@example.org