Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Failing American Antiwar Movement

It seems the US antiwar movement died before it came of age in response to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. That response stands in stark contrast to the manner in which the antiwar movement grew during the prosecution of the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1972, but mirrors the rapid decline of the Vietnam War protest movement from 1973 to 1975. Perhaps the reality is that people are only motivated by self-interest concerns and maybe no group of people will ever sustain a movement to permanently change the world (or even any single culture) for the better. One can only hope that some future day will arise when a generation comes of age and decides to place the responsibility for building a better world on its own shoulders and then stays true to their beliefs as youth passes on into the work force, growing a family and, later, middle age.

The '60s witnessed a strong revulsion among the youth for the Vietnam War. One must ask oneself, was the '60s antiwar movement a result of the draft, the constant bombardment of the television airwaves with bloody, gory and frightening images of violence from Vietnam, a dedicated and persistent, vocal focus on antiwar activities, while remembering to perpetuate that message, from a variety of celebrities and other leaders (like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, and a host of rock bands, writers and movie producers, just to offer a few examples), the pervasive presence of the antiwar movement's message in popular culture and entertainment (for instance: from comedians like The Credibility Gap and Mort Sahl, TV shows like Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, movies like Dr. Strangelove, How I Won the War, M*A*S*H, Catch 22, Johnny Got His Gun, Slaughterhouse-Five and The Strawberry Statement, songs like Universal Soldier, Give Peace a Chance, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Eve of Distruction War!, The Unknown Soldier, I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag, To Susan on the West Coast Waiting, I Ain't Marchin' Anymore, Masters of War, One Tin Soldier, Turn! Turn! Turn!, War Pigs, What's Goin' On, With God on Our Side, American Woman, Ball of Confusion, Alice's Restaurant, The End, Fortunate Son, People Let's Stop the War, White Boots Marchin' in a Yellow Land, Sky Pilot and Happy Xmas (War is Over), the musical play Hair!, countless magazine articles, books, public speeches, acid tests and other various events, examples of entertainment and artistic forms of expression), or perhaps a combination of all these influences?

The '60s antiwar movement had at least as a large impetus in its origins, its widespread influence and long lasting persistence, the self-interests of the American youth. That is a deduction which can be confirmed by observing how pervasive was its proliferation among the youth (and how little it spread to older US citizens) as well as how antiwar protests persisted from 1965 to 1972, which coincides with the years during which the US drafted the most men for military service and had troop levels in excess of 100,000 stationed in Vietnam (with the exception of 1972). So, it was when the greatest number of young men were at risk to both be drafted and sent to Vietnam that the antiwar movement exerted its greatest influence while the movement was primarily composed of young men most at risk and their sisters, girl friends and wives (who were at risk for losing the men in their lives).

One can contrast that with the antiwar movement as it can be applied to US post-9/11 wars (Afghanistan and Iraq). There has, as yet, still been no real, visible antiwar sentiment expressed in the US with regard to the conflict in Afghanistan. However, one can say the antiwar movement began with regard to the Iraq War when Cindy Sheehan started attracting national and international media attention for her protests at Bush's Texas ranch in August of 2005. While troop levels were in excess of 100,000 for the invasion of Iraq, the number dropped quickly to 30,000 to 50,000 and stayed near those reduced levels until later in 2005. To respond to the insurgency, Bush increased the troop levels to about 80,000 by October of 2005. It becomes evident that antiwar movements in the US rise in strength proportionally to the size of troop commitments, and as commitments approach the 100,000 troops level, enough of the public finds itself vested with risk to a sufficient degree as to engender a viable protest movement to arise and reach numbers of sufficient significance as to attract media attention.

It is also interesting to note two other side issues with regard to the Iraq War antiwar movement. First, there was no draft for that war. Second, because the pool of service persons in the military branches was far reduced from the Vietnam era, soldiers drawn upon for troops assigned tours of duty in the battlefield were subjected to multiple consecutive tours, thereby separating those troops from their families for inordinantly long periods and creating severe hardship for their families. Consequently, the earliest protesters were either parents who lost children in the war effort or families of service members who suffered forced separation for inordinant periods because of the Bush administration's troop rotation policies.

The overall number of Americans enlisted in the branches of service since 9/11 have been far fewer than during Vietnam, primarily because of the end of the draft and the US did not participate in a war of long enough duration after Vietnam which necessitated troop levels to rise to the size of those during the Vietnam era. However, as the Iraq War was prosecuted on the heels of Afghanistan's apparent quick resolution in 2003 and it dragged for several years with an insurgency creating enough conflict with serious enough consequences as to demand a significant US troop presence, the fighting force suffered the demands by the military planners to remain in Iraq for several consecutive tours of duty.

The US government feared re-initiating the draft because it perceived that could lead to a protest movement. The US government also controlled what kinds of war coverage were presented on television back home. Censorship aided the government to slant the news in its favor and avoid alarming the public with constant images of blood and death and violence. Furthermore, that censorship allowed the government to present a propagandized message that, at all times, the US was winning the war. The government was also enabled to keep a lid on reports of inappropriate actions by troops.

However, ultimately, the public outcry in Iraq by Iraqi noncombatant citizens regarding American atrocities and the rising Iraqi civilian death count brought about a change in the American public's perception of the war. Suddenly, the government faced parallels with Vietnam. In Abu Ghraib, the US had an Iraq atrocity which approached Vietnam's My Lai. The use of white phosphorous in Falloujah harkened back to the use of napalm. The persistence of the insurgency reminded people of the persistence of the Viet Cong. Rising death counts of American troops brought back memories of Vietnam era images of body bags.

The intensity, size and frequency of protests for the US antiwar movement picked up from 2005 and lasted into 2008. However, because there was no draft, the overal size of the antiwar movement never grew to the proportions which arose during the Vietnam era protests. That can be attributed to the reduction in the spread of risk through the public.

During Vietnam, with tens of thousands of young men being drafted every month, the risk that any particular family could be touched was widespread and led to pervasive concern throughout all segments of the public. However, without a draft during the Iraq War, risk was limited to a far smaller segment of the public. Consequently, the protest movement didn't spread as widely as during the Vietnam era.

Because there was no draft, young people in all segments of the population didn't have to fear being involved in the war against their will. So, it was not the youth population (potentially the most energetic and idealistic group, so potentially also the most committed to intense protesting) who predominated the antiwar movement during the Iraq War. Risk was primarily spread through the families, the parents and spouses, of those people who either already had enlisted in one of the military branches or who enlisted during the course of the war. Consequently, the age of those involved in the Iraq War antiwar movement was older. Furthermore, since the troops were enlistees, the familes were more likely to have a mindset which accepts war as a viable means of international dispute resolution, and hence, they'd be less likely to protest the war or acquire an antiwar philosophy.

The result of this age difference can be seen in how the antiwar movement waned during the course of 2008 and through 2009.

As Barack Obama and John McCain campaigned with one another through most of 2008, the war in Iraq was a major issue. McCain felt it was to his advantage to make the campaign primarily center on the public's perception of the two men with regard to their capabilities in international affairs, including (and especially) the war. However, as death tolls mounted, as the public perception grew that Bush lacked an exit strategy in Iraq and McCain also offered no exit strategy, and as the public grew more and more war weary and desired an end to the conflict, Obama continued to hammer away on this issue claiming he had been against the war from the beginning and promised to extricate US troops from the war in what he suggested would be a sensible and prudent manner. The polls indicated the public favored Obama's approach.

One cannot claim by any stretch of the imagination that the antiwar movement had won the struggle for public opinion with regard to Iraq. Certainly, the antiwar movement was winning over the minds of many voters, but not on the basis of principle. Rather, war fatigue had set in, the death toll had become intolerable and the public perceived that funds for the war effort were robbing the citizens at home of investments in infrastructure, funds to cover rising Medicare costs, threatening the solvency of the Social Security Administration, and were also driving up the national debt at an alarming rate. However, all those factors worked in conjunction with the antiwar movement and a concerted protest effort from roughly mid-2007 on to undercut the Bush position and trend the country toward some kind of military withdrawal from Iraq.

However, in September of 2008, the subprime mortgage lending crisis was growing toward a critical stage. A sudden fear of banking insolvency spread. Bush and Henry Paulson stepped forward to announce the crisis to the nation along with a series of comprehensive steps they favored as actions to protect the economy. As quickly as the crisis arose, the Iraq War faded into the background as a campaign issue. From the moment of the announcement forward, through severe declines in the stock market, bankruptcies and failures of lending and other financial institutions, and even the recent gains in the stock market, the focus of the American citizen has been myopic - the economy prodominates, dominates and basically excludes nearly every other topic, issue and consideration.

Obama promised to withdraw American troops from Iraq. Well, the only troops withdrawn have actually been relocated to Afghanistan. The US withdrew all its troops from the cities earlier this year pursuant to agreements with Iraq, yet over 130,000 troops continue to be deployed there. It was reported today that Predator drone aircraft are being moved from Iraq to Afghanistan. The President has announced plans to escalate American involvement in the war in Afghanistan. In fact, today, Gen. McChrystal, who is the American commander in Afghanistan, announced a change in American military focus in Afghanistan, away from Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda and toward the Taliban in order to, as he put it, "stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Afghanistan has been critical of US prosecution of the war insofar as American attacks on Al Qaeda and Taliban targets, especially when conducted as bombing runs from the air and coordinated with Predator drones, have killed an exorbitant number of Afghani noncombatant civilians. This is the same thing that occurred in Iraq where, according to British estimates, from the time of the US invasion through September of 2007, 1.2 million Iraqi noncombatant civilians had been killed. I'm not suggesting they were all killed by Americans, but they would not have been killed if there had never been an invasion (hence, the US bears the main responsibilitiy for all these deaths), and a number too great to be morally acceptable were killed by Americans. Now Obama proposes to take the show on the road to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

How many noncombatant civilians must die before it is too many to be morally acceptable? Where is the American antiwar movement today?

The Demoncratic Party, who criticized Bush and his Repugnican cohorts for invading Iraq, are now backing Obama every step of the way as he moves back into Afghanistan and soon Pakistan. Obama campaigned on such a move, but only to "finish the job George Bush left undone," namely to get Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. However, what his generals tell us today is, "We might still be too focused on bin Laden. We should probably reassess our priorities. We have been overly counter-terrorism-focused and not counter-insurgency-focused." General McChrystal said, "I don't think there is enough focus on counter-insurgency. I am not in a position to criticize counter-terrorism. But at this point in the war, in Afghanistan, it is most important to focus on almost classic counter-insurgency."

This is the same mistake Bush made and which Obama criticized him for making while campaigning and which Obama promised he would correct. He said Bush's failure was in not keeping his eye on the ball, so to speak; Bush allowed himself to divert military operations away from bin Laden and Al Qaeda to go after Saddam Hussein. Now, Obama is making the same mistake he promised the electorate he would not make by losing his focus on bin Laden and Al Qaeda and diverting his attention to the Taliban.

Where is the US antiwar movement? Why is no one in the streets protesting not only the escalation of this war, and the use of the Predator drones which are the devices leading to the majority of recent noncomobatant civilian deaths in Afghanistan, but also the already proven failed tactic of losing focus on the real enemy in order to create and defeat new enemies? Bush already defeated the Taliban once, yet they resurrected themselves and for the last year have been winning back their former territory as well as taking Pakistan. Just like in Vietnam, where more bombs were dropped than in the entire conflict during WWII and still could not defeat the Viet Cong or North Vietnam, and no amount of napalm could close the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the Predators, bombing raids and missile attacks are not going to defeat the Taliban. Why isn't the US antiwar movement out protesting this turn of events?

The failure of today's protest movement lies in a few areas, but stem from the basic premise of risk management and risk perception.

There aren't close to 100,000 troops in Afghanistan yet, so classically, the public hasn't focused on the war as a risk. By that I mean, not enough parents and spouses and other relatives feel a risk for their loved ones yet because the body counts are only just beginning to grow and not enough people are stationed there yet for the number of people feeling risk to rise to a critical level which would generate protests and which the national and international media would cover.

The press and the administrations (first Bush and now Obama) separate the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and tell us they are two separate conflicts (and only direct the Pakistanis in what is developing as a third war but being conducted by Pakistan on the Taliban so far). However, that is a failure of those administrations to coordinate both conflicts and treat them as being two theaters in one war (Pakistan becoming a third theater). Why isn't the protest movement making this an issue and criticizing the government on this basis?

If you look at the insurgents' tactics, they are properly coordinated. They understand how to strike and run like classic insurgents going all the way back to tactics developed by Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek during WWII against the Japanese occupiers, through tactics used in Korea to hold the US to a stalemate, including those used by Ho Chi Minh and the NLF during Vietnam, and on to the Mujahedeen strategies against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 80s. What the insurgents are doing is attacking where ever the US troops (or Afghani or Iraqi or Pakistani or NATO, depending on the time and place being considered) are not located. They continue those attacks until US forces arrive. Then, they move to another locale, often moving battlegrounds through different theaters of action, for example, from Afghanistan to Iraq, back to Aghanistan and incorporating Pakistan, and now back to Iraq (and also into a new theater which is emerging in Somalia) and Afghanistan as the concentration of effort stepped up in Pakistan.

The US and its allies can't keep up with the rapidly moving and extremely agile forces of the insurgents. This is why the US is not winning on any theater. Oh, the US and its allies can give the illusion of victories from time to time, like defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan initially, or making the surge appear to work in Iraqi cities or pushing the Taliban out of the Swat Valley in Pakistan. But that is just an illusion, as we see time and time again when fighting springs up elsewhere, and once the US and its allies move their forces to a new theater to deal with a new insurgent offensive, violence breaks out in an area once thought secured (Afghanistan since 2007 after the Taliban had been thought to have been defeated in 2003 and Iraqi cities now after the US troops vacated the cities). Not only are these wars which cannot be won (or as I contend, one larger war with a series of theaters, so, not only is this war a war that cannot be won), the US and its allies doesn't even have a clue how to coordinate efforts from one theater to another so as to gain ground without losing ground elsewhere. Again, why is the American antiwar movement failing to criticize the government for these failures?

Americans are so caught up in the economy, they don't seem to care about war anymore (or Climate Change either for that matter). Americans seem unable to criticize Obama for any of the myriad of failures on his part to stick to his campaign promises rather then pursue Bush-like strategies and policies now that he is in office. Americans seem to only be able to focus on one risk at a time. Their pocketbooks seem most at risk at the moment, so that is the focus. The rising body counts in Afghanistan, the use of already proven to be failed battle strategies, and the investment of American lives and funds in yet another war of choice which cannot be won and which is guaranteed to do nothing more than drive more people into the insurgents' camps all don't matter right now because Americans worry about the risk to their walletsw before anything else. However, they will soon find again that the willingness to follow a president into a war of choice will cause them more risk to their wallets (along with a whole host of additional risks they are too unwilling to see right now) than they'd face if they could only react to more than one risk at a time.

The American antiwar movement is missing in action today, and it is failing in its duty to the American public, the American soldier, the American economy, the American reputation throughout the world, and to world peace. One can only hope it rediscovers its collective voice before matters become too dire.

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